In the span of just four feature films, Karyn Kusama has covered more cinematic ground—big-budget sci-fi movies and gritty independent dramas, quirky horror-comedies and tightly wound thrillers—than some directors over their entire careers. And her path to the director’s chair was not a direct one: She worked odd jobs in and out of the film industry after graduating from NYU’s Tisch film school, then spent a three-year stint as director John Sayles’ assistant before making her directorial debut, Girlfight, at the age of 31.
Her new movie is The Invitation, which has been garnering critical praise for its ensemble performances and slowly creeping suspense. Several months after serving on a trivia team with Kusama one drunken night at Fantastic Fest, The A.V. Club spoke to her over the phone about The Invitation, New Age cults, and Midwestern families.
The A.V. Club: The thing that’s really striking about the film is the slow build of tension. How, as a director, did you go about crafting that?
Karyn Kusama: It’s interesting, because on the one hand, it’s a series of technical decisions about how much to visually reveal, and more importantly, visually withhold. But the tension, I hope, comes out of an emotional place, and this sense of emotional unpredictability. Particularly from our lead protagonist, Will, but also from the people around him, the sense that as much as we would like to fit people into types, we actually can’t read people that easily, and there are some things that do come out of left field and surprise us. So I was trying to find a balance between studying these characters and engaging with these characters who we sort of think we have a handle on, but then also allowing the audience to be caught off guard by what they say and do, so that we just don’t know quite what to expect from moment to moment.
AVC: Early in the film, whenever Will would notice something unusual, someone would just make a little joke, and they’d go back to the dinner party chat. I thought that was a very real thing that people do, and it reminded me of how my Midwest family approaches conflict.
KK: Yeah, as somebody with my own Midwest family, I am right there with you.
AVC: Whenever somebody says anything too real, you just make a joke, and that’s it.
KK: Right. Or just walk out the room.
AVC: I saw the film as a comedy of manners, a little bit, in that way.
KK: Yeah, definitely. We were trying to work with this idea that there is this very black comedy to the dread that the film is generating, because there’s only so far one can go with politeness and social courtesy before it could potentially blow up in your face. And in this case it obviously really does. And I think that there is this black humor to seeing the limits of that courtesy, and at a certain point, I hope the audience is screaming at the screen to beg the characters to make a different decision, basically.
AVC: Yeah, like how much people are willing to let go before they acknowledge that something is actually going on.
KK: Totally. And that’s a larger metaphor, I think, that we were interested in, this idea that we often have to let things get just beyond terrible to acknowledge that it’s terrible in the first place. And that definitely is a component of this film, that the characters, at least in a group, are just willfully denying a lot of what’s in front of them out of a sense of social obligation, or a sense of wanting to stay in line.
That was an interesting thing to explore with the actors, to what degree are each of these actors individually meant to be struggling with what’s happening over the course of the night, and then to what degree do some people just have a very high tolerance for weirdness. It was fun to find the edges for all of the actors, in terms of what they felt they could tolerate.
AVC: Without giving away too much, the movie seems to comment on the New Age movement in California. Was that intentional?
KK: I think for us, the belief system that we’re exploring in the film is meant to stand in for any number of belief systems, some of which are hugely recognizable and globally influential, and some that are much more fringe and left-of-center. And I think the reason we saw this movement [in the film] as not necessarily all that different from all these other movements, big and small, is that so many of these philosophical and spiritual approaches to living your life are attempting to create answers or comfort around the notion of loss, the notions of death, and to find a way to handle the despairs that visit us in our daily lives. And so to me, all of these spiritual movements have moments of really grim, dark expressions and histories.
So to me, what we’re exploring with this film isn’t necessarily all that different from what’s possible in any kind of organized belief system, because so frequently a component is organized around social control. We felt like on the one hand, yes, there is this incredible California mythology about fringe movements and spiritual searching, and granted, California does attract a lot of people who are on those kind of quests. But we were trying to see that in a very human context, if that makes sense.
AVC: You were talking about working with the actors—The Invitation is your first movie with a male protagonist. Was that something that struck you, or were you just like, “whatever”?
KK: To be honest, I was kind of like, “whatever.” But that being said, I recognize that my past three films have had really notable female leads in them, and I think for me, when I’m exploring a story, the way I invest it with my particular feminism is to try to find the humanity in all the characters. So I felt really excited to be working with Will as the main character, and to work with Logan playing that character, because I ultimately showed myself that I still felt a sense of authority about who this guy was. And so much of that came from a sense of empathy, really, I felt like I am so aligned to him, and understand his paranoia, and his loneliness, and his social anxiety really well. So I was aware that it was a departure for me, but I was excited for the opportunity to be interpreting a male character.
AVC: The ensemble is such a big part of this film. What were you looking for when you were casting?
KK: I think we were lucky, because first and foremost, I knew I wanted really good actors, and I felt like I got to work with really serious, gifted people who just showed up with a real sense of openness and playfulness and imagination, but also were very schooled in sort of being present and being really game to be in the moment of all those scenes. With the exception, ironically, of Will, whose whole predicament is that he can’t ever be in the moment because he’s so stricken by the past. For Logan, I knew he had to be able to be in the moment of that predicament.
I was looking for actors who had a real seriousness to the way they approached their work. And then beyond that, I wanted really interesting faces, I wanted a sense of people looking like real people. All of this probably sounds very basic, but in a way, I think a lot of movies go to such an extreme degree in glossing over its human faces that suddenly it becomes like weird kabuki. I wanted the faces to emerge, I wanted to see what everybody really looked like. It took some time to put it together, but once we had all the pieces in place, and could get all the actors to meet with one another and talk through it with them, what their relationships were, and their past histories were to each other, I felt like we’d found a really good chemistry among everybody.
AVC: So was any of the dialogue improvised? It sounds like you spent a lot of time prepping the actors on their characters.
KK: It’s so funny, we really didn’t improvise very much at all. When we rehearsed, we allowed for a kind of freedom to figure out exactly where people are moving and why they’re moving to certain places in the house, and then that might create opportunities for little transitional beats, but even those throwaway lines that you mentioned that feel like they’re just the fabric of the way people talk to each other, all of that was scripted. It’s just that the actors knew how to make that feel very real and off-the-cuff.
AVC: Where did you shoot?
KK: We shot it in Los Angeles, in a single home, a single location, that was at the top of Mulholland and Laurel Canyon Drive.
AVC: It’s such a cool house.
KK: Thank you. It is a cool house. It’s a mid-century house, from the early ’70s, and it photographs beautifully.
AVC: When looking over your filmography, you see films in a bunch of different genres, and a lot of them are genre hybrids. Jennifer’s Body is a horror-comedy, for example. Are you attracted to stories that blend genres?
KK: I do feel like most genre movies are more interesting when they’re informed by another genre. That’s just for me. There are people who will call Alien a sci-fi movie, but other people call it a horror film. Rosemary’s Baby, people will call it a horror film, and others might call it a black comedy. I feel like those kind of movies keep me guessing, and keep me engaged. I’m definitely drawn to those kind of films. When people know how to stay within the tropes of one genre, and still make something that feels fresh and surprising, I applaud them. But I haven’t figured that out yet. I’m more interested in those hybrids, those crossbreeds.
AVC: What else draws you to projects? The only one of your films that you also wrote was Girlfight. So what draws you to a script, then?
KK: It’s so interesting. I just like to be surprised, and I like to feel like I’m not quite sure where something is going, and I’m not quite sure what something is, in the experience of reading the script, or ingesting the story. I like characters that are grappling with their terrible aliveness. There’s so much opportunity to explore the problems of being human, and those are the stories I’m most drawn to, the ones I feel are struggling with those questions or grappling with those questions.
AVC: It took a long time to get your first film off the ground. You went to film school, and then worked as an editor for a while. It was kind of a long path to directing.
KK: Yes, it was. I was 30 or something, 31.
AVC: Was there a moment for you where it all it came together and you said to yourself, “Oh, I can do this, I can direct a film”?
KK: No, to be honest. There’s a part of me that doesn’t really believe in those synthesizing moments so much as surrendering to the process of trying to get something made. So for me, there were plenty of moments where I thought, “God, maybe I can’t do this,” or “God, maybe this will never happen for me.” I still am faced with those questions today.
Now I accept that this is a job I can do. And now I think I’m better at saying, “You know what, I’m going to fight for all of my shots. I’m going to fight for all of my chances.” Because that’s how something gets made. That’s how good work exists, is through that enduring struggle to be true to one’s self and to remain interesting and interested by the story that you’re telling. Now I feel like, okay, I know that about myself, and that makes me qualified to keep trying. But I don’t know if any of us ever—I would be bored with myself if I felt really sure that I was good at what I do. I’m just more interested by opportunities that offer the chance at falling flat on my face as much as great success. For better or for worse, I’m drawn to these thorny projects that aren’t always easy to get made.
AVC: Not easy to put in a box.
KK: Yes, exactly!