Karyn Kusama Interview: St. Louis native hits new high with ‘Destroyer’

For Karyn Kusama, making movies requires a labor of love and a high level of passion. And a strong and conflicted heroine at the center of the story.

For instance, the Brooklyn, New York born and St. Louis, Missouri raised writer/director fought hard for Michelle Rodriguez to star in 2000’s Girlfight. At the time, Kusama was an unknown with zero writing and directing credits to her name, but she wasn’t about to let someone tell her how to finish a film. When the studio wanted to make the film her way, Kusama didn’t alter her stance, and the film was eventually made with Rodriguez starring.

Nearly two decades later, nothing has changed. Kusama returns to cinema with the gritty and hard-boiled Destroyer, a crime thriller with a female superstar, Nicole Kidman, who looks like she spent 20 years in a tanning bed with guilt and bad decisions swimming through the bulbs in the machine. It’s an ambitious film that juggles the genre willingly, with Kusama taking a walk into the valley of darkness with her lead character’s trek and plight in the film.

Kidman’s Erin Bell is a detective who has washed out of the good graces of her fellow officers, friends, and even her own daughter. Something in her past is biting at her, like a scab that won’t heal unless you focus on it. That’s the journey Kusama, as well as her screenwriter husband Phil Hay, who co-wrote the film with Matt Manfredi, take you on with this film. When the St. Louis International Film Festival came to town in November, Kusama and Hay sat down with a few film critics and I for a conversation about the film’s production, influences that aided the film, and Kidman’s work.

The Los Angeles setting proved to be a great strength for Kusama, especially in the way she shot the desolate landscape. For years, this city has been a playground for people who make bad decisions, with master craftsman like Michael Mann using it repeatedly. When I asked Kusama if Mann was her guide, she had another couple movies and names to add to the table. “Michael Mann has made some classic crime films, so it’s hard not to acknowledge him … but more for me, I looked at films from the 1970’s particularly like Taxi Driver, The French Connection, and Klute,” Kusama said. “There was a gritty and dark photographic style that could meet up against harsh sunlight and unrelenting brightness.”

When Kevin Brackett of ReviewSTL.com asked the filmmaking husband and wife duo about how they choose projects, Hay pointed out immediately that “they had to earn it.” According to Hay, it’s a long process in choosing a film. “We came up with the idea ten years ago, and then we finally wrote it,” he said. “There’s an item that interests us, and we talk and talk about it. If it sticks around, we take it to Karyn and she has some thoughts.

In the case of Destroyer, we wanted to walk her through the story.” Hay talked about working simultaneously on a film. So, as he and Manfredi were writing the script, Kusama was already thinking about the look and sound of the film. They are truly are a filmmaking family unit.

When asked about whether the story was centered around a woman from the start, Kusama did admit that when she read early versions of the script, she thought to herself that (audiences) hadn’t seen this woman before. “We’ve seen an interesting version of this man, but I felt excited by the fact that she was difficult, cantankerous, and problematic,” Kusama said. The director talked about forming a love/hate relationship with Kidman’s character due to the fact that Erin Bell demands tough love. “I felt there was something about her that felt incredibly distinctive.”

One of the key elements of the film that worked well and heightened the drama was the relationship between Bell and her estranged daughter, Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn). Hay talked about that subplot driving the other areas of the film forward. “We wanted to be as human as possible, taking the time to focus on the humanity of (Erin) without feeling empathy for her,” Hay added.

Cate Marquis of We Are Movie Geeks asked Kusama about the photography of the film being particularly striking, especially the shots of the weeds on the plains coming to life and the way audiences could feel the cold of the scenes with Kidman in the mountains. “If I am going to be in a gritty environment that demands realism, I am always trying to find ways to bring a visual rigor that pulls things together,” Kusama said.

“Los Angeles is such a sprawling interconnected freeway of long plains of urban development. There was a quality to this film that made it look like an urban western. In noir terms, while we were scouting locations, I was really drawn to and surprised by how many places we would find that were these abandoned, wildlife areas. There was so much vegetation and fish swimming by. It’s a mash-up.”

Part of what made Destroyer such a unique experience was Kusama’s ability to seek out and find beauty in the harshest areas of darkness. “I’m drawn to these kind of stories. Despite the wreckage of this woman’s life, there’s room for some hope and redemption. She’s trying to steer her daughter clear of the crap that she brought into her life,” Kusama said.

Kidman’s reliability in holding and using the various weapons in the movie did wonders for the film as well. Hay talked about the training she had, which included a former L.A.P.D. officer and ex-military training working with Kidman in Nashville. The key was to be as realistic as possible. “The point is none of it is perfect. Real life doesn’t look like the movies. People who had experience in these situations told us the more messed up it is, the more real it is,” Hay said. “Bell is competent at this part of the job, but she’s not a supervisor on a SWAT team.” Brackett noticed how the struggles she has reloading a weapon added so much, and Kusama and Hay said that was so important.

Theodore Shapiro’s score heightened the tension and poetic beauty of the grim plot, and Kusama dished on the process of finding the right score for the film. “It evolved as Phil and Matt were writing, and Teddy has always been on the team. They are listening to a lot of music as they write the script. Teddy feels the mythical proportions of the music and applies that to his score,” Kusama said. “While I prep, Teddy brings in players as we put it together. We have a lot of score to work with while we shoot. Nicole is listening to it in her makeup trailer. The cast is hearing it on the set. The crew can hear it. It’s a way to give people a sense of the tone we are going for.”

The boldness of the music speaks to the epitome of Kusama and Hay’s vision for the film. When a film this dark can touch your heart in a way and make you care for a woman who really deserves little support, there’s a wicked skill set taking place. With Hay and Manfredi’s words circulating through her head and Teddy’s music providing the grooves of a dark world, Kusama was able to strike a balance in the chaotic underbelly of Los Angeles, and in the process, find a way to make the city seem like a freshman again in the film world.

Like her central character, Kusama doesn’t mind losing her way in the strayed forests of seedy characters, bad decisions, and guilt-ridden redemption tales. It makes for great cinema, and Destroyer is no different.

The films is currently playing at the Tivoli in the Delmar Loop.

Photo Credit: Michael Kovac (Getty Images)

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