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Embrace the darkness: Antonio Campos and Sean Durkin on movies Hollywood doesn’t want to make

Filmmakers Antonio Campos, left, of "The Devil All the Time” and Sean Durkin of “The Nest.”
Filmmakers Antonio Campos, left, of “The Devil All the Time” and Sean Durkin of “The Nest.”
(Netflix / FilmNation Entertainment)

Antonio Campos and Sean Durkin, along with Josh Mond, broke through a little over a decade ago with their Borderline Films collaboration, a company in which one of them would direct and the others would produce. The partnership resulted in a series of acclaimed independent films that were as polished as they were unnerving, including Campos’ “Afterschool” and “Simon Killer,” Mond’s “James White” and Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”

While Borderline Films has ceased operating as a company, the filmmakers’ friendship and collaborative spirit remain. Both Campos and Durkin have new films out. Durkin’s “The Nest” is an intense, direct look at marriage, family and ambition, with Jude Law and Carrie Coon as a couple in 1980s England driven to the edge of collapse, released to theaters by IFC Films before heading to VOD in November.

Campos’ “The Devil All the Time” is a sprawling adaptation of a tale of sin, redemption and generational trauma set in Appalachia from the 1940s to ’60s with a cast that includes Tom Holland, Riley Keough, Mia Wasikowska and Robert Pattinson. The film is streaming on Netflix and had a limited theatrical release.

The two have also worked in TV, with Durkin directing the British series “Southcliffe” and Campos working on “The Sinner” (which featured “The Nest” star Coon). The two filmmakers recently got on a video conference to discuss what they have taken forward from their former partnership, where they are now and what happens when Hollywood tries to dismiss you with the D-word: dark.

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The two of you started out collaborating on each other’s films, and even now as you’re making your own movies, you’re on similar paths, both moving back and forth between feature films and television. What do you think of how your careers are evolving?

Antonio Campos: I think it’s important to mention in terms of the way that we worked, the thing that made us, I think, unique is that we definitely encouraged each filmmaker to just do what they were doing. If we disagreed with something in a script or an edit or whatever, we would voice our opinion but never force someone to change something. It was like, “OK, that’s what you want. Let’s figure out how to make this the best version of the thing that you want to make.” How do I put myself in that person’s shoes and help them make the best version of that?

Sean Durkin: And that makes you a better filmmaker because you’re able to understand a different filmmaking perspective.

Campos: It always felt like we were expanding our perspectives as filmmakers because we were open to whatever the other person wanted to make. But in terms of our careers, there’s definitely not like a master plan to it. Sean, do you think that the way that your career is playing out, is it fitting into some sort of plan?

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Durkin: No, I don’t. I think we work really hard to get stuff made that we believe in and want to make. And some of it happens, and some of it doesn’t. That’s sort of where I’m at. I just get drawn to something, I’ll push really, really hard, do everything I can to make it, and maybe it’ll get a break and get made, and maybe it won’t. It’s kind of that simple right now.

It’s also just battling the industry and the changing industry; that’s the other thing you’re always navigating. One minute, you might have an idea and be like, “OK, I know I want to do this,” and you get feedback like, “Well, that’s not really getting bought right now.” And then six months later that’s all that’s getting bought.

Campos: We’ve been making features for 13 years. And I remember in 2004 or something I had gone out to L.A., and I was meeting with different agents at the time. I was like 19, and I was just sort of getting to know what that was, and they looked at me like, “What do you have to offer?” And I was like, “Well, I want to make a drama about two girls that die of a drug overdose in a boarding school.” And the agents are like, “OK. The No. 1 movie in America right now is ‘Scooby-Doo.’ If you have something that’s like ‘Scooby-Doo,’ come back and talk to us. But until then, there’s really nothing we can do for you and your weird boarding school suicide death movie.” I feel like for some reason that’s still the same world. Like what is the movie that people like? What movie does the industry now think is the movie to make? I wonder if it would be as hard to pull off what we pulled off with “Afterschool” or “Martha” today.

Carrie Coon stands on an elaborate staircase in "The Nest."
Carrie Coon in “The Nest.”
(IFC Films)
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“The Nest” and “The Devil All the Time” are so different in how they are being released. Sean, you premiered at Sundance, got picked up by IFC Films, and now the film is going to theaters before it hits VOD. But Antonio, “The Devil All the Time” was made for Netflix with only a limited theatrical release. Does the release of the movie impact how you feel about it?

Durkin: I think it’s always about the work first. So you make the thing because you have to make it and you want to make it. I always say you get to your premiere, you get to the festival or wherever, and if you can say, “I’ve done everything I can to make this the best movie it can be,” that’s kind of all you can do as a filmmaker. And then obviously fight for things along the way in terms of release and what you can do. I think as long as you have passionate people releasing the movie and people are engaged with what you want to do, that’s what feels best, no matter what the outcome of that is. And I certainly feel that now the team’s been amazing and especially with the circumstances being so unpredictable, it’s all about that energy and belief. And I think having people putting it out who believe in it is what means the most.

Campos: The joke that Randy [Poster, producer] and I had was we never got a chance to celebrate this movie. It was just work, work, work, work, work and then we’re going to celebrate when we get to the film festival. And then there was no festival. I don’t know if, Sean, you feel this? But from where we came from, which was always just to get the movie made, that was all that it was about. And so for me, I’m just so happy that I got to make the movie that I wanted to make in the way that I wanted to make it. And then Netflix supported us in the way that they did and were such good partners. I just feel lucky that we have this place that actually can show the movie and get it out to a big audience, right now especially.

Sean, I have to ask you about Carrie Coon’s dance scene in “The Nest.” She’s alone in a bar and she just lets loose to the Communards’ cover of “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” It has such an intensity to it, it’s so striking. What was it like shooting that moment?

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Durkin: Well, it was fun and very simple. I mean, Tony’s worked with Carrie. It’s giving her the space to just let rip, and I think we did two takes. One was getting the right environment. My production designer is amazing and knew exactly how to create the exact right Soho location from the mid-’80s. We set the film in 1986, and I figured the last time [Coon’s character] Allison was out dancing was probably in the mid-’70s. So I thought the fact that the No. 1 hit at the time was a cover of a disco song, I thought it was a perfect combination of what would get her on the dance floor. And other than that it’s just about the release, right? It’s just about her character stepping out on her own and just having this moment of release and setting it up. Didn’t want to move the camera. Didn’t want to do anything except set the scene and let Carrie feel that.

Robert Pattinson as Preston Teagardin in "The Devil All the Time."
Robert Pattinson as Preston Teagardin in “The Devil All the Time.”
(Glen Wilson / Netflix)

Antonio, from the moment the trailer for ‘The Devil All the Time” was released people have been talking about Robert Pattinson as a sleazy Southern preacher. I don’t know what your conversations were like before shooting, but as a director, what do you do when Robert Pattinson shows up with that performance?

Campos: You go give him a big hug [and say], “Let’s do this.” It’s exactly what Sean was saying like with Carrie and that scene; you get these great actors, [and] you gotta embrace it and encourage it. Rob was very close to the vest about his process leading up to shooting. We talked about character, but he didn’t want to, like, share his accent with me. We kept trying to schedule dialect coach sessions with him. And he would always find some reason for it not to happen. And it was clear he didn’t want to engage in that process, which was really important in some ways, because everybody had to be from West Virginia or Ohio. So we really had to nail that sound.

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But Rob kind of came from another part of the world. So it didn’t really matter that he sounded like anybody else; he sounded like he was [from] Tennessee, but also there’s nothing else to compare him to. So he really kind of had the freedom to run with that. And so when he showed up and he came into the scene and he did that accent and he was talking the way he talked, it was like, “OK, there’s the guy.”

And I will say that my No. 1 note to Rob in this movie was, “Go as far as you want to go.” I was like, “Don’t be scared to go big. You cannot go too big.” And he definitely did it at times, which is really funny because he would make himself laugh when he went there. But we always knew that we could rein it in. I just love performances that swing for the fences.

I recently read an interview from the early 90s with Paul Schrader where he said that in Hollywood, one way they dismiss you is with the D-word — dark. And I couldn’t help but think about the two of you. Is it hard to maintain the sensibilities that you have and tell the kind of stories that you want to tell?

Durkin: I also think dark is a perception that is not read in the same way for everyone. Like I was trying to make a movie for years [on Janis Joplin], and I saw the complexities of the human being. I was trying to make a movie about being truthful and honest and complex, and the producers felt it was too dark. And I just didn’t agree with that assessment. Humanity has darkness, and I’m interested in the truth of that. With that said, I think there’s lots of different things I want to do.

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Campos: I feel I’ve been hearing that word a lot. And it’s funny because I have the same feeling about “dark” as Sean, and I know it’s the word people associate with the work. I’ve been asked, “Why are you interested in dark characters?” And I was like, “No, I’m interested in complicated people.” And there is darkness, and it doesn’t mean that there’s not humanity and humor. I’m not scared of darkness, and I’ve never been scared of movies that are dark. I think that I find going to dark places in your work is cathartic.

Luckily, I think people want to work with us as directors, and that helps get these films made. At the end of the day we are creating something that’s entertaining and that’s engaging and an experience. I think that I would say “The Nest” and “The Devil All the Time” are unique moviegoing experiences. There’s not other films that are necessarily like them, and they create a strong emotional response.

If you want to go to movies and leave and sort of go, “Well, that was good,” we are never going to make those movies. But if you want to go to a movie and feel something and be taken someplace, I think we will always bring that kind of experience to movies. I love going to movies and going to a place that I may not be totally comfortable with and I can get into the heads of characters that I would never really know in real life, but I feel like I’m in a safe place because it’s a movie.


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