“I’ve Always Felt There’s A Madness To Organized Societies” – An Interview With THE INVITATION Director Karyn Kusama

With the DVD/Blu-Ray release of The Invitation, I was able to snag a quick interview with the film’s director, Karyn Kusama.

Taking place in a Beverly Hills mansion in L.A over the course of an evening., Will and his girlfriend, Kira, join Will’s old friends for a dinner party. Hosting the party is Will’s ex-wife Eden and her boyfriend David, and a few of their awkward friends, Pruitt and Sadie.

As the the evening wears on, Will can’t help but shake the fact that there is something wrong and off with Eden and David and their two friends. Things escalate when Eden and David show an indoctrination video to a new belief system they have adopted, and quickly the evening becomes one of horrific terror and violence.

The film is incredibly brilliant, possibly boasting the best final shot of any film in 2016. It’s emblematic of our current western society and culture that has erupted in extreme violence of late.

The Invitation is a taut, Hitchcockian thriller that cuts at sophisticated living in L.A. I was fortunate enough to ask Kusama about some of the thematic elements that I found to work like gangbusters in the film. We touched upon pain and suffering, the passage of time, the movie’s relevance, and how in a certain light the film winds up having a type of happy ending.

[Editor’s note: beware of spoilers!]

Mike Daringer from Film Inquiry: First off, let me just say that The Invitation is a wonderful film.

Karen Kusama: Ah, thanks so much.

MD: Yeah. I caught it a few months ago and then just a couple weeks ago when it started streaming on Netflix.

Kusma: Thank you, I really appreciate that. That’s nice to hear.

MD: I’m a big fan of the Bret Easton Ellis podcast, and I listened to your lengthy and in-depth discussion of The Invitation with him. You guys ended up talking about how the film is set in L.A. and could only exist in the city at this time. How much influence was the city on the movie? Or was it just, kind of, over the years you coming away with a dissatisfaction of it? How much of working in the film business affected you decisions?

Kusama: Yeah, that’s interesting. It was a combination of things. It feels like though we could have told the story in Atlanta, or Toronto, or New York or other places, of course, that we could tell the same story.

But there’s a kind of an interesting mythology around Los Angeles and around Southern California, and a kind of very aspirational quality to the city and a real sense of striving. A real sense of people coming to Los Angeles to reinvent their lives, to reinvent their identities, and I think that allows for a lot of fringe elements in a way that contribute to a lot of different belief systems.

An Interview with THE INVITATION Director Karyn Kusama
source: Drafthouse Films

Whether that’s New Age or that’s the notion of celebrity itself, which we’ve just sort of come to accept as normal, but in fact I think if we look at it closely it’s pretty crazy how much we pay attention to people’s lives. Kind of, within that sphere of celebrity culture.

And so, for me, it felt very much like a Los Angeles story. The landscape. The center, just where these hills are quite steep through Hollywood, and on the other side of the valley where people have continued to build houses and where people are just hanging off cliffs. That to me, that is very particular to LA. We just knew we wanted to explore that.

MD: Great. That perfectly fits into my next question. Death is the most obvious symbol and metaphor and conceit of the film, and that’s hanging over every single frame and image. But the movie also seems to be a lot about the awkwardness of dinner parties. How dinner parties, and parties in general, are a form of widespread validation. It’s a wonderful concept where you meet up with a bunch of people and then slowly, throughout the course of dinner, start peeling back the layers formalities, and milieu breakdowns. Can you speak to what your intent was in cutting at customs and traditions?

Kusama: It was very important to us to explore the notion of courtesy, and politeness, and how in the case of this story it’s sort of blunting your more reasonable animal/human instincts, about whether or not you’re safe. (Laughs)

You know, I think we particilarly as Americans we really prize our common comforts and conveniences. And that stuff actually is a way to sort of not be looking more critically at the world we’re living in. So in some ways this movie is like an extreme example of a party in which everyone is made to feel comfortable in some ways, with nice wine and beautiful food.

But then there’s something underneath it all that is unstable and terrifying. That feels like where we are culturally, in some respects.

MD: Absolutely. As I had mentioned, the biggest theme of The Invitation is death and coming to terms with death. With what we’ve been talking about, with this almost implosion or explosion of violence that’s going on everywhere does the movie feel more timely now than when it was released a year ago? Is it surreal to see what’s going on in the news and globally how people are starting to unravel?

Kusama: Yeah. I think for me I’ve always felt like there’s a kind of madness to our organized societies. We very much want to have order and stability, but that doesn’t really quite account for individual expression of oneself.

So there’s a lot of grey area that we can perceive as really liberates people, really free people, and we can also see an uglier side to that, that’s not very open-minded or particularly free.

And so for me I feel like the movie doesn’t feel more timely. It feels like it simply always going to be relevant in some way because until something radically changes in society as we know it, human beings might be one of the only animal species that’s high up on the food chain that manage to treat each other so poorly.

And so that’s really interesting to me, the failure of our similarities, to actually bridge all the perceived differences. I think it makes people behave in very odd ways. The movie was always something I wanted to make simply because it’s never going to go away, the tension between organized society and the expression of the individual self.

MD: Since it’s a faux-cult that does everyone in, I guess you’d say, was there any religious aspect that you were trying to address? Or was that their method of getting in and to the party guests?

Kusama: You know it’s funny. Other people call this belief system in the movie a cult. I actually feel like we’re surrounded by all kinds of cults. I don’t necessarily want to even agree with the idea that The Invitation is all that different from expression or interpretations of all kinds of belief systems.

Whether or not that’s major world religions, whether or not that’s capitalism, whether or not that’s a belief in military might.

Oftentimes what happens in all of those thought systems, we, as a society, make decisions for other people that desperately harm their lives. That’s something I wanted to explore on this micro level. Right, so that’s kind of what the film is, this really distilled version of belief systems that I am trying to unpack around all sorts of religions.

MD: One of the interesting things I found watching it a second time around was something Eden says after the group watches the indoctrination video. Paraphrasing, she says ‘death isn’t something we should be afraid of’. Other characters say similar things to the same affect. But watching it the first time it’s like, yeah, she’s right, reaffirming that we shouldn’t be scared of death. Then the second it reads completely differently. I saw it as her saying esoterically, “We’re about to kill you guys, but just so you know it’s not going to hurt.”

Kusuma: (Laughs loudly) Yeah, exactly. Well, and she welcomes death. There are people, there’s cultures, and we’re all apart of it, I don’t see myself as having different impulses, that this part of our life. That we claim to be interested in making a better life but often times really what we’re marching towards is death and destruction.

An Interview with THE INVITATION Director Karyn Kusama
source: Drafthouse Films

For me that’s what the movie is exploring. And I hope that it’s not so simple, and like in some ways what she’s saying true: we do need to have a more healthy relationship to death. But on the other hand, part of where Eden is coming from in that moment is not going to turn out well for most people at that party.

MD: I briefly want to talk about how gorgeous the film is. It’s really terrific. The use of space is made clear and when you move the camera it is quite dynamic and fantastic. The final shot sticks out for a number of reasons, but the one shot that comes to my mind first is when everyone is going upstairs for dinner and its in slow-motion. You employ slow-motion other times throughout the film, but I was curious what your decision was, or thought process was at this time to shoot it that way in that scene?

Kusama: It was one of those interesting moments where in rehearsing I realized we really need to have a transitional moment in the film where the movie takes a breathe and tells the audience we’re entering a new chapter. It was a natural thing for me because it was one of these unusual houses where the first floor might have the kitchen and a living room, but the second floor might have the dining room and the bedrooms.

You know, it’s not laid out in a normal way and so I knew there was going to be a moment where the characters had to make their way upstairs for dinner, which isn’t what most people understand as the architecture of a house. And so I felt like since we were in that house for almost all 20 of our shooting days it was important that people understood the space.

But there was also something about seeing everybody in their individual shoes, and maybe a couple people are barefoot or almost barefoot, where I realized just seeing the details of what each of these characters wear tells me so much of who they are.

And there was also this idea of ascension. Traveling up a staircase had real power to me in a really simple and elemental way. So luckily I was able to find some of those things as I was rehearsing and in the process of shooting. I feel really lucky that though the pace of shooting was very fast and had to be very decisive, I was able to be present with the creative process.

MD: So was that similar to once the murders start happening and everything slows down, was that through the process of filming or was it something similar in, say, semiotics?

Kusama: I always felt that when I read that particular passage of the film, that transition into mayhem, what’s expected is chaos and immediacy in a raw aesthetic. I was interested by how, when trauma happens to us, we have a different relationship to time. I thought it would be interesting.

Like when we were rehearsing it, it was really hard for the actors to understand at that point, I had to keep reminding them, “Guys, what we’re doing is going to take about six seconds in real time, but it’s going to be dissected on the screen and you’re going to see individual moments of reaction and moments of emotions across everybody’s face. It’s really going to be studied. So give yourself the permission to actually be present to all this stuff because it’s not going to fly by.”

An Interview with THE INVITATION Director Karyn Kusama
source: Drafthouse Films

I’m shooting some of it at 120 fps, so it was interesting because I knew that that’s what I wanted to do. To take what becomes the first genuinely shocking moment of the film and boil it down so as to investigate it and see the components of it.

MD: Fantastic. Just kind of over-arching everything we’ve been talking about, with pain and death and how we react, how you were just mentioning time and our relationship to it, film, itself, is like the greatest memory machine. Will is struggling with pain and suffering and obviously everyone else in the film is too. Was there any chance when you guys were writing this that the story could have a happy ending, or was it just that we’re too dark as a species to earn one?

Kusama: It’s funny because to me, though this is probably going to sound, I don’t want to say dishonest because I feel it honestly for myself, that the movie does have a light at the end of the tunnel. In that we’ve watched a character who has experienced this loss, has experienced every waking moment wrapped up in that loss. And really thought that just getting through the day is part of the survival process.

There’s something to me that about the fact that he goes through this incredibly cathartic, violent, cataclysmic event and survives it, affirming his desire to live. And to look at another person and protect them and attempt to get out of this madness in that house.

I don’t know, that to me isn’t a happy ending, but an ending I’d rather have than a more feel-good ending in any way. So it was always about that, the extremities of what he had to go through to reaffirm his interest in being alive.

The Invitation is streaming on Netflix in most regions. It was released on July 26 on Blu-Ray in the US.

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