Karyn Kusama: her name makes her sound like a superhero, and she might well be one.  She’s a singular film auteur, known for delivering rule-breaking feminist thrills through Girlfight (2000), Jennifer’s Body (2009), The Invitation (2015) and most recently, Destroyer (2018).  She’s also directed TV, including episodes of Billions and The Man in The High Castle.

The emergence of a female boxer; the rampage of a man-eating cheerleader; the redemption of an alcoholic police detective-turned-mother… what do these all have in common?  Kusama’s thought-provoking characters subvert expectations and genres. Even the label “thoughtful B-movies” falls short of the truth. In reality, her approach is so shamelessly, fearlessly her own, that it’s hard to define any one of her works.

No surprise, therefore, that her latest work—Destroyer, starring Nicole Kidman—created a storm on the festival circuit. Now playing in theaters, the film has already garnered early Oscar buzz, particularly because of Kidman’s incredible onscreen transformation.

No Film School sat down with Kusama to discuss her admittedly volatile mix of arthouse characters, popcorn adrenaline, and personal depth (and how she has survived while making it happen).


Screen_shot_2019-01-06_at_10DestroyerCredit: Annapurna

Filmmaker Survival 101

Whether you’re struggling to sell your first script, or to produce that short you’ve been thinking about, or to enrich your perspective in between productions—we know you’ve been working hard.  But this first advice from Kusama may come as a shock.  According to her, you may be working too hard. Or, at the very least, you may need to find a better day-to-day balance.  As she tells it, your time will come, but the first and most important step before ‘making it’ is to learn self-care. 

That’s right:  supporting yourself and your mental, physical, and emotional upkeep is as important in real life as it is in the movies.

“It’s such a demanding business to be in, such a demanding life to live.”

Kusama took a deep breath, then sighed. “It’s such a demanding business to be in, such a demanding life to live.” You could actually hear the pain in her voice—and she’s one of the successful ones! “When we talk about filmmakers and filmmaking,” she continued,” the basic act of being self-sufficient often gets lost. You have to find ways to preserve yourself in the process.”

Kusama figured this out while working a bunch of odd jobs after graduating from college.  She was painting houses, babysitting, working as a freelance assistant—anything a young post-grad could do to eke out a living.  “These jobs influenced me because they allowed me to survive,” Kusama asserted. “In the professional world—in the film industry especially—we’re so future-focused, we forget that we need to pay rent and eat semi-regularly in order to even have a career!”

Ok, so you need a job…but not just any job. Kusama nodded, remembering. “You have to ask yourself ‘What kind of job would allow me to pursue my real work?’” In her case, she chose work that would allow her to control the shape of her day. “I wasn’t a snob in terms of what I would do as long as it gave me some freedom,” she recalled.  “I could write late at night, or early in the morning, and then get to my bizarre gig where I’m counting 2,000 dollars worth of change for some rich guy. I was single and childless—so I had the luxury of flexibility.” 

As Kusama sees it, her focus on financial survival allowed her to reach her current groove by sustaining the other key elements—health, stamina, mental equibilibrium—necessary for her creative process. “Keeping all of these parts of yourself healthy are a big part of how you keep making movies.” 

Screen_shot_2019-01-06_at_10Kidman in DestroyerCredit: Annapurna

1. Create Complex Characters

That said, Kusama’s films often hinge on distressing characters—ones who’ve never practiced self-care. The latest is no exception. In Destroyer, Kidman’s Erin Bell is tough to watch because Bell is a depraved alcoholic: physically dilapidated, emotionally prickly, spiritually empty. The performance is a multi-layered triumph for both actor and filmmaker. Exploring Bell’s guilt, Destroyer spirals into a compelling web of violence, punishment, and redemption.

“Creating Erin, I never focused on the concept of likability."

Despite all the ugly, you can’t help but side with Kidman’s Bell.  Beneath her surface, shreds of humanity persist—another constant in Kusama’s oeuvre. The director achieves this tricky balance thanks to an intimate, sometimes unorthodox understanding of her own characters.

“Creating Erin, I never focused on the concept of likability,” Kusama stated bluntly. “I was always driven by the idea that Erin was relatable to me, and that was enough. I understood her pain:  feeling physically broken down at times, tormented by shame and regret. The fact that I already felt those things for the character gave me faith that other audiences might relate to her, too.”

A female anti-hero?  Uncommon indeed...but if male characters can be anti-heroes—the Walter Whites, Tony Sopranos, and Chuck Rhoades of the world—why can’t women be a little nasty too?

Girlfight-2000_0Girlfight (2000) was Michelle Rodriguez's breakout role.Credit: Sony

2. Make Them Believable

The awards buzz for Kidman’s performance backs up the director’s thesis:  we relate to fictional characters only when they feel real.  And reality, per Kusama, is a multifarious beast.  She explained, “I’m always craving characters who hold multiple realities within themselves. Characters who aren’t being categorized or defined by the movie itself.”

It’s easy to see how Girlfight or Jennifer’s Body might have lost critical character nuance in the wrong hands.  “It’s important to remember that fictional characters live a bigger, broader life than anything we could ever see onscreen,” Kusama elucidated. “A film narrative is simply attempting to uncover some piece of that truth, some component of that authenticity.”

The filmmaker steepled her fingers, searching for the right words.  “I think what most movies and characters suffer from is a lack of mystery.  This is true for every single person I know:  I can’t say that I know them fully, that I have figured them out entirely, that I can predict their reactions. That’s exciting to me, not knowing what’s coming next. For me, believable onscreen characters, female or male, should have the ability to surprise you and awe you.”

Screen_shot_2019-01-06_at_10DestroyerCredit: Annapurna

Destroyer is full of surprises. One standout moment occurs when Bell roughs up a criminal in front of the criminal’s son. The scene is a microcosm of patriarchal oppression, female awakening, and moral responsibility—a fine line Bell has only just begun to contemplate. When she tells the son, “You don’t get it, I’m trying to help you too,” there is a powerful, desperate sympathy to her words. Thus far, Bell has been unable to protect her own teenage daughter from witnessing moral failure; here, she is a failed parent trying to break the cycle.

Personal evolution is another Kusama trademark. When Bell asks the criminal, Bradley Whitford’s DeFranco, if he is teaching his son “to be a piece of shit too,” the father unwittingly reveals his humanity:  “No, he’s a good kid.”  Even Kusama’s villains have the potential to sense right and wrong. 

For Kusama, complexity and believability go hand in hand. “Just remember,” she advised, “writing complex characters goes beyond surprising the viewer. Surprises have to feel motivated, inspired by some internal impulse. You want viewers to tell you, “Wow, I loved the characters” instead of “Oh, you’re so random!”

Screen_shot_2019-01-06_at_10Nicole Kidman and Jade Pettyjohn in DestroyerCredit: Annapurna

3. Use Your Characters for Real-Life Catharsis

And that brings us back to self-help. According to Kusama, developing onscreen complexity can take you to the next level of your own evolution.

“Every character you create is a mirror to you,” she insisted. “If you’re truly honest with yourself, if you probe deep enough, you can use your characters as an outlet for your own pent up feelings, good and bad.” 

In the case of Destroyer, Kusama relates to all of them—even the nihilistic sociopath, Toby Kebbell’s Silas. “I can only direct a line if I could have said it myself,” she explained with a shrug. “For a character like Silas, who has a diminished capacity for empathy—I can definitely see reasons why I could be that way.” In the film, Silas represents a dark side of Erin Bell’s history, one that she has yet to reject. “Silas generators terror in Erin, not just because his actions are horrible, but because she realizes that she might actually be a peer to someone so terrifying. She knows that he sees and understands her criminal heart.” 

Admittedly, it’s not always easy to probe your own darkest reserves.   

“I do look to film for its capacity for catharsis, but I’ve had mixed luck in achieving it.”

“It’s both scary and rewarding,” the director confirmed. “I do look to film for its capacity for catharsis, but I’ve had mixed luck in achieving it.” She gave a helpless almost-laugh. “I tried to add a little bit of joy for the audience to Destroyer’s conundrums … if that’s even possible within the context of the film.” A full laugh this time. “Hope can help.”

At the end of the day, Kusama’s stance is that real life will bleed into your work, so you might as well mine your own psyche for inspiration. In the process, you may wind up creating some great characters and resolving some of your own issues as well. But even so, she warns, you can’t rely on filmmaking alone to solve your real-life issues.  Writing your inner-psychopath into a script can never replace self-care!

LargeMegan Fox in Jennifer's Body (2009)Credit: 20th Century Fox

4. Work with People You LIKE

Another crucial aspect of self-care for Kusama is collaboration. Film production may be a well-established process, but happy endings are never guaranteed.  Especially because so many people are involved in any given project—and because the end result is often out of your hands. 

Kusama learned this the hard way. “Films live and die by their means of production,” she stated ruefully, clearly mourning past failures. “And that depends on the team in charge. “In the case of a couple of movies that I did through a studio, the health and functionality of that studio has a huge influence on how the individual film turns out. Things can be really creatively aligned in your favor, or not at all.”

Her advice?  Once you start getting courted by studios, curb your excitement and choose wisely. “I’ve learned, after some trial and error, that it is so crucial to work with people you can reasonably say you like,” Kusama decried. “People you can 100% say you know how to communicate with.”  That way, if and when there’s a potential issue with the production, you can face it head on.

"There’s no better expression of feminism in action for me than two straight white dudes living in my head and wanting to be there.”

Kusama lives by this philosophy now:  her preferred collaborators are her husband Phil Hay and his best friend/writing partner, Matt Manfredi. The pair wrote the script for Destroyer, as well as The Invitation (2015) and AEON Flux (2006), all directed by Kusama. “They’re like my brothers, we work in this very intense family unit,” Kusama smiled. “For some that can impede the creative process, but for us it actually ignites it.”

When harnessed properly, working with those close to you can turn mutual understanding into easy shorthand.  For Kusama, her go-to writing team has achieved actual mind-sync. “I’m always struck by how Phil and Matt talk about writing scripts with me in mind. They’re imagining the story they want to tell from my conscious space. There’s no better expression of feminism in action for me than two straight white dudes living in my head and wanting to be there.”

Screen_shot_2019-01-06_at_10Sebastian Stan and Kidman in DestroyerCredit: Annapurna

5. Love What You Do

In Kusama’s world, it all adds up to one final piece of advice: You have to do this for YOU, not for anyone else.  

“I cannot stress this enough.” She paused for emphasis. “The outcome of your efforts as a filmmaker must NOT be the response to your film. Too often, this world can have heartbreaking endings. And that’s ok—we all run those risks as filmmakers. But in the end, how people respond to a given film is so beyond our control, none of that really matters. What does matter is taking every step to make the best movie possible. The reason filmmakers should be making films is because they enjoy the process. You have to love doing it. If you don’t, you should choose something else.”

Clearly, Kusama loves what she does, and she’s good enough at it to create complex, believable narratives that resonate with her audience.  More often than not, the real world does feel like a Kusama film:  ominous, emotionally unsettling atmospheres, laced with dread. More often than not, we do relate to her crowd of fucked-up characters. Not because there’s no hope—but because we’re all a bit misunderstood, a bit angry, caught in cycles of self-pity and self-doubt, trying to seize control in the midst of chaos.

That’s why Kusama added a message of hope to Destroyer, using skateboards as a motif:  because the journey toward responsibility and accountability is a key theme both in her films and in life—and because we all share the potential for change and redemption.

Kusama underscores the parallel. “In a small but significant way, Erin gradually becomes morally and professionally responsible to herself, to her child and to her partner. And that’s not just true for Erin. As a society, if we have any interest in remaining on this planet much longer, we need to take a similar journey.”