Programs Wed 3.11.2015

To the Studios and Back Again: Karyn Kusama On Her Return To Indie Film

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After more than a decade in the studio world, Karyn Kusama makes her return to independent film with her latest, The Invitation. Her 2000 debut, Girlfight, a boxing drama starring a then-unknown Michelle Rodriquez, won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and was nominated for two Film Independent Spirit Awards (Best Debut Performance and Best First Feature). The film catapulted Kusama into the studio realm where she directed her next two pictures: Aeon Flux and Jennifer’s Body.

With The Invitation, Kusama returns to her independent roots. The film, a thriller about a man who returns to his ex-wife’s home for a dinner party, will have its world premiere at SXSW on March 13.  Producer (and FIND fellow) Mynette Louie told Deadline that the story features “emotional drama, action and blood—all of which Karyn has previously shown herself to be adept at.” Film Independent’s Jennifer Kushner caught up with Kusama and discussed everything from pros and cons of test screenings to bringing her son to work.

Can you talk about what prompted your transition back to independent film and what it’s been like?
I wanted to get back to independent filmmaking mostly for the creative experience of it, the ability to, at least in theory, be the person in charge of the movie. The studio experiences I’ve had have taught me a lot, and I’ve been very grateful to have had those experiences and to understand the costs associated with all of the resources that come your way. And in many respects, if you can navigate it, it’s an incredible opportunity to make movies with studios because there’s an instant investment in getting your movie out into the world. But on the flip side, it’s also much more of a collective of voices influencing what happens to your movie, particularly in the production and post phases. So for me, I was really excited to make something that I knew I couldn’t make at a studio. But that still operated in an area that interests me, which is a kind of hybrid genre space. And because the script that I was working with—written by my husband and his partner, who are also producers on the movie—takes place largely in one location, it just felt like a natural fit that it be a low budget indie feature. And it meant that we could pretty much make the movie we wanted to make and express the anxieties that the movie expresses without feeling like we had to sacrifice to reach more people.

How did time limitations affect the creative choices you made on this film?
I think all movies manage to be the byproduct of their circumstances. In this case, I feel like I had to screen the movie in more unusual circumstances. After the studio experience, you get very used to screenings with hundreds of people and [comment] cards, and at times, a brutal system of getting feedback on your movie. But you get to be in a big theater, see it up on a big screen, and be in the room to feel how the movie is playing. And that takes resources, plain and simple. You can’t afford to do that with movies of this size. So I had to trust some of my closest friends and colleagues to give me very tough feedback as a way to understand what was happening with the movie. Because the ideal situation was never available to me. It meant that I had to work off my gut reactions but also the gut reactions of some of my closest creative colleagues.

How did the project come together? Were you involved from the initial idea?
My husband Phil Hay and his partner Matt Manfredi wrote [The Invitation]. It plays like a psychological drama but there’s definitely a suspense element from the first moment of the script. For a while, I think, they wanted to direct it and then they decided they didn’t want to direct it, and all of a sudden we were sort of all staring at each other like “Hey, can I direct it?” And it just became a family affair, which is a really nice way to work if one can swing it.

What was your preparation like? How much time did you have and how did you spend it?
Well, I had a couple years [while we were] looking for money to prepare and to be thinking, and to be making look books, and to be watching movies. And investigating for myself the themes of the movie, which have a lot to do with the value of suffering and loss, and making loss a part of our lives instead of something we deny and reject. And then when it came time to prep—and this is what’s crazy about making movies in this space—I had four weeks. A lot of that time was spent looking for our hero location, finally getting into that location, and working out the mechanics of keeping one house alive. That was a big creative challenge to be basically in one location and to keep one location with sometimes 10 or 11 and eventually 12 characters there at the same time. So in some regards, the prep period, which on another movie would be spent looking at multiple costume ideas and multiple design ideas, was more a question of how to think about staging and framing and the compositional elements of the film. It was like telling a story in a lab environment and having to imagine how to keep it unfolding in an interesting way.

Did you have any time with the actors beforehand?
We did. I wanted a week of rehearsal, but when you are working on a budget of this size, it’s really not possible. Maybe next time I would make [rehearsal] an untouchable piece of the budget. We did get two days of rehearsal. A lot of the people in the group are meant to be very old friends. We discovered as soon as everyone gathered that a lot of them already knew each other and had worked together and were close, so that was interesting. There are also people meant to be newcomers to the group this evening and it was really fun to work out how they are threaded through the story spatially. Another amazing advantage to working at this budget level is there is far less pressure to hire actors that have international name value. So I was able to just work with great actors, across the board, that really wanted to be there. That created a different vibe, right there. There was no power play. There was really no power to play for,  because we were all in it together making little to no money at all. The weekend before we started shooting I hosted a big dinner with the cast and crew. In a funny way the dinner was a meta re-creating of the movie. There was something really nice about that, to recognize it’s those simple things, it’s letting people into your life in some way, that can inform how you’re going to work together.

You were mentioning liking to work in this hybrid genre space.
It’s going to be the death of me, but yes.

How so?
Because I think genre is successful when it’s doing the thing it’s supposed to do—answering that call in the audience for something that pushes certain buttons and makes us feel safe in…what we think is going to happen. I’m more interested in movies that manage to subvert those expectations a little bit, for better or for worse, maybe demand a little bit more or demand a something a bit different from the audience. It means the movies are harder to figure out from a marketing and sales perspective. Creatively, it makes them more perilous territory to actually complete.

How do you find a consistent tone when you have this hybrid going on?
Tone is so challenging. That’s where screenings come in. It’s so important to be sitting at the back of the theater watching the audience. To me, if everyone is absolutely still, no matter what they write on the cards later, I have to believe there is something pulling them in to what they’re watching. I think body language tells you as much about your movie in a screening as what people’s comments are afterwards. You can just feel moments when things are dying on the screen or when things are coming alive.

Tone is its own voodoo animal; some movies survive on a very strange, very bizarre tone. I think of movies like Mulholland Drive. While I’m watching that, I’m thinking, ‘What is happening here? What reality is being explored here?’ But it makes me so uncomfortable in some sort of broader way that by the end, I walk out of that movie feeling like someone has peeled back the skin of a place. A very strange, sustained, decisively weird tone works.

What was your process like with your DP?
I actually got prep with him. We talked a lot about movies whose looks were important to us, and sometimes they didn’t even have a direct bearing on the movie. My DP is a guy from Canada named Bobby Shore. When he first read the script, he kept talking about Klute. That’s such an important movie for me so we were in the right universe. [The visual style of Klute] has something to do with not seeing everything you want to be seeing. He was also talking about Birth, the Jonathan Glazer film, which was really interesting to me, because I hadn’t really considered it. As I was watching it again I was like ‘Oh, it’s an interesting reference to bring up in regards to this movie.’ Then we started talking about High and Low, the [Akira] Kurosawa movie where the first half takes place in one apartment and yet it manages to have this incredible visual urgency based on the staging of the characters. So a lot of it was about watching and appreciating other movies and thinking about these very elemental and ephemeral things the photography makes you feel.

You’ve made two movies as a mom, how do you do it, what is the balancing act like?
The balancing act is first internal. It is a willingness to accept that you’re going to have to ask for a lot more help from everyone around you. As much as being a director requires that you assert control in a lot of scenarios…when it comes to maintaining your family life, you have to be open to asking for help and letting people do things their own way. Phil and I would drive to set together in the morning if we could, sometimes after dropping our son at school. As the days got longer and more complicated, that couldn’t happen. So Phil would be the drop-off person and meet me at set. We had a wonderful, wonderful nanny that would help us after school. Sometimes Michio, my son, would come to set. There were days when it wasn’t appropriate for him to come to set because the nature of the story was too strange and disturbing, but there were days when it was great for him to come by at lunchtime. Nothing delights a child more than the craft service table.

I think there’s moments where I just have to accept that I get less time with Michio while we’re shooting. There’s something emotionally exhausting about that, but I know he benefits when he sees his parent doing the thing she wants to be doing. I know he’s attuned to what happiness that brings into the house. The balance is not easy to strike, particularly now that he’s in school. But, I’ll take it one step at a time, I feel lucky with every movie I get to make.

Jennifer Kushner / Artist Development Director