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Interview: Karyn Kusama, Director of ‘The Invitation’

The Invitation is a film you’re going to want to see. Partially that’s because it’s excellent, a haunting examination of grief and disconnect in the form of a thrilling horror film that ratchets tension with uncomfortable brilliance. You’ll also want to see it because genre works like this one have become great points of discourse for those in the know (see The BabadookIt Follows). The Invitation will be no different, its narrative (dinner party gone awry, the rest is best left unsaid) offering plenty of room for discussions about perspective, tone and these actors’ abilities. We begin that conversation for you with the film’s director, Karyn Kusama.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

CUT PRINT FILM: Logan Marshall-Green, who plays the lead, and Michiel Huisman sort of mirror each other in their appearance. Was that a conscious decision in casting, or costuming or just a coincidence?

KARYN KUSAMA: It’s interesting, because when I met Logan he might have had some facial hair but I just told him to keep growing it. I think there’s something about men when they’re grieving. It feels like they often kind of bury themselves under facial hair. And then I thought it was really interesting that when I met Michiel there was this very obvious similarity somehow between the two of them. And to me what I thought was interesting was the idea that Michiel’s character David could sort of be the superficial upgrade from [Marshall-Green’s character] Will for Eden. Somehow she sort of found the guy that kind of recalls her ex-husband but is sort of cleaned up and spiffier and more comfortable in his own skin. It definitely was conscious.

CUT PRINT FILM: This film is so firmly told from Will’s perspective, yet it’s also something of an ensemble piece. How do you balance those two, developing supporting characters while keeping the point-of-view firm?

KARYN KUSAMA: We talked about it so much. We really had to keep a very clear focus on every filmmaking choice in terms of the lenses and the framing we employed and just the emphasis we gave to certain scenes. Some scenes would play extremely subjective, extremely in Will’s head, while other scenes at least at the beginning needed to play a bit neutrally. Not that there’s ever a truly objective approach to filming a scene. Once you start filming it, it becomes objective. But I wanted to try and balance a more conventional, traditional film language in which you sort of felt like everyone was connected and in the same reality with Will’s point of view, which was less connected and much more of a heightened reality. So it’s interesting that you ask that question because the process of  negotiating between those two states of filmmaking techniques was actually an ongoing one and we always had to have that conversation.

CUT PRINT FILM: Another technique that’s prominent in the film is the use of color: yellows for interiors, blues for exteriors, red or pink playing a key role. Can you speak to your use of color?

KARYN KUSAMA: It’s funny, there was something about the script that made me immediately think in those terms, in terms of a color palette that was quite graphic. The interiors largely felt amber and yellow and brown, kind of having these warmer tones. Then there was something about nighttime and memory having to occupy this dusty, blue and purple zone. And then of course in films like that, if you stick to that color scheme then of course red becomes inevitably a powerful statement. So yeah, I was definitely thinking about color from the beginning on some instinctual level.

CUT PRINT FILM: This film reminded me of Coherence in some ways, tapping into the unease of some dinner parties: an intimate setting often with some people you barely know. How did you work that dissonance into the film?

 

karynKARYN KUSAMA: Well it’s funny because to me that dissonance is often times the definition of family. So I kind of feel that sitting down at a table together with people you feel are family or you feel close to, along with people you don’t know as well, it just naturally all feels intimate to me, just by putting people close together and having them share food. As a side note, I’m a total entertainer and constantly cooking and entertaining and having people over and trying to introduce people to one another and all of that stuff. So I’m very attuned to the dynamics that happen at a table and all of the efforts a good host or hostess needs to make to keep a night feeling comfortable. So the idea of the dinner party just going batshit wrong is devilishly entertaining to me.

CUT PRINT FILM: Speaking to that notion of intimacy, the film gets across the feeling that these characters have shared pasts and have known each other for years. How do you work with actors to create that sense of history and chemistry?

KARYN KUSAMA: We were really lucky because we had a two day rehearsal process, so we were able to put the actors in a room and get every single scene up on its feet and see how it was working on a blocking level and on an emotional, authenticity level. Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi, the writers and producers of the movie, we were able to sit down with every actor and talk to them about how we saw their character and what we thought their “in a nutshell” life history was. And then we were also able to put actors together and talk to them about the dynamics of what we saw their relationships as. It was just a nice opportunity to give guidelines but not necessarily give rules. We were just offering a direction to the actors and then they could, having sat with us and all talked about it together and individually, work on that on their own and come back to the shooting day having ingested some of that.

It’s interesting because, on the one hand, of course it’s a large ensemble and there were people who didn’t know each other. But surprisingly John Carroll Lynch had worked with Tammy Blanchard, and she had worked with Mike Doyle. Jordi Vilasuso, who plays Miguel, had worked with John and Tammy as well, Logan was really close to Mike. So it was kind of this interesting thing that happened that was not at all conscious, it was just purely by coincidence that some of the actors really did know each other quite well. That allowed for a kind of texture of familiarity that just made for a nice rapport and a nice kind of chemistry among all the actors.

CUT PRINT FILM: Did that process with the actors have any effect on the script?

KARYN KUSAMA: In the rehearsal process, because we were able to go through every single scene, if there were slight adjustments or ideas that came up that helped keep things authentic, we would make those changes. But for the most part the script was sort of like a swiss watch. It was very particular, very precise from the beginning. There was never a sense that Phil and Matt didn’t know the direction they wanted to take the scenes on a narrative and tonal level. So we stuck pretty close to it. But that’s what’s so great about having a rehearsal process is we could also find little moments and give them a little more amplification simply because we were able to run through everything in a freer environment than when you’re rolling the camera. For the most part we stuck to the script entirely but we had that time to experiment and make sure everything was working.

CUT PRINT FILM: The script is so structurally thorough, constantly paying off small ideas in powerful ways especially in something like the final shot. How do you, as a director, highlight moments to make them clear without giving away what twists they’ll lead to?

KARYN KUSAMA: It’s funny because making this movie was very exciting for me because even though it was confined to this one space,  think we trick ourselves into thinking that would be simpler or easier. In fact the script demanded this incredibly delicacy between revealing details or setting up details that would pay off later as well as maintaining this texture of real life happening over the course of a night. It almost plays in real time. So it was a real challenge to figure out, “okay, how can I introduce certain details in a way that allows the audience to hook into them and absorb them but not fixate on them.” The point of the script and what made it so exciting to read the first time is it felt like there were multiple outcomes that were possible, multiple realities that could be happening behind the scenes. So it was really important to keep those outcomes alive in the audience’s head without offering straight-up red herrings, which I have to say I don’t always love because I feel a little bit tricked by them. It was a challenge. I hope I was somewhat successful in riding that line between offering clues and not spelling it all out.

CUT PRINT FILM: Yeah, I really appreciate that idea of not feeling cheated. Like we meet two characters and they seem weird and you think “cult” and pretty soon after the film admits that. It doesn’t hold out when it’s unnecessary, so it never feels frustrating but it also keeps us from figuring everything out too soon.

KARYN KUSAMA: Exactly. There’s some people who react to the film in this way where they know, given how the film has to exist in relation to other films out there on a Friday night when you choose a movie, certain signposts have to have been communicated already to the viewer. So you go into it kinda knowing there’s gonna be trouble on this night. But what I’m at least hoping is viewers have to ask themselves, “well what kind of trouble” and “how will it happen” and “who will instigate it” because those were the questions of the script, which I hope we kept alive in the finished film.

CUT PRINT FILM: One other film comparison; The Invitation reminded me a lot of The Babadook in the sense that both examine grief through the lens of horror.

KARYN KUSAMA: It’s so funny, because when I finally got to see The Babadook, I was like “oh my god, we’re working in such thematically rich and similar territory” and it was just thrilling to see this other fabulously talented director [Jennifer Kent] getting to do that with her film. I thought she just knocked that one out of the park, double home run if there’s such a thing.

For me, the notion of grief as this agent of change is so interesting. I definitely have had my share of losses early in life and they were really transformative experiences. And yet they could have been completely distorting and monstrous experiences had I not had the good fortune to find ways to let those feelings live in me and process them, for want of a better word. So the notion of grief that goes unaddressed, that felt truly monstrous to me. That was a really interesting thing to play with, this idea that all of these characters have their sorrows and they’re all dealing with them in different ways. But there are some ways that just incorporate utter denial that really become terrifying. This denial of the self and pain and emotional life, that’s the stuff that leads to utter mayhem in one’s personal life, even on this sort of larger, macro-cultural level. So, to me, as we were making the movie I was thinking about the fact that we were entering into the worst opioid epidemic that the U.S. has ever seen, that we are kind of this nation addicted to painkillers literally and figuratively. And then all of the emotion around that, the anger, the sadness, the shock, the sorrow. There’s just so much wrapped up in not facing the demons of our lives. That felt like a real world place to start in telling this story.

The Invitation opens April 8 in select theaters.

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Josh Oakley is a writer for Cut Print Film and runs the pop culture blog Wine and Pop.

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