SXSW 2015 Interview: Karyn Kusama Invites You To Accept THE INVITATION

Featured Film Critic; Dallas, Texas (@ChaseWhale)
SXSW 2015 Interview: Karyn Kusama Invites You To Accept THE INVITATION
Karyn Kusama is a director I want to see more of. 

I saw her first film Girlfight when I was 17. I kept renting it at Blockbuster -- this was right when DVD started to phase out VHS -- because I was so fascinated with the story. Perhaps it's because I'm a small guy so I will always love a good underdog story. I didn't give a damn that it was made by a woman and was about a woman fighter, I loved that the filmmaker told a tough against-all-odds story. 

There's a reason why Girlfight took home the Award of the Youth Foreign Film award at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, and soon after, studios began knocking at her door. That being her first feature, it's clear she could tell a good story when it's on her own terms. 

Well, most of you know what happened next -- she did two studio movies that almost killed her career -- but didn't (thanks, Movie Gods) and she's back with a new film that was done by Kusama and her team and not [insert any movie studio here] getting in the way.

I saw it at the world premiere and allow me to be one of the many to tell you, it's truly nerve-jangling. I am a 32-year-old man and was sitting on the edge of my seat gripping the armrests so tight they could have ripped out at any moment. 

Anywho, I spoke with Kusama after the premiere and we talked all things The Invitation. That said, there are some mild spoilers so there's your warning. 

ScreenAnarchy: You did a job well done on the movie. It gave me anxiety the entire film. I literally was on the edge of my seat.

Karyn Kusama: Wow. 

And no hyperbole there. It was really intense.

Why do you think? 

The build up. What is going on? What is happening? Why is everyone acting the way they're acting? Are you in on it? Is he in on it? 


Are they all in on it? And so it was like for me it was frustrating, and I was like, "Please reveal what's going to happen before I have a panic attack!" 

Yes. (Laughs.)

First question is going to be a basic one. I want to ask what about the script made you want to make this film your next project and how did it all come together?

Well, my husband Phil Hays ... his writing partner Matt, they wrote the script, and I had read it early on. This was years ago. I always loved it. I've had some pretty significant sorrows in my life, and reading this script about ... It essentially, to me, affirmed the value of sorrow ... affirmed the need for pain as a sort of distress signal in our lives. It was really interesting to me and kind of liberating. This idea that the nightmare is the world where you escape all that or think you...


That resonated with me because it was in the beginning for me of a long journey that I'm still on, and hope to remain on for a long time, of trying to understand existential struggle as a good thing. 


And trying to see that there is a much more damaging consequence to denying that or burying that or rejecting the notion of pain, sorrow, discomfort, sadness. I just felt there was something very bracing about the story. I also just thought structurally it was one of the weirder, more challenging scripts I'd ever read in terms of really testing the audience's ability to be engaged in the emotional story while asking serious questions about even the tone and the genre of the movie, like is this just going to remain a psychological drama, which it could have, or will it go bonkers, which it seems to be promising, and so it's just really interesting to imagine that challenge. 

It's not a movie for everyone, so it's kind of interesting to be able to sort of put my foot down and after making a couple studio movies, which are really trying to please more people, it was nice to say this one pleases me first, and we'll see if that reaches anybody. Of course, the jury's still out on that.

This is funny. I just interviewed David Gordon Green, and you know, he's been in kind of a similar thing where he's done some great independent work and then he did studio and it wasn't well-received and a lot of stress, and now he's back to doing what he wants to do. I love that. That's why when I saw this, I was like, "YES!"

So glad. 

Yes. This was a question that I was actually going to leave out, but you actually brought up sorrows and stuff like that, and do you believe ... could you feel that people who face devastating things in their lives, that they can truly move on? Because essentially that's one of the themes in the film. Do you believe that people can truly move on? 

I think we evolve. Some of us have bigger scraped knees and gnarlier broken bones over the course of our lives and I feel like our psyche is the same. It's sort of a question of how much rough road can we tolerate? For me, I feel like there are some people for whom the sorrow, the grief, it pushes them over an edge. 

There's a really interesting novel in psychiatry. This interesting touch point in, say, the initial symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia showing up or psychosis. A lot of times it's a death in the family of someone really important to you. That is itself its own transformative moment, and it's just a question of where does it tip you? Does it tip you over an edge or does it tip back to sort of your humanity? For some people, it's the wake up call they've always needed. For others, it is a nightmare...

Downward spiral. 

Yeah, and so I felt a real kinship with that because I don't judge David and Eden and Pruit and Sadie, to be honest. I know that within the context of the film and certainly within genre tropes a couple of those characters probably read as potential villains, but I never saw- 


Without any spoilers, everyone ... I guess I may have to put a warning. 

Yes, yes.

They're trying to do something good. In their heart, it's good. 

They really think they're doing something very ... They think they're doing something great for humanity. A lot of people with strong beliefs who've lost their sense of self make those kind of decisions for them, and I don't think it's a fringe cult. I think it's most of society that has come to accept inevitable military interventions across the globe. How is that possibly our business? And yet we make it our business. 

I guess to me, I kind of feel like as much as some people might watch this movie and feel like there's something almost implausible about it ... to me, what made it terrifying was that it felt more emotionally plausible, only because I've known myself, I've known the depths to which I have fallen, and I think I was really vulnerable. 

I can imagine being ... that if the right thing kind of swept in, then perhaps I'd be pretty lost right now. That's the thing. I came at it from a place of feeling like why not me? Why not any of us? As Will says in the movie, we're just people. That's a good thing and a bad thing, but it makes us like specks in the universe.

Awesome. I glad I got the answer to that question because you gave a profound answer. On a lighter note-

Right. (Laughs.)

Well, I mean, that was my choice to ask the question because I wanted an answer. The movie takes place entirely in one house. What were some of the difficulties in keeping the story pushing forward while keeping the audiences entertained literally with little room to work with, meaning the house?

It was a huge challenge. It was really a question of looking at the house and saying, okay, this house becomes the visual blueprint for nearly the entire movie. I have to really be aware of ... are there rooms we can sort of reveal almost other characters? For instance, that screening room that they end up at the very end in when Pruitt ... Initially we thought we won't even use that room, but there's something about an empty screening room with nothing on the screen that, particularly at night when we working there, I was like this is a really strange blank canvas that felt kind of powerful to me. 

I wanted to find ways to take the bones of that house, and of course I worked with Almitra Corey, my production designer, closely to figure out, okay, how do we just make the use of one slash of color visually dynamic? How can I stage actors in these spaces in a way that just gives them some liveliness and almost a kind of aliveness, so it was a challenge. It's always a challenge.

Yeah, I wanted to get some more insight on some of the camera work. I found it really fascinating because as part of the audience I felt like I was there, I was an invisible friend, and I was there the whole time. The way it was shot, it's really amazing.

Thank you. 

Can you just kind of talk about that?

Well, in terms of shooting the film, I always knew, and I talked a lot about this with our DP, Bobby Shore, that we had to find a balance between a subjective, claustrophobic point of view style, and find something that allowed the audience watching the movie to feel like they weren't confined only to Will's point of view, that there were times when they had to see more ... I don't want to say objective because you can never run a camera and then call that objective. 

It's by its nature subjective, but I wanted to find a more open kind of visual language that allowed for the moments between characters who weren't as gripped with anxiety or going in that house, and so I had to find a way to keep the audience sort of in Will's discomfort, and in some ways that was by staying close to him or staying attuned to him, but also then seeing a kind of lighter, easier reality in opposition to Will's state of mind, which at times obviously is really agitated and really kind of a wreck. That was another challenge was to find sort of, okay, how long can we go with Will's state of mind before we need to sort of break out. 

Awesome. Okay, well I'm going to wrap it up with one more question. This is actually a really important question for me and I know it will be for you. 

Go for it. 

I'm a big supporter of women in film. I've read a lot of interviews with you and there always seems to be a question about you being a filmmaker. 


Do you think it will ever get to a point where a director isn't going to be judged based on gender?

I don't have the answer to that. 

We can only hope.

We can only hope. I mean, I feel like in my lifetime a lot would have to shift, a lot would have to shift, but maybe it will. Maybe the men and women in hiring positions in multinational corporations will feel less irrational fear and discomfort at hiring more women in those kind of power positions that require we look to that woman for a lot of decision-making and a lot of collaboration. 

I know for myself that having made a fairly big studio movie and a more mid-sized studio movie, having had a child while I did that, having made a couple of little movies, I know there's a lot I don't want to do, but there's a lot I'm capable of doing. It's a question of whether or not I want to do it. 

I'm looking forward to the moment when somebody says to me, we need to sell you on [something], because I'm constantly having to sell myself to other people and sort of sell the idea of my competence, when I'm generally, and I'm not saying this to me, I'm an egotist, I'm generally the most competent person in the room, and it just starts to feel a little bit like, guys, I'm a grownup. 


I'm not a teenager trying to prove myself anymore. I'm trying to prove myself to myself always as an artist, and that's why you need to hire me. I think that's been the interesting challenge is sort of growing into middle age and having to face the sense that I still have to fight for every yes. Maybe that's just part of the economics of this business. There are probably times when the really entitled male directors find themselves on their knees as well.

Let's hope so. 

I'm sure it's a humbling experience, but I've already learned the humility and I'm looking forward now to just a little less of my valuable time being spent trying to convince people that I'm the right person for the job if I know I am. 

Awesome, wonderful answer.


Awesome. Thank you so much for your time and and good luck. 

Great, thanks so much, Chase. 

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