'Destroyer' Director Karyn Kusama On Showing A New Side Of Los Angeles And Nicole Kidman [Interview]

Few directors today make genre movies as intimate Karyn Kusama. The director of The InvitationGirl Fight, and Jennifer's Body gets real up close and personal to her characters, especially the protagonist of her latest film, Destroyer. Detective Erin Bell — a bulldozer of a character played by Nicole Kidman — is not a character you can take your eyes away from.

The character originated from the co-writers of The Invitation, Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi. Like that party-in-the-hills-gone-terribly-wrong horror story, the screenwriting duo and Kusama tell a complex story gracefully with Destroyer, which is an equally dense crime story and character story. Recently, we discussed Kidman's performance as Bell, shooting in Los Angeles, corrupt cop movies, and more with Karyn Kusama.

Going from shooting mostly in one house in L.A. to shooting all over L.A., what was more difficult? 

Both films were really difficult in their own technical way, and own emotional way, but I think Destroyer might have harder simply because we did have 40 locations in 33 days, and we were moving pretty much every day, because there were a couple of areas where we were locked in, like the banks, and we needed more time to be there. So then every other day was just balls to the wall. But it was also great that the production matched the film, in that we were seeing a lot of L.A. and we were seeing a lot of what informs the movie, which is the weird kaleidoscope of Los Angeles. So, it was hard, but now I look back on it fondly. But I complained a lot while it was all happening.

[Laughs] Not a lot of L.A. crime movies go to the desert, which is always such a cinematic landscape. What's it like shooting out there? 

It was pretty amazing, because we were actually in a part of the desert that was not like pretty beautiful Palm Springs. It was actually meant to have that feeling of like, those outlying towns like Hemet that are more just frankly, really grim, economically super depressed, not a lot of resources, like no grocery store.

It just felt to shoot in those places was really amazing, because it did feel so much more like it told the story of how you could sort of just do anything to get out. When I was in those environments, I was just like, "What do young people do here?" Probably a lot of drugs and get into trouble, because there's nothing else to do. And so, that was kind of interesting to really see it first hand.

What were some parts of L.A. you and your location manager found you thought might show a different side of L.A.?

I worked with an amazing location manager named Robert Foulkes, who loves Los Angeles and loves working in L.A. And so, when we met, we talked a lot about this idea of not seeing the official filmed Los Angeles and to kind of uncover new spots. For instance, there was always a spot in the script when Erin Bell finally confronts Arturo and she chases up this Echo Park hillside and lands, in the script, somewhere where there's downtown glittering one side and Dodger Stadium lit up on the other side.

And I was like, "I can't imagine that exists." But then we found this abandoned park called Victory Grove that's in Elysian Park area. We made this hike up this hard, scrabble, strange, old, abandoned park land, and sure enough, there was Dodger Stadium, and there was downtown. It was like, "Wow. I don't think we've seen this yet." And it was so exciting to find it, because when we actually shot, it was during the World Series playoffs. We actually had a lit up Dodger Stadium, and it was just amazing to have that kind of serendipity.

There's an intensity to that foot chase that feels more like a horror movie. Did you want to create a sense of tension similar to a horror movie? 

I mean, for me, I think part of what we feel from horror is ... well, for the horror that I like anyway, is the mechanics of suspense and the sense of dread about what will come, or what's getting uncovered. I do think that is a technique that I was trying to apply a little bit how we approach Erin, because I do hope as the audience is watching the movie that they're like, "Something is not right with her."

It's not just that she's got a drinking problem, or doesn't sleep enough, or doesn't take care of herself. There's something as much a part of the problem of this movie in her as the external stuff that we think we're watching. And so, that is to me, a little bit like a horror strategy. And I'm realizing with a lot of the movies I like, or am drawn to wanting to make, that's the strategy, even if it's not horror on the page.

destroyer trailer newThis movie has made me think a lot about other L.A. cop movies, especially corrupt cop movies. I used to think they were trashy fun, but now, I question them. 

Yeah, and I was going to say, so why do you think it's entertaining to you?

I don't know, just that world feels cinematic, but now I wonder if movies about corrupt cops should be made as trashy entertainment. That's not what this movie is, but when you make a movie about a cop, or in this case a detective, how much do you have to think about how some audiences perceive law enforcement? 

Well, that's such an interesting question, because to me, that was the reason I made the movie, was that we're watching a person ... I thought of it less as a cop movie, and more about positions of power and the idea that we watch a person who has the power of the badge, the power of the gun, the power of a department behind her, even when she's clearly a wreck, and even when her own co-workers are saying, "You're in trouble," and don't seem to respect her all that much. The position itself lent her a lot of power, and to recognize that there was this systematic abuse of that power that starts way back actually.

It's not like we've seen her curdle into someone corrupt. We've actually seen her ... You realize after the film is over, she's been corrupt for a long time, and the corruption is actually killing her. It's like eating away at her soul. And that was really interesting to me because I do feel like right now in the world we're living in we'd have to be blind to say that we're not in a blatantly corrupt period politically and institutionally.

Something very profound is happening, where people who revel in their corruption and their crime, and their crimes, keep ascending to the highest levels of power. And so, for me, I needed to tell a story that was I hope about the very real cost of that to an individual, that though we love crime movies, and we love these dirty cop movies, because I think we are ultimately a nation that grapples with its desire to just get away with it, we can't get away with it anymore.

Even if people in power keep getting away with it, there is a cost to everyone if we keep seeing criminals get away with their crimes. And so, that's honestly what drove me to tell the story is that I didn't know how to make that movie an actual movie about politics, but those are my politics, if that makes sense.

That makes me think of Bradley Whitford's character. What do you think about his worldview? It's very on point with what you're saying.

It's true, and you know what? There's something really interesting because I know people who for the longest time have pretty much said to me, "Here's the secret to success: get over it, move on. Get over yourself by subscribing to this larger universe of self involvement, and then you get everything you want." And there's something about it that ... It's not that I believed it, but that I saw the value of moving on.

And now, I feel like he utters those words and they send a chill up my spine, because it can sound effortlessly kind of right, and then if you really think about it, but can we get over our crimes? Can we get over our own misdeeds? If the answer is no, we have to deal with it. And what I love about that scene is that's on second viewing, a moment where I feel like we might be looking at her a little differently, because we understand now that in some ways she's as much of a criminal as he is. And so, what are those words meaning to her? We think she's hanging on because she's obsessed with catching a killer, but she's hanging on because she's obsessed with killing a killer, and that's a different thing in my opinion.

Whitford delivers maybe my favorite line of the year that has a zip to it like great crime movie dialogue: "You played cops and robbers, and you lost. Big." 

[Laughs] Totally, it's our little like, "Hello, Point Break." Or yeah, hello, one of those bigger kind of like more mainstream sort of classics of the era. We definitely had those moments where we're like, "You know what? Some characters can be allowed to have ingested a little bit of the pulpiness for themselves."

How much stylization did you want with Destroyer, or did you always want to keep it grounded?

It is about sort of character by character in a way. I think that we had agreed that DiFranco (Whitford) could be almost a cliché of himself, and that, that we could still get away with that, and that perhaps in the happening stuff between Chris and Bell, when they're rehearsing their identities it could feel like it had that sort of hard boiled snap. I ultimately was hoping that we find a lot of moments that felt real, and I hope that we do.

It's funny, movies like this have to impart a lot of information. And so, on the script level on the page, that's a big challenge is to make sure enough of the crucial information is getting imparted, and then in the edit, once I'm working with actual scenes and sequences figuring out how much an audience can still understand and figure out what the minimum amount is and still hang on emotionally then that's kind of the next level of sort of refining that tonal thing between pulp versus realism and that kind of thing.

When you were filming Nicole Kidman, and just saw how she walked and talked in front of the camera, how did her presence maybe influence how you wanted to film her? 

What was great is that even through the process of her transformation inside and out into that character she remains incredibly ... well, I think she becomes even more charismatic in a way, like taking away the movie star element of her, to me, paradoxically reveals what a movie star she actually is, because I just needed to keep looking at her. And I got a call from my editor as we were shooting, and she said, "I'm putting the footage together, and I just gotta say, I feel like you want to be looking at her, and that's gonna dictate everything within the cut, because there's something ... "

Plummy, my editor, was completely right that, in a way, in all of those moments where I might've strayed a little bit away to sort of see a bigger world, or get a better sense of certain ancillary characters, it's not that you lost interest, but you were sort of still looking around the corner like, "When is she coming back?" And so, that was very interesting to recognize midway through the process.

Of course, my hope would've been that any actor would've commanded that kind of charisma, but in fact, it was Nicole Kidman, so I have to sort of bow down and show my respects to the fact that, that I think all of her experience and knowledge with her own craft kind of lent itself toward this character who could be quite brutal, and conflicted, and disturbing, and damaged, but still radiate a sense of like taking up space and sort of saying, "I know when I walk in a room, I know where people are looking," even though there's some part of the character's conception as she was doing it that was trying to retreat.

It's like Nicole can't do that. You know? And so, there was a really interesting tension between being in a weird way the elephant in the room and being this more recessive emotional character. It holds a lot of power, and I think that's why we like these restrained shut down characters in film is because you lean in wanting more information. It's like you fall in love with the person who doesn't give you love, that kind of thing.

Yeah, I think you enjoy the mystery of it, and you've talked before about '70s movies you loved that can put you in a haze, where you can't quite put your finger on why you're responding to it the way that you are. 


And Destroyer has a similar mood and feeling to it. Would you say those movies that were very influential to you were ever inspiring while making Destroyer? 

Yeah, it's funny, there was this formative period probably between like 1966 and 1982, where I would say there were movies that just felt like a guiding principle wasn't answering the questions of human behavior, but highlighting its mystery. I think of a movie like Klute, or The Parallax View, particularly, The Parallax View, where you watch a big movie star play the kind of the hero, but the way he behaves makes you wonder if you should even feel that, and that was part of the mystery of the experience, is he is being used, and he doesn't even recognize the degree to which he is being used, and there's something tricky about him as a character.

That's so interesting that none of us are masters of our own universe, but we love the fantasy of that. And so, I think when movies push into the discomfort of kind of pulling back our like the curtain on our fallibility on our flaws on our worst instincts, which is a big part of what drove me to make Destroyer, is I think she's so flawed, and hungry, and motivated by greed to a degree. And that is her undoing.

destroyer trailerWhen you work with someone as big of a star as Nicole Kidman, do you consider what that star power brings to a role, like, how an audience's relationship to her work will influence how they look at Erin Bell? 

I actually said the other day, "Who knows what the other iterations of this movie could be?" The movie is what it is because of Nicole, and with Nicole in it, but I wonder what it means that she culturally is beloved, and that we see her fall down a path of her own making and ultimately pay the ultimate price?

I mean, really, truly go to a place that a lot of characters particularly women aren't sort of granted the completeness of, which is both their life and their death, not a sort of lazy assignment of one or the other to a character who barely speaks, or has anything interesting to say, nor is she just a victim who dies at the hand of a crazed killer and it's just another body to sort of like art direct, to set decorate the frame. But in fact, she is a total human, who lives and dies with her obsessions and loses a lot. But is there something about having a relationship to a movie star onscreen that informs a deeper emotional connection to that? It's a really interesting question.

Because an audience loves an actor, maybe they'll have more empathy for that character. 

Totally, or maybe they'll love her more in some interesting way, because she reveals so much it would appear.

When actors make a transformation like Nicole Kidman does, or even Logan Marshall-Green and Michelle Rodriguez, how involved do you want to be in the early stages of that transformation? Do you give them a lot of freedom in how they transform themselves or, in a way, do you want to completely sculpt it yourself? 

If there were other art forms that I would be interested in, it would definitely be something hands on. Like so you use the word sculpt, and I'm always jus like, "Someday I'm gonna take a ceramics class." I definitely feel I need to be a part of how we get there, and it's just a question of giving enough space to an actor that they feel they still have agency and some degree of control over the character they're playing within the story.

But I hope part of what I bring, it's just another kind of mirror. So they can look into their own mirror, but then I can hold up a different mirror and say, "Well, what about how we see it in this context or that context?" And so, I hope I'm there to be a benevolent guide to the process for an actor, because in the end, hopefully, I hire that actor, because I already something about what I know they can do, or where I think they can go.

The Invitation seemed like an ideal situation for a director: you make a great movie, and people embrace it right away. After a success like that, how did you feel going into Destroyer?

Thank you for the question. I appreciate it. I'm just more and more realizing that the films that I've gotten to make on my own terms have been films I'm really happy with. How they're received out in the world, what the process is to get there, might still be difficult, or unwelcome, but in the end, the films ... it's as basic as just saying the films in which I've had final cut have felt personally successful.

And when I say that I just mean, I did what I set out to do within the sort of parameters I was given. And so, what it tells me is I need to keep making movies that way, not because I'm so sure I'm some bona fide auteur. I actually just think I ... When I feel safe creatively, I'm a better collaborator, and there is something about film that is so inevitably a collaborative medium. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying, or delusional. And so, I think it's important for me to find my best path toward being the best collaborator, and I'm really realizing it's just having creative autonomy and control.

It's been really nice to see how time has been kind to Jennifer's Body and just how much that movie continues to mean to people. What's been most rewarding about that movie's journey since its release? 

You know what's really interesting is that I think we always knew we were making a movie about girls by girls, for girls, and that was attempting to be a complex investigation into ... not to get too heady, but into the effects of a patriarchal system on girls and their relationships with other girls, and that while you could claim there is something monstrous in the patriarchal system, what makes it particularly pungent and rotten is that it in infects girls' lives as well. So the notion of femaleness and femininity gets infected with the same ideas that afflict men in that system.

And so, we always knew that was the story we were telling. I mean, I always knew when I got the job, I was always like, "This is what this movie is about." And everybody was in agreement. And then it just sort of devolved into a kind of whole different marketing plan. And so, it's really cool to see that the movie is now simply being seen for what it is, as opposed to being packaged, or branded, or marketed for what it isn't.

I hope what people might consider as they reassess the film, or discover it for the first time, is who quickly our brain allows itself to be marketed to, and how many films there might be out there, or how many artistic statements, or musical artists, or painters, or politicians, who might actually be trying to speak a very valid truth, and the messaging is getting in the way. And so, I'm hopeful that maybe that's part of what could be happening in this reassessment of the movie, because the movie is the same. It's the same as it was nine years ago. So I'm hopeful that maybe people could say, "Why does this happen to movies?"


Destroyer is now playing in limited release and goes wide January 25.