Interview: Karyn Kusama on Allegory, Horror, and the All-Female Anthology ‘XX’

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The new horror anthology XX features four shorts by female directors, connected by animated interstitials. The filmmakers include Jovanka Vuckovic (The Captured Bird), Roxanne Benjamin (Southbound), Annie Clark (musician St. Vincent) and Sofia Carillo (in charge of the animation). It ends with a bang with Karyn Kusama’s short Her Only Living Son.

For his 18th birthday, Andy (Kyle Allen) wants to see his father, but his mom Cora (Christina Kirk) moved them away for a reason. When Andy gets in trouble at school, Cora is disturbed to find the teachers and principals defending him instead of the victim.

Kusama’s landmark indie film Girlfight made Michelle Rodriguez a star and opened the conversation about women in combat sports while also making her the rare director who won both the Director’s Prize and the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, in addition to the Prix de la Jeunesse at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000.

She’s previously explored horror by turning Megan Fox into a man-eater in Jennifer’s Body and exploring cults in The Invitation. Kusama spoke with cinemathread by phone about her contribution to XX, why it’s important to never say ever, and the role of horror in film and society. XX opens in theaters and on demand Friday, February 17.

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cinemathread: Was Her Only Living Son ever a feature idea?

Karyn Kusama: It was not. It was something I always kind of knew probably [that] I wanted to just explore in this short format. With XX, I had originally explored another idea that was just, I think, a little too difficult to execute with the budget that I had to work with. So I decided to do something simpler and more kind of speculative fiction. That’s what Her Only Living Son is meant to be. I was hoping that for people who came to the film not really knowing anything about the origin of that short story or my interests as a filmmaker, I was hoping they could watch the film and see it as potentially allegorical to the experience of being a parent—living with the stress of having a child who’s showing signs of mental illness or addiction and how that can really cripple a family when you feel like you’re losing control of a child, and your child is losing control of themselves.

The Invitation

CT: Are there hints of your interest in cults that you explored in The Invitation?

KK: Oh, that’s interesting. I think this is different in that it’s much more of a heightened horror trope. Whereas The Invitation is meant to be more related to real-world phenomena and real-world movements that claim to and also sometimes genuinely want real valuable change. Maybe it’s the notion of groups of people that have unquestioning faith really scare me just because I don’t know if there’s room for much conversation there. Perhaps that’s the similar thread between the two films.

 

CT: Could you share the idea you didn’t feel you could pull off in XX?

KK: Yes, I will. It had to do with a catastrophic eating disorder. It was meant to be excessive body horror. To really pull that off, it kind of meant that every single shot was a pretty detailed visual effects shot. Then I discovered in recognizing my financial limitations there, that Jovanka had been exploring not a similar idea but certain themes around depletion and anxiety around food, or the rejection of life and feeding oneself. That was the only way I learned about any of the other films was after giving up on one idea. Todd Brown, one of our producers, said, “That’s funny that you’re giving up on it because there’s someone taking on that kind of territory.” I was sort of relieved because it felt like we didn’t have unnecessary overlap there.

 

CT: So all four of you were working separately?

KK: Yeah, I think so. The reason we were working separately wasn’t by design so much as it was just really hard to get the four filmmakers [together]. We were all in different places, for one. Also, the lineup shifted quite a bit. Jovanka and I were always signed on to do it but the other two filmmakers kept shifting. It just felt like this unstable scenario for a while because we just didn’t quite know who we were going to be working with. Then Annie and Roxanne came on at the last minute. I was really happy when they came on, but at that point, I had already finished my work.

Karyn Kusama on set of ‘The Invitation’

CT: When they were all done, was it your choice to be the closer?

KK: It wasn’t. I had nothing to do with how it was put together actually. In fact, I wasn’t able to see the married sound and picture for the whole thing with the animation until really recently.

“I feel like now, despite the fact that it remains somewhat ghettoized in the way people discuss horror, it’s just by far one of our most interesting and relevant art forms.”

CT: XX is specifically four female directors but it occurs to me we wouldn’t say a film has four male directors. How do we champion female filmmakers without putting them in a box?

KK: Such a good question. I feel so confused about how to address this issue because I just don’t know what the answers are. I’ve been asked many, many times why aren’t there more films made by women and why aren’t there more women behind the camera? As a woman who makes films and a woman behind the camera, I guess I’m starting to realize I’m just not the person to ask. I don’t actually have the answers. I keep trying to come up with answers but I’ve been making films now for many years and it still isn’t getting adequately answered I suppose. That notion of further marginalization or the notion of the ghetto that is implicit in a label is very problematic for me. On the one hand, I want to embrace who I am. I am female. I don’t see female for me as a label. It is literally just one component of who I am. But I also do resist the notion that somehow we now need to work on these parallel tracks in order to get our work made. I don’t know if that’s very helpful to society either. It’s been an interesting question. I had assumed when Todd brought this idea to me that there had been other anthologies like this. I was surprised to learn that this would be the first of its kind really. I think that says something about me in some way, that I must be willfully resisting this idea of our difference in some ways because I just assumed this had already happened.

The other “XX” directors, from left, Roxanne Benjamin, Annie Clark and Jovanka Vuckovic, and animator Sofia Carrillo. Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

CT: You’d think it had been done before.

KK: Yeah, you would. It just hasn’t I guess. It’s both puzzling that it feels fresh and new to people, and maybe kind of depressing that it has to happen at all but that is truly where we’re at.

 

CT: This is now your third horror film in a row. Were you interested in this genre before Jennifer’s Body?

KK: Yes, I think I’ve always had a real affection for a certain kind of thematically rich horror. I’m probably not as schooled or knowledgeable about other directions in horror, but there’s something about the movies that use horror as a springboard for ideas that reflect our anxieties about the world that have been some of my favorite movies of all time. I feel like now, despite the fact that it remains somewhat ghettoized in the way people discuss horror, it’s just by far one of our most interesting and relevant art forms.

“I am female. I don’t see female for me as a label. It is literally just one component of who I am. But I also do resist the notion that somehow we now need to work on these parallel tracks in order to get our work made.”

CT: You have one other short film credit. Have you been working in shorts more than we might know?

KK: I had done a bunch of shorts in college when I was at film school. One of the shorts I did was part of a public service organization called Scenarios. The point of the project is that you collaborate with a teenage writer and a really young group of filmmakers help you make your movie. So you’re making your movie with high school students. So making this short was the first time I’ve done that in a long time. It’s not a format I’m usually thinking in in those terms. I just naturally gravitate more towards features but it was interesting to challenge myself with something different like this in terms of the running time and the kind of story that it had to be. It had to be more contained and have a pretty distinct and simple trajectory.

The Invitation

CT: Do you think you might think more about shorts after this experience?

KK: I don’t know. That’s a good question. I guess it would have to be the right thing. I’m not really sure about it. One thing that’s nice about this experience is it’s kind of taught me to never say never. I think if you’d asked me before I decided to do it, “Will you be making short films again,” I would have said most likely no. Now I feel very open to that possibility. Even more open to the possibility of just how storytelling happens, whether it happens in one minute or 100 minutes or 200 minutes. That’s been interesting to think about. As we’ve gotten more and more access to all kinds of entertainment, something like O.J.: Made in America can feel like one distinct piece of work. So can a minute long video on YouTube. That’s interesting to me, to have to think about the different ways we tell stories and maybe there’s value in exploring all of them.

 

CT: Have you gone back to Scenarios since you’ve been established?

KK: No, I have not. I don’t know if they work more than twice with the same director but I’ve definitely recommended it to other filmmakers who’ve been asked to do it.

 

CT: What’s your next feature going to be?

KK: I hope to be prepping another feature that I’ll shoot in L.A. that’s also written by Phil Hay and Matt Menfredi who wrote and produced The Invitation. We’re doing a kind of L.A. trilogy so this would be the second installment. It’s much more explicitly a crime thriller and has a very unusual female protagonist. I don’t think we’ve really seen this character before. It’s kind of an odyssey across Los Angeles. I’m hoping to be shooting it in the fall. It’s called Destroyer.

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