WEST HOLLYWOOD, CALIF. — It’s a bright winter day on the Sunset Strip, and director Karyn Kusama is doing what she does best: adding shadow to Los Angeles. As she sits down at the corner booth of a charming but customer-free restaurant, Kusama takes stock of the empty chairs. “Hopefully that doesn’t mean we’re going to get food poisoning,” she shrugs. “Not to put a damper on things.”
Kusama has learned to view L.A. with skepticism. Her 2000 debut, “Girlfight,” made her the only filmmaker to sweep Sundance’s grand jury and best director prizes. Overnight, she became a major Hollywood contender, but then she fought, and lost, two bruising rounds against the studio system when her big-budget follow-ups flopped for reasons outside her control. “Æon Flux” was chopped into nonsense after the departure of the Paramount head who shared Kusama’s vision for a cerebral, romantic, sci-fi blockbuster. Kusama claims to have drunk 10 vodka tonics at the premiere and never watched it again. Then 2009’s “Jennifer’s Body” was mismarketed as a naughty Megan Fox romp for teen boys by executives who didn’t trust the ticket-buying power of teen girls. People in the industry told her she was in “director jail.”
Today, Kusama is right down the slope from the Mulholland Drive home where she shot her 2015 comeback after taking a six-year break to direct television. “The Invitation” was a small-budget dinner-party thriller that turned the prideful thrill of gazing across the Southern California sprawl into a fatal trap. Critics loved it — they’d kept believing in Kusama. And in an odd way, her roundabout career path has proved that whether she’s working in dramas, genre indies or CG spectacles, she has the same creative goal: to understand why people hurt each other, and themselves.
Her new film, “Destroyer,” stars Nicole Kidman in an award-worthy performance as a boozing, embittered cop. It’s the second film of an intended Los Angeles trilogy that Kusama has been piecing together with her screenwriter husband, Phil Hays, and his longtime writing partner, Matt Manfriedi. (“I’m the mistress,” Kusama jokes.)
“L.A. is such a Pandora’s box. Once you open it up, more and more weird stories and dark threads seem to come undone,” she says. Her job isn’t to knit those threads into a bow. Kusama wants mankind to acknowledge its mess. If “The Invitation” was about the mountains, “Destroyer” is about the margins. Kidman lobbied for the part of disgraced officer Erin Bell, who first limps into view at a murder scene looking like she could be the corpse. Her skin is as weathered as the concrete embankment of the Los Angeles River, where the body lies facedown.
“It’s this incredibly, discordant mash-up of vibrant natural life with heaps of trash and the discards of human civilization,” says Kusama, still in awe at seeing giant carp swim past overturned grocery carts. Life finds a way. As for the murder, it points to a 17-year-old cold case that ruined Bell’s life. Someone’s gotta pay, and Bell knows who: a bank robber named Silas (Toby Kebbell), who she tracks from the desert to Dodger Stadium.
“Destroyer’s” script jumps back and forth between Bell the undercover rookie and, decades later, Bell the broken obsessive. The only measure of time is the punishment on Kidman’s face. Kusama would rather not specify what the makeup team did to make the actress unrecognizable — when Kidman won her best actress Oscar for 2003’s “The Hours,” people wanted to talk only about her prosthetic nose. But Kusama says it took experimenting with sun damage, liver spots, eye bags, dirty teeth and a broken nose. Life has clobbered Bell so hard that it hurts to see her young and hopeful. It adds to the sting in a procedural that’s really about taking stock of your bad choices — and Bell makes a lot of them.
“I think it’s so important to stand in your decisions and not give yourself too much time to be in regret mode,” Kusama says. Unlike Bell, she embraces self-reflection. Even before she was endlessly asked to autopsy her studio career, everyone wanted to hear how a Japanese girl from St. Louis became a Sundance darling.
Growing up, she struggled to blend in. “We were the Japanese family — not just on the block, but, like, within miles,” Kusama says. Movies showed her that there was a colorful world beyond her neighborhood. “Moving to New York became the goal of my life,” especially after she noticed that her two favorites, “Valley Girl” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” were directed by women.
So she muscled herself into New York University’s film school. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I just knew I loved it; I knew it saved me.” After graduation, she met filmmaker John Sayles through a babysitting connection. Babysitting, Kusama notes, is actually a master class in storytelling. It’s all about human wants and needs. “Are we alone or not? Are we loved or not?” she says. “It was right in front of me, and I didn’t need to intellectualize.”
The tactic worked, as “Girlfight” landed her and lead Michelle Rodriguez — an actress so green that she’d never seen a script — on the Hollywood hot list. Rodriguez is now a marquee action star in the “Fast and Furious” franchise. “Part of me feels proud to have seen something in her,” Kusama says. “The human part of me hopes I haven’t thrown her to the wolves.”
“She just keeps putting one foot in front of the other,” Kidman says of Kusama. Even on the day a nearby active shooter interrupted a scene in South Central L.A. and Kidman dropped her prop gun, ran inside and hit the floor. Other people panicked, less about the risk of injury than the lost hours on an already time-strapped set. Kusama stayed calm.
Old-school types might call that macho. Counters Kidman, “She’s a girls’ girl,” a filmmaker who is quietly, stubbornly committed to making the female-driven stories she would love to see. Still, Kusama’s individual struggle has become a barometer for all female filmmakers, with industry people turning to her as both an oracle and a victim — neither of which is a role she enjoys.
“If I am being used as any kind of bellwether, I hope what people could do is acknowledge the power of stamina, the value of just putting my head down and getting through some really dark times,” Kusama says. Like the six-year film hiatus she spent raising her son, Michio, while directing episodes of “Halt and Catch Fire” and “The L Word.” She knew she’d make another movie — somehow — and that when she did, she’d pick scrappy independence over a studio checkbook and zero control.
Kusama’s other choices seem laden with resonance, too, like the sriracha on her avocado toast (“the ultimate L.A. cliche”) and the sailor’s hook on a chain around her neck (“For when I’m not feeling anchored”). Recently, she parked at a farmers market to splurge on an expensive pork roast and accidentally woke up someone sleeping in their car. That glimpse into another life jabbed her with guilt. Kusama admits, “It made my life feel like something I really had to wrestle with. What it means to have security, stability, love, family, friendship.”
“I’m trying to figure out how to keep delving into the pitch-black areas that interest me without just being suicidal,” she says with a smile that assures that she’s okay. Her films press people to pay attention, to wonder about the people asleep in their vehicles — an image that’s also in one of “Destroyer’s” most affecting scenes. “When the lights come up, I want you to look at the person next to you and feel a sense of curiosity, a sense of the mystery that we all hold.”
For her next L.A. film, Kusama is interested in studying Hollywood, especially “the dream factory of what Hollywood represents.” Lately, she’s been thinking about how the industry glorifies lone wolves — on screen and off — who chase after projects with a single-mindedness that leaves families and friends behind: countless renegade policemen, sheriffs and vigilantes.
“We need people who have attachments in the real world. The desire to act alone is one of humanity’s dumbest inventions,” she says. “Destroyer’s” Bell aspires to be a lone wolf, too, but Kusama insists that her choice has consequences.
“I don’t know how to handle my sense of helplessness without making work about people who have the strength and the bravery and the courage to actually make small steps toward some kind of personal accountability,” Kusama says. She’s reckoned with her past. Now her characters must. Kusama smiles. “This is my powerful fantasy-making.”