A Gritty Los Angeles Co-Stars In Nicole Kidman's 'Destroyer'
"Beauty and chaos, beauty and ugliness in bed together, are my go-to, favorite recipes," director Karyn Kusama said of her new film "Destroyer."
Shot in and around Los Angeles, the movie stars Nicole Kidman as an undercover cop who's haunted by her past. The L.A. of "Destroyer" echoes the vibe of Kidman's character, as the narrative flips back and forth from a time when she was young and ambitious to a present in which she has become a hardened, "weathered" woman who's trying to redeem herself. It was a tough shoot for Kidman, who is in every single scene and who goes through a physical transformation for the role that includes a sort of limping gait. The city, meanwhile, is depicted with a similarly gritty side that's rarely seen on screen.
To find those cinematically neglected places around L.A., Kusama turned to location manager Robert Foulkes. He and his team had plenty of experience scouting beauty shots across Los Angeles for the musical "La La Land." For the neo-noir thriller "Destroyer," the settings had to be gritty, yet with their own sort of beauty.
The Frame podcast recently met with Karyn Kusama at one key location along the banks of the L.A. River. It's a place known as The Bowtie Parcel, close to where the Glendale and Golden State freeways converge. It's a former rail yard that's now a somewhat abandoned land mass managed by California State Parks. The site is occupied by people who have nowhere else to go. It's marked by trash and graffiti, sea birds, concrete slabs and wild foliage.
"Depending on where the light was when we would shoot, you could look into the river and just see giant fish, and it was sort of like, 'Are they four-headed?'" Kusama said. "But they weren't. They seemed intact and normal, and then also herons and cranes and people bathing. I mean, you know, like that person washing their clothes right now."
Meanwhile, on the other side of the river are newly built or renovated homes and people riding expensive bicycles along a path.
It's "a crazy collision of industrial and urban, and suburban and the natural world, kind of high and low, rich and poor. It all meets right here at this river," Kusama said.
Another scene in "Destroyer" was shot in a park overlooking Dodger Stadium.
It was a setting described in the script as a slip of hilly land with a view of downtown L.A. and the stadium, but neither Kusama nor the screenwriters Phil Hay (who is also Kusama's husband) or Matt Manfredi had ever actually been there. Still, Kusama was sure it was real: "from the highway and from certain streets in Silver Lake and Echo Park, you had to imagine that it existed."
Robert Foulkes found the location. Victory Memorial Grove was just what they were looking for and, similar to that L.A. River location, it was kind of grim.
"There were abandoned guitars and used needles and doll heads. It was pretty intense," said Kusama.
As luck or timing would have it, the Dodgers were in the playoffs during production, which meant that the filmmakers could get a parking lot full of cars and a stadium full of fans without having to pay for it.
"It was an amazing opportunity because we didn't have to build it. That wasn't CGI. That was just real," Kusama said, adding they could "also hear the game," which was a plus. But not all locations came with sounds they could use.
In fact, the sounds of the city were sometimes an issue. "I have to say on a day-to-day level, and on a technical level, it was the No. 1 challenge," Kusama said, raising her voice slightly to be heard over the beeping of machines dredging the L.A. River behind her.
When a train ran along the tracks next to the river, they had to pause, knowing that any dialogue would be drowned out, Kusama said. "Let's just stop, take a zen moment, listen to the train pass."
The helicopters, which regularly flew overhead during her interview with The Frame, were good reminders of how to design the L.A. soundscape when they were in post-production, she said.
"It is so loud in most of Los Angeles and we're just so used to it. We're so used to the sound of distant traffic that I think I would start to panic if I didn't hear it in the background," Kusama said.
Despite the challenges, Kusama said that shooting around Los Angeles brought "awe-inspiring" surprises.
While shooting in Chinatown one day, hundreds of bicyclists that seemed to appear out of nowhere rode by the crew, and Kidman "just stood there and said, 'I just have to watch this,'" Kusama said.
"I just feel there was something lively about the city when we were shooting in it, and I think there's something lively about the city every day," she said.
Karyn Kusama's movie "Destroyer" opened in theaters on Christmas Day.
You made it! Congrats, you read the entire story, you gorgeous human. This story was made possible by generous people like you. Independent, local journalism costs $$$$$. And now that LAist is part of KPCC, we rely on that support. So if you aren't already, be one of us! Help us help you live your best life in Southern California. Donate now.