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Karyn Kusama on Destroyer, sexism in filmmaking, and the redemption of Jennifer's Body

Contributed by
Oct 11, 2018

Around these parts, we go gaga for Karyn Kusama. This daring director burst onto the scene in 2000 with Girlfight, a compelling coming-of-age drama that launched Michelle Rodriguez. For her fearless follow-up, Kusama helmed the live-action adaptation of Aeon Flux, which starred recognized SYFY FANGRRLS diety Charlize Theron. Then she dove into horror with the teen girl-centered Jennifer's Body, the sleekly sinister The Invitation, and the all-female-directed anthology XX. And now Kusama is courting early Oscar buzz with Destroyer, an enthralling and twisted crime-thriller that stars Nicole Kidman, Tatiana Maslany, Toby Kebbell, and Sebastian Stan.

Destroyer centers on Erin Bell (Kidman), a hardened police detective who is haunted by an undercover assignment that went very wrong. Years later, when it seems the kingpin who got away has resurfaced, she's dedicated to bringing him down…even if that means breaking laws and cracking skulls.

Ahead of the film's Texas Premiere at Fantastic Fest, SYFY FANGRRLS spoke with Kusama about Destroyer, her passion for strong female characters, and the rescued reputation of Jennifer's Body.

With the exception of The Invitation, Kusama's films have focused on the rocky journeys of complicated female characters. From the pugnacious boxer to a steely assassin, a menacing mean girl, and a sneering cop, these women refuse to play nice or by the rules. Asked what attracts her to stories of women behaving badly, Kusama mused, "I'm interested in a more dimensional understanding of female experience and of human experience. I think what that generally entails is working with more ambiguity, more mystery, more difficult feelings for your characters, and difficult people on screen."

"I feel like I know a lot of difficult people," Kusama continued. "Or have been one myself at certain periods of time. And I just want to audiences to have access to that, because it's part of what makes us interesting. People who play by the rules don't generally end up being very interesting characters, regardless of their gender."

Still, Kusama found her gender seemed to spark some questions about her desire to make Destroyer. "What I think is interesting," she began, "is that now that I've made Destroyer with a big movie star, that puts the movie in a kind of more mainstream spotlight. And what I'm noticing is that there can be an attitude, or there are a lot of questions about why I would want to tell this kind of story? Or why do I think I can tell this story in a distinctive way? And that kind of question has been interesting to run up against. It's telling me that people—not a lot of people, but some people—have an innate discomfort with the idea that a woman might want to head into this territory."

"I wasn't setting out to make a genre movie," she said. "I wasn't setting out to make a movie about an unlikable character or difficult character, because I always liked (Erin) and thought she was really interesting to watch. It's been very illuminating now that I've made the film to recognize that there is a sort of unconscious or conscious bias toward women owning or not being given permission to own certain narratives."

"Anybody who knows me as a person knows that on a day-to-day level I want to be the best person I can be, and walk through the world with patience and kindness and a little bit of hope," Kusama added. "But they understand that my central worldview is one of a struggle with despair and a sense that we as a culture are headed on a very dangerous and self-defeating path. And so, to me, this movie makes perfect sense that I tell this story, but it's interesting that people find it as difficult to watch as they do. I find waking up in the morning and facing the news of the day pretty difficult. And so I was just trying to express the condition of that existential plight."

Because her films often follow women rebelling against some patriarchal system (be they narrow-minded fathers or the double standards of high school sex), Kusama's work is often regarded as feminist and political. But does she see them as such?  "I mean I am a feminist unapologetically," she said. "And I consider saying those words a political act at this point. My hope is that we stop seeing it as a political act and more as just a humanist bent towards the survival of the planet and some kind of progress."

"When I was making Destroyer," she continued, "I felt like I was in a process of looking at where we were politically and culturally in which almost no one takes any responsibility for their wrongdoing. There is almost no moral accountability. No personal responsibility being taken by all of these power structures that make decisions about our daily lives. And the idea that I could make a movie about a difficult character who challenges our concepts of what is sympathetic or likable or relatable, and we see that character make a move toward moral accountability felt very exciting to me and personal. It felt political for me in an internal way, but I was freed by the fact that I don't have to make a movie about politics to tell this story."

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Naturally, we couldn't speak with one of the mothers of Jennifer's Body without asking her about her bloody, beautiful baby. The devilish horror-comedy earned mixed reviews when it opened in 2009. But since then, a vocal fandom has arisen, cheering and reclaiming this Megan Fox-fronted tale of a cheerleader turned literal man-eater. What does Kusama make of the growing appreciation for the formerly maligned movie?

"I feel like I often have this habit of making movies that are maybe a year or two ahead of themselves in some way in terms the culture catching up to them," Kusama said. "But in terms of Jennifer's Body I think I have seen the movie as part of a tradition of—I don't want to say strictly horror comedy—-but a horror film with a little bit more room for absurdity or surrealism. I was always thinking about movies like American Werewolf in London or The Howling that had really interesting tonal shifts. And what became apparent when we released the film was that a movie that centers on two girls and that attempts to tell an emotionally honest story about toxic friendships between women is not going to be easily understood by the sort of mainstream—I want to say—male horror fans."

"And there was a sense of aggression," Kusama noted. "There was a lot of aggression toward Megan Fox, toward Diablo Cody who worked the script. And there was a sense that women who claim their space, who are unafraid to be themselves or to be proud sexual beings, are somehow the enemy of man. And there was a lot of aggression that I did not understand when it happened. I was just shocked by how ugly it was."

"Now, I think what's happening is that people are seeing that the movie really did have a distinctly female perspective and that we need those movies," Kusama concluded. "Like we find those movies even after the fact, even after they're dismissed because we need proof that we exist. And that was one of those movies for me. I was like, 'If I was in high school I would love this movie. I would see this movie 10 times.' I wanted to make a movie for young women that they can feel themselves being represented in even in a crazy outlandish story. And so I'm glad to know that the movie is getting rediscovered because there's something pleasantly bonkers about it for me."

Destroyer opens December 25.

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