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Q&A: Director Karyn Kusama On Horror Movies For, About, And Made By Women

The ‘Jennifer’s Body’ and ‘The Invitation’ director on ‘XX’ and making scary movies in Hollywood

Director Karyn Kusama (The Invitation, Jennifer's Body) stopped by the “Lady Problems” podcast this week to discuss her segment in the new anthology film XX, horror movies about women, and opportunities for female directors in Hollywood.

Listen to the full conversation with Kusama and subscribe to “Lady Problems” on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, or your podcast app of choice.

[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

Rachel Handler: Tell us about XX.

Karyn Kusama: XX is a horror film anthology somewhat similar to other releases like V/H/S or Southbound. But what distinguishes XX is the four films are directed by women and often written by women, and all have female protagonists.

Hazel Cills: Can you explain what your segment specifically is about?

Kusama: My segment is called “Her Only Living Son,” and it's meant to be a kind of speculative reimagining of another outcome of one of my favorite films, Rosemary's Baby. And it's really meant to imagine a different ending to what has now become a very classic story of demon possession, and imagines that the maternal instinct and the maternal influence is actually more powerful than, or as powerful as, this supernatural demonic force. It's toying with ideas around parenthood and having a son who you love and fear and raised on your own. Thinking about the loneliness of motherhood is definitely what drove this story for me.

RH: That's so funny, because we both watched the movie, and Hazel was like, “I think it's supposed to be Rosemary's Baby, but I'm not sure.” But we both love that movie.

Kusama: There's a scene in Rosemary's Baby that I think about so much, where Mia Farrow goes to see her old doctor, played by Charles Grodin. She sort of tumbles out with her story of what happened to her, and he appears to believe her and appears to say, “I'm going to get you help.” But ultimately, he must think she's insane because he just returns her to her captors.

I always watched that scene with a lot of interest, because I wonder on a narrative level what kind of stories come out of benevolence and faith as opposed to mistrust, and that sort paternalistic sense of knowing better than the female character. I always wondered, What would happen if that doctor believed her story? And that's what gave me the idea for an “18 years later” imagining of those kinds of characters.

RH: Almost all of the shorts deal with these sort of “domestic horror” ideas related to traditional roles for women. Was that something that you were directed to deal with? Was it just a coincidence?

Kusama: You know, it's purely coincidence, because we actually didn't have access to each other's projects. I think that allowed us a sense of freedom to come up with the stuff that interested us the most. And inevitably there was some crossover in the themes of certain films, I think. Because I do think there's a preoccupation that women understandably have with this idea of the roles we're meant to play, and whether or not those roles serve us or ultimately kind of imprison us.

RH: It's interesting that you guys came up with the ideas separately, because they are of the same sort of concept. Is that just because being a woman is just so fucked-up and scary? Is it hard to make a horror movie without dealing with that?

Kusama: There's been a resurgence of this question, about women who go to horror films and women who make horror films and are big fans of the genre. And I think it's so interesting that we have to keep retreading this question or these issues, because to me it's pretty clear that women's lives are just often frightening, often loaded with threats all the time.

And so in a way, I feel like we're ideal candidates to be unearthing stories about fear, about human vulnerability, about fighting back, about terror. And for me, I feel like I don't see myself as all that different from other humans as a woman, but I'm surprised by how frequently I'm asked to see myself differently. So that's one kind of terror to have to face. Am I a unicorn? What's sticking out of my head that I'm not seeing? I'm simply female, and that puts me alongside all of my human counterparts.

What I'm starting to really grapple with, as someone who likes to tell stories, is that humans more than any other animal species seem open and willing to control, assert dominance, and behave cruelly. That's a whole kind of new nightmare to really have to face about your own species. That we are, in some respects, cannibalistic, in that we are willing to destroy ourselves. That's really something for me to be exploring over the long haul.

RH: It's funny, because in three segments, including yours, there's something about motherhood being terrifying. Like, the children themselves being terrifying.

Kusama: It's funny, because I'm ultimately kind of resistant to the story lines about terrifying children. I feel like there's something really reactionary and kind of conservative about this idea of demon children, even though I've just made a movie that's sort of riffing on that. I have a kind of “cinema studies” critical capacity to say that's coming out of, I think, a pre–Reagan era fear of young creativity, young sexuality, all of those kinds of things.

But that being said, what we don't really want to talk about openly is motherhood as this sort of “curtain lifting” of tremendous power that we have individually as women. It's tremendously freaky to have a human being grow inside your body and eventually turn into a human being, and then birth [that] human being, and then have them be separate from you. Those things are scary. It's also really, really scary to face the idea of losing a child and losing someone you love more than you've loved anything before. All of those things are innately really terrifying, and what it does to me is bring me to a direct kind of confrontation with my human vulnerability.

That's where all of the really great horror stories end up coming from, having to face one's frailty, one's flaws. I think the best horror manages to poke into that soft belly.

HC: Yeah, I'm reminded of The Babadook, which was obviously a movie in which the mother character wasn't a textbook savior. She actually became the demonic force and her child had to save her.

Kusama: Absolutely, and I think we forget that part of parenthood means having to face and reject or face and embrace a kind of animal capacity for unkindness. And if, when parents do embrace that, it reveals something very ugly to oneself. I think that was something that, now that I've got a child and he's almost 10 years old, I think a lot about the effects of reckless or thoughtless parenthood, and those effects can be really scary.

RH: What outside of this scares you? Whether it's a movie, whether it's a sort of existential fear?

Kusama: I mean, oh my god. Existential fears, it's just like, how do I even start?

RH: [laughs] You can pick one.

Kusama: I've been asked a question that's similar to this, and I've really had to narrow down the, like, house of horrors, or the closet of frights. What's really been troubling me, and deeply, deeply, deeply disturbing me and making me pretty on edge, is what I would say is a kind of cultural acceptance of the lack of curiosity.

And to me, the thing that sets us apart from so many other animal species is our ability to ask questions, investigate, gather information, come to our own conclusions, and sometimes depart from the pack, sometimes move away from the tribe. And I'm not seeing a lot of that right now among a sizable portion of American politics and American voters. I'm not seeing that kind of use of critical thinking, and it really, really freaks me out. Because that complacency and that willingness to give yourself over to a larger power structure is how civilizations destroy themselves. And I just hope people wake up from the slumber they've willed themselves to. Because we're really in a dark place right now.

RH: Yeah, we really are. I was actually thinking about this the other night, because I went to watch this movie, and I love horror movies, but I was like, oh my god, I don't even want to watch horror right now because I'm so frightened in my life.

Kusama: I know. I mean, that's the other thing. It's sort of like, does it answer the call right now to see stuff that makes you viscerally terrified or not? It's funny, a movie that I needed to see after the election was Arrival. I felt so thankful for that movie, thankful that it asked questions, and that it imagined a really smart, curious, brilliant woman basically saving humanity. We need those kinds of stories right now, because I think those narratives are going to be the narratives that get reflected back into our daily lives.

RH: You had an interview with BuzzFeed earlier this year in which you said you've since started receiving more scripts, but that a lot of them have innate violence against women, women are beaten to death, or they're murdered for sport. Are you still seeing that? Are you still getting scripts like that?

Kusama: Oh, yeah. I mean, I'm realizing that it's not personal. If anything, I'm getting the edited version of all of what's out there. I think it's a really, really common trope, to the degree that now, beyond how morally or ethically offensive one might find it, it's just such a cliché. There's just so much lazy violence directed at women. But beyond that, lazy violence directed at humans generally. Just lazy violence.

That's what I'm really finding to be an ongoing theme. To complicate matters, I'm really interested in violence. And I think there's an inevitably cinematic property that violence brings to the moviegoing experience. But one still has to be thoughtful and mature about how you depict it and how you think it through. You have to think it through. You have to think about the effects that violence has on audiences, and it's deployed so casually that I think it's losing its meaning. And when things like violence and murder and the dehumanization of other people lose their meaning, then we're really kind of in a place where we have to reexamine and take a hard look at ourselves.

HC: We mentioned The Babadook, but also movies like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night — those were movies that were maybe super critically successful, but not necessarily commercially successful. They didn't have mainstream wide releases. Why are there so many great horror movies by women that exist in these independent spaces, and why aren't they making the jump to mainstream circles? Why aren't these directors getting to direct big-budget horror productions?

Kusama: That's a great question. A really valid question. It's so complicated. On the one hand, I can say for myself, I'm seeing more and more interesting horror come my way. More and more interesting thrillers and genre films are coming my way from the studio level, and they're financed and they have movie stars attached and all of that.

But a lot of times, the storytelling just doesn't speak to me. It feels like it's still oftentimes coming out of a kind of prescribed notion of normalcy, prescribed notion of gender roles. There's not a lot of “new” seeming to be happening. I'm not drawn to many of those projects and not willing to say yes to many of them. I don't know if that means my female colleagues are having the same experience, or those projects aren't necessarily always getting in front of them, or they feel similar strains of like, Ugh, I just wish this was more interesting. That's one side of the coin.

The other side of the coin is that women still routinely get passed over when everyone sits around the table and says, “What's our list of 10, 20, 30 directors that we wanna put at the top of our list for this project?” You need more people who are either women who care about this issue or men who care about this issue, who are sitting in this room and saying, “Guys, where are the women? We need to be going out to women.” And particularly in the projects that really could use a fresh feminine perspective, whatever that ultimately means.

I'm surprised [by] how frequently that level of oversight and that sort of self-critical process within the committees that make these lists doesn't happen. You just need more people at the top who make it a priority to hire women. And I don't think there are enough people yet who have that track record, with the exception of Oprah and Ava DuVernay. I don't think we're at the place yet where enough women at the top are hiring other women to make a difference.

RH: Oprah needs to subsidize more horror films, is what the solution is here. [laughs]

HC: I also think the narrative usually is, when women aren't making mainstream major studio films, it's because they were passed over. But I think if you look at a career like yours, the other outcome of that is, well, maybe women don't want to direct movies on that level. And I feel like that's something people don't talk about enough.

Kusama: Well, I think what happens is men talk about it, and then it sounds like they're just making decisions for women and not examining their own choices and opportunities very carefully. I don't want to make studio films if I am constantly fighting to assert some kind of leadership within the process. I'm not hired to be a really nice person who comes up with solutions to problems now and then. I'm hired to be the director. So it's frustrating to me that [in] my two experiences within the studio system, ultimately one more than the other, someone systematically attempted to remind me of my powerlessness. In the end, I don't really want to welcome that kind of experience into my life again.

I do think it's possible for me to go back to the studio, and for a lot of women filmmakers to be going back into studio filmmaking with a different sense of their own agency, and a different sense of the respect that they can command. When you asked the question about [whether] women want to be making big studio movies, the answer is almost always yes. It's just, how do they want to be treated? What is that experience going to be? And if you know the experience is gonna be shitty going into it, I personally am at a place where I'm not willing to punish myself any longer.

RH: If you could repopulate the current masthead of men making horror movies with your female contemporaries, who would you put up there?

Kusama: Ooh. Well, I do think Jennifer Kent is super, super, super interesting. And I haven't gotten to see that movie Raw yet, the French film. I've heard it's just an amazing cinematic statement and I'm really excited by that.

It's funny because, though I have my own interests in horror, I don't actually pay obsessive attention to the horror genre. So I probably don't know male filmmakers either. I think Ana Lily Amirpour is really, super interesting. And she obviously is interested in genre, which is cool.

But I feel what could be interesting is seeing more female filmmakers approaching horror the way, say, Jonathan Demme decided to tackle Silence of the Lambs. You know, you wouldn't have looked at his résumé and said, “Oh, that's a no-brainer.” But it went on to be a hugely successful direction for him to take. More women filmmakers need the opportunities to flex in all sorts of ways and get the opportunity to tackle different genres. I mean, personally, I'm not looking to be a specialist of a certain kind of film, as much as just make films that seem like they speak from my distinct and specific voice. I'm hoping more women get to just make their films. I hope Gillian Robespierre gets to make a horror movie, because I'm sure there's plenty she's got a lot to say about.

RH: That would be awesome.

Kusama: Yeah, it's a question of what scares us at the moment. Are we willing to be sleepless for a few years of our life?