Sitting Down with Acclaimed Film Director and St. Louis Native Karyn Kusama
When filmmaker Karyn Kusama introduced her latest film to the St. Louis International Film Festival at the Tivoli Movie Theatre in The Delmar Loop, it was hard to believe that she grew up watching films at this very theatre between shifts at Blueberry Hill, where she used to flip burgers just down the street.
In her new film “Destroyer,” which stars a near-unrecognizable Nicole Kidman as former undercover LAPD cop Erin Bell, Kusama uses viewers’ familiarity with the crime-thriller and cop-movie genres to subvert them. Directing from a script co-written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, Kusama makes choices—equally concerned with developing Bell’s interior life and the action unfolding around her—that feel almost as radical as leaving the film’s heavy lifting to a female character, let alone one over 30.
Kidman’s transformation starts with an unkempt wig, shapeless clothes, a trusty leather jacket and layers of makeup meant to imitate sun damage, liver spots, wrinkles and excessive wear. But it’s the metamorphoses beneath that creates the 123-minute-long magic trick. Kidman received a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of Bell—and despite scores of favorable reviews acknowledging Kusama’s direction, every single nominee for Best Director at both the Golden Globes and Academy Awards was a man.
Of Bell, Kusama says, “I love that she’s so difficult. While reading the early versions of the script, I knew in my gut that we hadn’t really seen this woman before. I felt really excited by the idea that she was so cantankerous and problematic. She demands really tough love, like many of us do.” It’s a sentiment that’s reflected in the director’s statement, in which she writes, “As a parable, ‘Destroyer’ is a bracing ‘woman-against-herself’ story, a sustained howl whose story, I hope, belongs to all of us.”
Kusama wrote and directed her first feature film in 2000. “Girlfight” stars a then-unknown Michelle Rodriguez as a Brooklyn-based teenager who decides to train as a competitive boxer. The heightened patriarchy of the boxing world allowed Kusama to explore a theme she still tackles today: what emotional cauterization looks like on women.
A critical success, “Girlfight” launched Rodriguez’s career and opened the door for Kusama’s next project: the studio film “Æon Flux,” a film adaptation of a popular science-fiction television series from the ’90s starring Charlize Theron. Kusama has spoken at length about the myriad ways she was undermined by studio heads who infringed upon and ultimately rescinded her creative control, culminating in a film that was barely a shadow of her original vision. Critics and “Girlfight” fans alike noticed, largely panning the film and turning movie-goers away from the box office.
Four years later, Kusama took another crack at directing a studio-backed film with the feminist horror-dramedy “Jennifer’s Body,” this time under much more promising circumstances. The script was written by Diablo Cody, fresh off of the unanticipated success of the Academy Award-winning film “Juno.” The duo were given almost complete creative control, nearly the equivalent of a blank check in the Hollywood studio system, as Kusama had discovered.
To anyone who has ever been a teenage girl, horror feels like a befitting genre for the topic, particularly if used to explore the intimate and frightening dynamics of female friendship at that age. “Jennifer’s Body” scrutinizes just that, between the quintessentially cruel and beautiful high-school queen bee Jennifer Check, portrayed by Megan Fox, and Amanda Seyfried as her dutiful best friend, Needy Lesnicki. Captured by an evil indie-rock band and improperly sacrificed to the Devil for their chance at success, Jennifer is reborn as a demon who starts killing and eating boys at her high school. Quite the logline.
In a scene used for the trailer, Needy exclaims, “You’re killing people!” in that perfectly wide-eyed, Amanda Seyfried way, to which Jennifer coolly responds, “No. I’m killing boys.” Like so much of Cody’s dialogue, it’s not so much a quip as it is a subversive question, reinforced by how Kusama directed the scene. It asks: What does it feel like to be objectified and debased to the point that you’re no longer human? Girls and women already know, so it’s clear who’s really being asked. And the answer, most frightening of all, is that after awhile it starts to feel like … nothing.
The predictably tough sell was made worse upon the movie’s release by a degrading marketing campaign that hedged largely on Fox’s sex appeal, targeting straight young men with a movie made by and for women. While “Jennifer’s Body” eventually found its audience as a cult classic years later amidst the cultural moment of #MeToo and #TimesUp, it performed unsatisfactorily at the time of its release with unimpressed reviews and box office results.
After another disappointing attempt to work in the studio system, Kusama retreated for six years before taking on her next feature, and she has elected not to direct another studio film since. In 2015, she returned to independent film with “The Invitation,” another piece co-written by her husband, Phil Hay, and his writing partner, Matt Manfredi. Centered around a dinner party in Los Angeles’ Hollywood Hills that goes terribly wrong, the movie is a testament to Kusama’s commitment to bold exploration of the horror-thriller genre. It reignited what she initially had fallen in love with about filmmaking in the first place.
She also directed several episodes of popular television shows like “The Man in the High Castle,” “Casual” and “Billions.” You’d think sheer persistence alone could have predicted her arrival at a film like “Destroyer.” But in film, as in everything, guarantees are imaginary.
Last fall, the day after the screening of “Destroyer” in St. Louis, Kusama and Hay gathered with a small group of local writers for a roundtable interview about the film at The Cheshire Hotel. Gazing out at the spread of various recording devices, ranging from old-school dictaphones to USB-enables mics and smartphones, Kusama asked, “Does everyone have their device in a good spot?”
The duo has developed a knack for telling colorful campfire stories while answering questions. Both born and raised in the Midwest, worlds away from the flash of a city like Los Angeles, they were ready for the interview equivalent of the elephant in the room: How do the two filmmakers navigate the parts of Hollywood that are hopelessly diseased, which have been made so abundantly clear? “Los Angeles does have a certain mythology around it. But as Angelenos who love the city, you also have the day-to-day reality of life. At the same time, there is a side of the movie business that is everything people say it is,” says Hay.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” Kusama agrees. “I don’t live that life. I don’t subscribe to those values. It’s funny, I think it actually creates more opportunity to burrow into the art and expression of filmmaking, and to connect with what really does engage me about it. I keep lots of interesting books by my bed, which I actually try to read for 20 minutes or so before going to sleep. I make sure I keep up with our family and friendships within our community, both those who do and don’t work in film.”
Together they continue to wrest their passion projects from the broken industry that builds them, showing what happens when, like Bell, we try to remain impenetrable and show no vulnerability, tempting as it may seem. At its most resonant, “Destroyer” works by peeling back those layers and revealing what an inevitably dangerous and unfulfilling life strategy that is, underscoring a truth that we already know but often avoid. It’s believable that if Bell weren’t so weighed down by all of her anguish, her story wouldn’t have ended in such tragedy.