Director Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer stakes a claim on an aesthetic for women’s stories that’s more commonly associated with directors like Michael Mann, Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood. Its anti-hero is a cop, Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman), who is heavily marked by damage caused by the choices she’s made. The film’s structure weaves between her younger, more innocent days, when she lost her partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) in a lengthy sting on bank robber Silas (Toby Kebbell), and her present, 17 years later, as a burnt-out alcoholic having trouble holding down her job. Kusama made a splash at Sundance in 2000 with Girlfight, which led to her Hollywood debut five years later with Aeon Flux. However, she lost control of the project, and her 2009 follow-up Jennifer’s Body was misunderstood as a peep show aimed at male fans of Megan Fox. In 2015, The Invitation, a horror film centered around a religious cult made for only $1 million, revived Kusama’s career far from the pressures studios exerted on Aeon Flux, and she’s returned with the tough neo-noir Destroyer. It opens December 25.
StudioDaily: Destroyer’s editing is very complex. Did the script play out the exact same back-and-forth between the past and present as in the finished film?
Karyn Kusama: It did. It was such a complex storyline that all of that jumping back and forth in time was all scripted. In the final film, there might have been some rearrangement of flashbacks but for the most part it was entirely baked in. I originally had 18 weeks to edit, but I got a few more weeks to push it. It wound up being 20.
The film keeps contrasting dingy spaces with little light and brown colors with brighter ones that have open space and sunshine. Were you playing with the idea of corruption taking place in open light?
I don’t know if that was totally conscious, but the movie is based in my state of helplessness and frustration at the world’s state of affairs. This idea of corruption in broad daylight is built around the way we get one story after another telling us that it’s happening right in front of us, but it’s so hard to see it. There’s almost a brutal sunshine that the characters can’t really escape from. It gave some of those darker interiors and exteriors relief for the viewer.
The scene with Bradley Whitford’s character, in particular, made me think of certain wealthy white men who’ve been in the news lately.
He was meant to be another small-time crook who got a law degree and could use the acceptability of that profession as a cover for the fact that he’s just a criminal, like most of the people in the movie.
Instead of playing a femme fatale, Nicole Kidman plays a grizzled cop, which is a role that men have almost always played within film noir. Did you think about precursors within the genre or how the film was revising it?
We had always been aware of film noir as an influence. The notion of a detective hunting an external goal but also grappling with themselves was a powerful paradigm for this character. Some of my friends who are huge film noir fans like it because she gets to be both the grizzled cop and the femme fatale. Over the course of the film, we reveal that she uses the love she develops to manipulate the situation. Some of them think that makes it really worse, because she occupies multiple roles within the genre.
Was the script written with Nicole Kidman in mind?
It really wasn’t. We always knew that whoever played the character had to move beyond recognition as a movie star. We didn’t have people in mind when the script was being written or even when I was putting look-books together and thinking about the tone and style. When Nicole was attached, her character become more concrete.
There’s a requirement that the character would have to be convincing in both the flashbacks and the present-day segments. But there’s something a bit creepy about some of the press around the film, which goes, “Nicole Kidman is so convincing as a middle-aged woman who’s lived a hard life.” In reality, she’s 51! Looking like a middle-aged woman isn’t a huge accomplishment in and of itself, but actresses are expected to look like they’re in the early 30s till they’re 70.
I find it offensive how much people focus on that aspect of her performance. They have an inability to question their own interest in a woman’s appearance, rather than wondering about who she might be and how she might have arrived at that state. So it’s interesting when you see an industry pat itself on the back for the bravery of depicting a woman who looks her age.
Titus Welliver in Bosch looks the same as he does off-screen, with grey hair and visible wrinkles, but no one calls attention to his looks.
This is the battle that so many women are forced to endure, which is this discussion about their physical self as some kind of fodder for public consumption. That’s part of why it was so important to me that this woman not only look her age, but like a hardened and damaged version of that. For the people in the audience who can’t handle that, that’s their prerogative, but for me, it’s great to be confronted with a person who looks like your crazy mom or messed-up aunt. I hope she reads as real to viewers.
To what extent was your visual style in Destroyer inspired by the neighborhoods of L.A.?
There’s just so much about L.A. where you see this unique discordant quality in your daily travels through the city. There’s a possibility for real beauty and surprise and moments of visual grace that then bump up against incredible squalor and suffering and visual blight. The possibilities in that kind of visual landscape are related to the story of Destroyer.
In quite different ways, both The Invitation and Destroyer are films about regret over the past. Do you see them as companion pieces?
I do. They’re both bound to this idea that grief, sorrow, shame and regret can really warp a psyche. I also see them as related to their setting. They’re very L.A. movies. Matt [Manfredi] and I are writing the third installment in what I hope is a L.A. trilogy, dealing with the same themes. It’s in its infant stages. It’s a project about the process of filmmaking, to some degree.
Do you have a certain degree of identification with Erin?
I’m related to her for a number of reasons, especially the fury she feels at the world and not knowing how to deal with it. I feel that in my life on a day-to-day basis, especially not knowing how to make room for it. Ultimately, I want to find a way for those feelings to be constructive instead of damaging.
After Aeon Flux, you said you’d never make another film without final cut, and you’ve described both it and Jennifer’s Body as learning experiences. Do you think it’s possible to work in the studio system now and still have control over your work?
For me, the jury’s still out. I’m just trying to understand to what degree I would be afforded any real creative protections within that system. I’ve been lucky enough to have final cut on the past two films I’ve made. I’d like to have those creative, supportive relationships continue while also being understood as someone who can handle authority.
You’ve done a lot of TV work [The Man in the High Castle, Billions, Halt and Catch Fire] recently. Did you learn anything from that which helped in making Destroyer?
It taught me that as filmmakers, we have certain muscles we need to keep exercising, just like runners or weightlifters. The ability to make so much TV – and quality TV – in the years between Jennifer’s Body and The Invitation and then between The Invitation and Destroyer just allows me to stay nimble and work in a less pressurized environment. Even though I have to deliver a show to the studio and creators, there’s an even larger story being told through the season. I can just be part of the team. It’s nice to be reminded that I’m a team member and can do a good job in that environment and bring my own perspective to an episode. If I hadn’t done so much TV, I might not have been so open to the idea that I had to shoot Destroyer in 33 days. It’s a really ambitious movie for that kind of schedule. It gave me the confidence that while I don’t always enjoy working that quickly and with fewer resources, I’m always capable of determining what a movie and story needs within the time frame I have to achieve it.
If you had more time to shoot it, what would you have done differently?
There’s something about answering the question that makes me feel like I’m jinxing myself. I know I didn’t get that extra time, but I probably would have explored getting a few more takes or set-ups from scene to scene. I would have given myself one more way in to the scene, visually. Even though it was very fast and brutal, there was something about that which was appropriate to the film.
There have been a number of pieces in the past six months looking back at Jennifer’s Body, saying that it was really underrated and misunderstood at the time of its release. Does that feel gratifying now, or do you just wish people had gotten it then?
I find it all gratifying. While we were making the film, we had a lot of fun. We didn’t imagine that it wouldn’t be embraced. We weren’t setting ourselves up for failure or disappointment. We were just making the movie we wanted to make. What’s nice about this moment now when the movie is being reevaluated is that people are seeing the movie we made. I don’t look at it now as history coming to bear on it rather than audiences coming to it with a clean slate, without misleading marketing materials and reviews that were themselves misled by marketing. There was a general publicity pile-on that painted the film with bad energy. People can approach the film fresh. I wish it didn’t have to take nine years, but I’d rather have my work seen late than not seen at all. Or worse, be acclaimed when it comes out and then be called a failure later. Given the circumstances, all I can do is be appreciative of the situation.
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