Interview: 'The Invitation' Director Karyn Kusama On Crafting Her Unsettling Thriller

Director Karyn Kusama made her directorial debut in 2000 with the critically acclaimed Girlfight. Her sophomore effort was the 2005 adaptation Æon Flux, which she didn't have enough creative control over. Kusama's third feature, 2009's Jennifer's Body, while divisive, isn't without its fans. Since making that horror-comedy, Kusama has directed episodes for Halt and Catch Fire and The Man in the High Castle, but after a six-year wait, the director's newest film, The Invitation, is now opening in theaters.

The unsettling thriller shows a dinner party gone wrong, told from the perspective of a potentially unreliable narrator, Will (Logan Marshall-Green). Written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, Kusama's film is driven by an emotional and unsettling atmosphere, an uneasy sense of dread and loss we discussed with the director.

Below, read our Karyn Kusama interview.

The sound in the movie is very piercing at times. What kind of conversations did you have with the sound department about the mood you wanted to evoke?

To me, sound is a crucial component to really any movie going experience, but particularly with suspense films or thrillers. I think you need the audience to become subtly really attuned to the soundscape in like this uncomfortable way. So we talked a lot about creating sounds that you almost sort of can't hear for a while but you can feel in the landscape a little bit and making it really subtle, then then sort of escalating how much you actually can hear and how much you do need to pay attention. Even with our sort of limited resources, we did our best to create an interesting soundscape for sure.

Right. Sometimes little things don't hit you until later in the movie. Like, when David and Will are standing in front of a window, David's face is somewhat distorted, which tells you a lot. The shot might not hit you right away, but maybe subconsciously it does. 

Yes, definitely. And I think the movie overall is definitely working with this sort of subtle, unconscious zone a lot of the time and trying to just be not too overt with the techniques, but just trying to sort of plant feelings for the audience as opposed to sort of banging them over the head with certain meanings, if that makes sense.

Completely. One thing [screenwriters] Matt Menfredi and Phil Hay said was imperative for the film was the three days of rehearsal. What did you learn through that process?

The rehearsal process was so useful for me, first and foremost, to really understand the physical movement of the night. Because we really shot the whole movie in that house and had to be...just had to be kind of confined to the house. I just needed to understand the space really well and understand sort of where characters were moving to, when they kind of departed from the group, departed from the action, and when they wanted to kind of be a part of things again. All of that stuff just made the night feel more real to me once we could kind of make those decisions.

And then, beyond all that, we were able to sort of start working out the emotional beats in the actors so there was a bit of a shorthand once we were shooting. It was just so great to have that extra time.

Shooting in that house with that ensemble cast, did you try to use a small crew?

It's funny, because I kept saying to everybody, "Oh, the crew has to be tiny. It has to be a skeleton crew." My producers were just like, "Yeah, yeah. Everyone says they want their skeleton crew until the skeleton can't move or function because there aren't enough people there to do all the stuff that needs to get done."

It ended up being a pretty big crew. I mean not a huge crew, but I would say there were always an additional 30 or 40 people just milling about doing their jobs. It was a tight environment, but we really kind of made it work for that sort of family feeling, in a way. And that was really great. It was a really good experience.

the invitation

Were there any major changes you made to the house to suit the story?

Yes, we did. This house was unusual because the space for the dining room was upstairs. And so, it created this interesting moment in the story where it was sort of like, OK, the pre-dinner party is over and now the night will begin. So we were able to sort of move everybody upstairs in this way that I felt kind of had a sort of interesting metaphorical possibility in terms of just sort of seeing everybody move to this next level, literally.

I don't know. I mean that was the kind of stuff that had to change based on the architecture of the house. We had never imagined, for instance, a screening room. But this house had a screening room. So there was something kind of cool about the confrontation between Pruitt and Kira and Will happening in the screening room that had an interesting feeling to it. So we definitely made adjustments based on the space before we started shooting.

You really hold certain shots and let the audience live in the moment with the characters, but the pace of the movie is still incredibly tight. When you got to the editing room, were you constantly tightening those shots or seeing how long they could last? 

It's so interesting because I feel like being able to be in control of your pace and not have that kind of dictated by other forces is sort of the holy grail for me of making movies. I don't know. I think for some people who are uncomfortable with the tension and with the suspense of the film, the slow burn structural quality is like it makes people uncomfortable. I think there are always going to be people who say even if they are engaged in the movie, they just want it to move faster. That's just not the movie I was making. I really wanted to make a movie where you felt a kind of unfolding of an event and unfolding of information, so that if you were already invested in it, you would feel 100% invested by the time it all pays off, if that makes sense. I think the only way to do that is to take the time to really allow the audience to sort of study and engage with the characters.

I might have labeled the film a "slow burn" when I first saw it, but it's worth noting something happens in almost every scene.

Yes! [Laughs.] I do think that genre films today, there is a demand that they just be sort of telling you and identifying their genre right away with signifying events. And this film, it just couldn't do that. We go so far as having the event in the car on the way to the party, but that's about as far as we were able to take it in terms of the sense of unease. Ultimately, it was crucial that the audience settle in to this dinner party enough to have to kind of question whether or not they are getting too comfortable with things and, in fact, are things as bad as they might seem for Will? All of those questions we had to keep alive, and that meant keeping it like a real night, you know, unfolding like a real dinner party.

Did you cut any scenes in post-production?

We did lose some things. The script clocks in at 96 pages or something. It was very efficiently written. We lost some dialogue from the opening of the movie that was filled with information we thought everyone needed, but it was just fascinating to sort of realize in cutting the film that the audience is just going to figure out the relationships over the course of the night and they don't need to be prepped for what they're about to see.

And then we lost some crucial scenes that, for instance, might have given you a clearer sense of the fate of some characters. We realized we didn't want to answer some of those questions so explicitly, so we left it more open-ended.

Obviously you've made a few genre films now, but do you have any stories in mind, more in the vein of Girlfight, that you're hoping to make? 

Oh, yeah. I'm ultimately drawn to film many kinds of stories if they are sort of about unlocking the secrets of our human potential. And so, I mean I definitely have movies that are much more sort of gentle kind of bittersweet stories that I think are kind of not as easily definable as genre. For me, I've just found that some of the genre films get made a little bit faster and then there's just the struggle to get those more kind of overtly personal or dramatic stories made. But I'll keep on trying for sure. [Laughs.]

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The Invitation opens in limited release April 8th.