Dinner parties are almost always awkward. The dinner party in The Invitation is downright terrifying.
The newest movie from Karyn Kusama (Jennifer's Body, Æon Flux), The Invitation - in theaters and On Demand starting today - is about a group of friends who gather together for the first time in a long time following the death of one of their kids. But it's not just the looming spectre of grief making everything seem strange. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) starts to suspect that his ex-wife (Tammy Balnchard) isn't processing the loss in a normal way. As the evidence starts to mount that he may be right, The Invitation becomes a layered, intense thriller about what happens when people in desperate need turn to the wrong places for answers.
We first reviewed The Invitation after its SXSW world premiere last year and we haven't really stopped thinking about it since then. We spoke to Kusama and one of the movie's co-writers, Phil Hay (who happens to be her husband), about what makes such a simple idea so scary, how they managed its many characters, and if they've ever had any crazy dinner party experiences of their own.
On the scariest thing about the Invitation (not the movie, but the idea at its core):
Phil Hay: For me personally, it's the idea that someone is offering you an escape from something you really shouldn't be trying to escape from. This idea that you can just decide you're not going to feel certain things, and convincing people that it's actually possible to do that and still be in any way human.
Karyn Kusama: For me the scariest idea in the film is the idea that there are things worse than death, and those things involve the harm we do to each other. I think when you experience loss, you chalk it up there with the worst of where things can get, and what Will and the audience experience is a sense that there are even worse outcomes than just tragic loss. There are other ways to arrive at a kind of violent, emotional upheaval that could be worse. For me, that's what the movie is preying on. It's preying on the audience's sense that there is a limit and he's saying, 'No, I think it's going to get worse' and it does.
On their own moments of grief influencing the movie:
Hay: On an emotional level, Matt, my writing partner, Karyn and I have individually and collectively gone through some really tough things and experienced a lot in the world of grief, so that's pulled us together on a lot of this. It also comes from a human fascination with how people are when looking for answers or are looking for someone to tell them how to be better, and how that is an incredibly vulnerable position to be in.
Kusama: In my early 20s I lost a number of people who were very, very close to me, and it happened in quick succession, so it was a real shocker of mortality. I think when you're young you think you're invincible, so to learn that early puts you in touch with the fragility of life. That made me realize there is an opportunity to explore being in touch with all of this, and it's very easy for me to imagine that with less of a support system, with less of a network to catch me when I fell, it's very easy to imagine a way in which I could have, and many people like me, gotten sucked into an ideology that claimed to erase all of the pain. I so empathize with the idea of just erasing the pain. But that's also such a scary idea that you can just erase a part of yourself.
On turning Hollywood ideologies into a horror movie:
Hay: I think you're actually the one who said this in your review, and I agree with it completely, is the idea that bad ideas are contagious. It's the idea that a lot of enlightened people, a lot of intelligent people, a lot of people who aren't used to being victims can fall into a magical way of thinking. That's very scary. And there's something about LA – it is an amazing place and we both love it – but it is a frontier in a lot of ways for new trends and new belief systems. In a way it's a laboratory for a lot of new ideas on how to live. Some of those are great, but in our movie it's a belief that's not so great.
Kusama: It's also the site where dreams and fantasies about a certain ideology get their fullest expression in movies. So many people flock to LA to be part of the dream factory and the ways in which that happens and doesn't happen, is formed and deformed, can really create a culture of dissatisfied, searching, lost people. And I'm not saying it's just the world of movies and entertainment, but there's so much information out there and people seek it not really knowing what they're trying to get back from it. And I do think so much of that starts from L.A.
Hay: Also for us, there's an undercurrent, there's a legendary darkness to the Hollywood hills. There's a scary, seductive, decadent, beautiful but frightening vibe.
Kusama: We always said that if 'Hotel California' was a movie, it would be this movie.
On whether they've ever had any weird dinner party experiences:
Hay: I remember once when I first moved to LA, Matt and I were living together at the time and we didn't know anybody and we kind of became friends with the people in the building. We went to this cocktail party, and we were all just talking, and there was this guy who just seemed edgy. He wasn't malevolent, he was just...edgy. And at one point I catch this guy in the background and he bends over to pick up his drink and I notice he has a gun on his side, and instantly I'm like, 'Well that changes things.' And he saw me looking at it, and he was like, 'Oh, hey, I'm a cop. I'm in the gang unit and I'm required to carry my gun at all times.' It became normal, but it was that thing where you see something at a party and its mere presence turns up the heat.
Kusama: I don't have anything that tops that, but we did have the entire cast over for a party two days before we filmed. It was a total life imitates art thing, because some people showed up right on time, others showed up surprisingly late. Everyone started stepping into their roles and we hadn't even started working yet.
On keeping the story from getting too crowded:
Kusama: There was a character that we decided to cut.
Hay: It's the character of Amanda, who is talked about by Ben. She's his wife who stayed at home. It was interesting because it was almost like a proving ground for the rest of the characters once we realized she didn't have as specific a place and could be taken out. Our fondest hope for the film is that each of those characters feels like people in their own right, that they're not just functioning in a horror movie role way, that they could be in a corner having a conversation and be the central character in their own movie.
Kusama: As we were honing in on actual locations to shoot in, it became clear. We had this idea that there would be 13 people, but then we started to realize, 'Maybe 12 is about all this space can handle.' It's just hard to put that many people in a room and still keep it interesting.
Hay: We also used every inch of that house. When we were shooting downstairs, upstairs was the production office. And when we moved upstairs, they moved all of the copy machines downstairs. The male actor holding room was in one bedroom, the female holding room was in another. No one had dressing rooms or trailers or anything.
Kusama: It was a family affair in every respect.
On going indie after doing a few studio movies:
Kusama: What surprised me was the sense that once we were working, it was like any other movie. You're collaborating with actors and writers to make sure you're telling a story. I'm seeing from enough of a distance that I can figure out the right way to excavate that story. But the irony is, even though this is a tiny movie, we got more rehearsal on this movie than I ever got on my studio movies. And I think that rehearsal time really bonded everyone, it made them realize they're all artists and they're all taking each other seriously.
There were challenges, of course. I wish I had more than a day-and-a-half to do the sound mix. I wish I had a little bit more resources to achieve some of the technical craft I've grown to appreciate over the years. But you know what? In the end, I hope the movie can stand on its own even with some of the threads standing out.
Hay: The one thing that we've always been in demand of, but is very hard to come by, is control. We did have control.
Kusama: I had final cut on my first movie and I had final cut on this movie. I am totally open to the studio process, I just wish it wasn't so often destructive to the very fundamental thing you're trying to do.
The Invitation is in theaters and On Demand now. Do not miss it.