Sean Durkin on directing Southcliffe, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Mad Men & more…

Southcliffe director Sean Durkin talks to us about the shooting spree drama, his influences, cast, Mad Men and more...

Four-part drama Southcliffe comes to Channel 4 this Sunday the 4th of August at 9pm. The story of a small town coping with the aftermath of a shooting spree, and from a script by Red Riding and The Unloved‘s Tony Grisoni, it promises to be a tough, but worthwhile ride.

We spoke to US indie director Sean Durkin, whose Martha Marcy May Marlene won him well-deserved acclaim in 2011, about not making feel-good drama, not judging characters’ actions, and what drew him to work in English television…

First of all, belated congratulations on Martha Marcy May Marlene, it’s a tremendous piece of work, and one of the most empathetic films I’ve seen in a long while. Was that your aim?

It’s funny you say that. I don’t think it was what I was intending but I actually was at a film festival last week where it screened and it was the first time I’d watched it in two years and I felt a lot for Martha [laughs], maybe more than I had felt previously, which was very interesting.

Ad – content continues below

Today’s chat with you is a bit of an odd one as we haven’t had preview access to Southcliffe yet. Apologies then, for having to start with the basics as I’m going in blind. How would you describe it?

How would I describe it? Well, it’s an ensemble piece that really studies the lead-up to and the aftermath of a spree killing but really focuses not on the murderer themselves but the loss and the grief of the family members who lost people.

Tony Grisoni [Red Riding, The Unloved] wrote the script. Was that more or less set in stone by the time you came to it, or did you have input into the writing?

No, the script was very far along but over the four months leading into production after I got on board, Tony and I worked a lot together on the script, it was just a wonderful back and forth collaboration to get it to where we wanted it.

Were you familiar with his work on Red Riding and The Unloved, for instance?

Yeah, Red Riding in particular, I had seen that a few years ago and it really felt like that was an area of writing I really wanted to explore, so when Peter Compton, the producer, came to me and said he was working on something to do with Tony, it was very exciting.

Ad – content continues below

So his name on the script made the decision for you?

Yeah, definitely. I read the script and I just felt like even without the spree killing, there was enough in these characters that you could make a drama about them and their lives and for me that’s always the thing. For me, I’m not so interested in plot, I’m interested in character, and if the characters are rich, you follow their lives, and that’s what matters to me. It felt like, on the page, I could have followed the characters even if there was no event.

Were you able to take the same paring-down approach to dialogue with this as you did with Martha Marcy May Marlene? Getting it down to the minimum of everything?

Yeah, I think so. I think we got it to a really focused, great place where it’s very much about the atmosphere and the relationships.

Did you find Tony quite open to suggestions and cuts? Understandably, sometimes writers are very protective of scripts and don’t welcome alteration.

No, no, from day one we were very much on the same page from day one. Talking to him, the very first conversation we had, I read the script and then I talked to Peter and was very interested in it, but when Tony and I spoke, I knew we were going to have a very, very good relationship. We were both just looking to make it the best we can be, and we were very much on the same page with all of that.

Ad – content continues below

Did that complicity extend to the casting process? How involved were you in that?

Oh yeah, entirely. The casting director, Shaheen Baig, and I worked very closely and it was great. She’s very experienced.

Because you’ve drawn together quite a tremendous group (Sean Harris, Rory Kinnear, Eddie Marsan, Anatol Yusef, Shirley Henderson, Joe Dempsie, Kaya Scodelario…)

They’re wonderful.

You said about Lizzie Olsen as a newcomer that you were surprised at not having to work too hard to pull that astonishing performance out of her, I imagine that’s the case working with actors like Eddie Marsan?

Yes [laughs]. I mean, you don’t have to do… they make your job easy in a way. I think when you hire someone, you let them do what they do and my job is to figure out how they like to work and how I can be helpful to them to get their best performance so when you’re dealing with such a large cast, it’s a case of finding out how each person works and how you can get the best out of each of them and figure out what was best for each person, but my approach is very much trust the actor that you hire and let them work and be comfortable with them, but I tried to be very minimal in my approach.

Ad – content continues below

Who did you end up spending the most time with, working on their character?

I guess Anatol [Yusef, Boardwalk Empire] and I spent a lot of time together working on Paul. Sean [Harris, The Borgias] and I spent a lot of time together talking about Stephen. It was all very collaborative, a lot of it on set coming up with ideas, them as actors coming up with ideas and then just on the spot trying them out, things like that.

So you managed to have a fairly loose approach then?

I guess it sounds loose when I talk about it, but I wouldn’t… It’s not really loose. I have a very solid plan, I just don’t believe in walking into a room and telling people where to stand because that’s where I want the camera to be. I know how I want the shot to feel, and so I get in a room with the actors, we find it together, and then we create the shot that I want to create with that in mind.

It’s about you trusting their performance as much as them trusting you as a director?

For me it’s all about performance. That’s why I make movies is watching people perform. You know, you can make a beautiful film but if there’s not a good performance then it’s not going to grab someone’s heart. For me, that always comes first.

Ad – content continues below

How did you first become aware of most of your actors then? Some, you’ll have seen their work over the years.

I’ve seen Eddie in things for years. I think he often plays really dark characters, and then I met him and he’s the sweetest man and I thought it’d be wonderful if he could just be a dad, and that was really exciting for me.

You’ve finally cast Eddie Marsan as a nice guy!

[Laughs] Yeah, well he is one.

On the subject of darker characters, the thing that struck me, and obviously a lot of other people, about Martha Marcy May Marlene, was that, while the film wasn’t apologist for John Hawkes’ character’s actions, you made us understand the attraction of his message about trust and love. It wasn’t judgmental.

No, I never judge the characters, no matter how hideous they can be, because if you do that then they’re going to lack heart, and if they lack heart even if they’re a villain, they’re just not going to be real. I think everyone has to be complicated, like even the character of the killer in Southcliffe, there are moments when you’re moved by him and want to watch him, so it has to be complicated.

Ad – content continues below

You filmed Martha Marcy in around four weeks for not a great deal of money and with very little rehearsal. That, presumably, was good preparation for coming to England and working on television?

Everything is good preparation for whatever you do next. I sort of don’t think about things like that. Each thing is its own, unique thing, and you go and you do it, and you get it done. Obviously had I not made Martha I wouldn’t be here, and every time you step on set, you learn something new but I guess the hardest thing was that I had a fifty-two day shoot, and so I had to learn how to pace myself over fifty-two days which is more than double anything I’d ever shot before.

We often hear the opposite, that film directors coming to television have to speed up rather than pace themselves, though perhaps that’s more for US series.

Yeah, but this isn’t really television like that. There’s no difference between – you’ll see when you see it – there’s no difference between this and film just because it’s on television. I don’t really believe in that. I don’t really believe that there should be a difference. I don’t really understand why there’s a difference and why they’re treated differently, because you’re just creating drama and you’re putting something up on film or on video, and where it airs first should have no impact on that.

There are some moments in Martha Marcy that are very difficult to watch, in the “cleansing” for instance. Can the audience expect similarly difficult-to-watch scenes from Southcliffe?

Yes.

Ad – content continues below

It’s not a feel-good romp.

No [laughs]. But it’s not… you know, it’s like the way it was in Martha, it all served a purpose, it was all about understanding the experience and it’s about people whose family are killed in a spree killing so you’re going to sit there and it’ll be heart-breaking. I feel like we created a very honest portrait of grief and loss, which is going to be hard at times.

It’s based, presumably, on the Cumbrian shootings in 2010, or Hungerford?

I know Tony did lots of research and things, but it’s definitely not based on anything. I didn’t involve myself in that side of it. I read the script and I didn’t want to think of it as anything other than the characters on the page and the town that was on the page, so I didn’t do any research, I didn’t think of other killings before. I felt like that was Tony’s job, and he’d created these beautiful characters and my job was to bring those beautiful characters to the screen in an interesting way.

Do you watch much UK television? What did you see when you were over here filming?

Not recent drama but I went back and watched a lot of stuff from the eighties and seventies, that I found very inspiring.

Ad – content continues below

What kind of thing?

The Edge of Darkness with Bob Peck I watched for the first time, I hadn’t seen that and it was very inspiring. 

Inspiring for this particular project?

Well it was interesting, because I was in the middle of shooting and I hadn’t seen The Edge of Darkness and Peter, the producer, said there are moments that reminded him of the film and so he brought me the DVDs and so I watched everything and I was just so inspired by it. It didn’t really change anything because we were already half way through shooting, but it made a big impact on me now, in sort of understanding the history of television a bit better.

How about contemporary TV drama, what do you admire?

Mad Men. For me, that’s just (makes insensible noise and laughs)

Ad – content continues below

I feel the same way. It’d be fascinating to hear from a writer/director’s perspective what it is that makes Mad Men so bloody good. You’ve seen this season?

Yeah, I’ve watched everything.

So there’s no spoilers in me saying this, but that last moment and that last line, “This is where I grew up” contained so much. It’s genius.

It is. I just find the writing and the characters so inspiring. It’s so minimal in a way, it deal with the larger context in such a character-driven way I guess, I don’t know, I just love all the characters and I love being with them. The show just surprises you so often. The writing just strikes you. There’s this one line I remember, I think it was from one or two seasons ago, when Roger said something like, “So when are things going to get back to normal?” It was just such an incredible piece of writing, because there is no normal and they’re never going back, and it’ll never be like it used to be. It’s things like that that no other shows, not even just TV shows, but no other… I can’t even think of movies where the writing hits me in that way. I just think it’s always exciting and pushing forward.

Presumably if Matthew Weiner came knocking and asked you to direct an episode of season seven, you’d jump at the chance?

[Laughs] Well, I would love that, but I think at this point I’m too much of a fanboy. I think I’d just stand there in awe!

Ad – content continues below

Last question then, I have to ask this because it’s about fifteen minutes from my house. What was your experience of filming Southcliffe in Faversham and Seasalter?

It was great. It was great. I was really excited when we first went there. When they first told me that’s where they were thinking and I was in New York, I looked it up online and looked at pictures and I was like ‘wow, what a crazy landscape’, I’d never seen anything like it. I went down there and we walked on the quayside and all the way along the water to The Sportsman.

The pub! I’ve been there.

Yeah, it was just beautiful, untouched and forgotten landscape and I just felt it was perfect and I just really enjoyed living in that area and experiencing it.

You’ll have got a good pint of cider round here too.

[Laughs] Yeah. A little bit.

Ad – content continues below

Please, if you can, buy our charity horror stories ebook, Den Of Eek!, raising money for Geeks Vs Cancer. Details here.