Karyn Kiyoko Kusama (born March 21, 1968) is an American film and television director. She made her feature film debut with the 2000 film Girlfight, which she wrote and directed, for which she won the Award of the Youth at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature. She went on to direct the 2005 sci-fi action film Æon Flux, based on Peter Chung's animated series of the same name, and the 2009 cult horror comedy Jennifer's Body. She has recently worked as a television director. In 2017 she directed a segment in the film XX, an all-female horror anthology. Her latest film is the 2018 crime thriller Destroyer, starring Nicole Kidman. Three of her films have been written by her husband Phil Hay and his writing partner Matt Manfredi.
Early life and education
Kusama was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of Haruo Kusama, a Japanese child psychiatrist and Susan McGuire, an Midwestern educational psychiatrist. She graduated from Ladue Horton Watkins High School in St. Louis, and in 1990, she earned a BFA in Film & TV from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.
After graduating from NYU, where she won a Mobil Prize for a student film called Sleeping Beauties, Kusama worked as an editor on documentary films, in production on independent film and music videos, as a nanny, and painting houses. Through her nanny job she met filmmaker John Sayles and worked as his assistant for three years while he was making the film Lone Star, as well as the development of his films Men with Guns and Limbo. While working for Sayles, she continued to write screenplays. In 1992, Kusama started boxing at Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn, training with Hector Roca. She began collecting ideas for Girlfight, but didn't start writing it until two years later.
At age 31, Kusama wrote and directed her debut feature, Girlfight. It took several years to find financing for the film, reportedly due to her insistence that the main character be a Latina rather than allowing the film to become a vehicle for a well-known white actress. After financing fell through shortly before shooting began, Girlfight was partially financed by film-maker John Sayles, for whom she worked as an assistant at the time and who served as a mentor. The film was released in 2000 and won the Director's Prize and shared the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, as well as the Prix de la Jeunesse at the Cannes Film Festival. The independent feature film with a budget of around US$1 million was critically well received. However, it brought in only US$1,667,000, which was considered a poor return; it has since become a classic example of the "Sundance Effect".
In 2005, Kusama directed her second film, Æon Flux, a Paramount Pictures studio production that starred Charlize Theron and had a budget of US$62,000,000. The film had been ushered through production by Paramount studio chief Sherry Lansing but during production Lansing left, which resulted in the film being recut and reworked, with significant changes from Kusama's original vision. Following this experience, Kusama said she would never again work on a film in which she doesn't have control of the final cut. Its worldwide gross was estimated at around US$52,000,000.
In 2009, Kusama directed the horror film Jennifer's Body, which was written by Diablo Cody and starred actress Megan Fox in the lead role. The film grossed approximately US$31,000,000 on a budget of around US$16,000,000. Despite its box office success, the film received mixed reviews from critics upon its release but has since become a cult classic. In regards to the reappraisals of the film, Kusama credited its "distinctly female perspective," stating she had intended to make a movie where young women could see themselves represented. Kusama has since described working on both Æon Flux and Jennifer's Body as "learning experiences," wherein she learned how to navigate the Hollywood studio system.
In 2015, Kusama directed The Invitation, a horror movie written by Kusama's husband Phil Hay and his writing partner, Matt Manfredi, and starring Logan Marshall-Green. The film was funded by a film consortium called Gamechanger Films, who fund films directed by women. It premiered at the 2015 SXSW Festival, to great acclaim, and was released by Drafthouse Films. The film would win the International Critic's Award at the 2015 Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival, and was also nominated for Best Picture. Other accolades won by the film included Best Film at the 2015 Sitges Film Festival and the Golden Octopus at the 2015 Strasbourg European Fantastic Film Festival.
Part of the film's inspiration are the experiences of loss that Kusama, Hay, and Manfredi had. Kusama's brother, Kevin, died when she was young, as did a close friend in New York. The film was shot in sequence, cost US$1 million, and was filmed in 20 days in Los Angeles. Due to the low production cost and time of the film, Kusama noted that despite the challenges involved with making a movie in this manner she had the creative control she lacked on her previous Hollywood films.
Starting in 2015, Kusama began working regularly in TV as a director on shows like Halt and Catch Fire, Casual, and Billions. Kusama is slated to direct the upcoming adaptation of Breed, an adult horror novel by Scott Spencer under the pen name Chase Novak. The film will again be produced and written by Kusama's husband Phil Hay and his partner Matt Manfredi.
In 2017, Kusama directed a segment of an all female directed anthology horror film called XX.
In 2018, Kusama released her latest directorial effort, a Los Angeles-set crime thriller titled Destroyer. The film stars Nicole Kidman in its lead role, who according to Kusama had lobbied for the part after reading the script. The film was again written and produced by Hay and Manfredi, with La La Land producer Fred Berger serving as an additional producer. The film began production in the December of 2017 for a 33-day shoot and was shot on location. The film made its debut at the Telluride Film Festival to positive reactions, and later screened in competition for the Platform Prize at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. The American theatrical rights for the film have been acquired by Annapurna Pictures, with a release set for December 2018.
Themes and style
Kusama's films have been noted for their strong feminist themes, and with the exception of The Invitation, all her films have featured female protagonists. Her protagonists are often flawed, with the filmmaker citing an interest in ambiguity and difficulty in characters. Kusama has described herself as a "feminist unapologetically" and has criticized the barriers that women face in the film industry. In addition to themes of feminism, Kusama has also explored existential themes such as loss, despair, and anxiety in her films.
Kusama's interest in being a filmmaker comes from the "disparate elements" of art in storytelling from dialogue to music, and the opportunity that being a filmmaker allows in uniting these elements into a single vision. Her films have often drawn upon and been influenced by her own experiences and connections.
Some of her films have been set in the city of Los Angeles. On the city's usage in The Invitation, Kusama that despite the film being primarily set and shot in a single interior space it had to be set in Los Angeles due to the mythology and history of the city and the surrounding Southern California region. With Destroyer, Kusama aimed to authentically depict parts of the city not often seen in popular culture, resulting in its location shooting going "off the beaten path."
Kusama married screenwriter Phil Hay in October 2006. They have a son. Although they had known each other since meeting at Sundance when Girlfight premiered in 2000, it wasn't until they worked together on Æon Flux that they began dating.
Director's Prize at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival
|2015||The Invitation||Director||Best Feature Film at the 2015 Sitges Film Festival
Golden Octopus at the 2015 Strasbourg European Fantastic Film Festival
International Critic's Award at the 2015 Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival