Interview: Director Karyn Kusama Talks THE INVITATION
Launching her career (along with that of Michelle Rodriguez) with her award winning Sundance hit, Girlfight, Karyn Kusama was destined to become the next big name in Hollywood. Her debut showed the director comfortably able to blend intense emotion with action in a way that felt natural. She was a new voice on the rise, and, as a female filmmaker, it was a voice that Hollywood desperately needed (and still needs) more of. Sadly, her follow up studio films, Aeon Flux and Jennifers Body, both underperformed at box office, despite both featuring unique insights into well-known genres.
With her latest film, The Invitation, however, Kusama shows that she still has something to say. Returning to her independent roots, Kusama reemerges as a filmmaker to follow. A slow-burn thriller that feels plucked from the pages of 70s genre fare, The Invitation is, admittedly, a film that is best experienced with a clean slate, so its most salacious elements will be kept a surprise. Kusama pays close attention to the emotional complexities of her characters, and by keeping the tension just at the breaking point for the majority of the films runtime, creates a psychologically exhaustive but ultimately thrilling experience.
With that in mind, we caught up with Kusama to talk about her evolution as a filmmaker; from working under famed writer/director John Sayles, to finding genre cinema, through to the completion of The Invitation and what is in store next for her career.
SHOCK: You began working under John Sayles. What do you feel was imparted to you through this experience that helped you as a filmmaker, especially early on?
Karyn Kusama: I think, for me, working with somebody like John having mentorship, having someone support my young ideas, and just support my love of movies was interesting because he had so much experience in the indie film movement of that time and what the compromises or potential compromises are when you move into the studio system. He taught me a lot about the different ways of doing business and achieve getting my films made.
SHOCK: So your first film, Girlfight, was a huge success at Sundance and put you on the map. I imagine those lessons from John on navigating the studio world were helpful when it came time to make your follow up, Aeon Flux, but there was a significant amount of time between the projects. Did you spend that time searching for the right way into the mainstream?
Kusama: Its funny because a lot of that time was spent trying to get my next little movie made and it was just so hard to get the money. It took years and then it just never happened. I was in a very lucky position to be able to consider studio films and had decided to not go that route for a very long time until I read a script that I loved called Aeon Flux. And, that is how I met Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, and thats how I fell in love with Phil and now we are married. There are all of these wonderful byproducts of getting to make Aeon. The smaller films appeal to me for a lot of reasons, primarily having to do with creative agency, but studio films can be fantastic. It is just a question of who your partners are. I am still finding my way because I hope to remain flexible between the two systems.
SHOCK: Going from Girlfight to Aeon Flux saw you jumping from a 1 million to 62 million dollar budget, which is significant. I assume that this allowed you a great freedom not possible in your first production, but with extra funding were there any hindrances from more pressure from financiers/studio interference?
Kusama: I think it is interesting because, yes, with resources do come certain opportunities to explore something visually that you werent able to before, to try stuff and then try it again. It gives you a little bit more time and resources for a sort of research and development phase of your film. In the end, I think that particular experience that I wish I could have had something closer to my version of the film and that just didnt happen. That is just part of the reality of the business I am in. It is not something I would trade but I learned from hard lessons.
SHOCK: Aeon Flux wasnt exactly the financial success that I am sure the studio and yourself had hoped for. Was this a factor into the four-year break between Aeon and Jennifers Body?
Kusama: Yeah that always affects your chances of your next film getting made and there was a dry spell for a little while.
SHOCK: One thing that strikes me about Jennifers Body is that you sort of inverted the evolution. Most filmmakers seem to start in horror and then move away from it. Coming to a horror project as your third film, how focused on hitting genre expectations were you?
Kusama: Yeah. Genre mechanics are really tricky because if you pay too much attention to the idea of rules of genre it becomes pretty stale, pretty fast. So, for me, I thought of my favorite genre films that often are rooted in a really interesting emotional reality. Reading the script for Jennifers Body, I just thought that here was a script that really exposes the horror between girls and friendships. I always sort of approached the film with that in mind first, and then thought about the crazy ways that that horror would express itself. It is important to know what audiences might expect from their genre movies but I think it is also important to not give them everything they want. As a viewer, I think it can get pretty boring that way. Id rather be surprised and work a little for my pleasure, if that makes sense [laughs].
SHOCK: And the film is clearly well aware of the tropes and does a fine job by lampooning horror in a smart way.
Kusama: Absolutely. Thank you and I agree, I think it is important to know when it is ok to poke fun at some of the tropes.
SHOCK: I think that part of the reason that the film didnt perform as well as it should have on release was because it was sort of ahead and behind of the curve. The self-aware horror films were kind of coming to an end by the films release and it seems like, now, they are back on the rise. I think that, because of this, the film is starting to build a bigger audience as the years go.
Kusama: When I was making that movie, I was thinking of movies like Heathers and The Howling. Movies that even if they were strict horror films they also had a sense of humor, or if they werent horror films they had a sort of black comedy to them and a very strange tone. Ultimately, I believe that the film has found and audience and will continue to find one. Some movies take a little longer to find their people, you know?
SHOCK: With The Invitation, you again return to an intimate, low budget production. Was this out of a desire of yours?
Kusama: I had been trying to make smaller movies since Girlfight, so, when I read The Invitation, I just knew that it was right up my alley. There was a clear economy to the writing; it was very concise, it was very tight, and there was just this dynamic quality to the writing itself. I just felt so much for the characters. Once I attached myself to the script and Phil and Matt agreed to produce, and we just agreed to work on it as sort of a family affair, it did still take some time to get the money and cast it. Thats the weird reality of making movie, that often times you spend half your time trying to get movies made and that doesnt necessarily mean that they do get made. So I feel very lucky because eventually it did all come together. There is something about the seriousness of the movie and the maturity of it. The possibility of making a grown up genre movie or a genre movie for grownups I dont know exactly what to call it that really excited me and I really embraced it. I am really happy because I am proud of the film, I feel really good about it.
SHOCK: This is your first film that isnt focused on a female lead. Was the switch in focus to a male central figure an exciting change you to take on?
Kusama: I was excited about the challenge of taking on a different perspective and I felt that, ultimately, what I think that I bring to the process of interpreting characters is a tremendous amount of empathy; and I felt so much empathy for this guy and so much of a sense that I identified and understood him. It was a great pleasure to be able to tell that story through his eyes. I look forward to all kinds of characters that generate those feelings for me.
SHOCK: I am really impressed by the restraint of the filmmaking. Not to spoil anything, but you spread a great deal of time building towards the more explosive conclusion, which comes late in the runtime. Were you afraid you may lose audiences?
Kusama: I think that the key to answering that question has to do with keeping a lot of questions alive. So even if in strict narrative terms, it doesnt seem like much is happening in terms of huge events, we as the audience are forced to asked a lot of questions about what we think this is all headed towards, what the outcomes and motives could be. We knew that if we could keep people engaged with those questions, we stood a chance at succeeding in making a satisfying movie. And, granted, for people that want a certain type of genre film, this might not be their cup of tea. But for people who dont necessarily love horror, thriller, or suspense films either, this could be their cup of tea because it operates with the emotional dynamics of a drama.
SHOCK: And this puts you in line with a lot of the best genre films from the 70s, which mined more emotional content from the characters and interactions than from the explicit horror.
Kusama: Absolutely, those are some of my favorite movies and that was a big part of how we conceived the treatment of the genre tropes in the film: starting with the characters, starting with the emotional suspense and then trying to find our way in from that place to how the plot resolves. It definitely is a sort of more grownup take than a lot genre movies.
SHOCK: Early reviews have been overwhelmingly positive. Do you plan on sticking with this sort of independent, genre mode for your future projects?
Kusama: It is just such a positive experience to feel like, along with all the very valuable feedback from my creative colleagues, I am still able to stand behind the film as my own and know that I can share it with my collaborators because we really all did work as a team. I probably someone who should be making movies more frequently like this because it is just the best way I know how to work. There are a couple of things I have in the hopper percolating, but right now I am focusing on a new script that Phil and Matt are writing that is another interesting take on genre, but more in a sort of action, policier world with a really interesting female character at the center. So that is my next thing!
The Invitation is out today in select theaters and now available on VOD.