How ‘Destroyer’ Director Karyn Kusama Deconstructed The Noir Genre & Rebuilt It From A Woman’s Point Of View

David Vintiner

In the golden renaissance of television, the prevailing wisdom is that HBO’s The Sopranos and AMC’s Breaking Bad put the crime noir genre out of business on the big screen. But with Destroyer, director Karyn Kusama and screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi prove that there are still a few 180-degree tales left. What sets this noir apart from such classics as Chinatown and L.A. Confidential is that it’s from the viewpoint of a complex, battered undercover female cop on the hunt, embodied by Nicole Kidman in one of her most chameleonic turns since her Oscar-winning portrayal of Virginia Woolf in The Hours. Annapurna Pictures opened the 30West/Automatik production yesterday at three theaters in New York and Los Angeles. Kidman is nominated for a Golden Globe in the best actress drama category.

How long did Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi work on the script?

All of their original screenplays take a lot of marinating time. Over the years, while working on other big studio movies, they spoke about the non-linear structure for this film; even as we made The Invitation, they were still talking it through. At a certain point I came on during the outline phase and they shared the direction of the main character Erin Bell and the relationship with her daughter. They really take their time. That’s why the script is so good, rich and complex. They thought about this script for 10 years, made notes, but when they actually sat down to write, they were fast about it.

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Given all the films that came before in this genre, how did you avoid all the usual tropes?

Phil and Matt had a couple of ideas that animated how I approached the filmmaking: Erin Bell suffers not because she’s amoral, but because she’s moral. There was this idea that we’re watching an investigation where we come to understand that the detective is hunting herself. In thinking about those two ideas, it creates a necessity for a different kind of emphasis on her obsession, her stubbornness, her strength, her will, and that obsessive drive that starts to taint her character. Eventually we realize the non-linear part of the storytelling will inform the peculiarity of her character. I kept trying to lean into specific visual gestures that felt really interesting. For instance, seeing her uncomfortably close—you want to look away, but when it’s somebody like Nicole who occupies the role so fully, you can’t look away from her.

How did you get Nicole on board? As with her turn in The Hours, she completely disappears here.

We had been talking for a couple of years, trying to figure out how to work together. Initially she was not on our radar. She’s tall, statuesque, and she has perfect porcelain skin. We haven’t seen her do something like this, and now I can’t imagine anyone else doing the role.

There was an agent, Chris Andrews at CAA, who was supportive of the project and said that he’d send the script to Nicole. And she responded. In reading the role, she said it terrified her, and she cried. After that first conversation, I was like, “There’s only one person who can do this.” (In being inspired by the character), Nicole kept going back to those films of the ‘70s, like Klute, Dog Day Afternoon, A Woman Under the Influence, Taxi Driver, and Chinatown. She was living in that cinematic love space.

We brought in Bill Corso, an Oscar-winning make-up artist who transformed Steve Carell for Foxcatcher. Bill really leaned into her character; because she’s so porcelain, we worked with sun damage, how she’d look if she had not worn sunscreen for years in the desert. The freckles, which were girlish before 17, are a predictor of the woman to come, with liver spots. You see the progression. Bill, myself and Nicole went through a testing period to achieve realistic results on a short shoot with an aggressive budget.

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You’ve worked with your composer Teddy Shapiro since the beginning with Girlfight, but on this film and The Invitation, you asked him to write music ahead of time so that it could inspire your creative process.

What Teddy and I talked about was the non-linear narrative and the idea of patterns and circles. How could we take these patterns and draw them into music? He developed this symphonic, orchestral sound. That’s when I really started to understand the need to inform her journey toward accountability and toward the end of her journey. I didn’t want the movie to simply be a downer. The fact that she made some change, small but significant by the end, to be morally accountable to her mistakes could be uplifting in its way, and Teddy’s music helped me achieve that.

Teddy drew initially from the music I sent him during the script phase. By the time we were shooting, I was playing the score on set and Nicole was responding to it. Having that music shaped our process and provided a creative thrust in the piece. When things weren’t quite working it helped us make changes midway.

You’ve had quite a journey in Hollywood, quickly rising out of Sundance with Girlfight and then working on Charlize Theron’s first big tentpole, Aeon Flux, following her best actress Oscar win for MonsterAeon Flux didn’t become the hit that many were expecting. How did you rebound from that experience?

I definitely spent a year physically repairing myself, licking my wounds to start again. It was a shattering experience and it was difficult in many respects. It was a real baptism in the brutal logic of Hollywood. It came early on, so I had time to reflect on it. I received my indie darling moment and learned that it is fleeting. In the end it’s all about the work you continue to make, not the work you already made. That failure, falling on my face was instructive. It took me some time to recoup. I got married in the process and we had a child.

Jennifer’s Body, too, was a rocky experience on the studio marketing level, but the film has resurged recently as a cult movie. These films have been lessons in the type of filmmaker I want to be. I’m best suited to have as much creative authority at the helm because it makes me a better collaborator, ultimately.

I was talking to a director friend of mine about the concept of ‘final cut’ and how that doesn’t mean you become more of a tyrant. It means you listen better and you have the freedom to listen better. I’ve had final cut on three movies—Girlfight, The Invitation and Destroyer—and that’s how I’d like to continue to work. Working independently on a very aggressive budget; sure I’d like to have more time and resources on future films, but I recognize that sometimes creative control comes at a very high price, and I’m willing to pay that.

Annapurna Pictures

With Aeon Flux, it started out as a Sherry Lansing movie. She transitioned out as head of the studio, and Donald De Line became the new head. While I was cutting the film, he left the studio and Brad Grey and Gail Berman came in. So, there were three administrations at Paramount during the life of the production and its eventual finish. New administrations at a studio typically see the movies from the prior administration as failures, and it’s tough to wrap your head around from a business perspective, from an ego part of the business. That’s hard to understand. The person who can’t control those huge transitional moments is often the director.

And Jennifer’s Body, what happened there?

The movie was really the movie I wanted to make and the movie that Diablo Cody wrote. In regards to its marketing, it was an epic misstep and they sold it to boys instead of to the girls who it was written for, and by, and about. They shifted the emphasis to boys based on Megan Fox’s sex appeal.

And the decision to direct more episodic TV?

There was a point after Jennifer’s Body where I felt with studio movies, it wasn’t getting easier for me. Maybe this was just how the world of making features was. I had the good fortune of meeting people who trusted me when I was down. To work on Halt and Catch Fire, I loved the people, loved the actors, and it kept me fresh and adaptive. I have a strong work ethic and it was a way to keep me sharp and learn my craft. I’m still expanding my craft and that’s all I want to do.

Is the state of female film directors improving? We often see more female producers than directors. Why is that?

That’s an interesting question. Producers tend to do more work behind the scenes and exert their will differently. They can quietly lobby people to get a desired effect. There’s not necessarily that moment for them every day that a director is faced with: “What do I want? How do I have to have it?”

I still think it’s difficult for female directors to break through on certain genres, perhaps because they’ve been so male-dominated in the past. Women do love action and crime movies. These are things I love. It’s a question of proving oneself on set. Someone who can communicate clearly, that’s certainly the strength I bring to my job as director. I know historically there’s hasn’t been enough faith in women to advocate for themselves on set and through the process. The process is a hard one. You have to constantly work with people, listen and assert what you know and think is right. That’s something that takes a cultural shift and that may be even longer than #MeToo in the past year or Time’s Up. It’s going to take a decade of Time’s Up, it’s actually a very long haul.

Everyone makes cultural assumptions and has biases. One insidious cultural bias is that it’s easier for some people to hear a man speak with confidence than a woman. Some of us feel more secure when we trust a man to occupy that assertive space. With these particular stereotypes, there’s men and even some women in positions of power who keep hiring men out of the fear that a woman’s potential poor performance will reflect badly on the person who hired her. But men who fail are often given another opportunity to prove themselves. There’s a lot of pressure in the system for men—and particularly for women—to prop up the old norms. The hiring practices need to change, and the system itself needs to change.

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