Rapid Round: 'The Invitation' Director Karyn Kusama Explains 7-Year Break From Filmmaking

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Karyn Kusama

"There's so much anxiety about the thing that you're making," says the director (back with her first feature since 2009's 'Jennifer's Body') about the studio system. "It's not yours anymore."

Karyn Kusama made a splash in the indie world with her debut feature, 2000’s Girlfight. The boxing movie, starring a then-unknown Michelle Rodriguez, won the grand jury prize at Sundance, with Kusama also taking home the directing award. She followed it up with two poorly received studio films, 2005's Aeon Flux and 2009's Jennifer's Body.

Now she returns to the indie world with The Invitation, a psychological thriller about a group of people who attend a dinner party at the home that the film's protagonist (Logan Marshall-Green) once shared with his ex-wife (Tammy Blanchard). Now she’s living there with her new husband (Michiel Huisman). The purpose of the dinner remains a mystery until the end, when horror mayhem ensues.

This is your first movie since 2009. Why such a long gap?

I felt I needed to be going back to smaller films that might afford me more creative autonomy. And getting those movies made is probably harder than getting studio films made, even though they're made for a lot less money. So I spent a lot of years trying to get a bunch of different projects off the ground, all of which I loved deeply. It took a long time. I don't want to take these multiyear gaps in between films, but that was the reality of where things were.

What do you especially like or dislike about working in Hollywood?

It's a privilege to get resources to try things, to try them again, to experiment, to have some time in the research and planning stages. You sometimes have a very long reach of a very committed marketing team. And there are a lot of very smart, capable people in the studios. But the problem is: There's so much anxiety around the thing that you're making, that [it] becomes just a thing — it's not yours any more.

Does it have to be that way?

It doesn't always have to be that way. I see a future where I’m afforded a little more trust — and frankly, a little more respect. I don't know if that's going to happen right away. If my time comes, I'll know it, and I'm certainly interested to see if anyone can be my partner in that way. You win and lose things on both ends of the spectrum — indie and studio. Right now I'm more comfortable with the sweat that comes from making movies for no money, because I get a degree of creative autonomy that I haven't yet experienced in a studio.

Has the increased conversation about gender equality helped female directors?

The jury is still out. Movies take so long to come together, generally, and the real way [to bring about] change is to see more and more careers in which women are afforded opportunities to take big artistic risks — and to fail — and then they're afforded more opportunities after that. Right now that's largely the province of certain male directors. Making movies, even though it's a business, is also an art, and sometimes you don't hit the bull's-eye. The real litmus test of change for women in the business is seeing more and more of us afforded the opportunity to have long, ambitious, far-reaching careers. And that's going to be a yearslong process.

What made you want to direct this movie?

[My husband] Phil Hay and his partner, Matt Manfredi, wrote the script, so I got an early look. When they determined that they were not going to direct the film, which had been on the table for a while, they asked if I'd be interested — and I shot my hand up with a resounding yes. There was just something about this script. I loved how mysterious it was, and [how] purposeful it felt, and how it really gave me an opportunity to tell a story with a command of the craft, trying to work those muscles in terms of balancing all the questions the film is presenting to the audience. There were so many things thematically that interested me about the nature of loss and grief and how we incorporate that into our life, or don’t. And what consequences we face when we don't incorporate sorrow into our lives. And structurally, there was something really interesting about a movie that poses all these questions for so long before really answering any of them. I recognize that's a more unconventional or challenging structure to take on, but there was something so fresh about it.

Did you play around with revealing more earlier?

The script actually did reveal it slightly earlier, and funnily enough, it just took the air out of the movie. It took the sense of life, the sense of engagement, out. It could have gone in a couple of different directions, and I know that a more conventional take on this story probably would have included mayhem and a sense of the actual dangers much, much earlier. We all were in agreement that it worked to have them earlier, in the script — and it didn't work as effectively in the final cut.

Will (Marshall-Green) appears to have some visions of things that might not be there. Does that make him an unreliable narrator?

We totally embraced the idea that he was an unreliable narrator. Unreliable narrator stories can be really, really interesting, and so for us, it was almost essential that at a certain point, the audience hook into the fact that he is unstable and might be really unreliable. It was essential on a narrative level and it also comes out of a tradition of paranoid thrillers, where there's paranoia on the part of someone who seems maybe not mentally sound. Then there's the larger question for the audience: Could they be right, even if they are unstable?

What advice do you have for younger filmmakers?

I've experienced a lot of successes. I've experienced a lot of failures. I've been able to get back up on my feet and keep going. I attribute that, to some degree, to really loving movies still and thinking that storytelling — even in these big commercial enterprises — is still really important. It's important to tell meaningful stories and to find new ways to communicate those stories to people. Enjoying the process is about the only thing you can hope you have out of the experience, because if you don't have that, there's no reason to be doing it; it's too hard, too exhausting, and it takes you away from all of these other wonderful elements of life. Always keep absorbing art and looking at paintings and reading books and watching movies in other languages, just getting to know the world at hand and the world of the past. It's important to keep absorbing the world and keep engaging with it, and often that means not thinking about movies and thinking about other things. That's the advice I give myself.

The Invitation is now playing in select theaters and on demand. Watch the trailer for the film below.

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