Karyn Kusama is probably best known for her breakout first feature, Girlfight (2000), which won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, the Prix de la Jeunesse at Cannes, and a Gotham Award for Best Feature. But in the following years, the industry came calling, and her following efforts, Aeon Flux (2005) and Jennifer's Body (2009) seemed to suggest a filmmaker with an auteur's soul doing her best to make it work in Hollywood. Now with her most recent effort, The Invitation, which made its world premiere this week at SXSW, Kusama is returning to her independent roots, with a horror film that chucks genre convention in favor of sharp social commentary and some truly dark wit.
Set in Los Angeles' Hollywood Hills, The Invitation features an estranged group of friends who reunite at a dinner party only to find out their hostess may or may not be insane. Kusama takes a special pleasure in playing with audience notions of politeness, drawing out awkward dinner party moments until they're almost as horrifying as the film's bloodiest scenes. I spoke to Kusama via phone about what it's like to make a movie about what happens with people stop being polite and start getting real, and how it felt to debut as one of the most buzzed about genre films at SXSW.
Sarah LaBrie: How did you go about building an ensemble piece that also happened to be a horror film?
Karyn Kusama: One movie I kept going back to in my research was The Celebration. It's interesting to me, as a storytelling experiment, to bring everyone together for a family reunion and then let the whole thing unravel. There were also genre films that I looked at as well. A recent example would be Let the Right One In, which is a masterpiece. I love how long it takes to really figure out what's going on, and I love how long you're left in the dark as a viewer trying to pick up on the characters' loneliness and understand their emotional space.
In some ways, the film is a comment on politeness and how it dictates so much of what we do. It's obvious from the beginning of The Invitation that something very bad is going to happen to everyone in this movie, but Will, the only person who stands up and says so, is shot down by everyone else.
I think part of what the film is doing is exploring is the limits of instinct. When we screened it for our friends, some of them would say, ‘Well, I would leave that party. I would never stay at that party.' A lot of those people were people I knew well, and I knew they would never leave the party because its very, very transgressive to get up and say, You know what? I'm really uncomfortable. I'm not really feeling what's going on in this party and I can't be a part of it. I have to go. It takes a lot of certainty to do something like that. And I do think that's part of what the movie is playing with, is this notion of what our sense of tolerance is for just plain weirdness.
"the movie is playing with our sense of tolerance for just plain weirdness."
The couple at the center of the film are interracial, but their races wouldn't dictate their roles in the story. That's pretty rare in horror (and in Hollywood in general) — was that something you always planned to do?
It would have been easy enough to cast this movie so that everyone was white, but we really thought hard about wanting to be more representative of how people live. We knew we wanted John Carroll Lynch to play Pruitt and we knew we wanted Lindsay Burge to play Sadie, but for the rest of the cast, I asked to consider all kinds of combinations of ethnicities. To be honest, it wasn't idealism that was driving the casting. It was more a question of interesting faces we could bring into the mix. Emayatzy Corinealdi photographs beautifully and she has a face you just want to look at. Because her character is kind of an outsider to the group, I needed the audience to feel engaged in the process of watching her, and of watching her watch the others.
You're known for films with strong female protagonists like Girlfight and Jennifer's Body, but we spend most of The Invitation in the male protagonist's head. How did you negotiate building a strong male lead without making the female characters seem peripheral?
I think it helps that I identify with Will so much. I ultimately am probably a pretty anxious person. I see the whole movie as a metaphor for what the nightmare of anxiety really is, which is this irrational sense that people are trying to hurt you somehow. This movie explores the one time that irrational feeling is actually completely true.
"I'm just hoping that as more movies get made by female directors, we see them get a shot at creating interesting male and female characters."
In terms of the women in the film, I hope they are rich characters, too. I'm just hoping that as I get older, and as more and more movies get made by female directors, what we start to see is how, in the same way good male directors get a shot at creating interesting male and female characters, women do as well.
Your husband, Phil Hay, wrote this script with his writing partner, Matt Manfredi. What made you want to direct it?
I identify a lot with the nightmare of the movie, which to me is the nightmare of denying pain and struggle. When I reflect on the losses I've experienced, I've come to believe that those experiences were transformative, that they shaped who I am. What I thought was so interesting about this movie was that it involves people trying to remove sorrow from the equation of their humanity, and in doing so removing their humanity altogether. It makes the violence and extreme behavior that comes out of, for example, inflexible faith make a little more sense to me. I began to see how we've gotten to this place where whole movements of thought can be worth more than human lives.
When I saw the film at SXSW, people were laughing and shouting at the screen. When the credits rolled, the whole room broke out into applause. Most of the response here in Austin has been extremely positive. What's that been like for you?
It can be very distorting to get too wrapped up in all of that stuff, but of course it's really nice. It's pretty great to find out that there are more than a couple of people out there who watched my movie and who feel like it has burrowed its way into their brain.
"I'm less interested in judging success and failure in art, because I know how difficult both can be"
Which filmmakers have been the most influential for you?
I'd say the filmmaker who excites me the most right now is Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone, The Prophet). He takes situations that he treats with a really high degree of realism and then allows for these theatrical flourishes and theatrical inquiries that I think are just so beautifully handled. Jonathan Glazer is really interesting. I thought Under the Skin was really beautiful. And I just saw Obvious Child.
One thing I don't do anymore as I've gotten older is that I don't make big blanket statements about whether or not an artist is good or bad. There is so much that's impressive about making something vivid and memorable that, even for two minutes, sticks with the viewer, because there's so much visual material out there to be consumed. I'm less in the camp of judging success and failure these days in art, because I know how difficult both can be.