‘XX’ Director Karyn Kusama on Evoking ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and Living in an Upside Down World
Karyn Kusama is, without a doubt, one of our most exciting directors. Last year, along with writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, Kusama delivered The Invitation, an elegantly unnerving thriller and one of the best films of the year. The trio are currently working on two more feature projects, but in the meantime, Kusama directed a segment for XX, a new horror anthology film helmed entirely by women. “Her Only Living Son” closes out the anthology with a devilish drama featuring surprising thematic complexity for such a short story. As XX hits theaters this week, I spoke with Kusama about her inspirations and the disturbing element of male violence in her segment, as well as her upcoming projects — which sound so good.
This isn’t my first time speaking with Karyn — I interviewed her and co-writer Phil Hay for The Invitation, and I was asked to provide the booklet essay for their Blu-ray release. We’ve been on friendly terms ever since, and I was thrilled to have a chance to chat with Karyn for a few minutes about “Her Only Living Son,” the segment she directed for XX, which hits theaters this Friday. In the short, a single mother struggles to cope with her teenage son, who is going through some rather disturbing changes.
I really enjoyed your segment, which some people have described as a fan-fiction sequel of sorts to Rosemary’s Baby.
I mean, kind of. It wasn’t so much about a sequel as this idea of, like, escape. What if a character like Rosemary had been able to escape those circumstances initially, and what would have been falling in her path if that was the case? Because I think what’s interesting is that the ramifications of her life are still pretty terrifying, you know? Like the idea that you have a kid who is out of control somehow and the older they get the more ... sick they seem to be in some way that you can’t square with the kid that you know. That struck me as a human story I guess, in some way, and it interested me that even if a character like Rosemary had gotten to sort of take off with her baby, life would still be really complicated.
There are some interesting thematic ideas, too. As you were saying, the concepts of motherhood and coming of age, but there’s also this sins of the father element, and that disturbing moment with the kid in the principal’s office, where they let him off the hook for attacking a girl — it felt like such an indictment of white male privilege.
Well it kind of became that. What kind of world is it if we allow people who are violent and do terrible things off the hook? What does that say about the world we’re living in — it’s like a world upside down, right? And to me the idea that this is actually happening all the time, in American universities and in our military and in so many corners of culture, that somehow there is a just a kind of death rattle conservative gasp toward allowing male violence to be the norm. And when I say violence, I mean it broadly — I mean it is like physical and economic and emotional and philosophical. I guess as I was writing it there was something really fun about writing a scene that’s basically about a bunch of Satan worshipers but it plays pretty much like any number of sexual assault cases across American high schools and universities.
It’s definitely horrific. The kid rips out a girl’s fingernails. That’s a such a specifically horrible thing to think about.
But then there’s humor in the school’s reaction to it — like, yeah, we’re just letting him get away with it. Shrug.
Yeah, yeah, yeah exactly. That was the thing — he is acting out in a legitimately frightening way. Something is wrong with this kid, but then just to have the more frightening result of that disclosure be, we’re not going to do anything about it. In fact, we think we need to protect this child more than than the kid that got assaulted. I think it was like this very small, little scene in this small, little movie but I definitely had fun writing it because it made me think about kind of the perversity of the daily reality we live in right now.
And it feels sort of timely with awards season. There’s been talk abut Casey Affleck’s past behavior, for instance, and how we continually reward men who engage violently with women. We just keep rewarding them.
I know. It’s really fascinating, and I don’t know the answer. Particularly since you bring up Rosemary’s Baby, and it is legitimately one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s really complicated to me. Polanski is a great example of a person whose personal life clearly has been just fraught with scandal and transgression and criminal acts. And yet, in Rosemary’s Baby, I think he’s made one of the crowning feminist statements in film. So it’s weird, I don’t know how to square those things. It’s very confusing to me.
Working with a shorter medium, did you feel limited or perhaps more liberated by the time constraint?
I felt more limited by my rusty short filmmaking muscles. It’s really hard to make shorts, I think. And it’s hard to make them well. I definitely think I failed in some areas of the short and succeeded in others. It was more just getting used to the — not so much the time constraint of the storytelling, but the budgetary constraint of making a smaller movie. There were certain resources I wish I could have applied to the film, but I ultimately feel like I did the best I could with what I was given.
It’s hard to prep a movie in five days and shoot it in five days and cut it in barely any time. You don’t get quite enough time to make the thing, let alone tell the story. It was kind of fun to write the script with a sense that I needed to make something very contained and insular. There was something very interesting to me to have to find the beginning, middle, and end of a story that’s gonna be 21 minutes long. It’s definitely like I had to sort of train some other muscles in telling that story just because I wasn’t quite used to that format. It’s been a while.
Josh Ethier (The Mind’s Eye, We Are Still Here) was your editor, right?
Yeah, he came in kind of last minute and I was really thankful because he just sort of threw out some moments that I felt like were getting a little too choppy. He kind of leaned in to letting things play a little longer, which I think is ultimately sort of one of the tools of suspense in my mind.
I might be mistaken, but I feel like one of your next projects is in the same wheelhouse as this short — kind of a cult thing, right?
It’s actually very different. I know what you’re talking about and it’s called Brood. It is based on a novel by Scott Spencer — oh, excuse me, his pen name is Chase Novak. But Chase is his genre writing name. Phil and Matt are writing it, and a good friend of ours and a wonderful writer/director, Scott Frank, is producing it with Phil and Matt. It’s a really great kind of grown-up horror story that kind of looks at the dramas around infertility and wealthy society and what does it mean to bring children into the world at any cost. But it’s not really — it’s only related to Rosemary’s Baby in that it’s New York City. And kind of the wealthier sort of upper class of New York. But in fact, that’s where the similarities really end. It’s frankly horror from a child’s perspective.
Yeah, it’s gonna be really cool.
Do you know when you might head into production on that?
Well, it’s set up at Fox, and Phil and Matt are writing that right now. We actually have another project we’re doing before that called Destroyer. That’s going to shoot here in L.A., and that’s something they wrote and are producing as well. It’s just a super cool L.A. crime thriller that I feel really, super excited about. Couldn’t be more excited.
Me too! I hung out with [Phil and Matt] a bit during Fantastic Fest last year and we had some great talks between all those crazy movies. They’re just the sweetest.
They really are. They’re some of my favorite people in the world and it’s so nice to be able to have a family vibe, to work with your family and have your work be your family, in a way. It’s like, it all feels happily entwined instead of toxically entwined. I’m really so grateful for the collaboration and I have other wonderful collaborations and other wonderful films I’m working on, which I’m also very very thankful for. But it’s very special when I get to work with Phil and Matt.
XX opens in theaters on February 17.