In Conversation with Karyn Kusama

by: , May 23, 2019

© Her Only Living Son (2017) dir. Karyn Kusama

Karyn Kusama is an experienced American film and TV director with a background in horror and drama, known for directing such titles as Girlfight (2000) and Jennifer’s Body (2009). Her more recent productions include The Invitation (2015) and Her Only Living Son (2017). The first is a feature-length horror-thriller that attracts its audience with an emotional and tense atmosphere to witness the descent into terror at a dinner party, all from the perspective of a ‘potentially unreliable narrator’ (Kusama in Giroux 2016). The second follows a mother’s emotional and psychological journey when her teenage son starts behaving violently. Kusama is also known for directing TV episodes for such series as, among others, Masters of Sex (Showtime 2013-2016) and Casual (Hulu, 2015-). At the end of 2018, she released her latest American crime film, Destroyer.


MAI: Recently, there seems to have been a surge of female-directed horrors by smaller, independent production companies. How do you feel this has influenced the film industry at large? Will this trend continue?

Karyn Kusama: It’s a sign of health, I think. Horror, in general, feels ahead of the curve in terms of its experimentation and its willingness to express current cultural anxieties. So it’s encouraging to see that new voices are entering the collective conversation. It’s also a very particular career path in which we’ve seen some so-called ‘horror directors’ make the transition to bigger-budget or more mainstream fare (David Fincher, Sam Raimi, Guillermo del Toro, etc.). It will be interesting to see if the women making interesting work in the horror genre today get more opportunities outside of horror. If, in fact, that’s what they’re looking for.

MAI: Both Her Only Living Son (2017) and The Invitation (2015) seem to acknowledge a concern with the late-capitalist society, in which we live and the individualistic mindset it promotes, as well as the social imbalances it creates. How do you choose to approach this in your work?

KK: The idea of ‘the individual’—which, certainly in the Western tradition—is an enduring component of most of the storytelling we see and absorb. As a culture, we believe in the power of the protagonist. But I am interested in the inherent problems and complexities of this idea. As I get older and hopefully continue to find my voice as an artist—paradoxically becoming more of the individual I want to be—I also feel compelled to explore a larger connectedness to the world or to address the peril we all face when we reject a connectedness to the rest of the world. Both of the films you mention probably deal with this concern in somewhat abstract ways. The Invitation is more explicitly addressing the dangers of social movements that strive to instruct us in how to be and to live. And I recognise that what I’m describing encompasses most of the world’s religions and not just cults. There is something fundamentally problematic in telling people what to do with their lives. Her Only Living Son is in some ways about the failure of the collective to ‘save’ individuals from themselves and I hoped to explore the ways in which patriarchal culture props up and encourages the worst impulses in human behaviour.

MAI: In light of the latest interest in intersectionality, especially among feminist scholars, what do you think about the importance of horror being a ‘new’ space for an inclusive, intersectional and political feminist debate? What do you feel are the major concerns that come to the screen now?

KK: I don’t know if horror is exactly a new space for inclusive debate necessarily—in many ways I feel like it’s historically been the most welcoming space for this kind of dialogue, even if it’s also saddled with some of the least interesting or most radically offensive representations of women, people of colour, etc. In the end, horror has always been an ideological fringe dweller, positing new or uncomfortably old ideas about ourselves — ideas about monstrousness, aberration, existential dread, and the fight against nihilism. This is the human problem—our inability to recognise our sameness with one another rather than our difference.

MAI: It is noticeable that in Her Only Living Son a lot of attention is given to the protagonist internal struggle with her place in the world and societal expectations of her, especially compared to more mainstream productions of the same genre. How do you use her affective reality—her emotions and psychological state—to create a sense of anxiety and discomfort? How important is it for you to create a sense of fear that goes beyond the ‘surface’ of horror? 

KK: To me, the goal in filmmaking is always to evoke feeling and emotional rapport in the audience. Without evoking that emotion, evoking fear isn’t even possible. The surface of a film—its aesthetics, its craft, its visual strategies—are key components in moving an audience toward emotional engagement, but it’s really the conception of a character and a story that perform the heavy lifting in reaching this goal. In the case of Her Only Living Son, I was interested in the character’s emotional isolation and deep loneliness as she subsumes most of her identity within the role of caregiver and mother. I saw the story as a speculative re-imagining of Rosemary’s Baby as well as a metaphor for the experience of parenting a child with addiction or mental health issues. Hers is a common plight—she faces the question of raising a monster.

I was lucky to work with an actor (a great friend named Christina Kirk) who effortlessly evoked that sense of isolation and paranoia. She was able to find a balance between a kind of performative weirdness and a more normative depiction of harried single motherhood.

© The Invitation (2015) dir. Karyn Kusama

MAI: Many times, female creatives are expected to speak in the name of the entire female population, rather than being seen as individuals. What do you think of the need to represent women’s identities in a way that goes beyond their gender? At the same time, one cannot ignore the fact that the ‘personal is political’, and individual experiences of women to reflect the way society treats them. How do you deal with this in your projects?

KK: I don’t really approach my films with a political perspective to be honest, despite the fact that I am acutely aware of the expectation that I might be voicing a female or feminist perspective in my work. I would say that the thematic thread that I continue to visit is one that goes beyond gender, which is the struggle for humans to physically experience their own aliveness. Simply put, I’m interested in characters who make a transition from living outside their bodies to living inside them. I’m probably drawn to this notion because it’s simple and enduring and very real, and as an emotional underpinning can be applied to so many varied characters and stories.

Girls and women are especially susceptible to this phenomenon of living outside their bodies, and I’m most likely drawn to female protagonists because I share some identification with them. That being said, I felt like I lived inside the character of Will in The Invitation as I was making that movie, and that sense of radical identification with a male character was often quite liberating for me.

MAI: In Western countries, this is a time of obsession with mental health and positivity, a sort of hysteria surrounding self-improvement and self-entrepreneurship. In The Invitation, you juxtapose this with the significance of ‘negative’ feelings and emotional recovery. What are your preferred techniques to highlight this in your narratives? More generally, what do you feel is the importance of giving your characters the space to express their sensibility in horror?

KK: Living with, accepting, and even embracing a certain degree of pain and disappointment in my life is a large part of my personal growth. I saw in The Invitation an opportunity to explore a larger horror than the pain itself, which is its willful rejection. As I’ve matured over the years I’ve started to feel that the goals of my filmmaking largely revolve around the exploration of emotional specificity in characters. Allowing an audience the time to absorb the particularities of a character is something that I continue to work on in my films.

MAI: In both The Invitation and Her Only Living Son, I was really impressed by the subtlety and gradation of the horror you’ve created. How did you use sound design to enhance this?

KK: Sound design is probably the best tool there is to create a feeling of unease in an audience. I’m interested in low tones that live below the audible range of the sonic landscape and are often felt in a more vibratory way in a theatre. It’s quite literally an invisible tool that helps me to shape the feeling of a scene without doing anything too overt or cheap-feeling.

MAI: What particularly struck me was the sense of claustrophobia that is slowly developed throughout the films rather than being obvious from the beginning. How did you use the movement and light in enclosed house spaces to convey this?

KK: I try to create a sense of relationship to the characters—a sense of seeing them for both their obvious issues and traits as well as for their more mysterious qualities. Often times the way characters are arranged in the frame gives the audience an unconscious sense of a larger story at work. I like to pay attention to how I’m framing people and faces, as well as how much negative space I’m creating around characters. I am often drawn to a fairly controlled aesthetic with the camera, along with a pretty dark palette in terms of lighting and colour.

MAI: Lastly, in these films, you expose the toxicity and danger that belief systems or cults can lead to. How important is it for you to highlight the importance of independent critical thinking and preserving a sense of individual privacy in your work?

KK: I don’t know if it’s an explicit concern in my work, but perhaps that’s because I’m in the fortunate position of living my politics by making my films. Successfully or not, I’m always trying to make personal work and tell specific personal stories. That goal, in itself I hope, expresses an interest in independent thinking. On a narrative level, I am drawn to stories that evoke moral and ethical complexity along with a sense of the unruly qualities of human nature—whatever the genre may be. As a species, we remain quite simple, primarily interested in our own immediate survival, but we are also deeply mysterious—open to expressing a different kind of experience, one informed by poetry, hope, and a grasp toward the divine.

© Her Only Living Son (2017) dir. Karyn Kusama
© Her Only Living Son (2017) dir. Karyn Kusama


Giroux, Jack (2016), ‘Interview: ‘The Invitation’ Director Karyn Kusama on Crafting Her Unsettling Thriller’, Slash Film, (last accessed 20 May 2019).

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