The man behind the podcast An Invitation discusses how his appreciation of the director fueled his intensive dive into her films.
Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation is a slow-burn horror about the dinner party from hell, one we should all be grateful not to attend, but podcaster Jim Penola thought otherwise. Instead, he invites listeners to sit down and stay awhile with An Invitation to the Invitation, a 15-part series that breaks down the 2015 film scene by scene. It’s full of thoughtful audio essays and radio-play style re-enactments set to an original score from his brother and composer John Penola.
Taking hundreds of hours to write and produce, it’s unlike almost any other film podcast streaming today, pushing the genre into refreshing new waters. The second season of An Invitation launched in December 2022 and explores Kusama’s most recent work, 2018’s Destroyer.
We talked with Penola about his love of Kusama, the inspiration behind the series, and what it takes to become the foremost Kusama expert on the scene.
What is it about Kusama specifically, that draws you to her work more than other people? Like I’m talking beyond just wanting to bring more recognition, but on an emotional level what do you find yourself connecting to in her work?
It really is all about the emotion for me, as far as my connection to the work of Karyn Kusama. That’s really the headline, the thesis of it for me, and was really the instigating spark that even got me thinking about investigating some of her work on the sort of granular, exhaustive level that I’ve been doing.
You launched your show with The Invitation, and then dedicated, arguably, hundreds of hours of your life into digging into it, line by line. So do you remember the first time you saw it and what that experience was like?
I’ve told versions of this origin over the last couple of years, but I do have a very distinctive early memory of a 2015’s The Invitation. … I was recommended the film from my good friend Brandon, who’s who’s a huge horror buff to this day. I take his recommendation seriously, and … I watched it, and the lingering memory from that first viewing was just being driven mad in the best way possible, in a very rare way that I struggle to think of a comparison even now.
Just the dramatic question of the film, if you will — which of which is, “Is Will crazy, or are his suspicions justified?” — I found that dramatic question just so maddening, I can’t think of a better word for it, that it almost got me high.
So now, you know we have to we have to spill the tea: admit it. How mad were you that they released another movie literally called The Invitation last year?
Very! Honestly, it’s hard to separate at this point! I think I think what sort of put it over the edge was seeing Philip Hay, who cowrote and coproduced The Invitation (2015)… when I saw his ambivalence and weirdness. He wasn’t incensed, but he cared enough to comment on it. And once I saw his sort of frustration, I feel like it gave me permission to feel that way, too. I guess on a practical level, it just sucks that there’s it just dilutes the waters of discovery for 2015’s.
I have unfortunately already had the nightmare conversations you’re talking about. Like “Oh, there’s a podcast about Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation” [And they’re like] “Oh my god, she made that? I feel like no one was talking about that! The vampire thing, right?” and I was like, “NO. No, not that one! Not that one.”
I mean the other insult to injury is that, as you pointed out the more recent Invitation was a vampire movie and Karyn and Phil and Manfredi’s vampire movie, Mina Harker, was scrapped last minute, mere weeks before production was about to begin.
Unforgivable is right.
We’re spending some time on The Invitation because obviously that’s season one of your podcast. An Invitation is one of the most unique I’ve ever seen, and you truly are one of the only people doing things this way. So how did you decide on this format? And why did it feel so right for this project?
It’s as you can imagine, a very big series. It’s a very long. But there is there is a direct sort of Invitation connection in the sense that I found out about it through Phil Hay, cowriter, coproducer of The Invitation because he was a guest on one of the One Heat Minute episodes. And I remember checking that out, listening to a little bit and thinking, “Oh, this is cool. This is inventive. … Wouldn’t it be cool to do a similar thing with The Invitation one day?”
Because at that point, my love and obsession was very firmly in place, but I had yet to find the outlet for it. And that was like summer of 2019-ish? And then around fall 2019, I was seeking a creative outlet, I was very depressed. And I was like, “Alright, I think now I should try this Invitation podcast idea.” And finally, finally, sort of make tangible, all the nebulous thoughts that have been swirling in my mind for a few years. So to answer your question properly, it does come back to what you were talking about, like, I like I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself to like, do just a “chat cast,” as I’ve heard it described.
Which to be clear, we are not knocking. We are not knocking it, merely that there’s a certain type of podcaster that often doesn’t think he needs to do very much more. And there are a lot of bad movie podcasts out there. Not everybody is good at that. Not everybody can be Blank Check, you know?
Right? No, it’s very, very true. But you know, I’m glad you clarified because the other one of the many reasons why I knew I couldn’t do that format is because, like, I’m just I’m just, I’m not that good off the cuff! And again, like the movie had been swimming in my subconscious for long enough that I wanted to be formal about it. I think up until that point, in my mind, I was like, I’ll just do an essay one day about this film. Like that was the format that, was the medium that I was really leaning towards for a few years. And then it just… I guess that almost seemed too small and I was craving a new form of expression. And I knew the movie was good enough that it would hold up under that level of scrutiny.
What is it like to know that your work on Season One has turned, in your own words, casual fans, and even people totally new that film, into kind of like super fans?
I think it’s the highest compliment for people to say to me, “Oh, now I get it. Now I really get it.” Or “I liked it before, but oh, this movie is amazing!” That to me, is probably the earliest goal I had in making [the show].
In season two, you’re doing Kusama’s movie Destroyer and if you scan the top reviews for Destroyer, they’re actually all fairly positive, with more than a few glowing. But the conversation around that film hasn’t come anywhere near what it has for something like Jennifer’s Body, which is gone from a cult fave to a genuine part of the canon. Why do you think that is? And are you hoping the show changes that?
Yeah. Yes, I am definitely hoping the show opens up an ongoing conversation around Destroyer. Absolutely. And that’s certainly a reason why I’ve been taking my time in even releasing the episodes in terms of scheduling.
One answer, or rather one remark, one comment, is that that question that you’re asking has been a significant engine in even taking on this series. Because again, the labor and the work is considerable. So if I’m going to be doing this, I need some driving inquiry. And that is certainly one of them.
Season two is definitely a step up in terms of production from season one of An Invitation. You tapped your brother slash collaborator for an original score, you hired a handful of actors to perform the script, rather than continue reading through it yourself, as you did in season one. And is this purely born out of everything you just learned from doing season one or is there more to it?
I would say as far as the production of this season where I’m examining Destroyer, that mainly came out of how satisfying it was to apply that level of dedication, or whatever, towards the end of the Invitation season.
Another engine, another driving force to the Destroyer season was wanting to continue that momentum creatively. I mean, of course I want to elevate the film. That’s another huge pillar of of me going this deep with it, but I would say it was more for selfish reasons. I developed this skill that I really enjoyed diving into and I wanted to see how far I could push it, and I’m still pushing it right now. I’m producer, editor, writer… I don’t recommend it to sane people!
Few do. Very few do.
But but but the gratification is, is worth it. And that’s why I so appreciate your your kind words about it because I just I have to do something different! There’s too much noise!
Is there anything in regards to just your relationship with Kusama and her work or your relationship making this show that we haven’t touched on yet that you really want to just share?
I want to put a dent in increasing the level of awareness, the level of engagement, the level of reverence for the work of Karyn Kusama, because it’s fantastic. And if it got talked about enough, I wouldn’t have embarked on these crazy freaking journeys, journeys that I’m still on present tense.
I hope I continue to be a sort of gateway. Not only a gateway to her work, but again, it goes back to why that compliment of “Oh your podcasts really helped me understand or appreciate this movie more!” really is the best compliment because … liking a movie or not liking it is the most boring way to talk about it. So whether you like Destroyer or not, whether you like The Invitation or not, it really doesn’t matter. I just want whoever’s listening … to understand the why. Why. Why does this have so much meat on the bone? Here’s me explaining why this has merit this has craft. … Let’s keep talking about it. Let’s keep debating! Whatever! It’s fun! And we don’t talk about it enough.