Director Karyn Kusama burst onto the scene with her 2000 boxing movie, Girlfight, which also launched the career of a then-unknown Michelle Rodriguez. Her new film, The Invitation, is a different beast altogether: It’s a slow-burning thriller in which, by very deliberate design, you never quite know who to believe. Should we trust Will, the man attending the dinner party of his ex-wife and their friends, plus a few new folks she picked up in Mexico? Or should we trust everyone else, who just thinks Will needs to relax? Vulture caught up with Kusama to talk about building suspense without blowing things up, populating a movie with emotional trauma, and the difficulty of funding films while female.
What drew you to this script, and what was the process like of putting the project together?
It was a long process. [Laughs.] It’s an arduous process. For me, there’s something about a certain kind of genre film that has real potency in its emotional landscape. This movie felt like it lived in that family, with these themes of grief and loss and sorrow and denial and how dangerous all of those things can be in our lives if we don’t quite know how to recognize them. It just felt very powerful to me, and it felt like that was actually driving the story toward an extreme, but real, conclusion. There’s something demanding about the movie in that it asks the audience to be patient, and then, in my opinion, it rewards that patience.
When you say it’s challenging, do you see that as the delayed acknowledgment of the main character Will’s suspicions, and the way we’re asked to follow along with the doubt and confusion of the characters?
It’s a little bit of both. Those two things you’re discussing were crucial elements of the story, and we received some feedback early in the process where people said they would make the movie if the shit hit the fan in the first ten minutes. [Laughs.] I was like, “I’m not interested in a movie where the shit hits the fan in the first ten minutes, and it’s certainly not the right thing to do with this film.” I loved the fact that you could be watching the film and having to interrogate it before things get a little bit clearer — and even when they get clearer, they’re so chaotic and insane that you’re still forced to try and put the pieces together.
If you look at most mainstream filmmaking, to be honest, some of these films aren’t even asking questions anymore at all. The fact that this film was doing that and then delaying a sense of clarity meant it wasn’t going to be a film for everybody.
How did you try to represent the divide between Will and the other characters visually? You’re working in a contained space, so obviously every action becomes even more important.
The [director of photography] and I, Bobby Shore, took time to think about a basic strategy in terms of how we saw Will in the space. We talked a lot about keeping Will outside of the center of the frame, always sort of having him on the edge of frames or even only showing a piece of him, only seeing a sliver of him. Overall, we were trying to find a very subjective film language where, over time, if you felt like you were in Will’s head, that was a good thing. But the next step was to create the sense that if you’re in Will’s head, you may not actually be getting a very reliable translation of what’s happening.
How did you guys determine what you wanted the cult within the film, the Invitation, to look like?
It came out of Phil and Matt’s original intention when they started talking about the script — a sense of discomfort with how quickly we’re asked to move on from our pain, culturally and societally. What is very meaningful about the Invitation, the big lie and the big seduction of this particular belief system, is imagining this world in which there’s no conflict, a world where pain is this completely unnecessary element of growth. That to me is antithetical to the state of being alive, you know? There’s something both really beautiful and completely terrifying about any belief system that says, “What if we could make all that go away?” I get why we don’t want to be in pain, but there’s something very essential about what happens when we’re in pain and some of the growth that can come from it if we stare at it straight in the face.
This was funded by Gamechanger, which funds films directed by women. As a female director, have you found it difficult to get financing in the past? How has that influenced your experience getting movies made?
It sort of speaks for itself that after years of trying to get the movie made, the company that finally made the movie — or primarily financed it, anyway — is a company committed to financing movies directed by women. That’s what it’s come to, and that’s just really fucking sad. I recognize how it’s surprising to hear that Gamechanger exists, and it’s interesting because it’s doing the thing that unconsciously has been done for over a century, which is that people just hire men because they’re men and we trust men. There’s now this little corner of the world that Gamechanger is occupying that’s saying, “Let’s work on promoting the work of women and see what happens.” I hope we get to a place where we don’t really need to have those kinds of organizations, but at this point, we clearly do.