Karyn Kiyoko Kusama is a multi-genre female filmmaker. She is an American film director, a writer, and a feminist. The problems and deep portrayal of female characters are reflected in her films. She often has criticized the barriers that women face in the film industry. Kusama has won prestigious Cannes and Sundance awards, which make her the first filmmaker to win both those awards. Some of her famous films are, Girlfight (2000), Jennifer’s Body (2009), The Invitation (2015), and Destroyer (2018).

Career of the female filmmaker

“I always had a sense that I wanted to be a director.”- Karyn Kusama.

Early career

Karyn Kusama became inspired to become a filmmaker early in her teens after watching Martha Coolidge’s Valley Girl and Amy Heckerling’s Fast Time. Before that, she was not even familiar with the term female filmmaker. But ‘fast time’, sparked her dream to enter Hollywood.

Kusama earned a BFA in Film & TV from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1990. Before working in the film and TV industry, she took many odd jobs to live through initial times. During these small jobs she simultaneously worked for her dream career.

Those jobs included:

  • Nanny
  • House painter
  • Editing documentary films
  • In the production of independent film and music videos.

While working as an assistant to filmmaker John Sayles, in 1992, she started boxing at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. During this time she collected ideas for her debut full-length feature film, Girlfight, which released in 2000. She trained with Hector Roca, the number one Spanish boxing trainer who trained many bigshots. Her first Hollywood film was a great success and has a cult fan following till now. Karyn Kusama’s Hollywood career took off from Girlfight and is a hit since then.

Established career

Karyn Kusama is known for her strong feminist-themed films. All of her major films have female protagonists, except ‘The invitation’. The episodes she directed for the television series are not feminist, but her great artistic work contributing to different genres.

She has directed many remarkable episodes for various renowned television series. Her latest episode being: ‘The one about the Yiddish vampire’ from The outsider. She will direct the next Hollywood Classic Universal monster movie: Dracula, based on Bram Stoker’s novel.

Kusama mentions Jonathan Glazer and Jacques Audiard as the current filmmakers who have influenced her. She also named Chantal Akerman’s art-house film Jeanne Dielman as one of her favorite films by a female filmmaker.

Themes and style

  • Karyn Kusama is an auteur of cult fiction, genres of suspense, horror, thriller, drama, and science fiction in Hollywood movies and TV series. With often flawed and physically strong protagonists, she dives deep into the dark American psyche.
  • She investigates and represents the deep psychology of characters, their dark feelings of unrest, violence, and other very strong negative emotions. She focuses on a realist direction and plays around with the minds of the viewers. Her movies are a representation of externalizing the internal trauma of females or other characters. As a result, people channel their emotions into physical actions.
  • Uniquely, Kusama works in both linear and non-linear formats.
  • Many situations in her films are influenced by real incidents and feelings from her life. Her early life was filled with people around her dying, taking drugs, overdosing, getting violent, angry, and betraying each other. Her films break social barriers with a bash! She does not believe in reserving particular characters for men and proves it remarkably on screen.
  • “For me, believable on-screen characters, female or male, should have the ability to surprise you and awe you.” She says in an interview.
  • The production design, color palette, and music of her films remarkably complement the emotions of the main character of the film. She particularly uses low tones in her sound design. There are below the audible range of the sonic landscape and are often vibratory in a theatre. Her palettes are usually pretty dark or dim in terms of color and lighting, even in enclosed spaces.
  • ‘Destroyer’ is but an L.A. neo-noir film, shot mostly in daylight. She pays attention to framing people and faces, along with creating negative space around the characters. Karyn often uses a fairly controlled aesthetic with the camera and uses isolation techniques for the main character. Her love for visual arts reflects in all her works.

Prominent films of Karyn Kusama

  • In Girlfight, we meet a quick-tempered young woman who finds discipline, self-respect, and love in her boxing classes.
  • Destroyer is a film involving a former policewoman who is a depraved alcoholic. She is physically dilapidated and emotionally prickly. Consequently, she takes things into her own hands and brings her torturers to justice one by one when they resurface.
  • In the blockbuster movie, ‘The invitation’, Karyn Kusama directs a horror masterpiece filled with mystery, suspense, and emotional violence. She does this so accurately that the words often coming out of our mouths are: “Oh, now what?”, “Ah! How the hell?”, “What on Earth?” and so on.
  • Her direction turns the scenes into masterpieces. Even when the original character of the actors is opposite to that of the protagonist. Hats off to the way she transformed Nicole Kidman, emotionally, physically, and as an actor, in ‘Destroyer’.

Nicole Kidman in ‘Destroyer’.

Pictures courtesy of The Guardian

‘Actors make themselves available to their deepest feelings; as a director, you want to ensure that your actors are emotionally safe on your set. It can be risky to “trick” actors as a way to get performance, as building trust will be essential to getting great work.’ – Karyn Kusama.

Watch her films to experience some thrill and watch action scenes performed by females.

Here are some recent movies to watch which are directed by female filmmakers.

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