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‘Destroyer’ Director Karyn Kusama On Why Working Closely With Screenwriters Is Essential To Her Process

December 24, 2018

Traditionally, a director won’t see a script until it’s been written, rewritten, polished, and perfected to the nth degree. Then, when the script is in a near-perfect state, the screenwriter relinquishes control and sits idly by as the director takes over. He may go to set to offer punch-ups or alternative lines, but for the most part, his role is complete. But for Karyn Kusama, most recently known for 2016’s The Invitation and 2018’s Destroyer, out Christmas Day, this model couldn’t be less effective.

Sitting down with Kusama to talk about her latest, the director explains why a close-knit relationship with her writers is so crucial. Destroyer, starring Nicole Kidman and Sebastian Stan, is the third project Kusama has worked on with screenwriters Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay (who she is also married to). “I was involved early in the process because we had worked together twice before successfully,” she says. “They knew they wanted me to direct the movie if they could help it.”

It seems knowing who the director of the film would be before the inception of writing was helpful for everyone involved. Hay and Manfredi had early conversations with Kusama about the characters and themes of the film they were trying to convey. Then, when an outline was complete, Kusama gave her input, and the three of them brainstormed tweaks and solutions to potential problems together. “I had thoughts — certain things lit up in my imagination. I said, ‘this is something I would be continuing to explore even more.’ Then they went and they wrote it. The writing part of it happened very quickly. They are remarkable in that way,” she says.

For Hay and Manfredi, working with a director they knew so well meant the way they wrote the script was specifically tailored for Kusama. The director confirms that there is a “shorthand” involved when working with her writers. This is a luxury many screenwriters aren’t afforded, as a standard script needs to be written in a way in that is accessible to everyone from studio executives to potential directors. But the trio’s shared history worked in their favor. 

According to Kusama, Hay and Manfredi have “a shrewd understanding of tone, style, and gestures. Their style is incredibly clean and poetic. With me, they’ve often said that if they know I’m attached to something they think about me behind the camera when writing. They think about how I see movies and movie-making, and how I see this particular story. In some ways they are trying to think with me, alongside me, through me. It’s really great to have that level of creative bond and communion with screenwriters.” 

After the script was in place the three filmmakers were happy with, it was time to look for funding and find their cast. Kusama says that while locking down funds for The Invitation “took forever,” it was faster for Destroyer.

A big help was attaching one of the industry’s most sought-after actors, Nicole Kidman, in the lead role. “Honestly, as soon as I spoke to her about the script and the role, she saw in it what I saw in it. She saw the potential to be moved, wrecked, and enlightened by what the script had to offer,” Kusama says, noting that they initially didn’t even consider Kidman for the role.

Yet upon meeting her, it was clear to Kusama that Kidman knew the character inside and out. “I know she can go deep because I’ve seen her do it a hundred times before. So it was just a question of this particular mud: Is she willing to get into that muck? And she was willing to go there.”  

Destroyer centers around Detective Erin Belle, a hardened cop who reconnects with people from an undercover assignment in her past. It’s a character whose past very much defines her current situation. “We spoke a lot initially of the effects of shame on your body and mind, how [Belle] was so wrecked. First by a shame that carried with her through childhood — the idea of not being a good enough kid to someone. Then, the shame of making terrible mistakes and moral compromises, and now the shame of not being a good enough parent. The first shame was completely out of her control, while the last shame could cause her to make a victim of in her daughter if she’s not careful.” 

Kidman encompassed everything Belle was to Kusama, Hay, and Manfredi. “She’s very attune to emotional dynamics. As an actor she thinks: ‘How might we be feeling while we watch this?’ It’s a character totally cut off from her feelings and [Nicole] says she hasn’t gotten to play many roles like this. She says, ‘Usually I am caring and vulnerable and giving.’ This is someone who withholds and hides and denies.”

This complex character was birthed by Hay and Manfredi, and brought to life by Kusama, a team whose close-knit dynamic is essential to their films success.

Destroyer hits theaters Dec. 25.

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