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How director Karyn Kusama got her indie groove back with 'The Invitation'

How director Karyn Kusama got her indie groove back with 'The Invitation'
"The Invitation" screenwriter Matt Manfredi, director Karyn Kusama, and screenwriter Phil Hay. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

It's so L.A. You're at a party and start talking with a friend's new friend, and they start on about some new health kick they are into, or maybe it's some sort of seminar. (Really? Tell me more.) Then it starts getting gradually more involved and maybe vaguely sketchy. (Cool, cool.) Finally it seems like a full-on cult and this person is not-so-subtly trying to recruit you. (Oh.)

Directed by Karyn Kusama and written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, "The Invitation" is the story of a dinner party that goes very much off the rails. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) is taking his new girlfriend, Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), to a dinner party hosted by his ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), and her new husband, David (Michiel Huisman).

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Will and Eden have not seen each for a couple of years, and it's a situation bound to be awkward under the best of circumstances. Even though a number of their old friends are there, the presence of Eden and David's new friends, the unnervingly serene Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch) and wild-child Sadie (Lindsey Burdge), throws everything off. And then things go from weird to worse.

Slowly but surely, moment by moment, the film moves from uncomfortable social satire into the much darker territory of the horror film freak-out, and with such assuredness it's hard to know exactly when things go off-course.

"I had to be thinking what the calibration was all the time," Kusama said. "A single look has meaning in the film, particularly if you're watching it for a second or third time. In another film it might be sort of a throwaway, and there are no throwaway moments in this film."

For a recent interview, Kusama, Hay and Manfredi were sitting around the dining room table of the L.A.-area home that Kusama and Hay share together. (They are married.) It is also the table where the entire cast came together for a genuine dinner party just before shooting began. Shot in only 20 days in a house in the Hollywood Hills, "The Invitation" is steeped in inter-personal dynamics, the rituals of being polite, the difficulty of expressing deep emotions and the struggle of new beginnings.

"It started with questions about what if you realized you didn't know someone as well as you thought you did," Manfredi said. "And working with these ideas, the end is kind of what occurred first. And since that's the premise of the movie, that's what we worked toward."

Added Hay: "And we wanted to explore this very dark mythology of Los Angeles and California and utopian dreams gone wrong. As we figured out where we were going, we figured out the movie-ness of the conceit, the idea of the dinner party in the Hollywood Hills and how that could be a trap."

Now playing in Los Angeles and available on VOD platforms, the film is also the first feature film from Kusama since 2009's teenage horror comedy "Jennifer's Body." Kusama first burst on the scene with "Girlfight," a 2000 Sundance sensation that also introduced the world to actress Michelle Rodriguez. Kusama followed that with 2005's Charlize Theron-starring "Aeon Flux." Both "Aeon Flux" and "Jennifer's Body" were disappointments with critics and at the box office — although "Jennifer's Body" has recently begun to see a reassessment from younger female writers. After her difficult studio experiences, Kusama found refuge in prestige television, having directed episodes of "Halt and Catch Fire," "The Man in the High Castle" and "Billions."

Kusama said the move back to independent feature filmmaking was a conscious choice, noting that "somehow, even though you have less time and less money, the thing about making indie films is somehow you have another kind of resource, a human resource where you can really look to your creative colleagues and actually ask questions that are honest.

"There was something so great about being able to work that wayIt was really hard to not have money to do all the things I wanted to do. But in the end those limitations helped us make really strong decisions."

Hay and Manfredi are also producers on the film, and they note that the diversity of the cast — which includes white, African American, Latino and Asian performers — is no accident. This is meant to be a dinner party among a certain comfortable class of creative people in Los Angeles, and the film attempts to mirror that world accurately. Some of the characters were written a certain way — a character named Miguel, for example — while other decisions emerged in the casting process.

"I think it was very important for us, for several reasons," Hay said. "I think I speak for all of us when I say a diverse cast is always more interesting. And for this movie, this is reality — this is the reality of Los Angeles. For us, it would have felt really weird to do it any other way."

"There were a lot of interesting possibilities that came up that offered all kinds of textures and questions that could be just under the surface of the film," said Kusama of consciously casting in that way. "Having done it on this film, I would say I'd want to think about almost every film that way. It just helps."

She added, "I think the crux of this urgent and real conversation about representation and diversity in art-making and storytelling both behind and in-front of the camera ultimately has to do with simply seeing more human perspectives."

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That awareness of real-world concerns within the story, along with the environment in which the movie was made and released, makes "The Invitation" feel especially sharp and alive but also eerily, unnervingly plausible.

"I think the hope initially was that it felt jarring but also logical," Manfredi said. "You don't want a tonal shift that feels off. You want it to feel like, I know how we got here."

"Our hope for the movie is that it does reward your attention," Hay added. "When you realize the whole story and go back to the beginning, we did try to honor every single detail. If you are willing to approach it with that, it'll stare back at you."

In the time since "The Invitation" first premiered a little over a year ago at the 2015 South By Southwest Film Festival, Hay and Manfredi have been working on another script for the trio to collaborate on, what Hay described as "a cop movie with a twist."

Even with all of the ups and downs of her work as a feature director, the cultural and economic momentum currently behind television and the hybrid theatrical/VOD hybrid release of "The Invitation," Kusama still believes in the special, specific capabilities of cinema.

"I've been reenergized by watching our movie in the theater with a bunch of people," Kusama said. "There's something so invigorating about seeing people share an experience like that. How can you deny the power of that?"

Follow on Twitter: @IndieFocus

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