In one of the most uncharacteristic, gritty performances of her career, Nicole Kidman plays Erin Bell, a grizzled, self-destructive, veteran LAPD officer whose sordid past is revealed piece by tantalizing piece in Karyn Kusama’s brutal, uncompromising cop drama, Destroyer (reviewed here on PopMatters). Co-writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi craft a slow-burn story that jumps around and jumbles Bell’s timeline, following the emotional flow of her journey rather than its chronology. It’s a story about a woman reckoning with the repercussions of her past decisions and scrambling to set things right before time runs out, a uniquely character-driven take on the cop-drama genre. The film also stars Sebastian Stan as Bell’s partner, Jade Pettyjohn as her daughter, and Toby Kebbell as violent crime boss, Silas.
PopMatters speakes with Kusama, Hay, and Manfredi in a roundtable interview about the film’s unconventional story structure, Kidman’s performance, the advantages of festival screenings and, for Kusama and Hay, the beauty of making movies together as a married couple.
Have you tinkered with the film since the first festival screening?
Kusama: I have. Seeing it with audiences gave me an opportunity to make a couple of changes that I was interested in making. I adjusted a few things in the film, so it’s about three minutes shorter.
Festival audiences are like unofficial test audiences, aren’t they?
Kusama: They are. But it’s actually a great opportunity because they are, in many respects, your ideal audience. They really want to be there, and you can’t really say the same thing about how test screenings operate. In a funny way, it mirrors a paying audience, which is what you are looking for.
Do you see a difference between press industry screenings and public ones?
Hay: Not really. It’s been really interesting to follow. There’s a lot of passion and discussion. There are people who love [the movie] and there are people who don’t get it. And everywhere in between. I think all of us wanted to make a really uncompromising movie.
Kusama: We love genre movies and we love messing with them so that they become not just one thing but two things, three things, four things. It’s just a more demanding experience for an audience. I find it more satisfying… but it’s not for everyone.
Manfredi: Some of the press and industry screenings have been in screening rooms we haven’t gone to, so going to the festivals and being in a packed room and seeing people’s reaction to the film has been really satisfying.
Hay: We went to Telluride, we went to Toronto, we went to Fantastic Fest… all of which are so different, with different audiences. That’s been fascinating because its a signature of what the movie is, or what it wants to be. The three of us have always been interested in smashing things together and, in this case, making space in a cop movie for drama and for relationships and for a character study.
The Fantastic Fest audience is an interesting audience because I think genre audiences are some of the most sophisticated consumers of stories that don’t just go down a line, whatever that line is, you know? The prestige line, the genre line, the emotional roller coaster line… whatever the theme is.
Our collective dream is always to make a movie that could be someone in the world’s favorite movie that they ever see. [laughs]. To do that, you have to take some swings, and you can’t just go right down the middle. We’re always looking for those people out there, some wonderful, weird person who… this movie is it for them. [laughs]
Kusama: We’ve gotten to know ourselves and the kind of work we want to be able to do together, and we’re not interested in polite movies.
By making movies, a filmmaker is constantly stretching out and contracting time, and even scrambling it up in interesting ways. You three seem to have a strong command of this concept in this film, the way the story jumps backward and forward in time creates a compelling narrative rhythm.
Hay: On the page, I think rhythm is really important to us in terms of the way we write. Now, with this collaboration, [me and Matt] are always trying to see things through Karyn’s eyes as we do it. We have our point of view, but we’re always trying to see it through Karyn’s eyes… and then she’ll tell us how close we got. [laughs] And then we can refocus if we need to.
We spent a lot of time talking about the way the weight of the past — emotionally and metaphorically — was going to be revealed, how much time we were going to be willing to spend there, and in what order we were going to release those bits of the past.
Manfredi: Placing a scene and then seeing what happens from the decisions made in that scene is one thing. Seeing the scene after you know what the decisions have led to has been a really fun thing to play with. It’s a totally different effect.
Kusama: Part of what you have to do by the time you’re looking at cuts and shaping the material is abandon what you were hoping for and address what is in front of you. That’s a hard thing to do, and I don’t think I’m necessarily always great at it. But that was my goal, to get better at that as I keep making movies.
In some regards, the idea of time…[time] is, in some ways, the “destroyer” of the movie, in my opinion. So, it was very important, in that sense, that time can kind of expand and collapse as you’re watching the film. What some of those flashbacks did emotionally meant that it might be useful to move them to places [in the story] we hadn’t originally conceived of. Certain things might have been adjusted a bit to create a sense of emotion and build toward a sense of a larger mystery being told.
Was the Erin Bell character originally written as a woman?
Hay: She was always written as a woman. It was about ten years ago when we came up with the basic ideas [for the story]. We tend to marinate ideas for along time. [laughs]
Manfredi: I think people sometimes don’t understand how long an idea [takes to become a movie]. You have to sit with it for a long time, and with this one, there was this structure we had, this way of telling a cop story, and it just took us a while to wrap our heads around the story. The catalyst was that it had to be a woman, and it had to be this specific woman. Once we hit on that, things proceeded.
Hay: It was a realization the three of us had together. This is a story not just about “a woman”, but a very specific woman. Nicole’s performance… I’m in awe of it, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I really don’t think I’ve seen anything like it before. She’s portraying what we all hoped, which is to be everything — a human being with all kinds of gnarly sides and hopes and disasters that you can kind of experience as this 360-degree person and not just the carrier of a story.
It’s certainly not a woman in the clothing of a man who usually does a role like this, which is the whole raison d’être of the movie. It’s that role, that performance, that character. It’s all the same to us. We talked about it all the time with Nicole. Character is story is performance is direction is story is character… in this movie, it’s all the same.
Once you cast Nicole Kidman, was there any discussion about how she was portrayed? We haven’t seen her on screen quite like this before.
Kusama: I think Nicole was the first person to discuss that. Everyone arrived on set really wanting to be there, and she was the first spark of making all of this happen in that she really wanted the role. She read it and said, “This frightens me, this challenges me, this character gets under my skin. I need to understand her better.” It was just great to have that kind of open-ended conversation with an actor where she just wanted to talk about her feelings about this character.
In doing so, she also said, “If I were to play this role, I couldn’t look like the Nicole Kidman that people are accustomed to seeing because that isn’t what I bring to Erin Bell.” In real life, she’s a startlingly statuesque, porcelain-skinned, true beauty.
Hay: She’s a person who takes care of herself. [laughs]
Kusama: She drinks enough water, she gets enough sleep, she has love in her life. All of those things make you a healthier person. She was aware that to get to that [level of] self-negligence, she had to work on her walk and her voice. In many respects, that holistic approach came very early once we started those discussions.
I’ve always thought Nicole Kidman had some of the most expressive eyes in movie history. She can really tell a story with her eyes. But this performance is the best I’ve seen her use her body to tell a story.
Kusama: I talked to her a lot about this idea of protecting her heart, this idea that her body kind of collapses in on itself to stay shielded and stay secret and be self-protective. That really helped her, I think, in terms of the basic way [her character] moves within the world. But then we also looked at a lot of footage of, like, packs of coyotes running through Silverlake in Los Angeles.
She’s not a typical person, this character. In terms of movie language, we haven’t really seen this [kind of] woman that frequently, if at all. Nicole was really trying to mine a different energy, and some of that was basic animal energy. I’m hungry, so I’m going to go search through that trash can. [laughs]
Manfredi: There was also how her physicality changed between time periods. Like when Erin was going undercover, and then when she had been undercover and had been using for a little bit. It was such an amazing process to watch, not just in the physical appearance, but in her movement. It was really fascinating.
Kusama: She really embodies characters, which is an interesting kind of actor to work with.
Manfredi: There’s a moment in one of the flashbacks, when she’s moving through a party. She gives this look to [Sebastian Stan] that is so of that [time period] and is unlike anything she does later on in the film. It’s such an incredible understanding of where [and when] she’s at. I don’t know that anyone else noticed it, but I noticed it. I’m just in awe.
Hay: Nicole and I had a conversation when we were shooting the scene in the woods, which is the very last thing that we shot. I said something like, “This is the really ancient part of the story.” And we realized that she’s really in touch with ancient, primal stuff in what she does and how she does it. I’ve never worked with someone who does it the way she does it. It’s really primal and basic.
Phil and Karyn, as a husband and wife team that collaborates, what are the advantages and disadvantages that come with that?
Kusama: This is a business that’s filled with a lot of insecurity. It’s really driven by terror. [laughs] It’s nice to be able to, as we’ve gotten older, recognize how powerful it is to be able to work with people who you like, who you love, who you respect, whose ideas inspire you and make you think in a different way than you might ordinarily. When you get to that moment when you can look at each other and say, wow, we have this opportunity to just keep making things together, it just feels like sanity preservation and creative ignition, you know? That’s exciting. It’s a very safe place to take a lot of risks. When we work together, we want to be pushing each other and taking risks, but we support each other through it, which is a wonderful privilege.
Manfredi: There’s a level of trust and familiarity in terms of where we’re headed that emboldens you to take big swings without worrying. You’ll worry if it’s going to work, but you’re not worried about how it’s going to be received [by your partners], which is exciting.
Hay: Karyn and I have a son, and Matt’s kids are like family to us as well. We all go through this thing together, so we’re all able to support each other and back each other up in both huge ways and really mundane ways. It’s nice to have a family business, basically. In the middle of the night, Karyn will be like, “I think I’ve figured out ninety-five percent of this thing.” It’s a great opportunity, actually. [laughs]
Kusama: I have the writer right next to me in bed. [laughs]
What was your biggest challenge on set, and how did you overcome it?
Kusama: I think the biggest challenge, for me, is always about presentness and being committed to the thing in front of me and determining what it actually is. Experiencing something as if the clock has stopped, as if I don’t need to worry about time or money.
This was a very challenging film on a practical level. We made it for a pretty aggressive budget, and we had to be very fast and efficient and decisive. All of those things I usually am [capable of], but this felt kind of cranked to eleven. But in a great way. It demanded that I really think about elegant solutions. The biggest challenge was a structural and practical one, of wrestling that schedule to the ground.
Manfredi: On a producorial level, the thing that we had, which was incredible, was a shockingly organized, driven director. She was so activated, all the time. It was such a challenge — there was not a single easy day. But the other thing that we had were performers who could just get to really astounding places, quickly. We knew that we could rely on that, which was amazing because it allowed us to say, “Okay, we need to be in two different locations today, shooting meaty stuff, but I know we can do it.”
I think the mother-daughter relationship between Erin and Shelby really breathes life into the story and opens everything up. It informs the story even when they’re not onscreen together. It’s almost like the secret ingredient that makes the film really unique.
Hay: That has always been the core of it, for me. If the story is about owning up and taking responsibility and being accountable, morally, that’s Erin’s relationship with her daughter and the difficulty of being the type of person who cannot admit that they are wrong but for a deeper reason than we might assume. I’m really glad that you felt that because, to me, that was the stuff that really pulled things into focus.
Manfredi: I think that’s what keeps her going. Even though she may not admit it at times, and even if she isn’t always the best parent, it’s the one thing that I think supplies more of her drive than I think she realizes.