A singular detective story and genre-defying showcase for star Nicole Kidman, Destroyer weaves its tangled web with confidence. With its immaculate structure and an array of finely drawn characters, the film pursues a fresh, uniquely shadowed corner of a familiar screen world, reflecting with great clarity the values and interests of its inventors.
Along with his wife, director Karyn Kusama, and longtime writing partner Matt Manfredi, Phil Hay has always pursued stories that “take the biggest swings.” Certainly, Destroyer does that in spades. A presentation of “a very specific type of female rage,” the film is a descent into desert hell, a territory both physical and psychological. It follows Kidman’s Erin Bell, a world-wearied police detective out for revenge and inner peace, who reexamines the moment in her life when everything went awry. Brutal, physical and gutsy, the film sees interior and exterior worlds converge, placing its focus on criminal and constabulary, but above all, on mother and daughter.
With grand ambitions and an abundance of ideas, Hay and Manfredi wrote the film on spec, refining layers of narrative richness over the course of 10 years—and doing so may have been the biggest swing they took. Released by Annapurna Pictures, the film comes as a surprise, at a time when the commerce of entertainment has shifted, and scripts written on spec—out of abiding passion, alone—are no longer sought after as much. Infusing new life into a cinematic canon, courtesy of a character we haven’t seen before, Destroyer seeks to surprise at each turn along the way. With both this film and their prior effort, The Invitation—a horror hit out of SXSW—the writing partners have demonstrated what an important creative asset surprise can be, as they set up expectations and turn them dramatically on their head.
With Kusama behind the camera, Hay and Manfredi have played the long game with their films, to great results. In this creative triumvirate, the pair have found an unlikely system, a form of intimate collaboration that has allowed daring, original works to make their way into the marketplace, and succeed. “I think it allows us all to do our best work, that sense of real commitment to one another, and to these stories. There is a real sense of both security and adventure, in that we can really try things,” Hay reflects. ” I think the movies that we realized we want to make are often strange combinations of elements, or live within a certain genre, but are trying to push out into really raw, emotional territory. And the three of us can get there together.”
Phil Hay: With both this and The Invitation, our previous movie, we tend to marinate on something for quite a long time before all the pieces get together. In this case, we have a deep love of the policier, and specifically of ’70s crime movies, so there was some of that swirling around. But really, the bottom line is, what turned this into a movie for us was finding the character of Erin Bell. Once we understood who she was, and specifically the relationship that she needed to have with her daughter, that’s what lit the whole thing up for us, and made it something that we had to pursue.
Matt Manfredi: With The Invitation, we knew what the end was. We knew that final tableau, and worked backward from there. With this, we had this very specific structure, and some touchstone scenes along the way that supported that. But once we hit upon who and what it was about, it then fell into place more easily.
How deep did you go into the backstory of Erin Bell, as you went about finding the character?
Manfredi: We talked about her backstory a lot. We really got into it, in terms of the planning phase, but what made it into the movie is pretty much the amount that we explored, in terms of the writing. Except for when Nicole asked for some backstory to her character, and a couple of the other actors did, and we wrote that down just for them to see, so they could use bits and pieces of what they wanted.
Hay: It was interesting. We went into much more microscopic detail during that part of the process than we typically do, just because it felt like a great exploration to go on. We were always seeing the movie through Karyn’s eyes, and then trying to also now start to see those characters—specifically, Erin—through Nicole’s eyes. We did a similar thing for Sebastian [Stan] as Chris and for Scoot McNairy as Ethan, where we felt like we wanted to really, in a pretty microscopic fashion, understand who they were. But as Matt said, what we wrote there really only exists for Karyn, and for that particular actor. I know Nicole has said that that sort of thing really helped her.
Manfredi: Generally, a lot of times we like to see how little we can give, and have the audience make the connections we want them to. What are the little bits of monologue, the glancing little lines that inform a scene, or inform an understanding of the person?
Did you write Destroyer with any of these actors in mind? Nicole’s role here is different from what we have often seen her do. But at the same time, it feels in some way as though it was tailor-made for her.
Phil Hay: Nicole, to our mind, is just an artist without compare. What she did truly astounded us every day. In the case of writing it though, I don’t think we ever pictured any specific actor. It’s always a little bit different for us, but this character—in our minds, living with her—was so specifically herself. We just gained this collective idea of who she was, and didn’t aim it toward any specific actor. The fact that Nicole hadn’t ever done anything like this was one reason she was so excited to do it, and also I think really brought something to the whole experience of watching her become this person. There wasn’t another movie that she had done similarly to glance off of, in some strange way.
Your presentation of Los Angeles and its surrounding areas is so specific. What was your intention, in the way you tackled the city?
Hay: Obviously, Los Angeles is so critical to this movie, and a large part of the meaning of the movie is reflective of Los Angeles. Matt’s from here, and I’ve now lived here for a really long time, and it’s sort of the Los Angeles that we’ve absorbed as Angelenos that we wanted to put on screen. Karyn was very specific, too, about wanting to show the LA that we’re accustomed to, that hasn’t been shot as much. It was also critical for us both in the writing stage, and in the filming of the movie, to be very geographically authentic, so that hopefully, people can feel the map of LA in their minds. The movie is an odyssey across and through LA, and the beauty and terrifying contradictions that are LA was so much a part of what we thought of, when working on the movie.
But also, the desert is so important. We always talked with Nicole about Erin as [though] she’s a desert creature, a desert rat. That was the world that she comes from, which really informs how she is in life, and how she walks through the world, protecting this core of your person that is under assault from these exposing rays of the sun.
Manfredi: On a practical level, a lot of the locations were written in the script, but a lot of the locations we ended up at are also due to Robert Foulkes, our location manager, who I think is the best there is. The stuff he came up with was incredible.
Hay: We had written some things that we had hoped existed, and the day that he found Victory Grove…I mean, I live very close to it, and I had never heard of it. It’s this little spit of land that overlooks, on one side, Downtown LA, and on the other side is Dodger Stadium. We had written that scene that takes place there very specifically to have this reveal that we are in the shadow of Dodger Stadium the entire time, and thought, “Well, I don’t know if that location exists.” And Robert sniffed it out.
Manfredi: It’s just hidden away right off of Sunset, and it’s so LA. Not only is it this incredibly beautiful vista, but it’s also just littered with broken guitars and doll heads.
Hay: The residue of broken dreams was all over the hill. [Laughs]
How much research did you get into, in terms of the real experiences of LAPD officers?
Manfredi: The cop stuff was a big point of research, just to get all the lingo right, and everything to do with the bank robberies.
Hay: Karyn and Matt and I went to the LAPD museum, and there was some really fascinating stuff there. The North Hollywood bank robbery [of 1997] was a big touchstone from real life, and we also had consultants on the set all the time. Obviously, this is not an “action movie.” This is a movie where there are gunfights, and we wanted them to be reflective of reality, which was very important to Nicole. She went through really intense and amazing training with a weapons trainer, and the wonderful thing about Nicole is that she is just so focused on the details. When this character is in this situation, she is not a member of the SWAT team; she is not an ex-Green Beret. She is a very specific kind of cop, and when she is reloading her weapon and her hands are shaking, that’s the kind of microscopic level of detail that we were trying to go for.
Your female characters in Destroyer are so hard-edged, and there’s often a real brutality to what they experience, physically and emotionally. Quite literally, no one is pulling any punches with Erin Bell. Why was this dimension to your story important?
Hay: Karyn speaks a lot about how this really is a female movie that incorporates all forms of human experience, including tremendous brutality. Because that is the world that they inhabit, and that’s also an expression of their interior wounds. I think that as with everything in the movie, we really strove to create that space for these female characters to be everything, especially Erin. To traverse all of these human experiences and emotions. And in the case of this story, that includes so much rage. It’s rage that is both directed outward, and inward, as well.
Manfredi: So much of her rage is directed at herself, so while she is on this odyssey across Los Angeles on a very specific mission, she is also at the same time delving into what got her here. A lot of that resides with her, so it is punishment after punishment, but a lot of it, in some ways, is self-inflicted. It goes back to her own failures, and she’s realizing the rage that accompanies that.
All of your characters are so well drawn, and most do a lot with very little screen time. Tatiana Maslany’s Petra is particularly fascinating.
Hay: I think in our process, it is really critical to find those details for every single character in the movie, especially if they’re only present in specific scenes. We want you to be able to imagine their lives beyond what we see of them. With Tatiana, that character of Petra was so critical to us because I think there is a really strong connection between her and Bell, and that she always represented sort of a Patty Hearst-ian character. In her background, we wanted her to be this rich girl gone very, very wrong, who had been driven there by any number of circumstances. But we wanted to feel empathy for her, because we feel a lot of empathy for her, and a lot of connection with her, actually. Tatiana is obviously such a brilliant actor, and someone of her caliber is not going to show up to play someone who is only serving a story in a very specific way. [Petra] serves the story in many ways, and I think that’s true of Bradley [Whitford]’s character. In terms of writing those characters…
Manfredi: Finding those details makes them feel alive, and feel human. With Bradley, it’s the relationship with his son who’s in the batting cage, getting a peak behind the curtain of a guy who could easily just be a point along the way.
Hay: Karyn’s sensitivity to that is so unique and helpful because there are so many things that one could make a case for “not needing,” if your lens is just driving forward at all moments. But I believe firmly that some of those moments that play into the bigger moral universe of the movie are really critical. In the moment with DiFranco, Bradley Whitford’s character, it was so important to us that she confront him—that she is, in a way, driven by his brutality toward his son, and that in the end, she confronts him, for him to say, “He’s a good kid, actually.” It’s very important in the context of this movie, and that’s the only way we know how to do it, and the way that we want to do it, to try to expand the world of these characters, which then expands the thematic world of the movie.
Manfredi: With Tatiana’s character, and the people from her past, the goal was to make it a little messy, in terms of having them be too intertwined in the past. Having them really feel like a family, so there are all of those emotions you can refer to, once they’re together and everything has happened. There’s betrayal, there’s sadness, there’s an interest in seeing the person again. All of those things can be done, efficiently I hope, once we’re in those scenes with them, but you have these details which hopefully make all of the characters a little richer.
Without digressing into spoilers, one of the film’s most impactful scenes depicts Bell carrying her young daughter through the snow. What was the intent with that lyrical moment, which marks such a departure from the general feel of the film? Were we meant to feel that this moment really happened?
Hay: This movie shares a combination, hopefully, of the very real and the mythological. This was always a character study in the world of a cop movie, and the world of a crime story, so that emotional brutality, but also emotional transcendence and emotional reality, was always what we were chasing. For her to earn where she gets with her daughter was always the most important thing to us, and I think what’s beautiful about crime movies, the ones I truly love, is that they do reach for the mythological—the big things out there. I remember a conversation that we had with Nicole when we were shooting that scene, where I said, “This is the ancient part of the story. This is the primal part of her,” and she really responded to that. I think that’s how we see it, that this event did happen, and the way we are seeing it [reflects] the essence of what it means to her, to be walking with her daughter on her neck.
Manfredi: Also, I think it mirrors some other things in the movie. No matter the decision that got you there, what is true is her fierce desire to protect above all else.
In its structure, the film is unique. It manages to surprise its audience in a way we rarely see, bringing classics like The Usual Suspects to mind. What was key in achieving such an effect?
Hay: We knew where we wanted to get to in the end pretty early on, and I think that’s frequently true of what we write. What was really important for us, in terms of structuring what we learn about [Kidman’s] character, was that it had to happen at very specific times, and be queued more by intuition and by feeling than by a kind of math. Her final scene with Chris and what that entails, what that means in her moral universe, we knew that that had to be placed where it was, and then everything else had to arrange itself around that, structurally.
Manfredi: I think we actually knew the math of it, although it took us a while to wrap our heads around it in a way that we hoped played out seamlessly. But we worked that out over the course of a couple of years, picking it up and putting it down, and coming back to it with a new understanding. Then, we had that ready to go, in some ways, and the character really made it all make sense. I think something that helped us with the structure was the tone of it, because we weren’t doing a strict procedural, which goes from A to B to C. Memory is intruding, and relationships are intruding, and…
Hay: It’s all emotionally driven.