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Unforgiven: How ‘Sunshine Noir’ Defines ‘Destroyer’

"[There is] this brightness in the sky you cannot avoid, and that felt very metaphorical to my main character's crisis."

Shot completely in and around Los Angeles, director Karen Kusama’s crime thriller Destroyer presents an unmistakably realistic look: “Everything you’re seeing is a real place,” she explains. 

“I loved shooting in Los Angeles,” says the film’s producer Fred Berger. “It gave us an opportunity to see the city in ways that you would not otherwise. You can feel in your bones that it’s L.A., its immediately recognizable–from the street signs, to the roads, to the churches to the cliffs.”

“Part of Kusama’s approach that makes Destroyer distinctive is its sun-blasted visual scheme,” says Michael Gingold. “It runs counter to the typical look employed for stories of crime and broken souls, which tend to play out in film-noir nighttime and shadows. 

“The script kind of demanded this ‘sunshine noir’ approach, a brutal use of daylight, working against a more mysterious nighttime palette” Kusama tells Gingold. “Los Angeles is an environment that offers what starts to feel like relentless sunshine. It’s almost like this brightness in the sky you cannot avoid, and that felt very metaphorical to my main character’s crisis, which is one of self and of personal ethics, and is born out of her denial and her unwillingness to look at herself in a concentrated way. 

“To me, there’s something about the sunshine of LA that has this very double-edged-sword quality.” To read the full interview, click here.

Kusama created a “look book,” which in addition to photographs, included film stills and documentary photos of crime scenes. “I used it to help me wrap my brain around the material and to frame scenes. Though I was always
spontaneous when on location since other factors intervene. Even while prepping I made some detours. It was exciting to work that way. Part of being a director is problem solving—and to embrace that you sometimes have to surrender to them.”

Director of Photography Julie Kirkwood created the film’s seedy, chiaroscuro ambience, a look that Kusama describes as “this kind of blown out L.A. sunshine. And what that does in terms of atmosphere is create a more mysterious frame to the story.”

Adds Berger, “[Kirkwood] created a seamlessness between the past and present sequences that had a natural flow. Not at all gimmicky. She was as much at ease with the
characters scenes as the action set pieces. The city of Los Angeles has an almost palpable persona in the film. She captured that harsh light that just hits you in the face. It’s gritty without being dirty or dark.”

“We talked about using really intensely bright Los Angeles sunlight a lot,” Kirkwood tells Daniel Eagan. “There was one time we were doing a driving sequence, and I told [lead Nicole Kidman], when that sunlight hits you, that’s what I love, that’s what we’re looking for. We’re trying to bring out that LA sunshine. If you see that, don’t pull away, go into it. Because as a driver you instinctively try not to be blinded. And then I thought, maybe I shouldn’t say that to Nicole Kidman. But she was really into those details, she wants the whole movie to work, not just her performance. So she loves that kind of stuff.” To read the full interview, click here.

The film traverses from brightly lit exteriors to somber interiors and, according to Kirkwood, this was deliberate and of a piece with the film’s themes. “The entire story takes place in a world of extremes, and we wanted that to come out in every aspect of the film from our locations, to our production design, costumes, make-up and especially the lighting,” says Kirkwood. “Wherever possible, I wanted things to feel almost too dark or too bright. 

“It feels like when you’re out in the desert walking into that harsh, blinding light from an interior. It takes your eyes a moment to adjust,” she continues. “Conversely, when you go inside
from the bright sun, the interior feels especially dark by contrast. The film is also about shame and the things we hide. 

“I’ve shot quite a few dark films where things are hidden and in which the fear that can come from shadows, darkness, and the unknown. Destroyer also allowed me to work with the other side of that—forcing things that are hidden into the light.”

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