In director Karyn Kusama’s “Destroyer” — a restless, brutal piece of hard-boiled neo-noir that blazes across a Los Angeles only real Angelenos might recognize — an LAPD detective haunts the city in search of answers, maybe even something resembling peace, long buried far beneath the surface.
But the path to justice is dark and twisty, traversing the underbelly of modern-day L.A. to the desert, where once, years ago, an undercover job gone wrong changed everything. In Kusama’s “Destroyer,” the City of Angels is littered with physical carnage, spiritual decay, corruption, violence and neglect, and the only way forward is a reckoning with the past.
At the heart of it all, in a transformative performance already garnering Oscar buzz, is Nicole Kidman as the dogged and dangerous Det. Erin Bell. It’s not just a rare story centered on a female lead in the crime genre — think Al Pacino in “Heat” or Denzel Washington in “Training Day” — but it’s also the kind of character rarely written for women, period.
In Los Feliz days before taking the movie to the Telluride Film Festival ahead of a Toronto International Film Festival premiere Monday night, Kusama described how the character took shape with screenwriters and producers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, her collaborators on 2016’s sleeper hit “The Invitation.”
“They had been kicking around this idea of a tortured detective who has to investigate their past — and in that investigation, you realize the character is on trial as much as anybody else,” she said. “But something that organically lit the fuse was realizing that this character had to be female.
“There was something that just felt vibrant and different to see a woman carry that burden, and be such a mess in a way that I don’t necessarily understand those characters when they’re male. I want to say to those characters, ‘You get all the advantages. She doesn’t.’ So you feel more of the animus and the rage that goes unspoken.”
Bell is a mother, but a bad one at that, and nearly all her relationships, including a failed marriage and strained rapport with the fellow cops who loathe her, have been ruined by her own hand.
“Our hope was always to work with Karyn and Nicole to create a person, a woman, who could be many things,” said Hay, who with Manfredi and Fred Berger also served as producer on the picture.
“She never addresses that she’s female; she just is,” said Kusama. “But it makes it more interesting to see in this story, I think, because women have as much of a thorny underbelly to explore.”
Kidman, undergoing an intense makeup metamorphosis, wears Bell’s interior decay on the outside, the physical effects of years of alcohol addiction manifested in her face and carriage.
“Nicole said something right away, and it wasn’t self-aggrandizing, it was just the truth,” said Kusama. “She said, ‘I can’t look like Nicole Kidman.’ I’m so different from this character that the way I need to get myself there is to see on the outside some of what’s happening on the inside.”
“Destroyer” is a movie unafraid to let its female protagonist be ugly — “in so many ways,” said Kusama.
Brought to life by the Oscar-winning actress, Bell has the wounded bite of a feral animal who’s been backed into a corner, a onetime beauty-turned-beast with a badge battling the quiet storm of guilt, grief and anger raging inside her.
When the script found its way to Kidman, one of Hollywood’s most bankable A-list stars, it was she who lobbied for the part, according to Kusama, who praised her “adventurous” star.
“Nobody’s seen her do this,” she said of Kidman. “I credit her for remaining so suffused with humility — because she never made any assumption, she just fought and advocated for herself.”
In meetings to discuss the modestly budgeted independent project, Kusama glimpsed in Kidman the potential to blur the line between her natural movie star grace and the seething physical discomfort that bubbles beneath Bell’s skin.
“There’s something about her regal quality that, with a few adjustments, could become the sort of awkward tall girl from junior high — and she was able to tap into that. There's part of the character that’s like, ‘I’m here. Sorry, guys.’ An unapologetic presence. She was really open to playing a bull in a china shop.”
Kidman’s Bell is our tour guide through the forgotten corners of L.A., and in shooting the indie thriller on location, Kusama and her crew found the city a crucial piece to the texture of the film. Like the humanity it finds in its heroine, “Destroyer” strikes a rough beauty beneath the skin-deep veneer of contemporary Los Angeles, a city the movies have loved, loathed and preserved on-screen since the dawn of film.
"I feel like most Angelenos are going to recognize that this actually is a Los Angeles movie — every single scene is in or around L.A., and an L.A. we haven’t really seen much of yet,” said Kusama, whose cinematic L.A. reaches from the bourgeois, wine-soaked Hollywood Hills of “The Invitation” to the grittier pavements Det. Bell stalks from the Eastside to Aviation Boulevard.
In one scene, a nighttime foot chase takes Bell from the city streets to an unexpected patch of Chavez Ravine overlooking a Dodgers game, with downtown twinkling in the distance. It’s just one of the seemingly mundane locations typically not seen in film that Kusama is proud to commemorate in the city she’s called home for 15 years.
The location was a serendipitous discovery found while scouting in Echo Park, and to Kusama, it echoes the spirit of the movie. “It’s a sad sort of paradise; there are homeless people and drug users and used condoms and needles as you’re scouting, and it’s beautiful, and it’s a sort of majestic spot that hasn’t been developed.
“You get this beautiful view of something really majestic and somehow you still feel a squalor around it, a sense of abandonment — which I think is a big part of not just this city, but the American promise. That was something we were trying to explore: What does it mean to have once been great? That’s something in the character... and it’s something in Los Angeles.”
It’s certainly not the L.A. producer Fred Berger found in his last project, the best picture-nominated romantic musical “La La Land.” (He did, however, bring on “La La Land’s” location manager, Robert Foulkes, who transformed the Griffith Park locale where stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone dance in the moonlight, creating a snowstorm on a sunny L.A. day for “Destroyer.”)
It’s not a conventionally safe movie, admits Berger, who along with Manfredi and Hay describes his role as producer as ensuring that Kusama was free to bring her uncompromising directorial vision to life. Financiers 30West came aboard, Berger says, not because “Destroyer” seemed particularly mainstream or commercial but because it was “bold, ambitious and wildly original.”
“Karyn is not a first-time filmmaker, she’s not even a second time filmmaker with a cool little movie at Sundance who’s only logged in a few days of actual directing — she is a master at what she does,” said Berger. “She is in complete control of production, performance, to thinking about how it’s all going to cut in the edit room. She’s a 360-degree filmmaker.”
Two years ago, a hard-won success came with “The Invitation,” a scrappy thriller Kusama made her way, independent of studio control, with Hay and Manfredi. The film scored box office and critical acclaim, and that experience emboldened their creative family unit (Kusama and Hay are married, and Hay and Manfredi are writing partners) to forge forward, making their next project together with even more ambition.
On the strength of Kusama’s reputation and the “Destroyer” script, the producers scored financing before a star was attached. Once Kidman came aboard, they set out on a scrappy 33-day shoot in December.
“The thing that I learned from ‘The Invitation’ is that sometimes it’s worth it to make a movie in the leanest, meanest possible way,” said Kusama, “because at the very least, what you get is a version of your movie. You’ve basically sold your soul to no one. You’ve essentially been paid by no one. The only thing that everyone’s signing up for is the movie that we said we were going to make.