“Framing is its Own Dark Art”: Karyn Kusama on The Invitation
Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation achieves the kind of cinematic alchemy one finds in Blood Simple or the best of Hitchcock, where genre meets philosophy and character to yield something both razor-sharp in its clarity and infinitely complex in its provocations. The script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi follows a group of friends over the course of one night when they reunite after a tragedy that has affected all of their lives. The intentions of the hostess, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), are mysterious and only grow increasingly troubling as the night progresses, at least as far as her ex-husband Will (Logan Marshall-Green) is concerned – her apparent spiritual recovery following the trauma they shared together makes him more, not less, sure that something is very, very wrong in her home. Without ever making the audience consciously aware of her effects, Kusama tightens the screws from the very beginning, patiently and subtly (but ruthlessly) increasing the tension through sophisticated framing and editing so that we’re terrified practically before we’ve even realized we’re watching a thriller.
Yet The Invitation is much more than an exercise in suspense; while it’s so supreme on this level that that would be enough for most movies, Kusama and her writers take their characters and audience deeper, raising profound questions about how human beings deal with grief and how much denial we need to go on living – and how much denial is dangerous. The movie is also one of the best ensemble dramas about friendship since Return of the Secaucus Seven and The Big Chill, and as great a portrait of its era’s neuroses and anxieties as those two films were. Combining the emotional impact of Girlfight with the visual elegance of Aeon Flux and the social satire of Jennifer’s Body, it contains all of the elements that distinguished Kusama’s previous work and synthesizes them into the most all-around satisfying moviegoing experience I’ve had so far this year. I interviewed Kusama about the movie a few weeks before its scheduled opening on April 8, and began by asking about how the script first came to her.
Kusama: Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi shared the script with me very early in the process. Phil and I are also married, so I’m lucky to be able to share my late-night, waking-from-a-dream moments of inspiration with him and not get grumbled at for it. I loved the script from the first five pages — it had an austere economy that felt really bracing and fresh to me. I was drawn to the themes about loss and denial within all of the characters, and I was especially interested in the way that the negation of grief becomes the most horrifying element of the story.
Filmmaker: What were your initial visual ideas for the script?
Kusama: I immediately thought a lot about organizing space in very composed frames, and I strove to trap the characters in certain visual arrangements. When the story derails into a more active and unpredictable territory, it was interesting to imagine the camera having to “wake up” out of that initial composure and quickly evolve into a more kinetic aesthetic. The themes of claustrophobia and paranoia lent themselves to this approach. I had a sense that the present-day of the film should be bathed in brown and amber tones, and that the flashbacks should play in more dusky blues and purples.
Filmmaker: Did you have any other films or other influences in mind as references?
Kusama: We loved Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration for its narrative simplicity and black humor. I also felt that Akira Kurosawa’s use of framing in High and Low was really useful for me — he is a master at staging actors so that even static frames have vitality and tension. And on a tone level I know that Matt and Phil thought a lot about movies like Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View, which presented worlds in which no one could be trusted. The visual strategies of those ’70’s paranoid dramas — particularly the interest in keeping actors in literal and metaphorical darkness — were also hugely instructive for me.
Filmmaker: How did you finance the film?
Kusama: Financing this movie was easier once we committed to dropping the budget to its toughest number. XYZ Films helped us secure a few foreign territories, and Gamechanger Films came on board to co-finance first. Both companies couldn’t have been cooler to work with on a creative level. Lege Artis Films came on after that with the final chunk of the money, and from there we just dove headlong into pre-production. It was a pretty functional process as indie films go, and I’m thankful to say that I really liked working with all of our partners.
Filmmaker: At what point did you start bringing on cast? The ensemble is so important here. What was the order you cast people in, and how did you work to make sure they would be convincing as old friends? Was there a rehearsal process?
Kusama: We had a two-day rehearsal process in our prep. In indie film terms, that’s a huge amount of time. And in terms of achieving what we needed to achieve in our 20-day shoot, it was absolutely the most valuable part of the process. We had all of the actors in the house we were shooting in, and we were able to choreograph the whole movement of the narrative. We worked through every scene of the script, and found an emotional and physical logic for every character through the night, down to every moment that someone gets up to refill a drink. It helped us to understand the unfolding of the night, and in those two days if there were actors who were meeting for the first time they certainly had bonded by the end of rehearsal. It was such a great experience. I also had a big dinner party the Saturday before we started shooting, and everyone was able to attend. It felt like we could really get to know each other as people before diving into this depiction of a realistic nightmare (and now that the cast has all seen the film there are a lot of jokes about how no one wants to come to my house for a dinner party again!). From the beginning there was a sense of shared endeavor among the actors. Everyone in the cast is a serious and thoughtful person. And every actor had a distinctive creative path to arrive at their characters — some of them are classically trained, some of them started in comedy, some of them started in music — but we all worked as a cohesive team. We were like a modern-day theater troupe.
In terms of casting order, it was perhaps paradoxical. We always knew we wanted John Carroll Lynch for Pruitt and Lindsay Burdge for Sadie — and maybe because they’re the outsiders of the narrative it could work to cast them first. But the rest of the cast officially came together after I met with Logan Marshall-Green. I felt an immediate rapport with him, and I knew he would be sympathetic but also bring a latent danger to the role. Once he was on board we could build the relationships around him, particularly with Tammy Blanchard, who plays Eden, and Emayatzy Corinealdi, who plays Kira. Both of those women were actors I knew I wanted to work with even before I met with Logan.
Filmmaker: What were your initial conversations with your cinematographer like?
Kusama: Bobby Shore and I talked about visual strategy a lot, but what initially bonded us was our shared obsession with Alan Pakula’s Klute. When he said that that movie kept coming up for him as he read the script I felt like I’d found my DP. We walked through the house and felt the space and did all of our prep in the actual location, which helped us feel the logic of its layout before the rehearsal process started. I tend to like extremes: the wider lenses, and the longer lenses. This film didn’t feel like it would be particularly “neutral” in how the story was depicted.
Filmmaker: How many days was your shoot? What kind of camera did you shoot on and why?
Kusama: We had a 20-day shoot and shot on the Alexa. The biggest visual concept to contend with was figuring out how to shoot 10-12 people in a room and weigh the points of view so that we weren’t scrambling to keep every eye-line correct. It was a huge challenge, but luckily it was partly solved by the idea that we would often be in our main character’s POV instead of covering the scenes in a more neutral or objective way. Keeping a large part of the film confined to Will’s point of view allowed us to narrow our focus in terms of coverage, which also lent itself toward the sense that the experience might be inherently unreliable (because Will is unreliable in many respects).
Filmmaker: I was really impressed with the blocking and how you staged the group scenes for the camera — very subtle yet dynamic. How did you keep the scenes visually interesting without making the framing or camera movement too self-conscious?
Kusama: Framing is its own dark art. I love looking at a shot and determining if there’s something “in balance” or “out of balance” about it. Is there something vital and alive in the frame? Is there a shape, and a purposeful quality to the frame? The rehearsal process allowed me some time to find my strongest start frames and end frames, and also allowed me to anticipate little moments and looks between characters that help keep the reality of the night alive and keep the film from feeling too mired in its own aesthetic. It was what excited me about the script: that the characters themselves were the most prominent visual tool in the frame — there were almost no vistas (save for the end), and little sense of visual expansiveness due to the confined space. So the blocking itself needed to have a kind of narrative tension.
Filmmaker: How much leeway did you give your actors in terms of helping figure out where the characters would be in the frame and in relation to each other?
Kusama: We did some loose storyboarding but mostly we talked about narrative emphasis and the feelings of scenes. The rehearsal process came at a point where we had all of our general visual strategies in place, and when we could see how the actors were naturally moving and arranging themselves we were able to tailor those strategies around the actors. We always knew that it would be effective to feel Will “outside” of the movement of the other characters. He’s stuck, and not present — both physically and emotionally — and we wanted the camera and strong editing choices to help tell that story.
Filmmaker: Speaking of editing, how did the film evolve in post? What were your guiding principles in terms of the sound design?
Kusama: For a film like this the sound design is a huge component toward bringing the audience closer to the emotional story. Sound is a sorely underrated tool in many indie films, often ridiculously under-budgeted, and it’s a real shame. We definitely faced those budgetary challenges but made the most of our limitations. My composer, Teddy Shapiro, and my sound designer Phillip Blackford, both worked toward creating an uncanny world — a sonic brain-scape for the story. I wanted the film to be filled with tendrils of spiraling sound and tonal beds that would often be felt but not heard. Teddy’s score was especially effective at drawing us into Will’s obsession with the past, while the subtle sound design often amplified a larger sense of dread.
Editing the film was challenging because of a compressed schedule and because of the nature of the story: we had to create a sense of multiple questions, along with multiple potential answers and outcomes. We wanted the experience of the film to have a quality of being both absorbed by the story and also increasingly anxious about its resolution. But the “how and the why” needed to remain moving targets. We arrived at our final cut after a process of screening and re-screening for some close friends and colleagues, hopefully landing at a place where there’s a subtle accumulation of trust, mistrust, sympathy, and fear building for all of our characters.
Filmmaker: Once the film was finished how did you go about securing distribution? Tell me a little about the first public screenings and how they aligned with your expectations.
Kusama: We had our first screenings at SXSW and it was a great experience. I was probably too nervous and freaked out to really read the audiences, but my sense was that it played really well and worked especially well in the theatrical context. It was especially interesting to be at the screenings where there was an audible sense of the viewers’ dread and mistrust in the theater — it’s pretty cool to see people literally talking back to the screen out of frustration or fear for the characters, which is why I’m so happy to know that the film will actually play in theaters for a bit. We had a few companies in the mix bidding on the film, but Drafthouse wooed us with their creativity, insight, and genuine love of the movie. I feel very lucky to be working with them.