Fantastic Fest: The Filmmakers of ‘Destroyer’ Discuss Dramatic Elevation Through Genre Storytelling

We chat with the unique creative partnership of Karyn Kusama, Phil Hay, and Matt Manfredi about their new cop film starring Nicole Kidman.

Destroyer
Fantastic Fest / Rick Kern

The cop film is as American an art form as the Western. The desire to add your story alongside others like Serpico, The French Connection and Heat is understandable as well as fool-hearty. Why invite the comparison? Whenever you think all has been said and done in a particular genre, another film comes around to shock your system.

Coming immediately off the cult thriller, The Invitation, screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi were eager to convince their partner that the downward spiraling saga of Detective Erin Bell was her next must-do project. Karyn Kusama is a sucker for their writing, and it did not take much persuading for her to join Destroyer. With four films under her belt and several television shows, Kusama has directed every genre. That’s where drama is pushed to its most extreme, and in grasping such intense emotions, Kusama captures relatable human existence.

Destroyer is a savage portrait of a life in pain. Hay and Manfredi’s script switches backward and forwards along the timeline of Nicole Kidman’s officer in distress and creates a unique structure for a film of this ilk. Destroyer is a hard, often punishing watch, and it invites tremendous praise to its star.

Destroyer Nicole Kidman

A lot has been made of Kidman’s transformation, but maybe too much of the conversation surrounds her physical demolition. The look simply fits the part. Would we even bat an eye at the makeover if undertaken by George Clooney or whomever?

I spoke to the three filmmakers the morning after their film screened at Fantastic Fest. The conversation begins with the inception of their cop drama and eventually leads into why Nicole Kidman was essential for realizing the tragedy of their story. We discuss where Detective Erin Bell fits in the pantheon of cinematic police officers, and how Destroyer measures up against classics like Point Break. It’s a high bar, but Kusama is not afraid to reach for it.

Here is our conversation in full:

What came first: the cop drama, the mother/daughter relationship, or the screenplay structure?

Phil: As a script, it started with the cop story and the structure. We were playing around with, a very specific structure. Then all of the rest of it came out because the structure was kind of, unique. It took us a while to kind of crack it, but what really cracked it was the character, and hitting on who this person having the story is going to be, and then everything kind of fell in around that. The mother/daughter story and all that.

Matt: I think it becomes real for us once we know the character. Sometimes there is that structural thing first and then it becomes really real to us once we know about the relationships and that it was going to be a mother/daughter story, and a drama, in the guise of a noir cop film. That’s what all that stuff came together.

The Invitation is a very different film than Destroyer. What brought you here from there?

Karyn: That’s a good question.

Phil: I think, a couple things. One is we’re always now, the three of us, together, kind of plotting our future together. You know, where we have certain nascent ideas. It tends to take us a long time, from the idea, it has to marinate for a long time. There’s a long process for Matt and I, and then you bring Karyn in and it becomes realer and realer.

So now we have a couple things that we’re trying to do that seem to be clicking, you know, in the present. It’s interesting. I guess we just love, in a weird way, we love all kinds of movies. And passionately love them. The same thing with The Invitation and Destroyer is ultimately that we think it’s our, speaking for all of us now, we think it’s our best way and most direct way to tell a drama. To do it in the world of a cop movie or the world of a horror thriller. That works for us.

Karyn: We are lucky to have found that they’re themes about living in the modern world that just really engage us and so, you know, with The Invitation it was like, what is grief when it is not dealt with? How does that manifest? And I think in this case, with Destroyer, we were really interested by the cop story, but we were also I think really drawn to this character who I think, is safe to say, is pretty morally corrupted. To see her make one step toward accountability in an age and in a time when we almost never see examples of that in the culture. It just seemed kind of like an interesting thing to base the story around. What does it take to make one big move toward personal responsibility?

It’s a unique relationship between the three of you, this trilogy of creatives you’ve got going. When Phil and Matt bring you a script, I assume you think that it’s going to be in your wheelhouse? Something you want to tackle?

Karyn:  Yeah, I’ve always loved them.

Matt: We haven’t messed up yet.

Karyn: I guess what I would say is even scripts that I would never have a chance of directing, that they’ve written, often huge studio projects. Whether they got made or not is kind of not the point. Those scripts even, I was just like, this is one of the best things I’ve ever read. I just love the way they write. They have a very…I want to say it’s like a very difficult simplicity to achieve using the fewest words to give the most information. There’s this real poetry to the way they write. I don’t think I’ve read a script of theirs, whether it was for me or not, that I was like, oh I don’t like this. I’m naturally drawn to the way they write. I really, really am. I just really appreciate the way they write.

In both The Invitation and Destroyer, the screenplay holds its cards very close to its chest. Destroyer maybe even more so. It’s such a tightrope act. How do you know when you’ve sprinkled those breadcrumbs effectively?

Phil: The Invitation was kind of the first thriller we had really cracked on our own. I think we over-wrote a little bit at first with that, and then just experimented how much more you could pull away, how much do you have to tell the audience right now, to keep the drive, to keep it driven but preserve the mystery. It’s a fun challenge and I think with Destroyer, you have a character who doesn’t speak to hear her own voice. She’s watchful.

Karyn: She barely speaks at all.

Matt: Being open is being vulnerable and the threat of being exposed, so she’s driven by secrets and the need to keep them. One of the things that Karyn is so amazing at is the suspension of tension over these long periods, and over these long scenes where that’s always an amazing lesson for when we see, then we see the cuts start to come in and see what Karyn has been able to get rid of or has put a spotlight on that I didn’t anticipate. Then suddenly the entire scene is reorganizing itself around this moment. That’s what’s so fun about the three of us getting to work together cause I think we are always surprising each other and finding stuff that we’re all coming from the same philosophical place.

Phil: I’ll say with Destroyer specifically, I feel like all of the flashbacks are very compact, and so it was kind of a fun exercise to see how late we could come into a certain thing. Cause they’re really just these impressionistic symbols almost, you know what I mean? And just see how much you can accomplish in a short amount of time without giving them much joy. It’s a fun way to approach it.

Yeah, you carry those flashbacks all the way to the end, and they act as this tremendous gut-punch even though it’s practically post-narrative.

Karyn: It’s interesting I think, we sort of, not wrestled, but experimented with how late we could see that. But there is something about the notion of the final gut-punch that is really important. At this point, we already know what’s happened and there’s something so tragic to it.

She is such a dangerous character to give to an audience. She is often unlikable, and some may even hate her and not engage with the movie. But then there is Nicole Kidman.

Karyn: It’s really funny though, she never approached the character as unlikeable, or unrelatable and it’s interesting because when you meet her in person, Nicole just physically and energetically could not be more different than Erin Bell. I mean, what she does is so extraordinary in that way, but she always saw the character, and this always interested me, she always played the character as completely, emotionally shut down, unable to recognize feelings when she was having them. So, that to me is so relatable, actually. Like a person who sometimes is agitated but not able to name it. I think we probably like to assign that quality to men, but in fact, I think it’s just a human quality that we don’t always know ourselves. And so, she always saw the character as just shut down, and so driven by shame, that it made her do things that don’t really make a lot of sense; which I think is really an interesting way to look at it. She never judged the character in the way that audiences have to. I think that’s part of what makes the performance more engaging.

Phil: I think something interesting about the way that she played the character, and who the character is, is that she is just really contradictory and certain things sneak up on you, like even for me realizing as we were going, she’s constantly disrespected, and told how ineffective and how not good she is.

Karyn: Yeah. Pretty competent.

Phil: But we watch her be very effective, actually. We had this conversation with Nicole at one point, I was like “I just realized that she’s really good at getting people to say yes to her.” And then that is in a weird way, also the root of her tragedy; is that she’s able to get someone to say yes.

Matt: I think that one thing about her, is that despite all failures and setbacks she just keeps moving forward; it’s a determination and a drive, and a drive toward something that we’re rooting for as well. Like, even though she can be a terrible mother at times, she’s trying. She’s just trying, but she’s not always approaching it the right way. She keeps trying, keeps moving forward and I think there’s something about that that makes her relatable even though, that might be unexpected.

Karyn: And with all that being said, it’s not like I watched Popeye Doyle and say “Wow, I really love that guy, I’d love to hang out with him.” I’m a little bit, frightened by him. I’m frightened by Brad Pitt in Seven. There’s a tradition of a law enforcement figures who ultimately, somewhere in their psyche believes they’re above the law. And that’s an interesting tradition to explore, for anybody.

I wonder if I would have even asked about likability if Destroyer starred Gene Hackman?

Karyn: That’s a great question. If you’re engaging with the movie, part of what you’re engaging with is this discomfort with seeing a woman who is so difficult and hard sometimes to be around, or to understand, or to sympathize with. What does it mean, culturally, for us to have to work so much harder to feel that sympathy for a woman? What is that saying, really about us?

Listening to the Q&A last night after the screening, everyone always wants to talk about the makeup process that she underwent. Is that a frustration, that so much of the conversation around the film, at some point goes to her looks?

Karyn: You know what’s really interesting, you know how movies get made, there’s a real pressure to find a bankable movie star. It tends to be that movie stars, male or female, are super attractive people. And, it’s a grand tradition.

The first thing Nicole said was, and she didn’t say it with a shred of arrogance, she said it as an artist about to interpret a role, she said: “Well, I can’t look like this.” Because, she has flawless, porcelain skin; she never goes in the sun. You know what I mean, it’s like her eyes are bright and clear because she gets enough sleep; and she eats her vegetables, and she drinks enough water. This is a character who we see truly disintegrate, as Nicole keeps saying, “If I have to keep sleeping in my car, the way Erin Bell sleeps in her car, instead of going home to actually get a night’s sleep, I’d be a wreck.” And it’s true if you think about just the progression of the movie day after day, she just has to be so broken.

I think we would’ve gotten the same kind of conversation that focused on either what was wrong, or right about her performance, or about the makeup or about the lack of makeup, I guess is what I’m saying. It just feels like, that’s another thing that I would encourage an audience to ask themselves; “Why do we discuss a female’s appearance as much as we do?” What does that really have to do with the story?

In crafting a cop-drama, you’re obviously inspired by other cop dramas. But how do you go about setting the look of your L.A. versus Michael Mann’s L.A.?

Karyn: Phil and Matt did this wonderful thing in the script, which was to sort of set up right away a blasting sunlit world. It wasn’t a nighttime noir in a strict sense. And though we have these great nighttime passages, a lot of the action, strangely, happens in the middle of the day. And that helps guide me to a different kind of look that was also connected to those dessert sequences from the flashbacks. It’s what gave the movie, I just want to say, a different dimension of Los Angeles, or Southern California that feels merciless. And, I think, that helped kind of create a look that was a little different L.A. than we’ve seen in a while.

Do you think at all about the genre that you’re fitting your movie into?

Karyn: I know Phil and Matt have near encyclopedic knowledge and appreciation of a lot of those movies, and I feel I have a respectful appreciation as well. I think for me –

Phil: Except for Point Break, which you love.

Oh, hell yeah.

Phil: We all love.

Karyn:  (Laughter) We can talk about all these movies, but I mean obviously, Point Break goes up on a higher shelf. Truly a movie like Point Break is to me, an unimpeachable, entertaining, engaging and a classic. I actually have my kind of moments where I wrestle with some of the other titles and I think because I feel like I’m watching masculinity unexamined. And that’s not as interesting to me, as I think all of the directions of those films can, or could go in to. And so, for me, I try to just look at it from my point of view, while appreciating everything that’s come before. And, hoping not to hate it.

A big surprise for me was the mother/daughter relationship and Beau Knapp’s creepy boyfriend. In another film, you could have easily deleted those sequences from the movie.

Phil: For us, that relationship, at least to me, is the story. And, is the core of the story. Because we’ve hoped to lead to that moment where a parent and child can actually – some progress happens. And, that is something that she ultimately is able to give, successfully.

Karyn: To see how hard it is, to say “I was wrong.”

Phil: For a parent to say to the child, “I’m wrong. I’ve been telling you, you’re bad your entire life, and that’s wrong.”

Karyn: It’s just a radical moment, I think. For any kid to hear that, and for any parent to say it. So, we thought that would be a nice way to organize it.

Matt: I think it’s ultimately the only thing that keeps her around, you know what I mean? I wonder if she would have survived to her age that she’s at in the movie, if not for her daughter. Even though, she’s estranged from her daughter. She isn’t a great parent at times, her approach is all messed up, but I think that’s the one little thing that she’s gonna keep going, to make sure that her daughter is squared away okay.


Destroyer lands in theaters on December 25th.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.