Writer-director Sean Durkin returns to feature directing with The Nest, his follow up to 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. In this feature, Sean Durkin goes over how his years long writing process for The Nest allowed him to adopt a more effective writing form.
I started slowly writing The Nest in 2014 when I left New York and moved back to London. The script accompanied me through this major life change and over the next five years. It was always the main script that I was writing, but I also had other films I was working on that didn’t happen, for different reasons. This was always the thing I came back to.
I was shooting the British TV series Southcliffe in 2012 and it reminded me of my life in London when I lived there as a kid in the ’80s. I moved with my family from London to New York in the ’90s, and felt a really stark atmospheric difference in the two places at the time. I wanted to explore that. That’s how it started.
The film is about a family moving from the U.S. to England and how they try to stay together through turmoil. The script took various forms, reflective of what I was going through in my life at the time. Because I was working on other things, I would write a draft, and then take a full year before looking at it again. So I was constantly coming back to it with fresh eyes in a way that I’ve never experienced before.
When I write, I’m constantly feeling out character, the truth of interactions, and the truth of the moment. When I’m writing a script, I might be stuck on an idea: “This has to happen and this has to happen,” and then I put it down and come back to it much later. In the time in between, I’m always thinking about the character. I’ll be laying in bed at night and realize, “Oh yeah, actually, this happens.” And so more truthful things come to the surface, as opposed to me trying to follow a plot or an idea. That space allows me to not be stuck on an idea or on a preconceived idea that I had about how it had to be, or what I need to touch upon. Time allows the real truth to surface.
Don’t Write Too Soon
The first few years of working on The Nest, I was going through a lot of changes in my life, I was working on a lot of different things, I was actively trying to get several other movies off the ground.
On the other side of that chaos, I finally saw the movie I actually wanted to make and then spent the last year before we went into production making those changes. The funny thing is, going through all of that, I came out with a writing method that works for me. I’ve written two scripts with this new method. I found a form that is much more effective and positive. But I didn’t write The Nest that way.
The reason I ended up taking those breaks writing The Nest was because I wrote too soon — I was eager. I would have all these ideas, and I’d write pages, and I’d be done with the drafts, and I’d be like, “Here it is.” And then I would take time away and look back: “That’s not actually what I want to do.” I developed this new form in a response to that. Now, I don’t let myself write too soon. I think writing pages too soon can damage the process. So I’ve developed this method where I will start a project, I’ll have an idea, and I’ll keep a notebook in which I’ll handwrite for months. I’ll handwrite ideas: scene ideas, character ideas, research, anything. After I fill a book, I go back through and circle and break it up and number these things that I think could be either scenes or moments. At the end of that process, I might have 150 scenes, which I put on notecards and order into a structure. I keep working on that structure, and only when I really have something, I start writing pages. I find this to be a much more productive way to work, and it also takes the computer out of the process, which I also find helpful.
Writing for a Reaction
It’s funny. When I started writing fiction in college, I never got a good reaction from it. Then I went to film school and wrote short scripts — and I wrote a lot of short scripts — and it was always the same thing, I never got a reaction from my writing. So I said, “I’m going to write something so I have something to make.” And that’s how I approached writing Martha Marcy May Marlene: I’m just going to write so that I have a film to make. And it became a script that everyone responded to — the first piece of writing I ever had a real response from. Maybe before I was trying to do too much, and I actually found a story with Martha that felt truthful, that touched something in me, and therefore touched something in people. In that process I discovered that I could write. It was just about finding something that I really cared and was passionate about.
When you’re creating, you need to be open, and you have to be open to the idea that making films— even though being a writer-director requires a very singular ambition and vision — is also entirely collaborative. To do it well, you have to surround yourself with the right people. For me, this comes down to instincts at all times. If you’re talking about working with someone, how do they talk about work? How do they talk about film? How do they talk about fiction? How do they talk about acting? Getting to know someone and how they think should provide insight into whether they would be a good creative bounce board for you.
Being able to take a different opinion that tests your own is crucial. Have someone you trust who can say, “Maybe it should be the opposite way.” As a writer, it can be healthy to be forced to say, “Actually, no, this is right.” Allow them to push you, even if in the end you might go back to what you have. The whole process of making a film is ultimately about knowing what you want it to be, and constantly testing that boundary. Because there are a lot of people involved in the process, there’s a lot of voices, there’s a lot of pressures, and there are a lot of ways to get away from what you want to make. Having good strong voices that are emotionally supportive, but not always exactly like yours, is a good way to test yourself. Find what it is you want to make and refine your voice and your clarity, even though this is more challenging than having everyone around you say yes.
Continue for more of Sean Durkin on writing The Nest