‘Maybe at this point I equate femaleness with being radical’: Karyn Kusama on Destroyer

Amid all the cultural debates about women’s struggles to be heard in Hollywood, over everything from onscreen representation to sexual abuse to open gender discrimination, Karyn Kusama’s name is one of the most visible, both because of her struggles in the industry, and because she’s so clearly managed to fight past them. After her breakout movie Girlfight — the muscular, uncompromising boxing movie that launched Michelle Rodriguez’s film career — Kusama fought for work and for recognition. Her second film, 2005’s Aeon Flux, was disastrously recut after a regime change at Paramount took control away from her and tried to repurpose her footage into a more conventional action film. Her 2009 dark horror-comedy Jennifer’s Body, written by Diablo Cody, was ahead of its time — its release met mixed reviews and middling box office, but over time, it slowly picked up a cult audience who came to appreciate its daring. And her taut, unsettling 2016 horror movie The Invitation was underseen, but picked up a well-deserved reputation as it became widely available on streaming services.

Most recently, Kusama’s film Destroyer has been picking up some hefty Oscar buzz, due to Nicole Kidman’s hard-charging performance as a Los Angeles detective navigating a murder case and her own past trauma. The film plays out in two timelines, with a younger, fresh-faced Kidman in the past, as an undercover cop infiltrating a drug ring, while her raddled, grim present self deals with the outcome of that long-ago case. Destroyer has been widely praised for its forcefulness, its complexity, and for the way it lets Kidman play out familiar tropes in new ways. Her character, Erin Bell, is a hard-bitten detective in the Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett mode. She embodies some familiar tropes for men — archetypes that go back to the 1940s — but her brutal ways of fighting and her complete indifference to the contempt and resentment of her fellow officers mark her as unusual for a female character.

I sat down with Kusama at Austin’s Fantastic Fest to talk through Destroyer’s structure, Nicole Kidman’s intense method acting, how roles for women in film are changing, and how Kusama used footage of coyotes to shape Kidman’s understanding of her character.

Note: this interview has been edited for concision and clarity.

At your Q&A at Fantastic Fest, you said Destroyer’s circular structure is “essentially female.” How did you mean that?

I think women are constantly reminded of the biological circle of life, the giving of life, the end of life, and I feel like we are so defined by and bound to our biological capabilities. I wanted to imagine the masculine construct of narrative filmmaking in Western civilization having a different feeling. And to me, there is something about the circular shape of the story that begs for reconsideration of everything you’ve just seen. It invites a deeper look, a recontextualizing. And I feel like that process, which is quieter, and demands insight and self-reflection is inherently female or feminine, given the culture we live in right now, which is so fast, so aggressively linear, and in many respects, completely unreflective.

So there was just something to me about the idea that the audience is put into this female psyche, as damaged as it is, and then forced to reconsider it from a new angle. That felt radical in narrative storytelling terms. Maybe at this point I equate femaleness with being radical. [Laughs]

Destroyer has been widely received as a deliberate step away from traditional film stories about women.

Yeah. To be honest, I think we wouldn’t have made the movie if the character was male. The reason to make it is because the character is female, so we’re seeing another perspective on familiar tropes. [Destroyer screenwriters] Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi talk about something that’s interesting to me, which is the idea of being the outsider cop, the lone-wolf cop. We accept that as a heroic position for a man to take, even if they’re being transgressive and breaking the law. But when we watch a woman be ostracized and shunned by her peers for her rogue capabilities, we understand that in a different way. We feel it in a different way. We have to ask the question, is she simply being ostracized and shunned because she’s a woman? Isn’t that part of walking through the world as a female? Aren’t we getting closer to at least admitting to some degree that being a woman in this world has different challenges?

So to me, the story came alive not because she’s a woman in a man’s role, but because she’s a woman in a very unusual woman’s role. It excites me that she gets under people’s skin, that she rankles people, because we need that. We need to be awakened to that energy in women. I keep wishing some grand reckoning is coming, where we might accept the female imagination into our cultural conversation as necessary, vital, and completely just present, as opposed to fighting for the voice, fighting for the space at the table. I mean, we’re all here! So in a funny way just to me, there’s something about this movie’s relentless punch-in-the-face quality that I found really, really refreshing. It wasn’t an easy movie to make. And it’s not an easy movie to keep making. Like, I can’t always make movies like this, because it’s hard to spend a lot of time with a character who’s like this.

But at least I felt a lot of moments where I empathized with her and understood her, even when I didn’t like her. And I think it’s important to see yourself in characters, and to bring an audience closer to seeing themselves in a character. And that was ultimately the goal of the movie.

Given that her defining quality is anger, even though it’s so personal to her situation, it feels like she’s channeling the anger in the culture right now, the anger about how women are being treated, and who they’re expected to be.

Yes. I realized for myself, a big part of the trajectory of stories I’ve been drawn to telling‚ they often engage some kind of female rage, and a sense of needing to find a way, not to eliminate or even transform that rage, but to find a place for it that can be constructive. I’m feeling more and more like, if men and women alike were willing to address the sense of disappointment they have in the limitations of gender roles, we’d be so much better off as a culture, and we might stand a chance of survival. Which at this point, I actually can’t say with any certainty we have, because we are so polarized, and that is a narrative that’s very lively to talk about. But I want to believe movies that inspire conversation‚ or art, or stories, or music, or performance — could inspire a lively conversation that gets us closer to progress, change, some kind of real transformation.

Photo: Annapurna Pictures

When I saw Assassination Nation at TIFF, the woman next to me said afterward, “I don’t think the answer is for women to turn into men.” We talked about it — she felt that the aggression in the film was essentially masculine, and that anger and weaponry and violence have no place in a woman’s toolkit, even in a comic movie. How do we get away from that attitude, that there’s this entire world of expression that are just man-things?

I think that’s a really good question. It points to the essentially binary quality of our cultural conversation for millennia. We want to believe that there’s something so different about men and women from each other, when in fact, I think that’s a constructed idea, to maintain imbalanced power relationships. If women see aggression, and being physically aligned with themselves, as just human, we might be in a different moment right now, culturally.

I’ve always felt a tremendous amount of conflicting energies. Some of them are more inward and contemplative, and what I like to call “rainy-day,” and some are more outward and social and looking for connection with the outside world, which to me speaks of sunlight and leadership. I have room for all of them. I think we all have room in us. It’s just a question of making more room in men and women. I want to see more men animated and activated by the female imagination in the way that Phil and Matt, as my creative collaborators, are on a daily basis. That’s part of what makes them such radical partners — they are men who are as interested in women’s lives and the mysteries of a female character as I am. And that’s so exciting, because it gives me access to men in a different way. I don’t see them as separate from me, I see them as part of me, and of my creative process.

Photo: Sabrina Lantos / Annapurna Pictures

Nicole Kidman has played a lot of very traditional feminine roles. What kind of conversations did you have with her going in? What did she want to bring to this role?

I think what she accessed about the character right away — she talked a lot about how shame can destroy your psyche if you don’t digest it, if you don’t look at it closely. And she talked a lot about what it means to be emotionally shut down, and to have feelings but not understand or acknowledge them. Rage is an easy default setting for the character, but ultimately, she’s driven and animated by a lot of self-blame, a lot of denial, a lot of regret. I think that helped her to humanize the character in a way that she deeply understood, and could find access points to. Funnily enough, the more hardened qualities in the character truly came naturally, once she did the work of looking at self-hatred and shame as driving forces.

Nicole is the perfect example of someone with regal femininity. She’s almost six feet tall. She’s got that sort of air-and-water delicate femininity when you first meet her. But as an actor, she really represents a broader spectrum, and she really accessed it much more quickly than I would have thought. That’s part of her brilliance, I think. And her special gift is once she had done the work of investigating much more uncomfortable, I want to say, deeply icky feelings, the shell just solidified, and that was really cool to see.

We worked a lot on things, like physicality and her walk. I showed her a lot of footage of LA, particularly close to Silver Lake, where I live. There have been issues there with tons of wild coyotes coming down from the hills, looking for food, because they’re being driven out by all the development up in the hills. I showed her packs of coyotes and how they moved, and a lot of interesting aerial photography of coyotes loping across reservoirs and getting into trash cans. That, I think, told her as much about the character as the script or the character backstory.

Photo: Sabrina Lantos / Annapurna Pictures

The physicality of her fight scenes is particularly brutal and immediate. How did you approach those, both with her and in terms of camera framing?

What I wanted to do, for the most part, was just be close to her. I was always saying to her, “Just on a technical level, there will be times where the camera is, like, this close to you. I just want you to be aware that that’s happening.” Because as I got to know her better, I would say one of her strengths is, she’s not burdened by being overly technical. But that means I have to remind her where she’s going to be safe. She goes all-out. Once I call action, she’s very present as the character, and I need to wait until I can find some limbo state where she’s out of that to communicate a new direction or new thought for her to consider.

So with the action, it was important that I could get a camera close to her, and capture the recklessness of the character. Because the point is that the character isn’t necessarily good at what she does, but she goes all-out with it. She’s completely activated by a sense of years-long wrath, a discordant, unbalanced level of rage. As you’re watching the film for the first time, you have to say, “What’s wrong with this woman? What’s driving her?” I hope if you were to watch the movie a second time, you can see how much that self-loathing informs her behavior.

There’s so much anger in this film, and so much intellectual build. Were there lighter moments when you were making it, where you took a step back from that intensity?

In a movie like this, it would be dishonest for me to say, “Oh yeah, it was just a laugh riot on the set!” A lot of the tone in shooting was driven by the central performance. Nicole surprised me — she doesn’t define her style this way, but she’s more of a method actor than I would have expected. That created a sense that there was this simmering person sitting in a chair, waiting for the next setup, just kind of pissed off. It was just Nicole doing the work of being the character, and trying to stay aligned to that thread of Erin Bell.

So it created a quiet, more focused, more disciplined environment than some films. We were also having to move extremely fast. Given that we were an independent movie shooting, you know, 40 locations in Los Angeles over 33 days, it was a really hard shoot. There was room for some fun, but not a ton, because there just wasn’t time. It was a magical creative process, but just also really challenging.

Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer is currently in theaters nationwide.