Exclusive interview: Director Jessica M. Thompson talks ‘The Invitation’

Jessica M. Thompson The Invitation
via Sony

Putting a fresh spin on the vampire movie has got to be one of the toughest tasks in horror, but that’s exactly what director Jessica M. Thompson has endeavored to do with The Invitation.

The Gothic fable releases in theaters today, and follows Nathalie Emmanuel’s Evie, who discovers the family she never knew she had after taking a DNA test. As it turns out, her long-lost relatives are exceedingly wealthy, and she’s instantly invited over to England for a lavish country wedding. However, once she arrives, it turns out that things are a lot darker, more dangerous, and potentially deadly than they they appear.

The Invitation offers a blend of twisted romance, a sense of longing for the feeling of belonging that we’ve all felt at one time or another, and supernatural scares, all wrapped up in the fanged cloak of vampiric lore. It’s not easy to reinvent a subgenre that’s become close to ubiquitous, but that was part of the challenge for Thompson.

Ahead of The Invitation‘s release, We Got This Covered had the chance to speak to the filmmaker about her latest feature, whether there were any nerves on tackling such well-known subject matter, delivering big frights with a PG-13 rating, assembling a largely female-driven crew, her dream projects, and much more, which you can check out below.

Jessica M. Thompson The Invitation
via Sony

Before we get started, is it a spoiler if we mention the D-word? Or we could avoid it if you prefer.

It’s fine. You know, you can mention it. I think it’s yeah, it’s very apparent from the trailer. It’s always I think it’s better when people go in knowing nothing, because then it’s more of a shock. But I mean, it’s up to you. It’s fine.

The marketing people have sort of ruined anyway, so…

Exactly, exactly. There’s marketing people.

There were some personnel and title changes between the initial reveal and the announcement of your involvement, did the project require much of an overhaul once you came on board, or was it more a case of refining what was already there?

So, I rewrote the script, but it was more finessing the characters, and also really leaning into the kind of Gothic romance, and that blend of the two genres. I wanted to give the characters a little bit more of an arc, including the supporting characters. And also I’m just a big fan of grounding the dialogue, always, and making it sound natural.

So that was mostly what I did. But in terms of plot, that’s all Blair [Butler]. Like, the concept, this origin story for a bride of Dracula, that’s all Blair Butler, who’s an incredible writer. And then we only actually changed the title just before we released the trailer, because it wasn’t tracking too well with young men! So The Invitation; going with vampires, and being invited in, we thought was a really great title.

the invitation
via Sony

It would be an understatement to say we’ve seen a lot of vampire movies, never mind stories inspired by Dracula. Was the chance to put your own unique stamp on one of pop culture’s most well-known tales the biggest attraction to the project, or was there any trepidation?

Yeah, to me, no trepidation, I always love when something… I mean, I’m a big Dracula fan. I was forced to read it, I think, in year seven or something.

We all were, at one stage or another!

Yeah. And it was fun to revisit, actually, and realize the things that I remembered from the book are actually quite different. Because over time, all the different versions of vampires and stories that we’ve seen bleed in, and you think that’s all in the original, but actually so much of it’s not. For instance, I went back to the original concept that Bram Stoker had. His vampires, they were allowed to walk around during the day, they just lost their powers.

So it’s not that the sun burnt them. That was a modern concept. So I was like, “I’m gonna go back to the OG”, and I can see that that’s already ruffling some feathers in the forums! And I’m like, “Well, I’m just being a traditionalist on that little aspect”. But to me, I wanted to make a film that still honored the original story, and that would keep those hardcore fans, Dracula fans, happy. But I found like a modern, fresh, contemporary, grounded way into this story. And I think it does balance both of those.

I’m a big vampire fan. I’m a big horror fan. I grew up on, you know, Jaws, Alien, The Shining, were all my favorite films. And I’ve always wanted to make a horror film. And this one felt like the right one. Like I said, because of this bride, the Dracula story, that I just had not seen. And I thought, “Well, this is this is a fresh approach”. I never want to make something that’s being rehashed and redone. And it’s just like, well, “Why did we do this again? Why did we remake this?”. So to me, it’s very much an original take on an old story.

You’re talking about ruffling feathers, and it’s the Mandela effect of modern fan culture that people are going to get irritated that The Invitation is more faithful to the source material than most of the adaptations to have come along in the last however many decades.

Yeah, I mean, and that’s fine. I mean, it’s all kind of like when they say “bad press is good press”, right? I just want people to be talking about it. And I want them to notice there’s over 90 Easter Eggs in the film from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And to me, they’re all kind of blended in different ways, and just the use of certain words, and things like that, and lines. And so I think there’s something there that the hardcore fans will still appreciate.

But yeah, to me, I’ve actually felt only the positive. I’ve only felt a lot of positive buzz around the film. And I’m glad that people are open to it, and being open-minded. And I would encourage them to do that before they watch the film. And then they have an opinion. And that’s why, you know, filmmaking, we don’t make it in a vacuum, right? We’re making it for the entertainment of people. So, you know, I want them to talk about it, for sure.

Jessica M. Thompson The Invitation
via Sony

There are obviously nods to Dracula peppered throughout the story, but did you ever find yourself having to pull back and make them less obvious, so it was less a case of winking too much at the audience and instead letting the revelations happen organically?

Yeah, I mean, no, definitely. We definitely pulled back on a few things. We had many discussions about whether to include the Harkers, or not to include the Harkers, things like that. There’s definitely little nods. For instance, in the book, in the original book, Dracula walks “like a lizard” is how they say it. So you know, we’ve added that in towards the very end. I didn’t want to hammer people over the head with that, because then I think, well, we know, right? So it’s finding the subtlety.

And if somebody has come in and not watched the trailer, and not watched anything, how do we keep the suspense going for as long as we can? It’s definitely always about that, of course, you shoot things that end up on the cutting room floor, because you’re like, “Ah, that’s a bit too much of a nod, too much of a wink”. But sometimes you want to shoot those things, and then see how you feel later. Because there’s definitely things that we’ve kept in that I was like, “I thought that wouldn’t work”. And it absolutely works. So yeah, it’s always about finding a balance with that.

And Thomas Doherty, who plays Walter in the film, he really trusted me, and gave me a variety of takes. So if I wanted to nod more towards the truth of his character, I could choose to do that in the edit room. Or if we wanted to make him just a kind of straight romantic leading man, we could also do that. He really, really gave me variety, which was wonderful in the edit room.

I had no idea he was Scottish until yesterday.

I know, right? He’s got a very hardcore fan base, and they really were disappointed that he does not have the Scottish accent in this film. So I’m like, I’ve got to write something for him where he gets to keep his Scottish accent.

He was born like an hour away from here, and I had no clue!

I know! And I forget as well with Nathalie! Obviously, she was playing in American. On set, they all keep the accents of the characters. So when I called a wrap on the last day, and Nathalie started speaking her British accent, I totally forgot! So it’s very funny. Both of them are incredible professionals, and were able to do it so easily. It’s quite amazing.

the invitation
via Sony

There are a lot of details hidden in the background that viewers might not pick up on that offer hints as to where the story is heading, are you hoping that gives the film an inbuilt rewatch value so fans can see all the secret foreshadowing?

Yeah, absolutely. I definitely think this is a movie worth rewatching, because there’s little nods that were put in there. There’s details in the wallpaper, there’s details in ornaments, even down to the little on the badges that they wear on their lapels. There’s lots of little nods, that I think people on a second viewing will absolutely be like “that’s that and that’s that”, you know?

And it’s like you said, it’s finding the balance of “Oh, is that too obvious?” There’s a few more that hit you, that are a bit more blindingly obvious, that hit over the head a little bit, and then there’s a lot of subtle ones. So I really hope people watch it a second time and that maybe in my director’s commentary, I’ll give away all of them!

There are some that people might pick up on from the start. When Sean Pertwee’s character appears, people might think they’ve got a good idea of where the story is headed, but that’s not necessarily the path it follows. To use a vampire term, it’s familiar but unfamiliar and new at the same time.

Yeah. Well, that’s why we wanted to create as well, like, who is the ultimate? Even if people figured out what was going on early, they didn’t know who the apex predator was. That was very important to me. So is it Sean Pertwee’s character, is it Viktoria, who is the mastermind behind all of this? So that’s something that we definitely, even for the people who picked up on Mr. Fields right away, that they were at least trying to decide; is he the bad guy?

I always love to suspend disbelief and go with where the filmmakers want me to go. And I think some people pride themselves on figuring out the twist before the twist happens. But I like to think that we’ve got people who have not watched the trailer, there’s quite a few twists in a row. So hopefully, there’s one at least that they didn’t pick up on.

Given the story and content, some people might be surprised to discover The Invitation is rated PG-13. Were there any discussions about potentially pushing the envelope, or did you relish the challenge of working in the supernatural horror space without having to rely on blood and guts?

I mean, some of my favorite horror films of recent years are PG-13. Like, A Quiet Place is phenomenal and terrifying, and it’s PG-13. So I think that there is a challenge, but just so you know, the R-rated version is coming out online later. So we get the best of both worlds! So I got to do my gore. And then I got to dial it back, and kind of rely on other techniques as well. So it was kind of like I get the best of both worlds, which is fun.

That being said, I love PG-13. I love R-rated horror films, too. I’m kind of like, I run the gamut. But it is, you’re right; it is a challenge to be like, “let’s not just rely on blood and guts and gore”. Let’s try and do a more sophisticated approach to a scare. And that was really fun.

the invitation
via Sony

Was there a steep learning curve in diving into something like The Invitation that’s full of effects, CGI, and stunt work, or did it turn out to be easier than you would have thought heading in?

Luckily, I’d worked as an editor before with VFX a fair bit. So that kind of helped me, and gave me a bit of background into how it is applied in post-production. So that was definitely helpful. But in terms of prosthetics, this was my second time working with prosthetics. So at least I knew the amount of hours and how to, you know, that was something that I didn’t kind of predict as to how prosthetics work on different skin types, and skin textures.

So some people, prosthetics look good after 12 hours, and some people would be like four hours, but you can’t find that out until you’ve tried it on their face! So in future, I definitely will do more skin tests, and make them wear it the whole day, and send me pictures so that I can see. Yeah, but it is definitely, to me, filmmaking is all about preparation. The more organized you are… it’s the unglamorous version, everyone wants to think that directors and actors, we just like having fun on set. But you have to be incredibly well organized.

And so, the more that you can do that in advance, and we work with the top. We worked with Ivan and Filmefex in Hungary, like the top prosthetics guy, he’s a phenomenal guy. And so you do all of that well in advance, and you test all that, so that on the day, you don’t have any hiccups. Hopefully! That being said, there’s always a couple. That’s the joy.

One of the biggest themes is duality, and that extends to the story itself at around the halfway mark when all hell breaks loose in more ways than one at the rehearsal dinner. That must have been a riot to shoot for yourself, the cast, and the crew?

We’re like, “The penny’s dropped, let’s go for it!”. 100 percent. Yeah, that was definitely my favorite, and the most challenging. Often the most challenging shoot winds up being your favorite because once you’ve achieved that you’re like, you know, you can breathe. But yeah, there was a three-day shoot, and all that incredible food that’s on the table was genuine was real. And it was really rotting!

So there was maggots, and there was flies, and it stunk to high heaven, so there was also another form of torture! But yeah, it’s really… To me, balancing that duality was really important, and kind of having to meet the main theme of the film, which is the rich eating the poor. So having these two worlds, the upstairs the downstairs, the romance versus the horror, the fairytale versus the nightmare, I tried to keep that going until, like you said, once the veil is lifted. Then you can go full full blown in the horror regard. That was really fun once we knew the film was like a nightmare, then really leaning into that was a lot of fun.

The director, writers, cinematographer, composer, production designer, and other major department heads are all women, which is sadly still a rarity when it comes to a broad, studio-backed genre films, but horror has proven itself to be pushing things forward on that front. Was that something that was always important to you when you were looking for the ideal collaborators to bring The Invitation to life?

Yeah, absolutely. That’s always at the forefront. It always goes to the person who deserves the job. And they all happen to be incredible women. But yeah, absolutely. To me, my cinematographer and I made our first film together, Autumn Eakin. And so I brought her on to do this film with me. We work really well together. We’re an incredible team. I always say she’s the Emmanuel Lubezki to my Alfonso Cuarón, which is very arrogant!

We love working together, and I think I’ll work with her on virtually every project that I do. I think there is something to be said for having that different perspective shine through in a film. It’s not even like a man/woman thing. It’s just like, we’ve been seeing a lot of the films, people get annoyed, audiences get annoyed when people are just rehashing something from the same perspective. As soon as you add new blood, for want of a better term, into the mix, you’re going to create freshness and uniqueness. And that’s always what I want with my films. There’s no one to say, “Oh, I’ve seen this before”. Or it’s been done before.

Dara Taylor, our composer, just blew me away. We recorded with a 100-piece orchestra. And she’s phenomenal. Here’s another little Easter Egg; the three vocal vocalists are meant to be like the brides of Dracula, the sirens throughout, and we use their voices throughout, whether it’s the fairytale or the nightmare. And she really embraced the themes of the film, and really put that into a musical world which just blew me away.

the invitation
via Sony

Some of the best horror movies of the last few years have been directed by women, when you think of The Babadook, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the Fear Street trilogy, Saint Maud, Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, She Dies Tomorrow, and others, so you’re on the verge of entering some pretty esteemed and important company. There’s a change happening, and horror appears to be one of the genres pushing that forward.

Absolutely. And I’d be so honored to be in the same world as Jennifer Kent, Susanne Bier, and all these incredible women. Yeah, I think there is something to be said for the genre space, opening up open more and more to women. Though, mind you, it’s still one of the hardest spaces for women to break into. We seem to get the dramas and the rom-coms more so.

But I’m glad that there’s women before me that have broken in, and broken those glass ceilings. Because it’s always harder once… if you make something as a woman in the genre space for the first time, that you’re gonna get judged based on all that. So it’s basically, you’re flying the flag for like, “this is what all women can do”, which is not, you know, it’s hard to kind of hold the whole gender behind you.

But I I’m so glad that I’m not the first! Because I think that would be really scary and daunting. And these incredible women that have paved the way, I’m indebted to them. But yeah, I think the more that we succeed, the more we’ll see it happen, right? So the more we’ll push those boundaries, the more women will get hired. And I hope you know that this, The Invitation will contribute to that change.

You’ve made a point of tackling a different genre with virtually every project, are there any other genre avenues you’re interested in heading down eventually?

Sci-fi! I’m a sci-fi junkie. I’m an absolute, like, you know, I grew up reading Dune, and things like that. I’ve got a psychological sci-fi thriller that’s in the mix. To me, like I’ve always said, I’m genre agnostic. I really am drawn to characters. Like with The End, which was a dark comedy, you know, if the characters intrigue me, if the storylines intrigue me, then I’m all game. It’s just that I think, in genre space that we typically see those more unique characters. Yeah, so sci-fi and action, send them my way!

If you could tackle any project of your choosing without any restrictions, what would it be and why?

Do you want it to be a piece of IP? Or do you want it to be mine?

It’s entirely up to you!

There is a story about Gaia, which is another name for Mother Earth. And I want to do a cli-fi, that set in like a post-apocalyptic world, with these multiple different levels of character where the social order has been completely reversed, because in that world, the rich people, nobody gives a shit if you have money.

But you know, the people who are more living off the land, the kind of people who have traditionally down the bottom of the pyramid, become the powerful ones. So kind of like this restructuring of the power hierarchy in the world through genre, climate change science fiction film, is basically my big dream, and I would love to come in and just make it tomorrow.

I’m going remember this conversation for the day that that gets announced, and say I knew this was gonna happen.

Yeah, man, let’s make it happen!

Seeing as you suggested it, then, for conversation’s sake; what would your IP selection be?

Most of them have been done. Like, Dune would have been… I would have loved to have done Dune. There’s a lot of Alfred Hitchcock’s films that I think could be remade into series. And I do think they did that with like, Homecoming has a lot of Hitchcock feel to it. But something like The Birds, and making that into a series, I think could be really phenomenal. Yeah.

Controversial, remaking Hitchcock.

Well, reimagining! Reimagining.

The Invitation is playing in theaters everywhere from today, and as mentioned by Jessica M. Thompson above, an R-rated cut will be made available sooner rather than later.