Exclusive Interview: Destroyer Screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi

Phil Hay, Writer/Producer, Matt Manfredi, Writer/Producer of Destroyer,

Destroyer expands wider every weekend and maybe this weekend it’ll be in a city near you. If not, it surely will be by January 25. Nicole Kidman’s bravura performance in Destroyer as Det. Erin Bell is winning her raves and nominations, as well as acclaim for director Karyn Kusama and the script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi.

Bell is the Destrroyer as she’s on the hunt for Silas (Toby Kebbell) who returns long after her undercover assignment in his gang went south. As Bell looks for Silas in the present, we also piece together what went down in the past. Hay and Manfredi met me for Coffee in Beverly Hills to discuss Destroyer. Destroyer opened in select theaters Christmas Day.

WLE: Does each character Erin questions in Destroyer, like Toby or DiFranco, have a whole movie’s worth of story themselves?

PH: I’d like to think so. That’s nice. We tried to approach all those characters as what are the details we can bring out about them that would lead you to think that, or that would give you enough information to understand this person’s journey. For example, when we were working on the scene with DiFranco, we knew certain things that had to happen. There was just something that was missing and then Matt realized and said, “He needs to have a kid in a batting cage working on his swing and he’s horrible to this kid. That’s how we know who this guy is.” So it’s finding those things. Di Franco particularly because Bradley Whitford is so amazing, we’d gladly watch a corrupt lawyer drama about him if I was asked to. Certainly Tatiana’s character Petra is one I was always really fascinated with. She brings so much to it. I think for us and for Karyn, Petra was a character who really carries a lot of the weirdness and specificity of the movie in her, her background, what has taken her on this specific journey.

MM: When we’re writing these things we try to look for little specific references or lines that sometimes just for us reveal like that movie behind them. The little details, the little line that Bradley has about his past with Petra or the way he treats his son, or Toby’s relationship with his mom or little passing glances to their past. Just little details, those enable us to not only envision that movie but also inform how they are as characters.

PH: Especially in the case of a movie like this where she’s encountering certain characters only once or only a few times, we really are aspiring to create as much of — those people are owed lives. I would never want to write a character that is just a functionary of some thing. We’d like to imagine who they are, even those two cops in the beginning who have a few lines, we think in our minds we have a whole idea of how those guys operate, how that partnership works. A, that’s just waht’s interesting to us when we talk about these stories. That’s what’s fun for us to talk about. The odd specifics are what we’re always trying to locate in the story.

WLE: How do you name the  characters in Destroyer like Erin Bell, a strong name, Silas, Petra?

Nicole Kidman stars as Erin Bell in Karyn Kusama’s DESTROYER, an Annapurna Pictures release.

PH: I’m glad that you feel that. It’s interesting because it’s so intuitive. It’s one of those things where if you look too hard at it when you’re doing it, nothing will ever do. The word just starts to look funny. I think there was something about, we had Bell first. There was something about the strength of that. And Erin felt, I don’t know, maybe it was the sound or maybe just the minute, at least for me, that that came up, I was like that’s who she is. It’s amazing when you think that. When Petra just came up, that felt very right for her. I feel like we have names that we run across, either people we know or people that we read about, that just hit us and feel specific. It just feels like Toby is a name that clicks where it’s not trying to stand out, but it’s specific enough, to me it creates an image of that guy.

MM: I would say rarely we hit upon the name the first time. It’s like naming a kid. Does that person seem like a Silas? It sometimes takes a while.

PH: Sometimes you come up with a name and you feel really good about it and you have to navigate the clearances world. You have to navigate the fact that oh no, there’s a really famous Brazilian volleyball player that has that same name and you just can’t do it.

WLE: Did you ever lose a name to a Brazilian volleyball player?

PH: Never specifically to that, but we have definitely lost names. It’s an interesting journey trying to get names of LAPD detectives cleared is very difficult. There’s a lot of LAPD detectives out there.

MM: There’s a lot of DiFrancos out there, a surprising number of DiFrancos out there.

PH: And you get these clearance reports and you’re just modifying the name to try to figure out, if you want a first and last name. If you have just a first name, you can do whatever you want. There were certain characters that had to have first and last names for us. Naming business is another underrated part of the job. How do we name a bank that does not sound like a fake bank because it would destroy everything. When we came up with SoCal Mutual, I was like I believe that that’s a down by the airport bank.

WLE: How does Destroyer play with time?

Nicole Kidman stars as Erin Bell in Karyn Kusama’s DESTROYER, an Annapurna Pictures release.

PH: I think that we always conceived, what we realized is we wanted to tell a story that had these two timelines that would allow us to reveal the mystery of the story but also the mystery of who she was ultimately. And, when we wrote it, we sort of were experimenting a lot with what was going to cue our return to the past. We realized sometimes it was directly reflective of something in the story of the present day that cued us to go back but sometimes it was much more intuitive or much more emotionally driven, the reason that we headed back to that second timeline.

MM: Yeah, I think it was always conceived as this intertwined thing where, while she’s conducting this investigation in the present, she’s also investigating her own past and the city and what’s transpired in her life to day. A lot of the past to us functions almost dreamlike, like memory functions. So you come in late to these scenes and get a brief little snippet but hopefully it’s a potent thing that keeps your understanding moving forward.

PH: For us, in a way like memory is in the movie, it’s these very critical moments in the past that everything gravitates towards so it’s like taking a little slice of just the very most important moment in that time, the most important five or six moments and playing those out.

WLE: Did you construct the timeline of Destroyer in chronological order before writing the script?

MM: Not really. Not really. I think we always knew the present day timeline. And then in terms of the past, as we were discussing through it, we would think, “Here would be a place where we could go back and check in with this.” Or “Here’s where we can learn about this” or…

PH: This is what she’s thinking because of what just happened.

MM: But we never mapped out a timeline of the past. For us, to us it functioned as memory.

PH: And we had to know, in a weird way, they’re different types of direct, the two stories within a structure where we put them together in a way that makes them a little less direct because the present is very much this woman’s odyssey, like a physical and kind of moral odyssey that she’s going on. And the past is the building of this undercover mission, this building of this infiltration of this gang. So in a way we had pretty direct milestones for those things but it was in trying to put them together in a way more emotional, more intuitive where the complexity could come in.

MM: As you know, the scenes in the past are not in chronological order. We jump around with those flashbacks. That was deliberate in terms of using those specific scenes to reflect or give us a better handle on the emotions of a character.

PH: And knowing where we were headed, I don’t think it spoils the movie to say the final scene between her and her partner Chris was always we knew that scene that happens between the two of them had to be at the very end of the movie because of what it reveals about her and what it reveals about why this has all been happening.

MM: And the emotion it elicits as opposed to — as a movie, if that scene is the first thing you see, I don’t think we would function — it wouldn’t be as potent a thing.

WLE: Did any of the other flashbacks get revealed in a different order in different versions of Destroyer?

MM: The Russian roulette scene was moved one scene later than it was in the script.

PH: Within the editing process. They didn’t change their relationship to each other, but they changed, that one came in a little earlier in the final edit than it was in the script.

MM: That was just a function of what that scene reveals. It was better to understand that a scene later, more effective. I think they were all in there as they were in the script.

Director Karyn Kusama and actor Nicole Kidman on the set of DESTROYER, an Annapurna Pictures release.

PH: There are sort of anchors and there were definitely times, it was interesting, Karyn when shooting, we really stick with the script and she’s very passionate about getting what we want in that script and then that’s how she likes to have that firm ground to stand on and then does everything that she does. And I think in the editing, we discovered a couple times where she realized oh, we’re going to be wanting this scene now, not three scenes later. In some cases, that wouldn’t work in the structure and there were a couple places where it would and that was kind of invigorating and interesting. There was also a couple scenes that seemed critical to us and aren’t in the final cut because I learn in these things, what the priority of the movie is can shift. A scene that seemed critical now is not in the movie and the movie is better for it.

WLE: After The Invitation did you have license to write a story that encompassed the city at large like Destroyer does?

MM: We had the ideas at the same time. The Invitation was made for a million dollars and was one location essentially. I think The Invitation was slightly easier to get in front of financiers and have them understand our process, that we can pull a movie like that off. So I think that part of it was easier but in terms of the scope of a story, we had both at the same time. The Invitation was the one we just wrote first.

PH: We really want to make Los Angeles movies. That’s kind of our collective mission because we just truly love this city and what it offers. They’re different obviously. One is in a very specific part of the Hollywood HIlls in one place. This is all down below except for DiFranco’s Palos Verdes place. Again, we want to keep making these Los Angeles movies in different corners of the city.

WLE: Was Ride Along supposed to be an L.A. movie?

MM: It was.

PH: It started out as an L.A. movie and then it became an Atlanta movie.

WLE: Are you working on studio projects while doing this Destroyer press tour?

PH: Yeah, we have a couple things with Karyn. One is at Fox called Breathe which is based on this really amazing sophisticated horror novel of the same name. We’re in the phase there of hopefully getting that going for the next movie. We’re in that start of the decision making process there. Then we have another smaller independent that we’re just starting, the three of us, brainstorming and getting the ideas together, another L.A. movie. Matt and I have been writing a television pilot and Karyn also directs TV so we’re very focused on our family business, and then we have our offshoots of we do our thing over here and she does her thing over here. The three of us have discovered how much we just love working together and how helpful that is for each of us to be able to do what we want to do, to have that trust.

WLE: Are you going to write Ride Along 3?

PH: We’re just waiting decisions about that. We’re hopeful that that happens. We would love it to but we’re not writing on it right now. That’s now in the phase where they decide if they can put all the pieces together to make the movie. We’re extremely hopeful they do because we absolutely love all those guys, all the people that work on that movie. That’s a really special group so we’re always certainly up for it.

WLE: Was it a trilogy mythology?

PH: Well, this one goes to outer space.

WLE: It better!

PH: Exactly, on the first colony on Mars.

MM: It’s a privilege to be able to, when you’re on a movie and you stick with it the whole way and it’s an obvious thing for movies, but you have to say goodbye to those characters. It is really fun to get to play with those characters and write more for them over the course of a couple movies. It’s not like TV.

PH: In the case of Ride Along it’s nice because it is an action comedy but ultimately it’s a family movie in a way. It’s about this family so you’re taking them through important family events and seeing life milestones. It would be nice to be able to wrap it up in a third one.

WLE: If people think you just write something and Kevin and Ice improv, is the job a little more complicated than that?

PH: I’m glad you asked about that because what’s kind of amazing about those guys, certainly people assume all the time all Kevin does is improv, improv, improv all day long but that’s not giving him the credit he’s due as an actor. He’s a really good actor and he is all about the scene, the beats of the scene, the structure of the scene, his character in that scene. So those movies, we do a lot of talking with everybody as we’re writing and getting thoughts in there and interesting avenues that they want to explore. Once we get to the shooting, the script is the script. There’s definitely fun little offshoots and opportunities and tangents, but again those guys are hilarious and just truly funny performers, but they’re actors. They, like us, like to work everything into the material, and Tim Story, that’s how he works too. Those movies too, many people would assume they’re just kind of making it up. It’s a way people use to kind of dismiss comedies a lot of the time, but comedies, as anybody who does them will tell you, are as hard or harder than any other genre you try to tackle.

Written by
Fred Topel also known as Franchise Fred has been an entertainment journalist since 1999 and specializes in writing about film, television and video games. Fred has written for several outlets including About.com, CraveOnline, and Rotten Tomatoes among others. His favorite films include Toy Story 2, The Rock, Face/Off, True Lies, Labyrinth, The Big Hit, Michael Moore's The Big One, and Casablanca. We are very lucky and excited to have Fred as part of the We Live Entertainment team. Follow him on Twitter @FranchiseFred and @FredTopel

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