Based on an original spec screenplay by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer presents an innovative take on the crime thriller with decidedly unique results. One advantage Kusama had going into the project was that she is married to Hay. “I hear about the things that Phil and Matt writing on their own on spec,” she said. “They write the most amazing original material. We’ve been kicking this idea around for years.”
With a nonlinear structure, Destroyer’s screenplay centers on the lead character, Erin Bell (portrayed by Nicole Kidman), and her relationship with her daughter as the spine of the story, which posits Bell in the middle of many unpredictable stages of criminal proceedings. “I had a pretty good sense of how the story worked,” Kusama noted about the screenplay and its authors. “The script is the most important part of the process. If I’m not feeling it on the page, I’m not going to do it. I was deeply moved and impressed by the sophistication of their storytelling and the freshness of it. Not many people can take genre stories and reinvent them as they do.”
With financing from 30West largely in place based on the script, Kusama knew she needed to cast the lead role with equal measures of attention and scrutiny. Alas, the script migrated to Kidman whose career is laced with lower-budgeted independent films amidst her blockbuster studio projects. “When Nicole read the script, it wasn’t technically out to her,” said Kusama. “She was putting her hat in the ring, which was an amazing way to talk to an artist of her caliber. As soon as we spoke, I knew it had to be her.”
Next, Kusama and her director of photography — Julie Kirkwood – carefully measured and planned Destroyer’s shoot across 33 days of principal photography. “We had talked about film as an option, but timing-wise and knowing [our] kind of light conditions, it felt like the Alexa would be a very good choice,” Kusama revealed, noting that two of her previous movies, Aeon Flux and Girlfight, were shot on film. “If you want a slightly tighter film grain, you need more light. We didn’t always have the time or the resources to shape that light for film. The Alexa has a healthy sensitivity to low-light situations—it allowed us more time with the actors.”
During the shoot, even though Kusama stayed largely faithful to the intricate structure of the script, Destroyer was a duly challenging project during the post-production period. “We had to determine how much information an audience can be expected to absorb,” said Kusama of her working relationship with editor Plummy Tucker. “How do we keep the audience connected to Erin Bell? You are trying to piece together the puzzle of a pretty complicated story. There were moments where we sacrificed some of the answers for more emotional connecting to Erin. That was quite a balance.”
Ultimately, Kusama conveyed that the aim of her film from the outset centered around Erin Bell’s journey towards moral accountability. “She is morally and ethically flawed,” the director stated. “We see her take small steps — she becomes less of an anti-hero and more heroic in making some things right in her life. [Audiences] might look at the world around them and the people in their life and the climate that we are living in, and it might be worth asking to probe a little bit deeper—for any of us to be accountable at the mistakes we’ve made. There were days when I felt like this was by far the hardest movie I’ve ever had to make. It gave the film a gritty energy.”
Destroyer will be released on December 25 by Annapurna Pictures.