‘The Invitation’ Director Karyn Kusama and Co-Writer Phil Hay on Crafting Their Fierce New Thriller

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Drafthouse Films

After a few ups and downs in Hollywood, director Karyn Kusama returns with The Invitation, an exquisitely intense and torturously intimate thriller that hauntingly ruminates on grief, propriety and courtesy (full review here). Starring Logan Marshall-Green, Michiel Huisman and Emayatzy Corinealdi (to name a few), the film centers on a man who takes his new girlfriend to a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife and her new beau, and it’s not long before his misgivings give way to something truly unnerving. We had a chance to sit down with Kusama and co-writer Phil Hay to discuss their fantastic new thriller, the horror of manners, and the liberating responsibility of making an independent film.

We’re all familiar with the “comedy of errors” concept, but The Invitation is basically the first “horror of manners.” 

Karyn Kusama: Yes, yes.

Phil Hay: Do you mind if we use that?

By all means, go ahead! But much of the film deals with the uncomfortable lengths people go to in order to remain polite — was that what you were going for? 

Hay: It’s something we discovered.

Kusama: We discovered it once we saw actors sitting in these spaces. Because it’s very easy to read a script and say, well, wouldn’t somebody dispute this or fight back to the ideas being presented over the course of the evening? Or wouldn’t it be more immediately combative, and it’s like, no. I think actually these are old friends who are trying to repair something that’s been ruptured, and once we saw the actors in the space, we realized, oh, there’s a lot of attempting to protect what was lost.

Hay: And like a duty to stick it through. Which is weird, thematically, the whole thing of like, really facing stuff. Or trying to put it aside, get it out of your face and get away from it. It became more and more obvious… and also to feel how transgressive it wouldn’t actually be. You know, people are like, “Well I would leave,” and it’s like, maybe.

Kusama: Would you leave?

It would be rude. 

Hay: It is so transgressive to pick up and leave out of a situation. And of course you never think it’s gonna go there. So much I realized, as we made it, it is about the dangers of being polite, and you know, your survival.

Kusama: And luckily we were working with such good actors that as we were rehearsing we could see that. Tommy [Mike Doyle] and Ben [Jay Larson] exchange this sort of raised eyebrow when Sadie [Lindsay Burdge] first enters the room, and everyone is like, “Who the fuck is this person?” Like, “I thought it was just going to be us and all of a sudden there’s all these new people entering the mix.”

Hay: She’s very unnerving at a party, I would say…

Kusama: The nice thing about movies is that you can sort of steer your audience toward seeing that there’s discomfort, but there’s also this sense of, well, we’ll tolerate this weirdness because maybe it’ll be interesting.

Speaking of the actors, casting Game of Thrones’ Michiel Huisman opposite Logan Marshall-Green is one of the most brilliant casting moves. They look similar enough that it adds another interesting layer to the situation… 

Kusama: It’s funny because when I met Logan in person for the first time, I felt like he had a real intensity and focus and vulnerability that was pretty much right there at the surface. I could just sense that he could be this guy.

Hay: For lack of a better word, he’s just a really deep guy.

Kusama: And a good guy.

Hay: He has such an internal life, which is what this character is all about, and finding someone who could do that. And with Michiel, it’s so funny the two of them together because…

Kusama: Just so damn charming.

Hay: It’s been amazing to be in screenings, and every screening, when he [Huisman] comes walking down that hallway, people are like “Aww yeah!” They just love it. They get it.

There are probably also a few Game of Thrones fans in the audience.

Kusama: They’re like, “When is he gonna get naked?!”

Hay: He’s got those drawstring pants, and just imagine you being like, “Oh, there’s the guy my wife is now with, and his beard is kempt and mine is not…”

Kusama: Yeah, it’s like “He’s the upgraded version of me.”

Hay: And imagine being one of the most handsome people around, Logan Marshall-Green, and still having Michiel show up.

But was it your plan to cast two actors with such a similar appearance? 

Kusama: We had always understood that another thread of the film, another way to read the movie, would be: is this just going to be a face-off between two men over a woman? Is this part of what’s fueling the sense of unease? Is it just going to come to blows over that, that these guys just can’t be grown-ups. But in fact it’s a very charged and difficult situation. They were great adversaries for each other because they were also weird mirrors of one another.

Let’s not forget the women, who are also great and feel equally as specific. What was your casting process there? 

Kusama: I think we were always open to a lot of different kids of casting. I had seen Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere, and I had really liked Emayatzy Corinealdi, and I thought, there’s something about her…

Hay: We got her in the movie pretty early. Actually, many of the women were in the movie before any of the men were. A couple of years.

Kusama: It’s true, it’s true. I got Lindsay [Burdge] because I had seen A Teacher and I thought she’d make a good Sadie. And even though I wasn’t sure how it would work with whoever we cast for Will, I just felt there was something about Emayatzy. She had a kind of feet-on-the-ground, sort of open quality that made me think about Kira, and there was sort of a capableness to her that made me believe in her outcome for the story — without giving too much away.

Hay: And Tammy [Blanchard]…

Kusama: Tammy! When I met Tammy, I had seen her in a lot of smaller roles, but meeting her, she plays Eden with this kind of regal Hollywood royalty quality. But when you meet her in person, she’s like a crazy Jersey girl.

Hay: It’s kind of incredible, the difference.

Kusama: She wears her heart on her sleeve and she’s very, very vulnerable and very dramatic. A very brilliant actor. I just felt like this is somebody who can embody the theatricality of the character, because I needed the character to go somewhere pretty dark, and I really thought she went there. She had that frailty.

Aside from the horror of manners angle, there’s also a lot about grief and the different ways that people cope, and the different ways that people think we should be coping — which is where that frailty comes in. 

Hay: That was really core for us.

Kusama: I think that was a driving force for making this movie.

Hay: Probably the first thing that was in there was our desire to talk about grief and our own experiences with that. It’s interesting to find a home to talk about that in a horror movie or a thriller because in a weird way for me, that’s where you do that. In a way, that’s what these movies are for is to animate these important and scary emotions in a story so that you can actually deal with it and interact with it. So that was the process for both Matt [Manfredi, co-writer] and I, and Karyn directing, and us making the movie all together. It was all about grief.

And about the longing for something that’s gone, and being haunted — not literally haunted, maybe, but haunted by who you were and what you had and what you lost, and how you can never get that back. That was all very much baked into the whole process.

The way we grieve also ties back into manners in that the ways we choose or need to cope are often judged, and can be perceived as inappropriate. 

Kusama: Absolutely. There’s a desire for us, societally and culturally to move past uncomfortable feelings as quickly as possible.

But not too quickly.

Kusama: Right, right, right! There’s rules. I guess the bottom line is there’s a lot of rules, and there’s a lot about other people’s tolerance for pain — your pain and one’s own pain, and how that’s a really difficult thing to navigate.

Hay: And about how sometimes… I think there’s a little scene where Gina is talking to Will, and he’s distracted looking at what’s happening at the door. And the point of that scene, and I love the way Michelle [Krusiec] played it, is it’s so complicated because she’s trying to help him and show that she cares about him. But that speech and what she says is animated by trying to get herself off the hook for not behaving, in her mind, the way you’re supposed to behave to a grieving person.

Kusama: And what she’s sort of admitting is, “I wasn’t there for you. I’ve kind of been absent for the past few years and I’m sorry.

Hay: Because unfortunately that is part of that experience sometimes. It can be very isolating and even really well-intentioned people don’t know what to do.

It’s such a complex and layered thriller, so when I looked up Phil and Matt’s screenwriting credits and found out that you guys wrote the Ride Along movies… and Clash of the Titans

Hay: [Laughs] Yeah…

Kusama: And Crazy/Beautiful!

I really like Crazy/Beautiful

Hay: Hey, I’m proud of that one.

You should be! But you and Matt come from a studio background, and Karyn, you’ve had some complications with making studio films in the past, like Aeon Flux

Kusama: I have.

And The Invitation is a complete 180, totally independent. How did that process differ for you? It seems like it had to be more liberating.

Kusama: This is what we were all working toward, which was getting to this place where we could work freely, quickly, with really great actors…

Hay: And just be responsible, ultimately, for whatever happens…

Kusama: And sort of work in a place where we could explore something, and just be allowed to explore it, and I think that’s sort of what gets squelched or disrupted in the studio experience — even with all those resources — is just the ability to really let ideas develop and express themselves to the fullest. And a lot of times I think that has to do with a fear of… again, it’s about politeness.

A fear of too much emotion or a fear of things getting too crazy, a fear of making a statement.

Hay: Something that could be weird, or too much, or too uncomfortable.

Kusama: Yes! So for us, we had the freedom even just to make a film that structurally demands a bit more of its audience in that it plays like a drama for a good two-thirds of the movie. And then something starts to go pretty overtly wrong. That is in opposition to the studio mandate that we kind of have to be adrenalized from the first moment because there’s not a lot of trust in the audience. We have that trust, I think.

Hay: And it’s different for us every time. It’s interesting for Matt and I, and Karyn — we just like all different kinds of movies. With Matt and I, some of them have gone great, and some of them have…not gone great. Every stripe of experience. But we’ve really gotten to explore those parts of us. That 13-year-old part of us and the 45-year-old part of us and everything in between. But we realize that this is our home base. Literally our family that’s doing this, and also the experience of saying, look, in this case we get to decide what is right. And we stand by it. Anyone can react in any way that they want to, but we know that this is what we wanted.

Kusama: It’s a luxury to be able to say that we made a movie that’s not for everyone. Hopefully that means we find the people who truly love it.

The Invitation hits select theaters and VOD on April 8.

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