Karyn Kusama 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.

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