Destroyer Director Karyn Kusama Examines What It Takes to Break a Soul

Monday 04th, February 2019 / 18:15

by Hogan Short

Nicole Kidman stars as Erin Bell in Karyn Kusama’s DESTROYER, an Annapurna Pictures release.

Karyn Kusama, like any woman working in film (or any industry, really), has worked incredibly hard to get where she is now. She had early success in film and television and has now, along with her screenwriter husband, found herself able to create the stories she wants to tell. Her new film Destroyer is the second film in an unconnected L.A. trilogy, the first being the under-appreciated psychological horror The Invitation. Destroyer is a character study of a woman whose soul has broken. Nicole Kidman plays Detective Erin Bell, who must connect with various people from a past undercover case to find any semblance of peace. Kusama talks about making this gritty character study with one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and how they found each other to begin with.

“Nicole actually approached me for the part,” says Kusama. “She had read the script before we started casting and was interested in talking creatively. She loved the character. Unlike a lot of actors who won’t have a conversation until they know the offer, she is willing to hear a director’s vision of the film and then be a part advocating for it. The openness in which she approached this allowed me to be purely creative.”

Kusama’s films have always had a deep supporting cast, recruiting top talent to different roles no matter how small or large. Destroyer is carried by Kidman’s powerhouse performance but is held up in every moment by an amazing ensemble that includes Sebastian Stan (I, Tonya), Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black), Bradley Whitford (Get Out), and many more. To piece a cast like this together while writing each character to have depth and a real sense of uniqueness is rare, and Kusama has handled that task beautifully here.

“I got a great piece of advice a long time ago from director John Sayles (Lone Star), who I was an assistant for for three years,” she says. “He read Girl Fight [Kusama’s first film to earn wide critical acclaim] and he told me, ‘As you get closer to finding your story, put yourself through an exercise of looking through the eyes of every person as if they were the main character.’ It gives a vividness and specificity to everyone onscreen. My hope is that it means I get to work with really special actors who can really fill those roles. Casting is the single most crucial part of the process.”

Kidman’s performance in this film is doubly impressive when considering she is essentially playing two different characters. She plays a young undercover Erin Bell, in love and excited about the work. She also plays an aged, broken down Erin Bell, seemingly incapable of feeling happiness on any level. On set, there was a creative and budgetary decision to shoot Kidman’s later years first.

“As we were prepping, we recognized that it would be really nice to get a sense of what the present-day Erin Bell was like, what informed her and emotionally drove her. Nicole would then be able to hook into younger Erin Bell, because by the time we finished all her material she was pretty rung out. To be able to play the younger version who is more optimistic, it came at the right time to jump into that work.”

Jumping into the work was something Kidman did completely, to Kusama’s surprise: “She stayed in character. She approached the role as a method actor more than I anticipated. On set when I chatted with Nicole about an adjustment or a performance, I wasn’t speaking with Nicole. It was Erin Bell, which was a little more daunting. Initially I thought she was really grumpy, but no, she’s just Erin. Erin lives in that broken, dissatisfied place, so it was interesting to have the a-ha moments on set. In many respects I was witnessing a channeling of the character through Nicole until we finished.”

One of the most important characters in Destroyer is actually the city of Los Angeles itself. Typically, in gritty, street level detective films like Taxi Driver and Serpico, we see New York City. L.A. seems to be used for sprawling sunset car chases and palm trees. Kusama and her locations team have created this dirty, small world in L.A. that we haven’t seen very often on film.

“It was really important we keep this in L.A.,” she says. “Destroyer was written to be an odyssey in a dense and complicated city. Few cities for that bill the same way as L.A. because you have to drive everywhere, so there’s a sense of a quest, like you have to chariot across the city. We live in and love this city. We wanted to uncover corners of the city and the original inspirations came from New York filmmakers. That sense of struggle with despair and the larger world is the same in any city.”

Destroyer is a film that burns into you. It forces you to live in this despair with Erin Bell, but also keeps you asking what happened to this person. When answers are revealed, you are forced to ask yourself about what is right and wrong in life and in love. This is a complex film with complex characters in a year that also included so many beautifully layered female directed films like Can You Ever Forgive Me (Marielle Heller) and You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay). The Oscar nominations were announced the day of this interview and Kusama, as a powerful female voice in this industry, touched on what it means to see another year without a single female nominated for Best Director.

“I’m a sober person about the march of progress,” she says. “I’m old enough now to understand the march is really slow and sometimes zig-zags. It’s disappointing because there was so much strong work from so many women this year. All of the editors, sound mixers, visual effects artists, writers, and producers who aren’t even getting a cursory nod, that feels beyond insulting and has to change. I don’t know how to change it, but when I see nominations like this I feel disheartened.”

Hopefully powerful films like Destroyer can raise voices like Kusama’s and create the change for equality.

Destroyer is playing in Vancouver theatres now