SXSW 2015: Karyn Kusama Previews the Beautiful, Dark, Troubling The Invitation

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It’s been some time. The many who unfairly dismissed 2009’s Jennifer’s Body out of a violent distaste for the writing of Diablo Cody not only missed out on a clever, cutting tale of friendship, but also a bloody, visually stimulating one. Director Karyn Kusama likes to go big, after all. She’s thrilled and inspired by the splatter and extreme heights of genre, and the ultimate truths they get at. So, it’s a shame we’ve seen little of her since. 

It’s been some time. In her new film, The Invitation, a man haunted by the disappearance of his wife is confronted with her return. She’s a got a new husband, a new life, but their meeting ground is the old house. There, Will (Logan Marshall-Green) is reintroduced to Eden (Tammy Blanchard), overcome with dread at her existence and those surrounding it.

It’s time. The Invitation opens SXSW’s Midnighters section Friday, March 13th, as if the fest and those anticipating the film couldn’t wait. The following words might make the next few days even longer. In greatly looking forward to the film, I spoke with Kusama about her long-awaited new feature, the arrival of which she heralds with thoughtful, funny comments on the challenges of a dinner party film, how our culture avoids pain and exploring it all through horror.

Shock Till You Drop: How did The Invitation become your next feature?

Karyn Kusama: Well, my husband is a screenwriter, Phil Hay. He and Matt Manfredi tend to write for bigger studio action movies and comedies and fantasy movies. They wanted to write something personal and just more manageable in scope. They wrote this beautiful, very dark, very troubling and disturbed script that I read and just adored and loved. It finally came time to find a director, and I put my hand up. Just sort of lobbied for myself, because I had connected with the material so much. From there, once we decided we would keep it a family affair and I would direct it, and they would be producers, we worked for quite a while to secure the financing and the casting. It was a journey, it takes some time. Little movies seem to take time to come together.

Shock: It is a little movie, but it’s set at a dinner party, which seems logistically difficult to pull off. And that’s before the entrance of the fantastical or the thriller element. How do you craft that natural vibe?

Kusama: You bring up a really interesting point. I think there’s an assumption that a dinner party movie is easier because it’s contained. What’s so fascinating is I always felt like, oh this is actually going to be one of the harder things I’ve ever had to do. It’s really hard to keep a confined space visually lively and in this case, it needed to remain quite tense. I needed to walk a line between claustrophobia that’s sort of necessary for the viewer—because you’re in the claustrophobia of our protagonist—but also find some air that the material could allow the viewer every now and then; so that you didn’t always feel like you were just in a default dread setting, which is definitely a component of the film. There’s a huge amount of dread over the course of it.

So it was a really big challenge actually, the dinner party thing. It was twelve characters in a room a lot of the time. Just on a technical level, when you’re filming all of those people and trying to make them relate to one another in time and space— each time that was a new shot, new setup, new eyeline. It’s interesting how we make these assumptions about what an easy indie movie is. We think, confined space, that’s easier. One of my favorite movies is this Kurosawa film, High and Low. It’s a great movie, and it’s beautifully, beautifully staged. Particularly in the first half where almost the whole movie takes place in a single living room of our protagonist. It was nice to look at movies that faced similar challenges and found ways to offset the challenge or embrace the challenge, visually.

Shock: Does it also allow for big visual tableau?

Kusama: Oh yeah, for sure. I feel like you get into a very elemental place with these kinds of stories. I vacillate between really loving spectacle, the opera, that’s possible in filmmaking, in the film frame. But when you get right down to it, a lot of the storytelling that lands somewhere in our gut or in our heart, it’s about looking at people’s faces. So, it was really interesting to find tableau with these characters and find ways to put people in space in an interesting way, without sacrificing the naturalism of the evening. It’s funny, it’s still a challenge I’m thinking about and rethinking about.

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Shock: Jennifer’s Body got at female friendship. What are you getting at in The Invitation?

Kusama:  I think what this story really is exploring—and of course it’s up to the viewer to ingest as text or subtext—is the consequences of denying our pain and the notion that pain is so intolerable that we, culturally, have been moving toward a society that is really, really fixated on eliminating or numbing or dampening our pain levels. Whether it’s physical or emotional or even spiritual, to a degree. I think it’s interesting where we are as a culture that’s literally and figuratively addicted to painkillers. The movie explores what happens when we try to deny that very, very basic part of our life, which is suffering.

There are our times when we suffer. Of course it’s uncomfortable, of course none of us want to invite suffering into our life, but there is a value to it. It’s a way to reconnect with being alive. That’s what the movie is about, taking a very extreme approach to what the consequences can be of denying your pain and how that can deform your worldview. And lead you to making decisions for other people that are simply wrong. I think that’s a big part of religious and spiritual movements; we can have the impulse to make decisions for other people based on some belief or creed. I don’t know if we should be doing that [laughs]. It’s an exploration of that, belief systems and how we handle our personal suffering.

Shock: Cults are being explored fictionally more and more lately.

Kusama: As I get older, I’ve been facing the idea that we really are left with ourselves and that we have to be present with that. There’s something about the level of substance available to us to not be present with those feelings; that just tells me we’re having a hard time just being. It’s interesting to think about social media as a terror tool, because a lot of social media is not a way to be connected, but actually a way to disconnect from yourself. It’s interesting to see how efficiently we can depend on these networking sites to spread our message, but somehow never spread something true about ourselves, or something pure about ourselves. It’s probably a vaguer connection to the movie, but it’s something I think about and I thought about when we were making it.

Shock: What do you think keeps you in genre?

Kusama: There’s so much room in movies to explore naturalism, realism, but I just keep going back to the operatic tendencies of movies, which I think are sort of its true calling. It’s where the art of movies and cinema can really shine, when you push something to an extreme. That doesn’t mean I’m not interested in the subtler forms of storytelling—I completely am and hope I get a chance to do those kinds of stories, too. When I think about the visceral feelings I had, being a child and watching the original King Kong on Saturday afternoon on my crappy black-and-white TV. Or watching The Exorcist for the first time, or Rosemary’s Baby for the first time, or Texas Chain Saw Massacre. What I have memories of are being viscerally affected by feeling. It wasn’t about some gross-out factor, it wasn’t about some horror mythology, it was about feeling. Feeling connected to what I was watching and to the sense of terror that all of us can feel in our daily lives.

I think that’s important. I think we need to be connected to that, because there’s so many ways we disconnect from it. Genre films are an incredibly important statement about where we are culturally and always have been. I can’t imagine when the genre films we make are not a reflection of what we’re wrestling with culturally. We can look at those movies in a time capsule, 200 years from now potentially—if God love us, we make that far—and know something about the concerns of our times. I think monsters and the sense of good and evil and everything in between, the sense of monsters within ourselves, it’s relevant. It’s relevant to us right now.

 

For more, see Shock’s full preview of the SXSW Midnighters with words from programmer Jarod Neece right here.