On the dangers of being polite — a conversation about THE INVITATION with Karyn Kusama

Utilizing a production budget of roughly $1 million and a single location—a mid-century house high in the Hollywood Hills—The Invitation is a slow-burning, dread-inducing exploration of pain and adult relationships.

Theatrically distributed by Drafthouse Films earlier this year and recently released on Netflix, The Invitation was the centerpiece of last year’s Stanley Film Festival. Following the screening, I had a chance to speak with director Karyn Kusama about how The Invitation relates to the horror genre, the genesis of the project and why politeness might be our civil undoing. Warning: spoilers follow.

Michael Casey: What does the horror genre mean to you?

Karyn Kusama: I think the horror genre has something — for me — has something to do with our most profound fears and anxieties becoming literalize. I know that sounds pretty simple, but drama has ways to skirt around that, and horror has ways to demand that we confront the thing we’re most afraid of. And so, that’s what keeps me interested in it. But I would say that’s the difference, on a structural level, from other forms.

MC: You mean drama versus horror in [the movie’s] climax?

KK: We always understood that the structural conceit of the film was going to be challenging. We always understood that it was a big, long build; a slow burn of a drama in which everyone could have thrown up their hands and gone home at the end of the night, to be fair.

There were a lot of other avenues to explore that would have really kept it a pure drama. But there was something to me about the promise of those anxieties, and those tendrils of terror and paranoia, over the course of the night that would be so interesting if it really did take a radical left turn, which it does. I think that’s part of the way this film operates for people as horror. I don’t really, necessarily, strictly call it that, because I don’t want to derail people’s expectations that demons are going to jump out of closets or anything, but I do think it’s an interesting experiment for me in what happens if you build up a feeling for so long that the question exists, “Will anything actually happen?” And then you answer it. And somehow that becomes another harsher version of horror. It’s an interesting conundrum, the structural question of the movie. We always knew it would be challenging.

MC: I almost hesitate to call it a horror movie, because it’s more an American independent movie, which plays fast and loose with genre.

KK: A movie I’ve been thinking about a lot, and I definitely watched with Phil [Hay] and Matt [Manfredi, the writers] at some point… Did you ever see the Jonathan Demme movie, Something Wild?

MC: Yes.

KK: It’s got this sort of breezy, crazy comedy feeling for the first hour and a half, and Ray Liotta enters the picture and the last 20 minutes — in comparison to what we just watched — are kind of bonkers and go into this very strange, violent territory. It suddenly becomes a really sobering drama. And I think that kind of wild swing, if you can pull it off — I, of course, am never sure what my success rate is in doing that — but with this film, that was the challenge. Can I pull off a pretty extreme veer into something that suddenly doesn’t feel like polite drama, but feels a little bit more like visceral thriller?

MC: How do you then — as you’re developing it and working on the script — how do you pull it off?

KK: It really was kind of mapping out the night. Mapping out the events and mapping out the narrative visual techniques that I wanted to employ that put the audience a bit on edge. On the same edge our main character is in — is on. A feeling like, “Am I crazy? Or is it odd that this just happened?” And then, suddenly having something happen that’s like: “Oh, I am crazy!” You know, that kind of stuff. Finding little setups, events, reversals of events, and then finding ways to film certain things — that could be played as straight drama. Film them as a little more insistently paranoid or claustrophobic, so that we’re just not meant to be fully in control, I guess, of our certainty. That we know what is happening.

The Invitation courtesy of Drafthouse Films
The Invitation courtesy of Drafthouse Films

Using dual protagonists to draw the audience in, The Invitation centers around Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his new girlfriend, Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) who have come to Will’s old house to attend his ex-wife’s dinner party. Since the death of his son, Will has lived in a self-imposed exile from this house and these people. Kira, an outsider coming in for the first time, is the audience’s stand-in and is uncommonly understanding, supportive and polite.

Karyn Kusama: That’s a huge theme we’re playing with: the obligation people feel to be polite and the dangers of being polite beyond your best instincts. I feel like it would make sense to leave that party, and of course someone in the party does, but I think a lot of people feel that is too much of a social transgression. You know? It’s hard to just get up from all of your friends and say, “You know what? I am weirder out, I’m leaving.”

MC: “I feel very uncomfortable here.” Because then it’s all about you.

KK: Yes, exactly! And all of a sudden it’s like, “I don’t want to put the spotlight on me…”

MC: “But I am, and I know I’m going to leave this room and there is going to be ten people…”

KK: “Talking about me!” Yes, exactly!

MC: Where did the germ of the idea come from? It wasn’t at a dinner party from hell?

KK: No, it was not at a dinner party from hell. I would say that, both Phil and Matt — when they were writing it, when they first starting talking about it — I know what was guiding them was a two-pronged idea. One is: what if you knew someone, and loved someone, very, very deeply and time passes and you see him or her again and you feel like they’re a stranger? There is an inherently horrifying kernel in that.

And then, also this question of — and I think I identified with the script for the same reasons that they started writing it — they were exploring grief and the grieving process and what happens when you come up against people’s resistance to the process of grieving. A lot of people like for that to be something that has its own discreet period.

From the beginning of time, people have been wearing mourning clothes, they’re given their two weeks or their month, and then they walk back out into the sun and it’s kind of supposed to be a get on with your life message. They, Matt and Phil, really wanted to explore that idea; what if having to process grief really quickly, and get it out of your system and be done with it, what if that’s more dangerous than just the pain you’re actually in? And, what is a world where we deny or dampen our suffering? Is that a meaningful world? Is that an authentic world?

MC: When did the climax essentially come in?

KK: Oh, I think they always knew on a structural level it was going to go pretty haywire. I think they always understood that, but how they got there probably took some time. Because it was a lot of puzzle pieces to have to fit together.

MC: What’s your pre-production process like?

KK: I do like to storyboard. It was interesting in that house, because we spend most of the movie in that house. I had to be thinking about the house as this landscape. I really needed to take advantage of every interesting corner and angle and so that dictated looking at the structure. The layout, the physical layout of the house, dictated back to me how I storyboarded. And not all sequences are boarded, but some were because I knew I had to do little subtle things that told the audience that they could relax looking at somebody. Just in how they were framed. I looked at a lot of movies that really had beautiful framing to remind me the subtle kind of imperceptible things that happen when you just frame characters in space and how you sort of have certain beliefs or trust and mistrust about them based on how their framed.

MC: And maintain the space…

KK: It was really hard.

MC: You didn’t tear out walls or anything?

KK: We didn’t. No, we were in somebody’s actual house.

MC: Was that a case study house?

KK: It looks a little bit like it; it’s bigger than one of those case study houses. We just need a little more space. It was originally a big movie star’s house, and his son passed away in that house. It was haunted. It felt like energetically pretty strange and no one had lived there since. Because, I guess the real estate [agent], you have to disclose if somebody died. And so people would use it as a vacation home, but they would never live there.

It was a really interesting place to be. … It was in the bones of the house, the dark wood paneling, the dark, dark floors it has a vibe. Very beautiful house, but it definitely had spookiness as we were working in it.

We always knew that the most general way to look at the visual scheme of the movie … was formal, controlled, precise. Almost suffocating, in its controlled quality, until it can’t be controlled — until everything goes out of control. Then it’s just extremely immediate and not at all calling attention to the filmmaking. It just becomes visceral.

Like all good movies, particularly horror movies, The Invitation carries many metaphors and interpretations. Though the movie is formally precise, it is not stifling.

Karyn Kusama: I do see [The Invitation] as a giant metaphor. I think that it’s really hard for all of us to get along. … We live in this really unusual culture that’s quite mixed, quite diverse; there’s a lot of room to hear a lot of different opinions. And as we evolve as social beings, [we] confront that. We’re really forced to tolerate a lot of different opinions about the world, a lot of different opinions about how to do things. That’s a challenge. I see the value of monolithic thought systems, because one could argue, “Oh, that’s just a simpler, cleaner way to go.”

I think this movie is attempting to address the danger of any monolithic system of thought, but then also pull the lid off how difficult it is to tolerate difference and tolerate our own individual strangeness and eccentricity. And that’s a big part of what social anxiety is about. Will shows up to this party, he doesn’t want to be there and he’s in a lot of pain, and people have a hard time with that. People just don’t really know how to be supportive or embrace it, or deny it. So it’s like everyone’s uncomfortable from the beginning.

MC: And he has a hard time that no one else is, seemingly, acknowledging the pain they’re in.

KK: Absolutely.

MC: Even though they’re all just horrifically wrecked by guilt.

KK: That’s the whole thing! In pointing out the elephant in the room, he becomes the elephant in the room. And so, it’s a little bit about the horror of loneliness, the horror of putting yourself separate from others, the necessity to break out of that some times. And take someone’s hand and say, “We’re going to figure this out.” Life is worth living after all; let’s just get to the end of this. Which is a little bit about what the movie is confronting too, which is this notion that it’s worth living, despite how hard it is.

MC: Taking her hand at the end and this idea of: together we can get through this.

KK: Sometimes we can’t just be islands. That’s a fantasy unto itself. We have to depend on other people and surrender to the fact we are not free agents. I think we’d all like to be, but that’s just no way to have a life here on Earth.