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Interview: The Invitation Director Karyn Kusama on Purposeful Diversity and Complicated Characters

Karyn Kusama, director of such films as Girlfight and Jennifer’s Body, casually subverts everything in her latest film The Invitation, an urban horror story about middle-class Americans at a dinner party.

I went to see the film at Fantastic Fest last year with no expectations and knowing nothing about the story. I left the cinema with the glow of someone who had just been immersed in cinematic bliss. It isn’t often that a horror film leaves me feeling both entertained and optimistic about the world. Story aside, the diversity in the casting and characterization of the party attendees seemed deliberate enough that I felt like I was in good and capable hands, and subtle enough that it didn’t distract from the realism of the film. A typical movie-goer who watches The Invitation for its story probably wouldn’t notice how rare it is for people of color to be depicted as characters in their own right without constantly drawing attention to their race, or for men on the screen to be portrayed as emotionally vulnerable. Everything just … fit. It gave me hope for a future of storytelling that everyone can relate to.

I was fortunate enough to be able to meet up with Karyn Kusama for an interview about her latest film, her career, and her inspirations.

Kav P. (TMS): You have mentioned that the diverse casting decisions for The Invitation were deliberate. Could you tell us a little more about that and why you decided for the characters that you did?

Karyn Kusama: The faces of American life—even in the upper-middle-class world of “The Invitation”—are ultimately incredibly diverse. This movie felt like a great opportunity to simply depict that reality without a lot of fanfare.

TMS: Besides the strong female characters of the film, there was a degree of role-reversal with the main male protagonist being accused of being paranoid and emotionally unstable, having strong paternal instincts, and a strong emotional involvement with what happens during the film. How did you go about constructing the character, and how did you make him believable? Do you have anything more you want to say about diverse portrayals of masculinity?

Karyn Kusama: During the directing process, I often felt like “I am Will,” and at certain points in my life, I’ve felt like Will does in the movie—struggling with my emotions, outside of the status quo, unable to engage or simply surrender to a “good time.” I never felt like Will was different from me by being male, and in many respects, this film reflects the kind of feminism that I hope to practice, which, at its core, is about cultivating a humanism that allows me to find the multitudes within myself and within others. The portrayals of masculinity in movies can often be as disappointingly narrow and uninteresting as the portrayals of femininity. To me, any fixed notions of what’s possible within the words “male” and “female” and “feminine” and “masculine” are themselves very limited lenses to interpret the world.

TMS: The Innovation deals a lot with different belief systems. What has your experience been with belief systems that attracted you to the theme?

Karyn Kusama: I was raised as an agnostic. One thing my parents instilled in me was a sense that there were many belief systems out there to choose from, but that the choice is a deeply personal one, and shouldn’t be simply dictated by tradition, family, habit, or cultural force. Our movie is attempting to address the elements of social control and dissolution of the self that can exist within any belief system or group dynamic. And as someone who is constantly searching for meaning in my life (even in the face of the world’s existential absurdities), I’m also sympathetic to the desire to bring spiritual order to these often unanswerable questions.

TMS: The trailer to The Invitation looks incredibly intense and foreboding, without giving anything away. Did you have a role in its creative direction? If so, can you tell us a little about the ideas behind it?

Karyn Kusama: We were lucky to have a strong voice in the process while working with Drafthouse on the trailer. It’s a challenge to market the core narrative ideas of a film, particularly when it’s a psychological thriller that builds steadily on the suspense but doesn’t give away its secrets for awhile. One thing we all agreed on was the fact that most movie trailers tell you exactly what you can expect in the movie and often give away crucial plot points. We knew we couldn’t have a trailer like that—the movie just wouldn’t be as interesting if that’s how it was framed. Hopefully, our trailer manages to walk the fine line of generating curiosity in the film without giving everything away.

TMS: Your films seem to have a recurring theme of women using their physical strength to overcome obstacles. Could you tell us a bit about what attracts you to this theme?

Karyn Kusama: I’m interested in the notion of presentness. Presentness of mind, presentness of body. Women are so frequently assessed only for their physical self, all in relation to a world that actively consumes their image like a product. Women live with an ongoing anxiety that the expiration date on their cultural value is arriving much sooner than it is for their male counterparts. So I like to imagine women who see themselves outside of this model, women for whom the act of “being seen” can evolve into an act of self-realization. It all starts with being present within our physical selves, being aligned to and aware of our capacity for tenderness and violence, and being open to the inescapable fact of our mortality. I like stories that live in this very simple zone: are you in your own body, or outside of it? I think really interesting things happen when we make the shift to live in our bodies. And when women own this space, they project a palpable internal power.

TMS: Which films have inspired you most as a film-maker?

Karyn Kusama: There are so many films that I ritually bow down to in worship that it’s impossible to create an “accurate” list. But if you want to know what comes to mind at 11pm on a Friday night, here’s where I land: David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, Lukas Moodyson’s Together, Elem Klimov’s Come and See, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously, Todd Haynes’ Safe and Velvet Goldmine, Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break and Near Dark, Martha Coolidge’s Valley Girl, Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low and Ikiru, John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, Jane Campion’s An Angel at my Table, Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In, Shohei Imamura’s The Intentions of Murder, Alan Pakula’s Klute. But honestly, you could catch me tomorrow with this question, and twenty different films might make the list!

TMS: How do you feel your background and personal experiences have made you a better director?

Karyn Kusama: That’s an interesting question. Though I can’t say I know entirely what the answer is, I will say that both personally and professionally, I have experienced exhilarating successes and disappointing failures. I have lost people that I loved deeply, and I still feel the weight of their absence and the transformative power of that sadness. I understand outsiders, because I frequently feel like one myself. And I have a stubborn hope that there is some kind of triumph in even the smallest steps toward personal change. I hope that these qualities attune me to the nuances of the stories I want to tell, to the actors who embody the characters in those stories, and to the many craftspeople and artists who help me to realize a vision for those stories. My job as a director is all about communicating a specific reality, and I hope that over the years I’ve been able to hone the skills of communicating both directly and expansively. It’s an evolving process, and there’s never been a moment where I feel like I’ve stopped learning. I hope that as my confidence grows as a filmmaker, so does my humility as a person.

TMS: You have said: “I think we crave women in more active engaged roles in the world. I think men want it and need it as much as women do.” You have also spoken about the need for more “difficult and complex women on-screen.” Do you think we are getting closer to achieving these things or do we have a way to go yet? What do you think are the biggest obstacles we have for achieving this?

Karyn Kusama: In the past two weeks, I have read 10 scripts sent to me from my agency, many of them financed or close to being financed. Of those ten scripts, a staggering seven of them feature a storyline about a man who kills a woman (or women), and of those seven scripts, four of them are about a man who kills his wife. In the other three, the men simply kill women for sport, and it’s largely meant to be a narrative signpost of how dark and brutal “the real world” is. Well, I already know that the real world is brutal.

What I look for in movies is some insight into this brutality, and maybe even a shred of grace. I’m looking to understand the world with a deeper and richer perspective than when I first walked in the theater. I’m looking to have my sense of curiosity in the world fired up, not muzzled or discouraged. To make movies like that, we need a sense of shared mission from a huge number of people, which is a huge feat, but we also need to understand that sometimes—actually, most of the time—movies fail to be as good as we want them to be. Movies don’t work for all sorts of reasons: some of them a reflection of the failure of the system, some of them simply because they didn’t cohere creatively. This is the mystery of making art, and if we stop fooling ourselves into thinking that good movies can be engineered by formulas, flow-charts, and committees, and recognize that movies mean more than just their opening weekend numbers, we might start seeing more interesting characters populating more interesting stories.

The Invitation is set for release by Drafthouse Films from April 8.

Kav P is an artist and musician with a passion for film, travel, and giggling at silly people. You can read about some of their adventures at http://travel.kav-p.com or follow them on Twitter (@kav_p).

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