Why do we romanticize criminal cops? That was the question that intrigued director Karyn Kusama when she first began thinking about Destroyer, her new film starring Nicole Kidman as grizzled, hard-drinking LAPD detective Erin Bell in a gender-swapped version of the archetypical “rogue cop who plays by their own rules.” Kusama then started doing what she always does when she’s working on a movie: She made a mixtape.
Destroyer comes at an exciting time for Kusama, who’s been in high demand as a TV director—she’s done multiple episodes of Halt And Catch Fire, The Man In The High Castle, and Casual, among others—since her last film The Invitation debuted to critical praise in 2016, all the while developing the concept for what became Destroyer. And along with those new opportunities comes a curious sort of redemption, as Jennifer’s Body (2009), the film that put Kusama’s directorial career on ice for nearly six years, has been the subject of critical reappraisals proclaiming it a feminist horror classic.
Kusama isn’t one to dwell on the past, though. She’d much rather talk about her favorite cinematographers—or about music, as we did at length over the phone ahead of Destroyer’s release.
The A.V. Club: What was the timeline like on this project? Did it overlap with everything else you’ve been doing?
Karyn Kusama: Phil [Hay, screenwriter], who I worked with on The Invitation as well, has been developing this idea for many years. And so I’d been hearing about it even as we were making The Invitation. I think it was a process of about two years maybe, once we had the script... maybe 2016. We had a script by the fall, and then by 2017 I was casting [Destroyer]. Nicole came aboard in May, and we were shooting in the winter, so it was actually a faster process than I’m used to.
AVC: How did Nicole Kidman come on board? I assume that helps get the whole thing moving quickly, to have a star of her caliber.
KK: It did. She was having a magical year at Cannes, where she had, like, three or four projects [going] at the same time. And she read the script, because her agent said, “I think this is one of the most interesting things out there right now.” And she read it, and she said, “I want to put my hand up, can I meet with Karyn?”
She and I had met in the past, just trying to figure out what we could do together, because she’s pretty open about wanting to collaborate with as many women as she can. And she makes good on that intention. As soon as I talked with her about the project, I felt like, “Okay, this is going to work.” Because she was so willing to step outside of herself and what she had done before. She was so challenged by the idea of jumping into something so completely different and something so demanding of a shift in her. And I just knew: “Oh my god, that’s the kind of artist I’d love to be working with.”
AVC: When I first saw the movie, the only thing that I could really compare it to was Charlize Theron in Monster. Just physically, the transformation is so complete.
KK: We definitely talked a lot about how to allow Nicole to disappear into the role. I sent her a lot of videos of coyotes, and sent her music, and sent her articles and books and things that I thought were useful in terms of the internal development of the character. We also went through a pretty extensive process of testing makeup, and we were really focused because we were a low budget film and so we had to be working really quickly. We were focusing on things like sun damage and liver spots and stuff that tells the story of a person who doesn’t take care of themselves, basically. And so it was a dual process, the interior informing the exterior and vice versa.
AVC: Do you remember any of the songs, by chance?
KK: I sent her a Throwing Muses song called “Furious,” and I sent a bunch of work by this amazing Canadian band called Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and music by Kyuss, which later became Queens Of The Stone Age. It was a combination of, I want to say, women’s voices with something more epic and instrumentally driven. And then also just a few crazy outlaw country songs, because we were thinking about that a lot, too. And Phil [Hay] and [co-screenwriter] Matt [Manfredi] were listening to a ton of early Linda Ronstadt while they were writing the script, so it was a crazy mashup of music.
It was all to give a broad swath of the influences that helped us shape the character and the story. And what’s so great [about Nicole Kidman] is she actually listens to it, she actually reads the stuff, she actually watches the footage of the coyotes. She actually takes it all on as potentially useful information, and discards what’s not useful.
AVC: Is that something you do a lot, put together a soundtrack to help you figure out the mood of a piece?
KK: I do. It’s really important for me, actually, because up to now music has played a really big role in four of my five features. It’s a combination of source music and score.
I’ve worked in a different way over the past two films, both this one and The Invitation, where my longtime composer Teddy Shapiro and I start listening to music and musical influences way early, at the script phase, and then Teddy starts bringing in players while we’re in pre-production. That’s when he starts writing music and recording score. And then by the time we’re shooting, we actually have quite a bit of score already written—not complete by any means, but the beginnings of the vibe.
So Nicole was listening to that in the makeup trailer, and listening to it on set. And we’re using that as we’re putting the movie together in the assembly phase. I feel like music is a really big part of me right now in terms of my filmmaking. Of course, that could change, but that’s how I like to work at the moment.
AVC: That’s fascinating, because the score is helping to dictate the tone of the movie. Usually it’s the other way around.
KK: Exactly. One of the things I’ve really learned over the past couple of movies is that a lot of times, what happens is that you need score as you’re building the film in the editing phase. And if you don’t have any score, you use temp score. And if you’re using other people’s music, and it’s hard not to just want to copy [that] if it’s working.
And so in a funny way, it’s better [to write the score first]. It’s a bigger leap of faith, but it’s a more successful [tactic], I think, to have a close relationship with a composer who can start writing music from the script phase and can really feel the themes of the movie early on. In the case of our movie, one of the things that we talked a lot about where were circles—as a visual shape, but also as a sonic strategy. So that got us to talking about a lot of music that depends on returning to circular melodies and themes. Those things are all in the movie, and even if it’s on an unconscious or subconscious level, it’s driving some of the themes of the movie.
AVC: Do you also use films as reference points for your cast and crew when you’re putting a movie together?
KK: That’s an interesting question. I don’t usually talk about other movies too much in terms of reference points so much as photography, like, actual still photos. I’ll say something like, “for me, formally, I like knowing that half of the frame is in deep shadow and almost unseeable.” I like to speak in those terms. I mean, occasionally I’ll bring up a movie that gives a feeling because of how a sequence is handled. But yeah, I don’t end up using movies as reference points for the most part.
AVC: Something I found interesting about Kidman’s character in this movie is that she’s continually being undermined, by herself or by those around her. She wants to be a rogue cop who plays by her own rules, but it’s not working out. I thought there was a pathos to that.
KK: In a way, I think that [idea is] what drove the whole decision to have this story exist in the first place. In other versions of stories like this one, the rogue cop is somehow both disrespected and secretly worshiped when it’s a man. In this case, I think [the character of Erin Bell] calls into question our obsession with—basically, with criminal cops—because her very femaleness asks the question of, “Is this just outright disrespect that she’s encountering from her coworkers?” We have to examine more closely our relationship to this idea of transgressive law enforcement, and transgressive power, and the abuse of power.
We always wanted it to feel a little bit uncomfortable. On the one hand, [Kidman is] occupying a cinematic prototype that we’re really used to, and encouraging of, for the most part. But then it also seems like she isn’t really experiencing the respect [we’re used to]. And why is that, you know?
AVC: Given the events of the past few years, a film about the abuse of power and about cops misusing their power is very timely.
KK: I feel that way too. It starts with things as big, and yet relatively small, as cops and how we view law enforcement. Then it goes to even larger institutions of government and positions of power. At this point, we’re seeing even more blatant and flagrant abuses of power and corruption [throughout our government].
And we see [in this film] how difficult it is for [Erin] to even say, “I was wrong. I made a mistake,” to someone she loves—let alone to say to her coworkers, “here’s the information you need to solve this case,” and tell people what’s really going on. Just to recognize how hard it is to say, “I’m trying to be accountable here.” In this film, that process [of accountability] costs Erin everything. And I don’t see many characters in the clown car that is our government right now showing even a single iota of that kind of bravery.
AVC: I loved the way that this movie depicts L.A. and its immigrant neighborhoods. There’s one important scene that’s on the hill behind— you’ll have to excuse me, I don’t live in L.A.—one of the stadiums?
KK: It’s actually this abandoned park called Victory Grove that looks out at Dodger Stadium and then downtown on the other side of that. I’m glad we were able to find that, because [the chase] was always in the script, and we were like, “that has to exist somewhere in L.A.” We also realized that no one had shot [a movie] there yet, so that was pretty cool.
AVC: It’s a different view of the city than you normally see.
KK: I agree. It was an aim of the film to see, I guess, the real L.A. It’s such a diverse and complicated landscape here, and there are so many cultures and languages that inform the city. And because it’s been so highly photographed in the past, it just felt essential that we uncover the more day-to-day, real-world version of Los Angeles.
AVC: So that was all in the script, then?
KK: Yeah. In fact, it was pretty explicit that we would be in Chinatown for this scene, and what looks like Palos Verdes for this scene, and Elysian Park for this scene, and the desert for this scene... it was quite mapped out. A couple of [locations] shifted more into South Central than we recognized was going to happen. But I’m really glad that they did, because it was just another amazing side of L.A.
AVC: What are some films you think do show the real L.A.?
KK: I actually admire a lot of what Collateral did in terms of seeing Los Angeles. And the way the whole San Pedro area was photographed in To Live And Die In L.A. was really inspirational to me, in terms of seeing the industry and port life through [cinematographer] Robby Müller’s awe-inspiring photography. I think there is a way to see the collision of beauty with squalor or industrial ugliness, and those films seemed to hit upon that idea.
AVC: Jennifer’s Body has been seeing a bit of a resurgence this year. How do you feel about that?
KK: I’m happy that it’s happening. I always felt like that movie was so deeply, deeply misunderstood and dismissed. I’m at a place in my life where I really don’t focus on stuff like that. I just move on and say, “Okay, I guess in this moment I’ve missed the mark, or the audience has missed its mark and hasn’t recognized the film for what it is.” So it’s pretty awesome to feel like the movie’s being re-evaluated in a different time and being seen, I think, with a kinder light.
But the movie remains the same. It was always going to be a movie about the damaging affects of fame, and ambition, and the patriarchy, frankly. [It’s about] all the ways that that infects not just men, but women, and how the relationships and bonds that they develop become corrupted by these power structures. I was hopeful that that message would be received initially, but if it comes 10 years later I’m thankful for it.
AVC: Maybe it was just 10 years ahead of its time.
KK: Yes, exactly. [Laughs.]
Destroyer opens in select theaters on December 25.