“I’m Just Not Interested in Polite Entertainment”: Destroyer Director Karyn Kusama on Damaged Characters, Genre and the Challenge of Studio Filmmaking
“I’m just not interested in polite entertainment. I’m just not interested in pleasing the most number of people by checking of a bunch of boxes and being, frankly, highly, highly attuned to some concept of cultural correctness.” Director Karyn Kusama sat down with Filmmaker in New York City ahead of the release of her latest crime thriller Destroyer, written by Kusama’s husband Phil Hay and writing partner Matt Mandfredi. When asked about how we can build audiences for genre and indie films, she was passionate about the importance of carving one’s own path as both a creator and as an audience member. “The movies that actually shake us,” she says, are often synonymous with the horror or crime sector and challenge the notion that they aren’t “high-brow enough.” If anyone’s portfolio of films has proven that this landscape can also be introspective, entertaining and also extremely smart, it’s Kusama. Since her debut film, Girlfight, took home the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 2000, she’s engaged audiences with genre-bending and edge-of-your-seat movies like Jennifer’s Body, The Invitation and now Destroyer.
In the LA crime thriller, Nicole Kidman plays Erin Bell, a police detective for whom a new case sends her back to her own emotional burial grounds. Kidman disappears into the character of Bell, a woman whose past trauma has ruined her, leaving her with wrinkles beyond her years and a disconnect from social or emotional skills. Bell struggles to be a presence in her teenage daughter Shelby’s (Jade Pettyjohn) life and be open to anyone at all — including herself. When people from her undercover past circle back into her sphere, she’s launched on a path for redemption, opening the gates to toxic memories in order to make amends.
Kusama discusses how she crafted the character of Bell, a role Kidman took because she was afraid of it. The director also unpacks her use of “perspective” — the key to the film’s high-intensity and impactful emotional arcs. It’s this craft of tonal specificities and perplexing characters that makes Destroyer not only an enjoyable thriller but a complex portrait of a woman’s vulnerability — and lack thereof.
Oh, and Kusama (who went straight from Girlfight to blockbuster AEon Flux) has some advice for all those artists looking to take on bigger projects — and still make the movie they set out to make.
Destroyer previews in theaters in New York and Los Angeles tonight and then opens tomorrow.
Filmmaker: Throughout your portfolio you dive into characters with specific psychological states of mind we don’t normally see on screen. Your parents were both psychiatrists. How did that influence the kind of films that you went on to make?
Kusama: My dad was a child psychiatrist and my mom got her doctorate in educational psychology. For me, I got a lot of absorption of ideas around behavior and what behavior might be sending certain clear messages, or clinical traits. It’s hard for me to quantify actually what that means.
Filmmaker: Well, I do feel like with Erin you’ve really built her highly specific mental and psychological foundation. Since you work with your husband and his writing partner Matt, tell me about how you crafted Erin’s character. Is she inspired by multiple people? Or a feeling?
Kusama: Phil and Matt have very expansive imaginations, and they had always imagined that Erin was a somewhat broken person, and that part of the structural or narrative mystery of the film was that you don’t quite understand why she is so broken or what has broken her. But over the course of the movie, you get to understand her a little bit better. Phil and Matt are really open to allowing a movie to be more than one thing, so they don’t live in a straight genre world. They imagine that yes, the movie presents like a genre film, but it’s also an intensive character study and is meant to be an investigation into a character’s psychology and inner workings.
Filmmaker: Is she you at all?
Kusama: That is a cool question. I mean, is she me? Yeah, of course. I think she’s probably based on an amalgam of so many people we’ve met, who, over the years, have shown a somewhat dysfunctional disregard for other people’s feelings, other people’s emotional states, and most crucially for their own. I think this idea that it is so hard for her to be vulnerable is very real for all of us. I think Phil and Matt are really attuned to the fact that it’s a cultural crime to assign vulnerability only to women when the fact is men and women both struggle with their ability to be vulnerable.
Filmmaker: I completely agree. I found myself relating to that. I thought, when was the last time I saw a character that was struggling to be vulnerable? Rarely ever — especially women.
Kusama: I think the idea that we assign the complex process of attempting to look at your emotional life as somehow something men get to do, because women don’t need to be bothered with that process, is just ridiculous. Yes, men have been culturally probably conditioned to feel like it’s harder to reveal one’s emotional life at times, but in the end, it’s everyone’s problem that we’re dealing with.
Filmmaker: I really like that the script goes, “Okay, we want to say something about vulnerability, but we’re not just going to just say it outright, we’re going to build the narrative to support it.” The film is a race for time and this is a woman, who doesn’t have “time,” per se, to deal with her feelings. That’s pretty much what women deal with anyway…
Kusama: Yeah, yeah. All the time there is the rush to beat the clock. I think the movie is definitely meant to operate on multiple levels, and to be, I hope, a satisfying crime thriller, but, first and foremost, a genuine exploration into a person’s life. That’s what these movies can do. When they’re working, they can work in multiple ways. I think one of the huge strengths of Phil and Matt is that they can understand that the narrative and structural choices [of the script] can actually inform and help further develop the character they start with.
Filmmaker: Absolutely. Rumor has it that Nicole Kidman basically lobbied for this part. That has to be exciting!
Kusama: It was really amazing. She got a hold of the script from her agent, and we were actually out for somebody else. That was just a fascinating thing to have her read the script, and just say, “Can we talk about it? I am so excited about it.” And not making any assumptions, really wanting to talk through how much it scared her.
Filmmaker: What was she scared of?
Kusama: I think she felt like she had never done anything like it before. I think she was a open enough with me to talk through this idea of “I don’t know if I can pull this off, but I want to just talk with you about what I love about it.” And to her credit, she is a screenwriter’s and director’s actor, she believes that the screen play is the formative text upon which she builds all of her choices creatively. And she believes in the authority of the director to guide that performance and that story, which is actually quite rare, particularly among movie stars. There was a seriousness for her about the words on the page. That was already so refreshing given how frequently we see that there’s a disrespect for the process of writing and the process of being a screenwriter. And frankly, the process of creating at all. There was something about the way she talked about the movie and the character with this mix of uncertainty and anxiety and deep attraction. I thought, in a weird way, “You’re being so honest that I feel like I can have really honest creative conversations. And we’re gonna get through them.” By the end of that initial call, I was like, I think she’s the one.
Filmmaker: It’s interesting and great to hear that and not the usual, my agents are saying, “Yes, we have to get Nicole.” I love Tatiana Maslany in this as well. I know she has a smaller role in the film, but she has a weight to her.
Kusama: Oh, yeah, I agree. I think there is a quality of ruin that a lot of the characters are experiencing, and it’s positing this idea that for some of us, time is the ultimate destroyer. I always wanted to work with Tatiana, and I always knew it was going to be Tatiana, and just hoped she would do it. I think she pretty quickly decided to investigate case histories of long-term drug abuse, and what that does. Just in your physicality, behavior, and your thought patterns. In many respects, she reminded me a lot of Nicole, in that they both were sort of this like vibrational energy while they were on set, just channeling, channeling, channeling a character. It’s pretty exciting.
Filmmaker: I want to talk about the use of perspective in the film. I think it’s something that I see novice filmmakers not getting. And forgetting about. Tell me about crafting perspective, especially when you’re doing a thriller. When are we with the character? When are we seeing circumstances as the audience?
Kusama: It’s a real process. I always felt pretty attuned to these questions. How are we seeing something? Are we seeing something at a distance? Or are we seeing something more intimately? Are we with a character? Or are we watching the character? In many respects, I think the movie was designed to feel like you’re watching [Bell] at some observational distance for the most part, in that we’re struggling to understand her central problem, to even identify what it is. And then, as the movie progresses, we’re somehow getting closer to her emotionally, but just in terms of understanding her better. I mean it’s really tough, because there are times when I feel like, “this is a close up that gets the audience closer to be with the character,” and then there are those close-ups that are more about seeing the character from another person’s point of view.
Filmmaker: Maybe it’s more of an edit question than how you’re shooting it?
Kusama: There were lot of moments where we recognized how things worked emotionally. My editor, Plummy Tucker, and I worked together on the last five films. A great example is the Shelby scene at the diner at the end of the movie.
Filmmaker: Which is my favorite scene of the movie.
Kusama: What we realized was the scene worked emotionally when you mostly watch a silent person listen to somebody else. So lot of Shelby’s story, and then a lot of her talking about her reaction to what had happened, this sort of “did I imagine that moment in the snow?” — most of that is played on Bell’s face, and conversely, as Bell starts to say, “Here’s who I really am…”, a lot of that is played on Shelby’s face. We really see what it means to listen. Because that’s not something we watch a character do very much of.
Filmmaker: It builds tension. You’re with a character more when you’re listening and engaged.
Kusama: Absolutely. And you, as the audience, have to listen. Because you’re not getting to see what people are saying directly to you. And so, that was an interesting moment to realize, oh, okay, part of what functions emotionally, affectively, in this movie is, for my money, asking the audience to pay more attention, to demand that they stay on their feet.
Filmmaker: I’ve seen a lot of bank robbery scenes but yours feels different. There are a lot of shots of people’s faces — listening, waiting, looking.
Kusama: Yeah, there is this idea that so much of our experience of life is in response to the life around us. I think there’s this very classical notion of storytelling being driven by the active protagonist. And in some respect, there’s truth to that, but there is so much to be learned from the concept of a protagonist that has to absorb the weight of what they do, or what they have done, and take accountability and responsibility for their actions. I think we’ve come culturally to a time where it’s almost hard to imagine how that’s going happen on a larger scale — but I know it’s what I crave.
Filmmaker: I have to ask, as a fellow genre female filmmaker, how do we get more people to watch these kinds of films? When I look at Girlfight, it was made for about $1 million and made back about $1.5 million. And people went, that wasn’t a success. I’m like, well, there’s a flaw in the system here because we all know it was a good film! So how do we move forward and get people to watch genre and female-lead films?
Kusama: I think there is a tremendous opportunity with these movies. If we think about successful genre movies, successful horror films. successful action films, that might also be compared with a certain amount of intelligence, whether it’s Seven or Training Day, or the first Sicario, Arrival —
Filmmaker: Get Out…
Kusama: Get Out! I mean there are so many examples to me of some of our most successful films being genre films. It’s just that they have to be smart, and they have to be good. The problem is, too frequently, we’re allowed to get movies in the theater that aren’t good enough. I do think it’s a somewhat disreputable form, all of the things I am interested in: horror, crime, sports. It’s easy for all of these things to be dismissed. There are so many forms that aren’t “high-brow enough” and I personally am coming to the conclusion that a lot of the movies that get all of the awards every year are the movies we forget. And the movies that actually shake us, where we also are engaged on a genre-level, are the movies that stay with us. And as time passes, we are allowed the experience to re-evaluate them for what they might really be interrogating.
And so, I am not going to watch Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left every six months, but I am going to note that he has said repeatedly that that was a movie that attempted to deal with his feelings about Vietnam. I think for myself, I’m just not interested in polite entertainment. I’m just not interested in pleasing the most number of people by checking of a bunch of boxes and being, frankly, highly, highly attuned to some concept of cultural correctness. I just don’t feel much passion for that.
Filmmaker: After Girlfight you did AEon Flux , which was a huge movie. But then, you’ve gone, “Okay, the studio system took control away from me on that one, so now I’m doing it myself again.” We’re seeing a lot of new filmmakers making that same leap from indie to big studio film. What would be something you wished you had known in that situation, something you know now that’s valuable advice?
Kusama: I think that we know now, which I didn’t understand then, was that the way executives talk to you about the movie you’re hoping to make with them — if you are not in 100% agreement about what that vision is, if you’re arguing or disagreeing or expressing reservations about crucial tenants of the story, then that’s probably not a good match. Huge red flag. Get out while you can, in my opinion. I wish I understood, “No, I’m not going to convince anyone of anything.” Many of the things that were foreboding specters in early conversations that I had dismissed out of stupidity, when it comes to AEon Flux, totally came back to haunt me. I think particularly for young filmmakers making that transition, you don’t want a lot of daylight between what the studio says they want and what you say you want to make. You really want to be sure that you’re speaking the same language.