The script for the action crime thriller Destroyer was born over an extended period of time.
For several years, while also working on various other projects, writer/producers Phil Hay and his longtime co scenarist Matt Manfredi began compiling ideas for a screenplay based on their mutual love of crime movies and their interest in Los Angeles’ diverse neighborhoods and populations.
The writers established themselves as one of screenwriting’s most versatile duos, moving fluidly between comedy, intimate drama and large-scale action, sci-fi and fantasy projects that feature their character-driven signature.
“What excited me,” says Manfredi, “was writing a novelistic movie with an emphasis on character, a style reminiscent of classic 1970s cop films like Serpico and The French Connection.”
As they began conceptualizing the story and gathering plot details, the screenwriting duo found their central character, a loner cop with many secrets both professional and personal.
“It evolved into a multilayered story that took place in the main character’s past and present,” says Hay. Technically speaking the concept presented logistical challenges, given the story’s multiple time frames and the fact that “even the past sequences are not necessarily chronological,”
Manfredi observes. “It took a while for us to get the plot details to where they were seamless and not confusing. We stepped away from the project several times to clear our heads and then came back to it.”
As they refined the story, the pair received a spark of inspiration from Karyn Kusama who was already on board to direct.
“For years, Phil and Matt had been discussing a crime story that explored patterns and circularity in both its plot and themes,” says Kusama. “In between, there would be an examination into the conscience of the character. Once the three of us started talking about it together, we collectively realized that this needed to be a story about a woman. That was the spark. Erin Bell was born out of that.”
“Destroyer is, at its core, a film about confronting your mistakes and making the brave decision to be accountable for your actions,”says Kusame. “Within the relatable frameworks of crime thriller and cop movie, it’s also an insistent character study, hinging on the wounded but resilient psychic landscape of an LAPD detective named Erin Bell. The criminal underworld she investigates, alongside a storytelling structure that allows for narrative surprise, recall films like Heat and The Usual Suspects. But the film also allows intimate access to her in a tradition of genre films as varied as Taxi Driver, A Prophet, or Nightcrawler. It’s made more modern and relevant by its complicated female lead, and I can’t think of a time when I’ve loved a character more.”
The screenwriters took extra care that Bell not be simply a troubled male cop presented as a woman.
“As always, Matt and I seek to create characters who are living lives that exist outside of the plot of the movie and whose problems are unique to them,” says Hay. What emerged was a complex, time-shifting story that is in part “about a woman coming to terms with how she’s lived her life and trying to find some way to move forward,” says Hay.
“But it’s also a crime thriller about someone who, when she was younger,
was placed in a dangerous situation she couldn’t handle and has been living with the repercussions ever since. Additionally, it’s a manhunt about a woman who is on an obsessive and destructive mission, the consequences of which are slowly unveiled.”
In the story, Bell can be an unpleasant, uncompromising person, often to her own detriment. One challenge was finding the emotional core in a character for whom the audience might not automatically feel a great deal of empathy, says the screenwriters.
“Erin’s constantly breaking rules. She’s a bad partner and a bad mom but even though she messes up, she keeps trying,” says Manfredi. “There’s something so relatable about her persistence even though, with all the best intentions, her plans often go awry. We tried to draw her in a charismatic way, as a force of nature, so that even when she’s doing things that are questionable, you keep hoping that in the end, she will be able to heal this wound that happened long ago.”
From the first draft of the script, Kusama was fascinated that Hay and Manfredi had introduced a motherdaughter dynamic into the story, something she’d never witnessed in the context of a police crime thriller.
“It felt very different to me, very fresh, a kind of aesthetic sweet spot that expanded the genre in terms of emotion and character,” she says. The personal elements of Bell’s story, she continues, transcend the Hollywood fantasy of the lone-wolf law enforcement figure. “
“In reality, it’s a rare thing to find someone who doesn’t have any personal attachments outside the job,” according to Kusama. “I was fascinated by the additional complication of Erin, who is in the midst of a manhunt, having a struggle with her daughter from whom she is estranged. We can see that, while she is competent at her job, she’s also kind of a mess. Her life seems to be unraveling. I thought it was wonderful that Phil and Matt just let her be a mess and took us down that rabbit hole. Perhaps some of us will see a version of ourselves in her plight.”
While the story is laced with characters whose motives are sometimes as circumspect as Bell’s, the city of Los Angeles and its surrounding desert communities have a co-starring role as well, say Kusama and the screenwriters. The environment, through which Bell pursues the bad guy, tries to repair her broken mother-daughter relationship and wrestles with her personal demons enhances the story, giving it a specificity and unique flavor.
As the grizzled detective pursues her nemesis and his-cohorts, she spends a great deal of time behind the wheel of her car traveling to various parts of the city and its environs to areas that are definitely not postcard pretty and which even many native Angelenos have never explored. “The script realistically lays out Los Angeles,” says Hay. “The neighborhoods have character and Erin’s travels from one part of the city to the other are an almost epic journey. Even the individual freeways have their own purpose and personality.”
Shooting a crime noir in direct sunlight (and also murky, seedy interiors) was a cinematic plus for Kusama. It evoked images of other classic Los Angeles set detective movies such as Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break. Claims Kusama: “In college, I must have seen Point Break twenty times in the theater. I’ve always appreciated epic crime stories where you have to dig in with a bunch of characters. And this story gave me that opportunity. It just called out to me.”
Unlike most independent projects, while the script’s development may have been extended, the filmmakers search for backing, and later a leading lady, proved relatively brief. Producer Fred Berger, a longtime admirer of Kusama’s work, had approached her with various projects. “I kept sending Karyn material because her body of work displays such an understanding of big screen visceral filmmaking and with a unique point of view. I have always been struck by her passion and her sense of humanity.”
Berger’s response to the Destroyer script was immediate. “I was blown away,” he says. “I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve read a script that had that kind of impact on the first read. It started off with a bang and just kept going. The writing, the control of language, the control of tone and pacing were confident and immersive. The script delivered cinematically and from a character point of view, it plumbed the depths of the central character’s past and present. I saw it as a roller coaster, adrenaline fueled experience in which you never see the twists and turns coming. And beneath it all is this absorbing character study, that’s both psychologically and ethically nuanced. I was just dying to be a part of it.”
Particularly satisfying, notes Berger, is the fact that the storyline pushes the limit of the police detective genre, juggling time frames with satisfying action set pieces and surprise reveals all built around a challenging central character “who is at best an anti-hero, and certainly someone who has made some morally compromised choices. For all that, there is no wasted time in the story, no wasted characters.”
The search for the right actress to embody the character of Erin Bell was over before it began. Due to their track record, the Destroyer filmmakers already had financing in place, but were more interested in finding an actress with the chops to handle the complex role of Bell, who appears in virtually every scene. “We never thought of going after a big-name actress in order to secure financing or a top movie star for the poster,” says producer Berger. “We were looking for someone who would be a revelation in the role.”
The filmmakers were just beginning to explore their options when a major talent, the versatile Oscar winner and four-time nominee Nicole Kidman asked to meet with Kusama after reading the script. “I had already been following Karyn’s career and was really interested in the combination of her with the material,” says Kidman. “I wanted to meet with her and understand her vision, and when I did, I felt her passion and commitment. I love being involved with a project when someone is completely uncompromising and passionate about their work.”
Says Kusama, “For me, it was mind blowing that an artist of Nicole’s caliber would be interested in our movie – it’s such a complete departure from the rest of the body of her work. It showed such a sense of daring and curiosity, which is why she’s the artist she is.” Of course, Kidman had the filmmakers at from the get go. “Nicole is an actress who has never made safe or easy choices,” says Berger. “Over the past few decades, she’s delivered some of the best film performances, and more recently TV performances like her shattering Emmy-winning work in the limited series Big Little Lies.”
“One of the first things Nicole said was ‘I don’t want people to see me up there on screen. I want them to see Erin Bell.’ And as she talked about the character, we realized that she had a specific and visceral gut feeling for who this woman was,” says Hay. “Part of what fascinated me,” adds Kusama, “was that Nicole has never done this kind of role before. It felt so fresh and the idea that an actress with her range and depth was going to tackle all that animus and aggression really excited me.”
Kidman explains that she viewed Bell as “someone who was scared and damaged by her own choices and also by the cards she had been dealt. Her path during the film is painful but it is also her way of finding salvation. The layers and complexities of her anger and her shame, her inability to express her emotions, and her shields and barriers were very powerful; so too was her inability to express how she felt about her daughter, while at the same time trying to forge a better life for her. I found her pathos touching.”
Once Kidman had signed on to the project, it opened the door to other top-flight talent, all of whom were eager to work with her, according to Kusama. Additionally, “Karyn is a true actor’s director,” says Berger. “Working with our casting director, Mark Bennett, they were able to find actors, even in the smaller roles, who had the chops to go head to head with Kidman and some of the bigger name performers.”
The pivotal role of Chris, Erin Bell’s onetime undercover detective partner and lover, was cast with the seasoned and appealing Sebastian Stan. Says Berger, “Sebastian has been doing strong work for years, though not the kind of flashy stuff that usually gets attention. But look at his work in I, Tonya. He stole scenes against two Oscar nominated actresses.” Adds Hay, “from the first conversation Karyn had with Sebastian, we knew we had to have him in the movie.”
For the role of Silas, Bell’s elusive prey and the former gang leader who has haunted her life for the better part of two decades, Toby Kebbell was cast, who recently made an impression in War for the Planet of the Apes and Kong: Skull Island. “Toby is a true artist,” says Hay. “He brought a lot of different and interesting aspects to the table. He’s funny and charming, but he’s also very physical and he projects a real sense of power.”
Tatiana Maslany was an eager and apt choice to play Petra, the drug addicted spoiled-rich-girl gang member, who like her former boyfriend Silas, is on the downslide. “Anyone who’s ever seen Orphan Black knows there’s nothing outside her bounds,” says Berger. Adds Kusama, “What I love about Tatiana is that she’s a total shape-shifter of an actress. She can do anything.”