After breaking onto the indie scene with her film Girlfight (which also put Michelle Rodriguez on the map), filmmaker Karyn Kusama found herself directing two big-budget films in Aeon Flux and Jennifer’s Body. But the latter was released about 6 years ago, and since her horrific team-up with Megan Fox, she decided to remain out of the cinematic circuit – until now. At this year’s South by Southwest festival, Karyn premiered her new thriller, The Invitation, which is a tense return to her indie filmmaking roots.
I had the opportunity to chat with Karyn before the film’s screening, where we talked not only about The Invitation, but her thoughts on the current state of gender norms in moviemaking. We touched upon if the current success of female horror filmmakers is making a step towards a more equal cinematic culture, the pros and cons of working in the mainstream Hollywood system, and as a bonus, what film she’d most like to remake with her own stylistic spin. All that, and we still found time to talk about her newest film!
Check it out below, and enjoy!
WGTC: What sold you on The Invitation?
Karyn Kusama: The script is beautifully written – it’s quite spare, but very specific. I thought it had a clear sense of mission to hook the audience into our main character’s paranoia and anxiety, and on a deeper level, it had a beautiful emotional component that I don’t see in paranoid dramas of this kind. I really identified with the question of how we best incorporate grief into our lives – or don’t incorporate it. In that regard, I even sympathized with the antagonists in the piece. I thought that was a nice trick. You can’t just watch them and think they’re monsters.
WGTC: Well are those characters actually antagonists, given how they’re portrayed?
Karyn Kusama: Yes – but I think you’re right. Are they antagonists, or are they just another reflection of all of us? What’s possible in a moment of intense vulnerability and fragility? This is a movie I couldn’t have made in my twenties, or even my thirties, but now that I’m older I can say I don’t judge how people deal with their hardships. As we get older, they just keep coming, and it makes us do a lot of really weird things. Why would I separate myself from that?
A little bit of maturity allowed me to look at this script as something more grown up, not just a genre-bender. Which it also is! The whole thing is interesting because it’s unconventionally structured, and you’re wondering if it’ll just be a dinner party drama. There’s something about the corkscrewing effect of having to wait so long – I know it’s not for everyone, but for me, I think it’s more satisfying to not know what’s happening for a really long time.
WGTC: Did you draw on any real events when crafting the cultish vibe that drives The Invitation?
Karyn Kusama: We studied the psychology of those kinds of organizations – it’s always about the annihilation of the self. It’s always about a sense of giving up control to a larger individual or set of ideas. What’s interesting about [a cult] is that it’s depicted as a more extreme take on world religions, when in fact, it’s just another version. To me, we can feel the safety of watching Will accuse his ex-wife of being in a cult, but ultimately, is she? Is she just drinking smoothies, doing yoga, and finding inner peace in her life? And is that such a bad thing? There are all different kinds of cults in the world. Some of them are really obvious, and some of them…
WGTC: Some people would argue that daily nine-to-fivers are nothing but a gigantic cult…
Karyn Kusama: I think it’s interesting! One of the things you hear about when studying the nature of fanaticism is that a lot of the time, people don’t start as fanatics. They shift and evolve into that state. That’s a process, a systematic process of losing your identity and sense of self. As somebody who has had to look at my own vulnerability and sense of self, and examine that ad nauseum, I feel like we’re all vulnerable to it – it’s just a question of to what degree. That made me more sympathetic to all of us who are lost and wanting someone to show us the way.
WGTC: I noticed that these characters all feel very genuine, like I could be sitting at the dinner table with them. Was there a lot of improvisational work that helped everyone create that chemistry?
Karyn Kusama: It was pretty much completely scripted. One of our actors, who played Tommy, mentioned that the way we were working was fast enough – I would ask them to remain on-set instead of waiting in holding when we’d do something like shift the lights around. They would talk, reflect, make jokes, and continue to know each other after just getting out of character. Just staying one more second. We created a lot of easiness between the characters. The hardest time was for Logan [Marshall-Green], because he had such an easy time getting along with everyone, but his character is at quite a distance, except from maybe Jay Larson, who plays Ben. In a way, that was the improv exercise, then we’d shoot and do the text. It felt more natural because of it.