Karyn Kusama’s journey through Hollywood has probably felt, at times, like trying to survive after a plane crash. The director, known for the 2009 now-cult classic Jennifer’s Body, 2015’s The Invitation, and the 2018 Nicole Kidman–starrer Destroyer, found herself struggling to get more work in film after Jennifer’s Body and Aeon Flux had rocky receptions—putting her in so-called director’s jail. At the time, she turned to television, directing episodes of The L Word, Halt and Catch Fire, and Masters of Sex.
“In some respects, I try to see my failures, my perceived failures, my obstacles, as lessons,” she tells Vanity Fair. “I could easily be this reactive, embittered—what I describe as just like anybody in Hollywood, basically. I could have easily been that, and I don’t think it would get me closer to what it is I really want to be doing.”
What she wants to be doing is working on projects like Showtime’s Yellowjackets, the richly dark drama about a group of young women who end up stranded in the wilderness after a plane crash. The enthralling first season of the series (which earned seven Emmy nominations) follows the young women as their situation gets increasingly dire (and leads to violence and perhaps cannibalism) and, in a separate timeline, the survivors years later as middle-aged woman, dealing with the trauma and secrets of their time in the woods.
Along with serving as an executive producer on the series, Kusama directed the pilot episode, which earned her her first Emmy nomination. It’s a series that perfectly aligned with so many of the themes that have run through Kusama’s work, including and also tied to her strengths of directing horror and dark tales. Here, Kusama reflects on what drew her to this “war story,” how she juggled the two timelines, and her plans for directing in the second season.
Vanity Fair: What do you remember about your first impressions of this project?
Karyn Kusama: I probably received the script three years ago, which is crazy to think about —but COVID interrupted everything. I really liked the writing right away. I thought it was smart and funny and beautifully observant, had a very specific voice. But I was also struck by the density of the storytelling: a lot of characters, and then the jumping back and forth in time. It took me a couple reads to decide if I could tackle it. I think that was the challenge of the first script, and it’s literally the challenge of every successive script. It’s such a balancing act to juggle multiple timelines and keep that thread of engagement, and so my hats are always off to the writers for being able to figure out how to just keep our attention alive in a really interesting, engaged way.
As the director of the pilot, you got to have a lot more input about the visual style of the show. What were those conversations like?
One of the things we talked about really early was this idea that unlike a more fixed, feature-length storytelling in which, oftentimes, there’s an imperative to create a distinction between the past and the present visually or sonically, we were more interested in what feels more like a continuous thread or a continuum of experience as you’re watching the characters. What I was pitching to them, and I think they responded to, was this idea of very little queuing to the past or the present—so that you sort of feel like even if you have to catch up to where you are in time, you’re in time with these characters. It’s like you want to find some essence of the character that can live across multiple timelines.
I would say that was one of the first creative conversations we had, along with this idea that’s related to this but in a more emotional or psychological way—which is that in some respects, we saw the story as the war story, and that these girls had returned from war. And now we’re following how that experience follows them or is incorporated into their lives.