In director Karyn Kusama’s new, Los Angeles-set thriller The Invitation (out in theaters and on VOD, April 8) Logan Marshall-Green from Prometheus plays a man who attends a dinner party thrown by his ex-wife (Tammy Blanchard) and gradually becomes convinced that something very bad is about to happen. Although a work of fiction, the result has echoes of Kusama’s professional experience in the City of Angels. “I think my narrative is actually pretty interesting, if I step back from it and don’t engage too much in it, personally or emotionally,” she says.
Kusama’s first film was 2000’s low budget indie Girlfight, which starred a then unknown Michelle Rodriguez as a New York teenager who becomes a boxer. The movie was critically acclaimed and Kusama was next hired to direct the Charlize Theron-starring Æon Flux, a sci-fi spectacular based on the MTV animated series of the same name. Made for $65 million, the film garnered negative reviews (EW’s Owen Gleiberman described Theron’s character as “stranded in a glum zone of fashion-runway fascism” in his review) and a mere $25 million at the domestic box office. “I don’t think I could have had a better experience than I did with Girlfight,” says Kusama. “It was a humbling experience to be so well received. And it was equally humbling to be ripped to pieces with Æon Flux.”
Kusama’s third film, the 2009 horror movie Jennifer’s Body, was another box disappointment and the victim of simultaneous backlashes against its then seemingly omnipresent writer Diablo Cody and its star, Transformers actress Megan Fox. “That was a really fascinating experience, says Kusama. “There was this twin lightning rod of Diablo Cody and Megan Fox. Something about their public personas just inflamed, I want to say, a certain kind of sophomoric male. There was an online chatter around that movie that, in any other circumstance, would have been considered criminal, or hate language. But I guess that’s just part of living in a democracy.”
While Kusama’s once hot Hollywood rep had cooled, she was still regarded as aces by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, cowriters of both Aeon Flux and The Invitation. Which is a good thing given Hay is also Kusama’s husband. “Phil and Matt had written the script of The Invitation several years ago, and originally intended to direct it themselves,” she says. “[When] they decided that they wanted somebody else to take a crack at the material, I just put my hand up and said, ‘Please! Put my hat in the ring!’ I felt so close to this material.”
Turns out, Kusama has attended her fair share of unsettling L.A. soirees. “When I first moved to L.A., I would be invited through a friend-of-a-friend to a party or a dinner,” she says. “There were a couple that I have memories of thinking, There are some really weird vibes right now, and there are some tendrils and threads here that I’ m not looking to unspool any further. I had a sense I needed to run. That fueled making the movie.”
The Invitation was partly financed by Gamechanger Films, a company which invests in films directed by women. “Gamechanger Films is a new and I hope trendsetting model,” she says. “It’s a group of investors that have an interest in seeing a balance-shift in gender-inequities in entertainment. They were like, Let’s pool our money and see what happens if we invest in good projects directed by women.”
The movie was the opening night film of the 2015 SXSW film festival and was subsequently acquired for distribution by Drafthouse Films. Kusama hopes the company can secure an audience for a film whose twisty plot makes it hard to discuss. “It’s like, How do you describe a rollercoaster?” she says. “You’ve just got to get on the rollercoaster!”
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Assuming enough people take the ride, does Kusama hope a major studio will come calling again? “I want to make big movies — but I don’t want to have to die a little death a very single time I do,” she says. “Until I meet the people, or the studio, or the business people, who will let me do things a little bit more the way that I need to do them, I probably shouldn’t be making big studio movies. I’ve learned my lesson.”
You can see the trailer for The Invitation above