Karyn Kusama interview: XX, women in horror, scary movies in times of adversity

The director of The Invitation and Jennifer’s Body talks horror anthologies and low-budget filmmaking…

You’d be forgiven for being a bit fed up with hearing about women in horror at this point. Over the last few years, there’ve been any number of trend pieces written about exciting new female horror directors, all excitedly pointing out that horror isn’t just a boys’ club any more. And that’s kind of frustrating, for two reasons: because horror never was just for boys in the first place, and because we’re still nowhere near achieving any kind of equality behind the camera.

It’s something director Karyn Kusama knows better than most. Her career is built on stories that challenge gender norms (her 2000 debut Girlfight starred Michelle Rodriguez as an underdog determined to make it in the male-dominated world of boxing, while 2009’s Jennifer’s Body was a rumination on toxic female friendships that saw Megan Fox transform into a boy-eating demon) and she’s seen more than her fair share of criticism and discrimination because of her gender.

Her latest film is a short. Her Only Living Son is the final section of all-female anthology XX, which also includes short films by Jovanka Vuckovic, Roxanne Benjamin, and St Vincent, plus animation by Sofia Carrillo. It’s a project that’s been in the works for a while, and to celebrate its DVD release, we had a chat with Kusama about, well, women, horror, working on micro-budgets, and making art in a time of political upheaval…

Tell me about Her Only Living Son.

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It’s meant to be a sort of meditation on another outcome of a popular cultural narrative, the idea of the devil child. I wanted to actually do something that explored what it meant to love that child and want to fight for his humanity as opposed to seeing his downfall – or his rise, depending on how you see these things! – as a fait accompli. I wanted to challenge the idea that evil is absolute and unchangeable and inflexible, and I wanted to investigate the power of parenthood and the effect of love in a relationship and how that changes us.

The obvious reference here, and one that lots of other people have already made, is to Rosemary’s Baby, and it’s really interesting to see someone explore what might happen after that, to not see the birth as the end of the story, there’s clearly much more to be said there.

Well, hopefully!

Since it’s a short and part of an anthology, did you have to approach that differently than you would a feature film?

I think so. I think there has to be a very focused sense of what you’re moving toward in a short because, obviously, you have less time. There’s not a lot of room for exploring other ideas or wandering away from your most fundamental narrative concern, so for me it was an interesting exercise because I haven’t made shorts in a long time, not since school, so it was nice to think about storytelling that way again, in a very distilled way.

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Can I ask about the budget and timescale for the project? Did you have much time to put it together, or…?

No! [laughs] Not much time and not much money. I won’t give the exact number, but imagine a really low number and then probably go lower again by half, it was really low. And we only had five days to shoot it and I think I had, I don’t know, maybe seven or eight days to prep it. But when you have so little money, it has to be that fast, because you can’t keep people on working for free. So it was crazy but it was also a fun thing to be doing for a couple of weeks.

What was the brief for XX? How did you get involved with the anthology in the first place?

I was working on The Invitation with XYZ Films. Todd Brown, who was one of the founding partners of XYZ, had been talking with Jovanka Vuckovic about the lack of women, not just in horror but even more specifically in these horror anthologies, which have become their own subgenre of horror. And it wasn’t just about the lack of women behind the camera, writing and directing, but even how few women characters there are in front of the camera. So they worked on this idea of a female-driven anthology in which the director, writer, and main characters of the shorts are all female.

It took a long time to get the filmmakers together, and to find women who could take that month out of their schedule to do the work, so the line-up of filmmakers shifted quite a bit before we landed where we landed. But it’s such an interesting mandate, because on one hand it’s very specific and on the other it’s so completely broad. It allows for what I think is interesting about the anthology: it fulfils its promise of just asking ‘what would happen if you put four female filmmakers in one anthology, didn’t have them talk to each other about what they’re doing, and just saw what would happen?’

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And I think it answers the question: four very, very different films with very different interests in the medium and different perspectives. In terms of their style and aesthetic, they’re completely different from one another, which I think is really cool because it’s a reminder that something that’s, quote, ‘female-driven’ is by no means a monolithic enterprise. It’s just as varied and broad reaching as what we’ve come to call the culture at large, which is still lopsided in terms of representation.

It’s funny, isn’t it, because there’s so much going on in the world that it almost feels frivolous sometimes to be thinking about things like ‘why aren’t there more female horror directors?’ But culture, and the stories we’re told, really shape the way we think about the world.

Absolutely. And I think this conversation doesn’t have to simply be about numbers, or about reaching a particular percentage of representation. It can be about belief systems too. What fascinates me is that when we look at the history of women in politics, so frequently the women who get the farthest are the women who are quite conservative in their political views. I find it interesting that in fact there are women, as we speak, who are mouthpieces for some of the most oppressive tools of the patriarchy. So then I have to ask myself if it’s really about men and women or if it’s about belief systems and how we decide to use them for our own personal gain.

It’s all pretty depressing and frightening. But it’ll be interesting to see how this period of upheaval will be reflected in art – and particularly in horror movies, which are so much about our cultural anxieties.

I feel like generally the golden eras of cinema seem to be in moments of incredible political turmoil and strife and struggle. I suspect some really interesting work, beyond what’s already emerged, is going to emerge in the next couple of years. I’m really hopeful that one of the things that comes from this moment we’re in, where we have to interrogate so many of our core beliefs, is that movies do the same. When horror films are made in times of political strife, I think they’re not made with an instinct to add to the chaos but to bring shape to it. Hopefully we’ll get to see some of that shape.

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Speaking of movies that are going to be made, what are you working on next?

Well, I have a project that my husband Phil [Hay] and his writing partner Matt [Manfredi] wrote for me to direct. They’re the team that made The Invitation with me and it’s kind of another personal take on a familiar genre, in this case it’s a crime thriller, and it has a very very interesting complicated woman in the centre of it. It’s called Destroyer and I’m really excited about it, I feel like it’s another chapter in investigating how we come to face ourselves as lonely people on this planet. And then I also have a bunch of projects that I’m trying to figure out right now, I’m trying to figure out which one will go next.

Have you found that The Invitation has opened doors for you?

I feel really blessed. Making The Invitation, and waiting to make it on my terms, and getting final cut, and doing it the way I needed to do it, was incredibly challenging but it has really been so great for me. I’m so thankful that that’s happened, that I got to work with actors I really like, and have just such a good experience in delving into that story.

It was such a fast shoot, just 20 days, and it was a fast prep and a fast shoot and a fast cutting period but I feel like, with the resources I had, I got to make the thing I wanted to make. And I just feel like if I could keep doing that, my chances of success would be a lot higher, because I’m not looking to make movies that necessarily have lots of money behind them or even are giant releases, though I see the value of that. The fact that The Invitation has given my career another infusion of excitement and conversation, I’m so happy, I just couldn’t be more grateful. It just goes to show that in making movies one’s proud of, money isn’t necessarily what makes it good. It’s the thought behind it.

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You, more than most people, are probably super aware of that, after going from [the autonomy of] Girlfight to the problems you had on Aeon Flux.

Yeah. I feel like I learned a lot about the dangers and implicit threats that too much money on the table can bring to the creative process. So while I don’t want to be making movies at the level I had to make The Invitation at – I don’t want to keep doing that, it’s not sustainable for me on a personal or financial or creative level – I do think it’s really important to know when and why and how to make sacrifices. In the end, the only thing that matters to me is making, ideally, a great movie, but at least making my movie, and beyond that, keeping my immediate orbit of loved ones intact. If I can do those three things I’ve won the war.

The budget issue is interesting, actually, because we’re in this moment where people are talking about women making horror movies, and the conversation is about films like The Babadook, or Raw, or The Love Witch, or A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, or Prevenge, and those movies were all made on a pretty low budget…

Well, that’s the interesting thing too, what goes unsaid about all of this and what I struggle with myself, is that I want to have creative autonomy. And I recognise the reality that that’s a very difficult thing to have and to have resources behind me, but then it’s extremely frustrating when I see the careers of some of my male counterparts who are given those things: they’re given both financial resources and a large degree of creative autonomy and respect.

I keep being told that that’s just the trade-off, and I think it largely is the trade-off, that you get less money if you want creative control, but that being said, I’m coming into my own confidence as an artist and there’s a part of me that can’t accept that creative autonomy for women translates into an economic ghetto. I don’t want to continue along that trajectory for myself and I don’t want to recommend that other women continue along it because you can’t sustain it, if you have a family, if you have a mortgage to pay, if you have rent to pay, if you want to put food on your table, you can’t live on the salaries that come from these micro budget films.

I’m really interested right now to see where we head, because you’re right to mention these horror films that have done well and gotten so much attention, and the reason they’ve gotten so much attention isn’t just because women are behind them, it’s because they’re just so much better than anything else out there. You almost have to be ten times better to get to that place where suddenly it’s like, we’re at critical mass! There are so many women in horror! And now I think there needs to be more of a sense of people saying, ‘you know what, I want to pay any price to see what Jennifer Kent is going to do next. I will pay any price to see what the director of Raw will do next.’ That doesn’t mean you get the moon and stars, there’s still limits, but I just want those same opportunities afforded to my talented female counterparts that I see afforded to my talented male counterparts. It’s just simple at this point.

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Thanks Karyn! XX is released on DVD in the UK on 8 May.