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Destroyer DP Julie Kirkwood on Working with Karyn Kusama, Nicole Kidman and the Blinding L.A. Sun

Julie Kirkwood on set with Nicole Kidman (photo: Sabrina Lantos)

A gritty crime story set in Los Angeles, Destroyer finds Nicole Kidman in an unexpected role as Erin Bell, a cop at the end of her rope. Directed by Karyn Kusama, the movie was shot by Julie Kirkwood (Hello, I Must Be Going; I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House). During a whirlwind visit to Camerimage, Kirkwood took time out to discuss with Filmmaker how to shoot action and violence, how to cram 38 locations into 33 shooting days, and how to make a glamorous Oscar-winner look as dissolute as possible.

Filmmaker: Why did you decide to shoot Destroyer?

Kirkwood: I met Karyn when she was prepping another project a few years back. It was very close to happening, but the timing didn’t work out, as I was on another shoot when their financing came through. We kept in touch over the years, and then this film came up. I got the script, I knew Nicole Kidman was going to play the lead, and that Karyn was directing. I was immediately in. But I thought I should read it before I agreed to it. So I read the first 14 pages and I was like yes, yes, please. I told Karyn that and she said, “So many great things happen after page 14!” But that was all I needed, just picturing Nicole as that character, and the chance to work with Karyn. It’s a dream project.

Filmmaker: Is this the biggest budget you’ve worked with so far?

Kirkwood: Yes, but it’s not a big studio film. There were not a lot of differences between this and my other films in that sense. Whatever project you’re working on, you stretch the budget as far as it will go. We had a 33-day schedule with 38 locations. It just goes by so fast. We shot it on two Alexa Minis, and used Panavision Primo lenses that Panavision Hollywood detuned for us.

Filmmaker: Destroyer has a complicated time scheme, with one story line taking place 17 years before the present. How did you distinguish the time periods?

Kirkwood: We didn’t want to hit you over the head with the flashbacks. We knew that Nicole’s look was going to be startlingly different. Karyn said she wanted them to merge, as if the past is constantly creeping in on Erin’s present. The idea was that the audience wouldn’t know it’s a flashback until they see the difference in the appearance of the actors.

Filmmaker: Did the color palette change for each period?

Kirkwood: No, it’s pretty similar throughout. The main difference is the snow scene, a flashback with Erin Bell and her daughter at sunset. It’s the one good memory that they share, even though it’s got a sadness to it as well. Other than that it’s all very dark Los Angeles, dark and dirty.

Filmmaker: How do you get LA to look dark and dirty?

Kirkwood: After living in Los Angeles for 20 years, you see all the corners. I live on the east side of LA — actually Karyn and I live in the same neighborhood and have for many years. Karyn and [screenwriters and producers] Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, we’ve all lived in Los Angeles a long time. We wanted to make an LA crime film based in part on all the films of the ’70s that we love.

Karyn talked a lot about Rosemary’s Baby. We talked about Klute, The French Connection. Dog Day Afternoon is one of my favorite films. I didn’t even see it until way after I should have, maybe not until 2000. I didn’t know about it. I saw it at the Egyptian Theater. How did I not know about this movie?

Filmmaker: So you shot everything on location, no sets?

Kirkwood: Yes.

Filmmaker: Mostly natural light?

Kirkwood: No, we were definitely using lights. We were shooting day scenes at night, night scenes at day, just trying to wrangle the schedule with all of the different actors that we had, with two different time periods and with the 38 locations. The big bank robbery scene was shot half during the day and half in the middle of the night, so we had to light it up at night through those beautiful floor to ceiling windows. Bradley Whitford’s character lives in a mansion on the coast and we started that sequence on a day that it poured rain, and finished it the next day when it was beautiful and sunny. And then of course we had some big night exterior setups for the chase scene in Elysian Park and the confrontation at the end of the film.

Filmmaker: Did you approach the bank robbery differently than the other scenes?

Kirkwood: Did we approach it differently? I’ve had action scenes in some of my other films, we add a second camera when it’s a single camera shoot. We used two cameras for the action scenes here, actually we used two cameras throughout. But even that wasn’t that different.

Filmmaker: How do you plan a scene like this?

Kirkwood: Karyn and I went into the bank with about ten to 15 other people, producers and crew, each person playing a different character in the scene. So then we just had to work out, well this person is going to go there, and then this person enters… We went through the whole sequence step by step, and I framed shots with my still camera. First we found the pieces that are necessary information, and then added the necessary emotional shots to create more tension. As we worked out where all the people would go during the scene, and how the scene would build, we worked with storyboard artist Robin Richesson. It was the first time I’ve been able to work with storyboards, and it just simplifies everything on the shoot day. The whole crew can see how the sequence will be put together, which shots will have on-set effects like bullet hits and blood, and where there will be visual effects added in post. Our editor, Plummy Tucker, was also able to see our plan and let us know if she saw anything missing that would help us in the cut.

Filmmaker: So was it like following a blueprint? Could you change shots?

Kirkwood: It was more like a rough guide, like we need to shoot this beat, and we have to have that beat, and so on, but it all evolves on the day. There was a lot to accomplish and not a lot of time. You can cross them off and know what you’ve got. Everybody knows where we are in our progress.

We did have to adjust things because Nicole got the flu right before we shot the robbery sequence. So the day we started it, we didn’t have her. She came in the morning, she was trying to make it through, but in the end we sent her home to get well. We lost her for I think two days, so we shot everything we could without her. When she felt well enough to come back in, we shot all the Nicole pieces of the sequence. She still had the flu, she was still getting over it at that point, running around the bank with a gun.

Filmmaker: Is it tough to maintain the same pacing and rhythm days later?

Kirkwood: Well, we shot that sequence over the course of four days, so even though Nicole wasn’t there, we were still in that pacing and rhythm as we shot all of the other characters. Ideally we wouldn’t have had to do it out of order, but we always shoot movies out of order. That’s where Karyn’s experience really came through, because she had it all in her head, the whole way through. She knew exactly the beats that she needed for Nicole and the other actors. Their experience came through too 00 in their ability to keep the scene feeling like it happened within those six minutes of screen time.

Filmmaker: So is it hard for you to follow without knowing how it will be edited together?

Kirkwood: That’s where the storyboards are very valuable. I mean, you never know exactly how any scene is going to be cut together, so we’re used to that. We knew that Erin was the core of the scene, and we needed to show her absolute desperation to get Silas [Toby Kebbell]. In theory, everybody has an idea of how it’s going to be pieced together, but you don’t fully know a hundred percent until it’s gone through the editing process.

Filmmaker: Who decides the speed of the shots? What do you have as a reference?

Kirkwood: Karyn’s brain.

Filmmaker: And your visual instincts.

Kirkwood: Yes. We didn’t want to glorify the violence, make it slow motion, or show Erin as some kind of cool killer. We wanted it to be very fast, very realistic. I think we always kept going back to what feels real, what looks real, and knowing that the whole scene would be very quick.

Filmmaker: Do you have any worries depicting violence on screen?

Kirkwood: It’s definitely something we talked about. But it’s also … for this character it made sense. Her entire story is about moral accountability. Her life was shattered by a moment of violence and some very bad decisions. She’s never recovered. There were consequences to her involvement and so I don’t believe we showed violence or weapons in a good light. There are things that I won’t shoot, there are things that I’ve turned down because of violence. But here it felt true to this character.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about how you collaborated with Nicole Kidman? She’s depicted quite harshly here, both physically and psychologically.

Kirkwood: Nicole came in very committed to not doing a glamorous role. This role, it’s not about glamor or beauty, it’s about how the bad decisions she’s made in the past have eaten her alive. You can see all the trauma she’s been through, you see it on her face, in her body, in the way she moves.

We did makeup tests with Nicole before we started shooting. There’s the present look, but there’s also a flashback look where she is supposed to be 17 years younger. We did the flashback makeup and lighting tests first, so Nicole was in that look when I met her. She walked in, just stunning, looking like she was in her thirties, that kind of hopeful person she plays in the earliest flashbacks, with her whole life ahead of her.

We shot that look for an hour or so, then she went back into makeup, and came out in the present-day look. Everything about her was different. The whole vibe of the set changed. This was the first day I spent with her, so I didn’t know if she was annoyed, or in character, because her character’s very angry. Even the way she sat. When she played present-day Erin Bell, she was definitely more closed off. And she carried that through the shoot. It’s not that she’s like a method actor, no one had to call her “Erin” on set, but she understandably got deep into the role. She was able to come out of it a bit at the end of the shoot when we did the flashbacks and she was in a time before everything went bad for her character.

I spent some time with her at Telluride, where Destroyer premiered, and she was so totally different. I told her I felt like it was the first time I’ve actually spent time with Nicole instead of Erin Bell. She’s said, “Oh, I’m so sorry!”

Nicole Kidman in Destroyer

Filmmaker: How did you agree on depicting how she would look? What was her input?

Kirkwood: From the beginning, she was involved in designing her makeup with Karyn and Bill Corso, the makeup designer. She didn’t want to look like herself, she knew that the character’s life, her rage, her pain, and her shame had to show in her face, had to take a toll. That said, she didn’t want to spend hours in a make-up trailer every morning. She wants to be working, she doesn’t want to be sitting. So part of the design was to make it very quick each morning.

As far as collaborating with me, she never looked at a shot. She never wanted to know, “Do I look okay?” She was just fully in the character and trusted all of us that it was right. On day one I remember I asked her if she wanted to see her shot, and she was like, “No, no.” She was just not that person who needed to make sure she looked okay. She knew she had to commit fully to this whole idea.

I told her when we were shooting that if I saw her walking down the street I wouldn’t think twice. I wouldn’t know it was Nicole Kidman, and I wouldn’t gasp because she looked horrible. I think she just looks like a normal person in her present-day Erin Bell look, and people react strongly to it because it’s just not the way we’re used to seeing her.

Filmmaker: In one early shot, you’re incredibly tight on her eyes, which look rheumy, bloodshot. How close did you have to get?

Kirkwood: We were really looming over her. She was sitting in the driver’s seat of a parked car. I was on the hood of the car with the camera. It was towards the end of the shoot, so we had all gotten used to working together, and she was used to me being in her face with a camera. That’s also Nicole’s 35 years of acting experience.

Filmmaker: She understands lenses and cameras.

Kirkwood: Yes, and lighting as well. We talked about using really intensely bright Los Angeles sunlight a lot. There was one time we were doing a driving sequence, and I told her, when that sunlight hits you, that’s what I love, that’s what we’re looking for. We’re trying to bring out that LA sunshine. If you see that, don’t pull away, go into it. Because as a driver you instinctively try not to be blinded. And then I thought, maybe I shouldn’t say that to Nicole Kidman. But she was really into those details, she wants the whole movie to work, not just her performance. So she loves that kind of stuff.

But it was very rare that I would ever even discuss anything with her, because she was bringing this incredible performance. I just knew I had to get my part right. Most of the time I kept my distance, let her do her work, was there to answer anything she needed from me.

Filmmaker: What did she need from you?

Kirkwood: [Laughing] Not a lot. But actors are so different. Some want to know is this a medium or a close-up, how much are you seeing? And some actors just want to go in and do the role and trust you. Nicole was more in communication with Karyn about that.

Filmmaker: You use that LA sunlight in a shot that bookends the film, Erin in a car parked under a bridge, skateboarders to her right in the distance.

Kirkwood: Karyn and I had talked early on about having Erin sitting in the blinding sunlight in this sequence. It felt like it would have been the obvious way to go to have her hiding in the shadows, but Erin is taking accountability, she’s exposed, she’s trying to make things right, even though it’s too late for her. It just felt right to have her in that bleak, unforgiving light all the way to the end. We let the skaters under the bridge fall off into silhouette because their identities don’t matter. Just the idea that someone finally got it right.

Filmmaker: Throughout the film there are handheld shots in which you are pacing after Nicole’s character as she kind of hurtles through different situations and locations.

Kirkwood: Her character is on a mission to solve something. She’s spent years not doing anything, trying to recover from a trauma that happened earlier. Once things are set it motion, she’s moving, moving, moving to try to fix things, to solve things.

Filmmaker: It’s difficult to discuss the story without giving away important plot points.

Kirkwood: [Laughing] Bad things happen.

Filmmaker: Yes, and the violence tends to erupt out of nowhere. When it does, like the scene where a woman gets stuffed into the trunk of a car, the handheld cameras make the action feel closer, more intense.

Kirkwood: I know it sounds crazy, but I enjoyed that scene so much. That incredible actor is Tatiana Maslany [from Orphan Black], she’s playing Petra, somebody from Nicole’s past. I had two great camera operators on the film, and when we were shooting that scene, I was like, “No, I’m not giving this scene to anybody else.” I threw a camera on my shoulder and I was running around with Nicole and Tatiana as the scene was unfolding and just at that moment where Tatiana is laughing as she’s going into the trunk, I thought, “That take is going in the movie, it’s amazing.”

Filmmaker: How much freedom do you have in those scenes?

Kirkwood:In those moments when I’m running around with a handheld camera, which I did a few times on this, Karyn gave me total freedom. We have very similar tastes. As long as we knew we were on the same page in the scene, she let me just go with my gut. We’d do multiple takes, so if there was anything I missed, we’d adjust. She trusted me.

Filmmaker: That shot after Erin crashes the van, how did you, Karyn and Nicole work that out? You’re so close in on her as she goes to the ground and rises again. Did you block it first?

Kirkwood: That was one of the highlights of the shoot for me. We were in a strip mall parking lot in the desert as the sun was going down. We cleared everything, 360 degrees, no equipment, no people. There must have been someone holding a mic, but it felt like just me and Nicole running around that Palmdale parking lot at sunset.

There was actually no specific blocking. Nicole had to hide a duffel of cash in a dumpster, but other than that it was wide open. I think we did three takes of the full action. I wasn’t thinking that it would be used as a oner all the way through because I was never sure exactly what Nicole would do. I still tried to get the transitions from standing to kneeling as smooth as possible so most of the shot would be usable.

When I saw the first cut and the shot was used as a oner — even with my rough transition — I thought, what? And then I saw how well it worked without a cut to keep the energy and chaos of the moment. Everything Erin had planned, the reckless choices she had made for herself and others, resulted in absolute disaster. It all hit her in that moment and it would change everything in her life. It was stunning. A privilege to be there in the moment, inches from Nicole, following her around, bloody and angry. Watching her performance and reacting to it with the camera was a career highlight. Twenty years from now I’ll be like, “I was in a parking lot with Nicole as she broke down as Erin Bell.”

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