‘The Invitation’ Filmmakers on ‘Zen Warrior Approach’ to Making Paranoid Thriller

Director Karyn Kusama and writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi broke bread with TheWrap — what could go wrong?

Last Updated: April 9, 2016 @ 1:02 PM

“I’m not going to let my mom see this movie,” veteran screenwriter Phil Hay said about “The Invitation,” a paranoid thriller he co-wrote that hit theaters and premium VOD on Friday, courtesy of Drafthouse Films.

Hay and his longtime co-writer Matt Manfredi graciously accepted TheWrap’s invitation to lunch at Salt’s Cure in Hollywood last month. The scribes were joined by director Karyn Kusama, with whom they previously worked on “Aeon Flux.”

We know what you’re thinking, but don’t let their past collaboration fool you. “The Invitation” is one of the best genre films we’ve seen in a very long time, playing out like a twisted parlor game in a single location.

The film stars Logan Marshall-Green as a troubled man who accepts an invitation to a dinner party full of old friends and a new one, Pruitt, played by “Zodiac” actor John Carroll Lynch. To say anymore would be a disservice to viewers, since as Kusama says, “The movie does a good job of withholding information.”

The Invitation Karyn Kusama

Without spoiling the surprises, we vouch for it, and critics clearly agree, as the film boasts a 95 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is especially impressive for a genre film.

“The Invitation” marks a turning point in the careers of its three creators, who pursued independent filmmaking after dissatisfying experiences within the studio system. Not only did the trio weather the storm of “Aeon Flux,” but Kusama’s “Jennifer’s Body,” written by Diablo Cody, was seen as an under-performer, while Hay and Manfredi’s “R.I.P.D.” lived up to its title in theaters.

Of course, credits never tell the full story, but needless to say, those setbacks propelled them to make “The Invitation” on a million-dollar budget, giving themselves complete creative control. That also meant there were no dressing rooms, and the filmmakers fashioned a production office out of one of the upstairs rooms in the L.A. house where they shot.

“I absolutely went indie in response to a bad studio experience,” said Kusama. With a studio film, the director is never the final authority. With “The Invitation,” Kusama said, “the buck stops with us.”

“The studio system is so frequently a broken process. It’s crazy from the beginning. So much can get derailed when you add more voices in the mix,” said Kusama, who had final cut on “The Invitation.”

“We’ve had every kind of studio experience. If a studio is putting in $80 million, they want their money back,” said Manfredi. He and Hay pay attention to reviews and wrote “The Invitation” in response to negative criticisms of their studio work. “If you’re human, you take it in,” said Manfredi.

“Being an artist demands a zen warrior approach,” said Kusama, the rare female director with multiple studio credits on her résumé. “The most political thing you can do is keep being a filmmaker and doing good work.”

Marshall-Green was initially reluctant to sign on to the project. As Kusama told it, he liked the script but was expecting a son several months before shooting started and wasn’t sure he wanted to invite the film’s dark energy into his life at that time in his life.

“Part of it freaks me out and scares me,” he told Kusama, who simply advised the actor, “That’s why you need to do it.”

“One of many things movies are good for is confronting fears,” adds Hay, and sure enough, the actor took the plunge.

The Invitation

The film employs flashbacks featuring a startlingly different Marshall-Green, one who was full of optimism and beauty. Kusama instructed her leading man to “show us who you used to be” before the evening on which “The Invitation” takes place.

The writers set the film in the Hollywood Hills because of its decadent mythology and legacy of darkness, from Charles Manson to the Wonderland murders involving porn star John Holmes. “It’s attractive, but it’s a fantasy,” Kusama said. “People come to southern California to reinvent themselves and become new people.”

“There’s a lack of social and physical boundaries here,” said Hay, adding that “people are more open to redefining their spirituality.”

“The Invitation” also boasts a diverse cast that reflects the reality of modern Los Angeles. “It’s not about white L.A.,” said Manfredi, and indeed, it seems that Emayatzy Corinealdi serves as the audience surrogate of sorts.

“The Invitation” shares several themes with Hulu’s original series “The Path,” which features a fictional religion called Meyerism that eases the pain of its practitioners.

According to Kusama, the moral of “The Invitation” is that “it’s wrong to think you can control other people because of what you believe… but so many hugely influential belief systems are predicated that you make decisions for other people.”

“We didn’t want to simplify it,” explained Hay. “We saw them as real people, not readable as villains or destructive voices.”

“You can argue it’s helping them,” Manfredi added, And as for a sequel, don’t count on it. “Thematically, the statement has been made,” he said.

Hay and Manfredi’s next movie couldn’t be further from “The Invitation.” They’re returning to write “Ride Along 3,” but that’s not the only cop movie they’re working on. They told TheWrap that they’ll be reuniting with Kusama for a third time on a project described as “a cop movie with a twist.”

If that twist is as good as the brilliant last shot of “The Invitation”? Consider that invitation accepted.

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