A Conversation with Karyn Kusama
The director of ‘The Invitation,’ ‘Girlfight,’ and a segment of the new horror anthology ‘XX’ sits down to talk about her work.
Welcome to the Shallow Pocket Project, a new series where Film School Rejects and the folks at In The Mouth of Dorkness team up to chat with independent filmmakers about working outside the system on a budget. Get caught up on our previous interviews with Christian Stella (DP for The Battery), Snowfort Pictures (XX, Buster’s Mal Heart, Trash Fire), and Kevin Burke (Director of 24X36: A Movie About Movie Posters). Special thanks on this episode to Lisa Gullickson and Darren Smith.
Karyn Kusama. Alright, y’all. Right out of the gate, you need to understand that The Invitation is one of my no foolin’ favorite films. I can’t even pretend to be cool about it. I’m like Nick Frost’s Danny Butterman in Hot Fuzz talking about Point Break. Is the invitation to this dinner party a set-up for some murderous machinations? Is it a descent into one man’s madness? Can it be both? Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s script is tight. Logan Marshall-Green has a stand out performance as Will, maybe the sanest of madmen. And through it all, you have John Carroll Lynch towering in the background. Will he be the cuddly bear that he is in Fargo or will he be the terror that he is in Zodiac? Kusama puts on a master class in the control and release of tension with The Invitation.
In preparing for our chat, I also watched Girlfight and discovered I had not actually seen it. Whoops! It happens. But, I stumbled into a heck of a film. Michelle Rodriguez as Diana Guzman is phenomenal. She was my choice in Film School Reject’s recent Persistent Women of Cinema. I may be nearly two decades late to the party, but Kusama winning the Best Director and the Best Film awards at Sundance that year are some well-earned god damn awards.
So, not having been subtle about it, I’m excited to say that up to the table today is Karyn Kusama.
Moments make the actions. Actions make the scene. Scenes make the movie. Without trying to sound too hippy-dippy about it, a successful film finds the infinite in a single moment. What’s that look like? In The Invitation there’s a scene around the dinner table where Will starts to lose his tenuous grasp on the present and slip away into madness. For such an internal struggle, it’s a challenge to visually represent that break. Kusama fades away the dinner chatter to background noise and isolates the chewing, swallowing, and silverware clinking audio. The table goes out of focus and we only see Will’s head clearly. We are in his space now. Hearing what he hears. And when he breaks, it’s silent to us because Will is lost to himself. In that moment, we know Will.
Eminem doesn’t know what he’s on about. Never lose yourself in the moment! I kid, Em, I kid. I know we agree that moments are important. One of the things we get into with Kusama is the multitude of challenges with working in a single house for the duration of the shoot on The Invitation with an ensemble cast. Things can get tense when you’re living in such close quarters with a huge cast and a crew. Her secret to success? Be present. Which totally works with my Chauncey Gardiner Being There approach to life. She shares that her approach is to remind everyone, including herself, that their feet are connected to the floor of a room of a house in which they are present. With crew and actors feeling like family during their incredibly close-quarters shoot in the house for The Invitation, that’s a very friends and family style approach that I dig. Because, even when – especially when – you’re making movies on a budget, it’s still a product of humans. And human management is an important thing to keep in mind for any project.
There’s a quote from Michelangelo that goes something like “if people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.” It’s a sentiment I think everyone who has worked very hard to master something can embrace. Kusama’s successful debut with Girlfight was followed five years later with a much less well-received live-action version of Aeon Flux. It was her first film production with a major studio and by leaps and bounds her biggest budget at around $65 million. But, oo-de-lally oo-de-lally, golly was that not a good experience. Lacking the final edit, the studio was able to cut the movie into something she didn’t recognize as her vision.
In our chat, she references the famous Hollywood adage of one for them, one for me. Well, that hasn’t worked so well for her. After Aeon Flux it was another four years before Jennifer’s Body. It was a box-office winner, but still got mixed reactions. From there it’s nearly seven years before The Invitation comes out. Regardless of critical reception and declining budgets, at that rate there’s no time to make one for them before making one for her. From here on, it’s all movies for her. And I, for one, could not be more thrilled to hear it. Whatever she makes next (and she shares some potential humdingers) I am in. She’s battled for two decades in the business to come roaring back into the lime light with a flick like The Invitation. I’m wildly excited about her future efforts.
Authenticity underpins everything Kusama has created. Diana Guzman in Girlfight is real. Despite being a clone generation, you can feel the humanity in Aeon. Jennifer’s Body may be a tale of the confusing onslaught of emotions in a teenaged coming of age story mashed up with demonic possession, but I buy into the characters. And what is The Invitation if not a case study in grief management and the ways it can lead you astray?
Kusama brings that authenticity to our chat. She gives a very candid review of her career, offers some insightful tips for aspiring independent film makers, and gives me some very kind life advice that I think you’ll find is relevant to everyone. She’s worked very hard to come to terms with her own definition for success. Her latest work is XX, a horror anthology, and is available on VOD right now. If you haven’t seen her films, get on that right now. You need The Invitation in your life.
Did you know that for a hot-minute her post Girlfight project was going to be a David Cronenberg-esque body-horror film about a man slowly morphing— unwillingly – into a woman? It would have been a hardcore, personal identity politics flick wrapped in the literal ball-droppingest of body-horror. Oh my! What could have been! Or, could be?! Trust me, you want to know. Click it and be present.