With no known relatives, Evie (Nathalie Emmanuel) takes a DNA test in search of family after her mother dies and comes to connect with a long-lost cousin. Her newfound family invites her to the English countryside where she’s at first seduced by the alluring aristocrat host (Thomas Doherty). However, the romance spirals and Evie is thrown into a nightmare of survival as she discovers family secrets and the disturbing intentions behind their generosity.
Ahead of The Invitation’s theatrical debut on Aug. 26, director Jessica M. Thompson spoke with LA Confidential about working with stars Emmanuel and Doherty, the importance of a female perspective in horror and the joy of cinema.
Can you tell us more about the development of the script?
Somebody sent me the script in January 2020, and I really loved it. It was Blair Butler's original script. And I just loved this idea of an origin story of a bride of Dracula. I thought that was really cool, and it's something that I hadn't seen before and it was really feminist and empowering and that, basically, I wanted to flesh out a little bit more of a romance here.
What made Budapest the right place to film?
Budapest has become one of those capitals of filmmaking. Before us, Black Widow was filming and Dune and a bunch of really big incredible Hollywood films. So we felt like we were in really good hands there. They've got incredible crews and incredible production service companies that really take care of us.
Also, it was just so wonderful to kind of be in the birthplace of Dracula right next to Romania. Actually, Vlad the Impaler, who a lot of people believe the character Dracula was based upon in Bram Stoker's book, was actually imprisoned under the Budapest castle for 13 years, and we actually got to go through where he was imprisoned.
Have you been a longtime fan of vampire stories?
I'm a massive horror fan. So I'm the youngest of four, which I think means that you end up watching films that maybe you were too young to watch, maybe you should have waited a few more years, but they made a big impression on me. My favorite horror film of all time is The Shining by Stanley Kubrick, which I think is a genius piece of work. But I also grew up watching Alien and Jaws and Psycho and The Birds and all these incredible films. And I've always wanted to get into the genre space because I think you can explore things. You can make social commentary in the genre space without hitting people over the head with it like a straight drama film would. I really do see this as a Me Too film without it being a Me Too film or taking down the patriarchy.
Can you tell us more about the importance of having a vampire/horror film told from the female perspective?
Horror films in particular, but also in terms of Evie’s story, I think what really grounds this film is that we identify with Evie. She's someone who's a young woman artist in New York. She just lost her mom to cancer and she's really craving human connection, and I feel that we have a lot of empathy for her and I think the audience is really rooting for her throughout the whole film. I'm not saying that male directors can’t do that kind of work as well. But I feel that there's something very empathetic about her journey— I want the story to focus on her plight and for the audience to deeply feel for her and to go on this journey with her and to fall in love with her.
What made Nathalie Emmanuel your ideal star for The Invitation?
I'm sure like most people, she got on my radar during Game of Thrones as Missandei and I thought she brought so much to that role… She hadn't been number one on a call sheet yet. She hadn't led a film, which I was really shocked about because she's so wildly talented. So I wanted to give her that opportunity, but also I just thought she was perfect for the role. Like I said, she really brings that humanity to all of her characters and that's what I wanted. I want the audience to really root for this character, and she's absolutely a delight to work with. One of the sweetest most empathetic people I've ever met. And Thomas Dohoerty as well. I actually didn't know who he was, to be honest. We had a last minute change-up who would be playing that role. And so the call went out to the agents of Hollywood trying to find the right person. And he actually auditioned for the role and I was like eating a sandwich and then I stopped everything I was doing and was like, “Who is this person?” I never knew of him because he's had more of a YA audience in his career, but he's just so perfect for the role. It's not just that he has these unique features that feel elfish, but also that he just really commands the space and holds his body in a way that feels ageless and timeless.
What experience do you want audiences to have while watching The Invitation?
It's always entertainment. And I want them to have fun. I love when you go into a movie and you don't know what to expect and you just go for a ride. I want there to be moments of tenderness. I want people to laugh. I think through Courtney Taylor, her best friend, we have a lot of good laughs in there. I want them to be scared and be on the edge of their seats and be tense. To me, that's just like a really good film when you go watch it in the cinema and you get to experience the range of emotions. I think that's the joy of cinema.
Why do you artistically connect to the horror genre?
I feel with genre in particular, particularly with horror, but also in terms of sci-fi and thriller and things like that, you do get to play with production design and lighting design a lot more than you would in a straight film because it is imaginative. And we really wanted to create that clash of worlds between the romance and the horror.
Everything looks beautiful on the surface, but when you dig a little deeper, in that dining room scene and the dinner room scene, the food looks so decadent and sumptuous, but then when you actually get beneath the surface, it’s rotting and there's maggots and flies— and that was actually true. The food was genuinely rotting.
Your creative energy is really challenged. You get to explore a little bit more and push your boundaries and think outside the box a bit, and that's really exciting in the genre space. It doesn't happen as much in the straight drama world. With that being said, I'm not only going to make horrors, I love all kinds of films and I'm genre agnostic in that way. But to me, what draws me in is always the characters and the story, first and foremost.
What else is important to know about The Invitation?
There's over 90 little easter eggs in the film to the original Bram Stoker's Dracula and some other nods to my favorite filmmakers as well, like I said, Stanley Kubrick. The tiling on the floor and the wallpaper is the same pattern as the carpet in The Shining. I wanted to pay homage to the great filmmakers before me, and I wanted to make sure that there was something there for the real traditionalists— the real fans of the original— so that they didn't feel like I had completely turned it on its head. But I still wanted to make it modern and fresh.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photography by: Robby Klein