How Karyn Kusama Broke Out of Movie Jail

The acclaimed director of ‘Girlfight’ is back with her first film in seven years, ‘The Invitation’—an ace psychological thriller. She discusses her exile and patriarchal Hollywood.

Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images

Days before the release of her dinner party thriller The Invitation, a delicious new entry to the canon of films about the double-edged beauty and savagery of living in Los Angeles, Karyn Kusama welcomed me into her home on an uncharacteristically rainy afternoon.

“Here, every day outside of two days of the year, it’s sunny all the time and there’s this false sense of perfection, a false sense of physical beauty everywhere you look,” noted the St. Louis native, sipping tea in her living room. “And it’s all such a lie.”

Logan Marshall-Green stars in The Invitation as Will, a man who drags his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) to a dinner party thrown by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new beau David (Michiel Huisman) in the moneyed and winding hills above Hollywood. Haunted by a past trauma he can’t shake, he becomes increasingly suspicious of the couple’s motives as the night stretches on in a dinner party so hellishly L.A., Gwyneth would give it her GOOP stamp of approval.

“It’s very much an L.A. story,” Kusama smiled. “And I’ve been to a couple of real stinkers.”

As a working director in the game since 2000, Kusama’s sat in on her share of industry meetings, the kind where filmmakers up for gigs hold themselves prisoner to Hollywood social etiquette and have to think about branding and career strategy—things the resolutely unshowy Kusama naturally recoils from.

Once, at one such stinker, Kusama found herself feeling woefully out of place but duty-bound to play the game at a private party in Beverly Hills. “I was up for a pretty big job, and it occurred to me sort of halfway through the night: ‘Oh my God, I’m the only woman here who’s basically not a prostitute,’” she remembered.

“It was such a bummer. I was in, you know, jeans and a sporty sweater, and it was just such a nightmare, and I couldn’t leave. One conversation may become the title of my tell-all memoir because it was basically a guy putting himself in the shoes of global dictators across the world, saying, ‘Well, here’s how I would do it if I was in charge of Libya.’”

She laughed. “It was one of those nights where I was like, this ranks up there.” (For the record, she got the job.)

The slow burn The Invitation marks Kusama’s fourth feature film to date after an auspicious Sundance beginning (2000’s Girlfight, starring Kusama discovery Michelle Rodriguez) and famously rocky middle period (studio disaster Aeon Flux; cult horror-comedy Jennifer’s Body).

Directed with sensual stylishness and an assured eye, The Invitation has racked up impressive critical acclaim since premiering last year at SXSW—which, one hopes, might finally give Kusama some sense of vindication.

Where Sundance Grand Jury and Best Director prize winner Girlfight had a grittiness to match its tough heroine, Aeon Flux bore a slick sci-fi studio sheen, and Jennifer’s Body had the winking glint of an ‘80s comedy-slasher, The Invitation marks a new evolution for Kusama. Set in a modern-day milieu of smartphones and self-help Internet gurus, its cinematic lineage, in part, lies in the simmering domestic thrillers of the 1970s.

“Early on we talked a lot about Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Klute, The Parallax View, the second Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” said Kusama. “I think there’s a tradition of movies that sort of manage to live in the mainstream at the time that they were released, that are actually quite formally and narratively daring. And it wasn’t really until you get past, say, that second Invasion of the Body Snatchers and then get to Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration and some of the Michael Haneke films, that I felt again the sense that these would have been mainstream movies in the ‘70s—but their stories are, essentially, insane.”

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Insane is one way to describe the slow-burn sizzle of The Invitation, a film best left unspoiled. After Jennifer’s Body, Kusama found solid work in television directing episodes of series like Halt and Catch Fire, Casual, and The Man in the High Castle, but until The Invitation, the NYU alum hadn’t directed a feature in seven years. The script, by screenwriting duo Phil Hay (also Kusama’s husband) and Matt Manfredi, captivated her. “It had this really stark elemental quality to the storytelling and it felt challenging on a technical level that interested me,” she said. “I just felt like, hey, I can really dig into something here. It felt very mature. And I’m just ready for more mature entertainment. Not necessarily grown-up stories about grown-ups, but grown-up approaches to story.”

As the evening gets underway, The Invitation’s dinner party goes from lightly boozy to awkward as personal agonies rise to the surface. Details of Will and Eden’s shared history are meted out for the viewer to piece together, but everyone at this party is grasping for elusive relief in their own respective lives. “It was really thematically rich for me,” said Kusama, who like writers Hay and Manfredi, found that the story tapped into her own personal relationship with pain and loss. “For better and for worse, I feel like sorrow and grief are really transformative personal experiences for me, and I question what I would be had I decided to take a different path and not embrace that kind of pain.”

When Kusama finally came onboard to direct The Invitation, however, she was greeted with hesitation from balking suits and financiers who believed only a big-name star like Michael Fassbender or Christian Bale could sell the movie. Worse, they doubted Kusama’s abilities as a director—something she suspects would not have happened to a male filmmaker of her stature. “Everybody kept saying, ‘The thing is, this is execution-dependent,’” she said, incredulous. “Do you tell that to other sort of Sundance phenoms who happen to be male? Do you dare tell them that it’s execution-dependent, like that’s a bad thing because somehow you can’t execute?”

“All movies are execution fucking dependent!” she exclaimed. “It’s just a question of whether or not anyone executes! It made me so mad to hear that over and over again. It’s tough to have to make that the focus of the conversation so frequently. But when people say, ‘The problem with this movie is it’s execution-dependent,’ and they say that to my face, they are making the conversation have to happen within me, because I doubt very highly that they would say that to male directors sitting in front of them.”

It was only when she got the support of Gamechanger Films, an equity fund launched in 2013 to finance female-driven projects, that Kusama finally had the right partners and the modest $1 million budget to shoot The Invitation.

“It’s interesting that this is where we landed culturally, that there needs to be earmarked funds for women, essentially coming from politically-minded philanthropists willing to invest in women’s visions of the world,” she remarked. “It’s amazing that it exists, and it’s completely insane that it exists.”

Looking back, she says the experience in part shifted her priorities as a filmmaker, now a decade removed from a time in which she jumped at the chance to helm a big budget studio property like the Charlize Theron-starrer Aeon Flux, a big screen adaptation of the cult MTV animated series.

That movie, only her sophomore feature, turned out to be a bittersweet lesson. “I got to spend almost a year in Berlin, and I met the person who became my husband and the father of my child… I have wonderful memories of making the film,” Kusama smiled. “But ultimately finishing the film, getting it out into the world, having it be critically eviscerated—and essentially having that evisceration be designed by the very studio that released it—was a little bit like a Manchurian Candidate ‘gotcha’ moment.”

Caught between executive regime changes at Paramount, Aeon Flux was taken away from its director in the edit and “mutilated” into a bastardized version of her vision. In the end, in Kusama’s eyes, it was sacrificed by the studio’s new bosses—one of the most brutal fates that could befall a movie, short of being altogether shelved.

“It was the third administration at Paramount,” she shrugged. “As far as I’m concerned, you need proof that previous administrations were wrong, so you’d rather just consider that a write-off from a previous tax year and see that movie fail as spectacularly as possible than say, ‘Aw, shucks—well, we’re here now and we’re going to make good movies!’”

“I had been very naïve. I assumed a business like a film studio would behave like a business and still want to protect its own interests, still do the best it could to get as many people paying for as many of their movies as possible. I realized this is not actually a business about business, it’s a business of egos and dominance.”

Wiser and more wary of submitting herself to the studio system again, Kusama now sees other options in front of her. “It’s not that I’m not going to fight anymore. I’m going to fight for anything I really want,” she said. “But I’m not going to fight for anything that I don’t want. And that’s what it was then. Why do I have to convince you that I can handle this movie? YOU should be convincing me that you’re a worthy partner.”

Despite the fact that The Invitation should kick Kusama up a few places on studio wish lists, “I don’t want to direct a Marvel movie,” she declared. “I don’t care about those mythologies. So I probably am the wrong person to be fighting for that. The women who want that should be fighting for that, and I hope they get their shot. But I think there’s a reason why some companies have such dismal records. It’s not because they’re clueless, it’s because they systematically don’t want to hire women.”

Not that she’s counting out the idea of working for The Man again altogether. “Do I hope that I can go back to studio filmmaking, potentially, if it means I’m making a really interesting movie that has a lot of support behind it and that supports me and gives me creative autonomy? Of course! I look forward to it,” she said. “But I can’t say that anyone’s really busting down my door, because I don’t know that studios are really designed to give that to filmmakers—male or female.”

After taking The Invitation on a multi-city tour across America in limited release, Kusama plans on directing more television and focusing on her next feature. She’s already shot a segment for the upcoming anthology film XX, directed entirely by women. But her next film, she’s decided, will have to come together on her terms.

“I’m lately recognizing that I’m not looking to break down doors that are closed to me, because those are rooms I don’t necessarily want to be in,” she said. “I have no fear of those rooms. I’ve sat in them hundreds of times. But I’m sort of feeling like life is short, and I’m not looking to prove anything anymore—at least, to anyone but myself.”