This week, we’re celebrating the people who made some of the best films of the past year possible.
There were many logistics to be figured out for the central action sequence in “Destroyer,” an explosive bank robbery set just behind where the planes take off at LAX. The scene had to be brutal, given that it’s essentially a fool’s errand for Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman), a LAPD detective searching for redemption by tracking down the gang of thieves she once embedded with on an undercover mission before they slipped through her fingers, and upon realizing they’re about to pull off another job, hastily calls for back-up at the Savings and Loan as the masked men and women storm inside. Karyn Kusama, a director known for her kinetic action sequences, devoted four days to filming the shoot-out, which was planned out as meticulously as if the filmmakers were casing the joint themselves.
Using members of the crew to take on the various positions of the cops and robbers inside the bank, Kusama and cinematographer Julie Kirkwood measured out beat-for-beat every movement and every angle for the scene, taking still photographs for reference and consulting with editor Plummy Tucker to see if they had missed anything that would be important once they got into post-production. Of course, even their best laid plans couldn’t prepare them for a quirk in the schedule that would require them to shoot day for night in a bank that had floor-to-ceiling windows that required no small amount of ingenuity and sweat to light. But for Kirkwood, the technical considerations of making the sequence so dynamic were always secondary to figuring out where her lead character was emotionally.
“We just moved people around like game pieces to figure out if this person’s here and this person’s here [to] where visually it would be interesting, made logical sense in the story and where it was going to be clear to a viewer quickly, but it was also thinking about the emotional moments and where we want to be,” recalls Kirkwood. “Do we want to be watching Erin Bell from a distance? Do we want to be right up with her? Do we want to be moving? Do we want to be static? It’s questions you ask yourself really in any scene, but made more complicated by blood, gun shots and background actors running and falling.”
That sensitivity towards the notion that there’s as much internal geography to cover as external makes it easy to understand why Kusama had long wanted to work with Kirkwood, whose wide compositional framing that emphasizes negative space can make it feel like the weight of the world is on the shoulders of those appear before her lens. Yet unlike her recent trio of films “The Blackcoat’s Daughter,” “The Monster” and “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House” that lived largely in the dark, a specialty of the cinematographer, “Destroyer” takes place in a blindingly sunny Los Angeles where it feels like everyone can breath fresh air except for Bell. Though run ragged from her grief, estranged from a now-teenage daughter named Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn) and alone in her pursuit of the gang, her single-mindedness is brought into focus by the strength of the visuals, steady even when Erin is unsure of herself and intimate when her mind and body seem hardly aligned.
As Erin loses sight of the area she’s patrolled for years while somehow knowing exactly where she’s headed, “Destroyer” offers a view of Los Angeles that will be at once familiar to locals and slightly foreign, fitting for how the work of Kusama and Kirkwood, as well as screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, honors one of the most durable Hollywood genres in film noir while subverting its conventions with bold choices in its narrative structure and aesthetics. With the film now in theaters, Kirkwood spoke about making it snow in Los Angeles, capturing the city in its many contradictions, figuring out how to shoot inside a car with no limitations and being careful with visually lionizing a central character whose sense of morality has been so compromised.
After I saw the film, for as much of it takes place during the day as a nifty inverse of noir conventions, I was reminded of Harris Savides’ work in “Birth,” inevitably perhaps because Nicole Kidman’s in it, but specifically when there’s a scene in Erin’s house where it feels like the shadows, made so tangible by their grain, feel like they could overtake her.
He’s in my thoughts a lot. “Birth” is one of my favorite movies and the way he shot that film – and all of his films – was risky. He didn’t sit back and repeat things that always worked — he kept pushing to explore and find something new with each project. Some of my favorite DPs have a distinctive style that they repeat successfully throughout their careers, but Harris always stood out to me as someone who kept searching for something new. I remember him saying once in an interview that it didn’t always work. But when it did, he created something incredible. And of course, “Birth” was on my mind as I had the privilege of shooting Nicole, and so I pushed myself to take risks —into brighter, harsher, and more colorful territory. I know I’ll go back to the darkness in future projects, but I’ll keep trying to match Harris Savides in his risk-taking.
I did notice whenever there was darkness, there would often be some vibrant color peeking out. How did that contrast come in?
When I meet with directors, I’m looking for people that have some overlap with my own taste, so we have a starting point to work from, some common ground. Karyn and I have significant overlap — we talked a lot about movies of the ‘70s, which influence all of the work Karyn does and all of the work I do, and Karyn and I also come from a world of still photography. She has this collection of every still photography book that you could imagine. We were going through hundreds of images, discussing where can we go dark, how dark can we go, and more importantly for this film, where can we go too bright [because] this story and the lives of all these people are so extreme. Phil, Matt, Karyn and I have all lived in Los Angeles with this light for so long that we knew the relentless, harsh sunshine would be a key to the visuals. It is featured prominently in the script, so I was excited to push that as far as we could go.
One of the things Karyn mentioned specifically is that she wanted the scenes with [the villainous] DiFranco (played by Bradley Whitford) at his mansion on the coast to feel like a beautiful sunny Los Angeles afternoon. This guy is obviously involved in a lot of criminal activity and he’s doing it in broad daylight. He’s getting away with it, and he will definitely be no help to Erin Bell. There’s a tendency to want to go ominous and dark, but there’s something interesting about doing the opposite. If you think about The Shining, so much of that movie is frightening despite happening in the middle of the day. Or maybe because it happened in broad daylight. It gives you a false sense of safety.
But one thing that differs [in our tastes] is that she’s much more into using color than I am — in lighting, in production design and in wardrobe, so she pushed me in that direction. Since I shot “Destroyer,” the projects that I’ve worked on recently, I’m much more interested in using color now because of the work I did with Karyn. [laughs] But I’m more comfortable with using darkness, so I pushed her there. From the beginning, we were looking at references that had a lot of color in them. I think the film benefits from the addition of color because the audience needs a bit of a relief from the bleakness. Los Angeles is a colorful place, so it’s easy to make it feel like a natural part of the environment.
Those same colors give the scene with her daughter when she was younger in the snow a real ethereal quality. How did you capture that scene?
That was planned for the latter part of our shoot, but it was sort of floating in our schedule because we didn’t know when or where there would be snow near L.A. We were shooting in January and February, so we thought after we finish regular production, we’ll take a small crew and we’ll do a two or three-hour drive to the mountains. But it was such a dry, warm winter, not only was there no snow, but the ski areas that would normally artificially make snow weren’t even making it. Once we realized that wasn’t going to change, we decided to create snow at Griffith Park on an 80 degree day. We found an area without palm trees and created enough snow for our wide shot and then we went in and got the tighter pieces. We spent many hours there, choosing our shots, laying the snow down, rehearsing — all so we would be ready to shoot quickly when the light was right. Karyn had talked early in prep about wanting to use the beautiful pink and purple sunsets of Los Angeles, and we got that absolutely incredible light for the final scene of our shoot. I think it really worked for the scene because it’s the one good memory Shelby has of her mom, and the light helped us create some pretty memorable images.
I also couldn’t help but notice this felt less claustrophobic than your previous work, though it’s no less stifling to the central character. Was it interesting to open up the compositions in that way?
The last few movies that I’ve done have been very contained in their locations. “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” was almost entirely at a school that was shut down and “The Monster” was entirely on one road at night. “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House” never left one house. I went from these movies that were one or two locations to “Destroyer” with more than 40. So in that sense, it was bound to be less claustrophobic than the other films, but I think it’s really interesting that you say that it’s still this claustrophobic world for her. She spends a lot of time in her car and that becomes her home – not literally, but it’s her base of operations while she’s searching for Silas [the gang leader, played by Toby Kebbell]. A lot of the framing on her was claustrophobic with very tight closeups and the other characters have a bit more space to breathe.
What was it like shooting all of those car scenes? For instance, there’s a scene where Erin is sitting inside the car outside a house in the rain and somehow you’re able to do a zoom from what appears to be the passenger seat, which I couldn’t imagine would be easy to pull off in such a tight space.
That wasn’t as hard as you think because the car was parked, so we just had the passenger side door open and we had the camera on a slider and just pushed in a little bit. What was harder was driving all around Los Angeles with an actor who is not driving the car. We wanted a lot of shots of her POV or over her shoulder seeing out the front of the car, so we couldn’t tow the car for those angles. Instead of putting a car on a trailer, we had a pod car which takes all the controls of the car and puts them on the roof. There was a man sitting on top of the car, driving it. It makes it easy to look in any direction, whereas when you’re being towed you’ve got a huge truck pulling you. Nicole didn’t have to focus on driving at all because it was all being done for her, including moving the wheel – he would turn the wheel and she would just feel it moving in her hands. It made us safer because we didn’t have an actor driving us through L.A. traffic while trying to focus on a scene.
Nicole has had to have worked with every great cinematographer of the past 30 years. What was it like working with someone who must have such a strong awareness of the camera? I’m guessing it made her more accepting of some of those intense closeups of Erin.
It’s interesting because you never know when you’re starting a film what the relationship will be like with the actors. Some of them really keep to themselves and do their thing and some are very social and want to chat right up until the moment action is called. I’ve even worked with actors who want to chat after action is called. [laughs] I don’t know if this is true on all of her movies, but Nicole was very focused on the role and wasn’t concerned with “where’s the camera?” “What are you seeing?” “How tight are you?” She didn’t want to see dailies, she didn’t want to see the frame. She was very trusting in that way. Karyn really wanted to be in Erin’s space and Nicole agreed that there was a need to be that close. She was even enthusiastic when I talked with her about the blinding sun, because she knew it was helping to build the world for her character.
It feels like there are some shots you have to work up to — I’m thinking of that instantly iconic shot of Erin just after the bank robbery where the camera is pointed upward at her as she peeks out from behind a dumpster with a gun, preparing to go after the gang.
That low angle is something that Karyn and I discussed multiple times during the shoot. It is a heroic shot, and she’s not a particularly heroic character all the time, so we definitely weighed the moments when we could use that angle. In the scene when she attacks Bradley Whitford’s character to get information out of him, we felt like she earned that heroic shot. He’s been so condescending to her, he’s flaunting his luck in getting away with everything he’s done, he’s berating his son. All of that allowed us to make her feel heroic in that moment, because she’s the underdog attacking a clearly bad person. There are times when she’s less heroic, certainly. But following armed and probably high bank robbers leaving the scene of a violent crime, it felt like we could give her a low angle shot there, too.
A lot of filmmakers would have found a way to differentiate time periods stylistically, but I liked that this didn’t and trusted the audience. How did that decision come about?
Right from the start, Karyn and I agreed that the flashbacks shouldn’t look drastically different. We knew we didn’t want to make it feel like life was perfect and beautiful in the past, because it wasn’t. We wanted to feel that those memories are a part of her daily life, that they’re intruding all the time. Obviously, everybody in the flashbacks looks quite different 17 years earlier, so we let that be enough. The only real key to differentiating is the actors’ faces.
It definitely was. Luckily, we shot the two time periods separately and we did all of the present day work first. It allowed us to get through the tougher, more bleak parts of the script and then Nicole was able to go back and do the slightly happier parts, which don’t stay happy for very long. There was also just a different vibe on set because we shot Erin Bell and one other character for the most part in the present vs. the past when she’s a part of a group. They became a kind of brief little family on set. Nicole was in a different place mentally too when [Erin] was in this happier group, when she was in love. Near the end of the shoot, there was a day where where she had to go back into present day Erin Bell [after a scene set in the past] and she said it was really difficult to go back to that mindset after having shed that jacket, that hair, that makeup to be the young Erin.
This is a silly question, but in that scene in the present at Erin’s house where she collapses on the ground from exhaustion and a bug walks by her, was that a happy accident?
The ant was brought in for us and actually, we had two people to wrangle it. I learned that the way you wrangle an ant is by blowing through a straw at it to get it in roughly the right place. So we were at the location of Erin’s house with myself, Karyn and Nicole sitting on the floor with a man blowing through a straw at an ant. [The ant] was not very cooperative at first, but we finally got her there.
If that’s not it, was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on this?
There were a lot of them. The present day bank robbery was tough because we had four days to shoot it and we actually only had Nicole for two of them because she caught the flu. We had this huge sequence that we suddenly needed to shoot without her. Then the crew also started falling victim to the flu. When Nicole came back, she was still recovering, so every shot where you see her in that bank running around, she still had the flu.
Another tough part was when [Erin] chases Arturo through Echo Park. It was right off of Sunset Boulevard, then up a hill, through a residential area and then up into the park, up a crazy steep wooded hill, and then a dialogue scene overlooking Dodger Stadium and downtown. We did that whole route over two nights with stunt people and then with the actors to get all the pieces that were needed. Our lighting and grip crew was always one step ahead of us, so if we were shooting Sunset Boulevard, they were at the residential area, and then when we got there, they moved further up the hill, prepping everything. It was a lot to coordinate for a film with a small budget. And you can see why I was happy to be sitting on the floor with an ant and Nicole Kidman.
“Destroyer” is now in theaters.