“The movie can’t actually be just a casual dinner party.”
Karyn Kusama’s directorial career hit something of a bump in the road after her critically-acclaimed debut Girlfight in 2000. She delivered a big-budget misfire with Æon Flux in 2005 and then followed it up four years later with the unfairly maligned Jennifer’s Body. And then… nothing.
Happily for Kusama and fans of tight, intelligent thrillers her stint in director jail came to an end last year, and upon her release she stepped behind the camera for The Invitation. It’s a smart, unpredictable ride that builds beautifully to an affecting, killer ending, and it’s now on Blu-ray from Drafthouse Films.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for The Invitation.
The Invitation (2016)
Commentator: Karyn Kusama (director), Phil Hay (co-writer), Matt Manfredi (co-writer)
1. The opening was designed to “pull the viewer into our main character’s point of view right away.” It was designed to get viewers on board with Will (Logan Marshall-Green) as soon as possible while also pointing out that he’s been a difficult person to reach for his old friends.
2. The moment that comes in many commentaries hits early here around the 2:17 mark. It happens again around 19:02. And again at 1:36:35.
3. They’ve found that some audiences are surprised to learn that a film set in Los Angeles would feature coyotes. As a public service message, it’s worth pointing out to those people that yes, there are coyotes in the L.A. hills.
4. Kusama worked with “a really great violin player” to build sounds and pieces and then had composer Theodore Shapiro incorporate them into his score.
5. “We thought a lot about the ’70s a lot when we were writing this movie and making it, and so many of the influences of it are from the ‘70s.” The title font was inspired by All the President’s Men.
6. They shot chronologically for the most part.
7. Kusama points out the intentional framing of shots that frequently show Will apart from the others who are typically clustered together. She says “it becomes an isolation over the course of the film,” and that visual idea feeds the character and narrative.
8. They see the film’s first half or so as something of a black comedy of manners. “What we discovered is how much the movie is about being polite and how dangerous that can be.”
9. The character of Ben (Jay Larson) originally had a wife who was present at the party, but “because Amanda was cut from the script she got to live.” They trimmed her character as it added more “meat” for Ben to help give him some depth.
10. The writers had always imagined John Carroll Lynch as Pruitt and were thrilled to land him for the role. “We wrote it for him.”
11. There were only two dressing rooms during the shoot, one for the women and one for the men, but the filmmakers noticed a natural segregation occur between those involved in the cult and those who weren’t.
12. Kusama recalls Marshall-Green’s concern during production regarding “what it means to be the main character but to also be recessive and be paranoid.” He wondered if they could successfully “engage an audience in that struggle.” Hopefully he knows now that he succeeds.
13. The bathtub scene and Eden’s (Tammy Blanchard) suicide attempt in the kitchen were the last two scenes they shot. They were done in that order, but in retrospect they think they should have flipped them to end on a nice note.
14. The party game exists in part as an example of methods used by groups/cults to break down people’s walls. “Inhibitions are their enemy, boundaries are their enemy.”
15. Kusama sees Pruitt’s story about killing his wife as the “real tipping point” of the film. Small moments before this have raised the question as to whether you yourself would leave the gathering, but here is where it becomes too much for some leading one character to finally decide to go.
16. Kusama says the scene where Claire (Marieh Delfino) leaves the party and Pruitt stops to say something to her just outside of our view typically leaves viewers in one of two camps. Some “immediately make associations and create meanings from it, and others are more objectively sort of hanging back waiting to see what happens.”
17. They mention a visual “that you used to get” explaining what actually happens to Claire after she leaves but decide to save it for mentioning later. I’m noting this in case they forget because dammit I want to know!
18. The scene where Pruitt returns from helping Claire outside was trimmed “to let it remain a bit more mysterious.” They point out that he’s carrying a coat ‐ “I wonder why he’s holding a coat.” ‐ but Claire’s was white and this is black so what is happening here?!
19. They filmed the birthday cake scene just a few months before copyright claims to the “Happy Birthday” song were ruled invalid, so they were unable to have the characters sing.
20. Boom. Earlier cuts of the film featured a shot at 1:09:32 that pulls back to reveal a dying Claire outside in the bushes. It was a smart decision to cut it as not only would it have severely undercut the scene immediately following ‐ when the murders start ‐ but the mystery of her exit is one of the film’s many appealing touches.
21. Kusama says she doesn’t get the benefit of watching the movie knowing nothing about it which leaves her curious about the ways people interpret it on a first viewing. They mention screenings at film festivals before there was a poster or trailer and point out that “it’s really a special way to see a movie.” That’s especially true for a thriller like this, but I’d argue it’s the ideal way to catch any film.
22. Once everything goes to hell Kusama intentionally wanted the camera to become “impolite” after being so controlled and restrained to this point. “It becomes much more chaotic.”
23. “To me the film is so much about emotional violence,” says Kusama, so she hopes the moments of actual physical violence registers “for what they’re meant to be which is an assault on another living thing.” She succeeds thanks to the efforts of cast and crew, and it’s a worthy intention that more films featuring violence should aim to achieve.
24. Kusama had anxiety over filming the physical clash between Will and Pruitt because she “didn’t want it to feel gratuitous.” Marshall-Green had concerns as well saying he wasn’t sure how his character was supposed to overcome his larger opponent. The answer came to them during physical rehearsals when they realized it should be Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) who takes Pruitt down and saves Will.
25. The ending was one of the very first ideas/images that Hay and Manfredi conceived for the script. “We love movies where the final shot or series of shots tells you something that you couldn’t have known before or that changes everything.”
26. Kusama refers to the end credits song, Laura Marling’s “Devil’s Spoke,” as “evil folk” music.
27. Films referenced during the commentary or mentioned as influences include All the President’s Men, High and Low, Silence of the Lambs, Fargo, and Zodiac.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“That might be the last Saab in existence in Los Angeles.”
“He’s just trying to keep it together at some base level, which I identify with a lot.”
“I get why you would join, and I get why it’s terrifying.”
“I’m always thinking of Zodiac in some fashion.”
“We just heard a loud thump, and now I’m terrified.”
“I think a lot of genre films have devolved into ‘How creative are the kills?’”
The Invitation is a horror film with emotional weight, and Kusama and the writers share an awareness of what gives the film its power. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another seven years for her to gift us with a feature film again.
Check out the Commentary Commentary archives for more filmmaker goodness.