Haven’t done one of these for a while, but this is a new entry in my indie horror directors series: an interview with Xan Cassavetes, about her excellent Kiss of the Damned. First published on the Empire website, but disappeared since the 2015 revamp.
Following her documentary on the late, lamented Z Channel, Xan Cassavetes’ latest film is a tribute of a different kind. A sensual Gothic romance that homages classic ’60s and ’70s Eurohorror, Kiss Of The Damned sees beautiful vampire Djuna (Joséphine de La Baume) succumb to the charms of human screenwriter Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia). The film has been on the festival circuit for the last year or so, and finally gets a full release in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray later this month. With that in mind, we caught up with Xan and asked her to share her thoughts on bringing the undead to rural Connecticut…
What was the genesis of Kiss Of The Damned?
I’d been trying to make movies for a while, and I had this one project that I was going to make. It had been about six years and it was finally going to go, but then didn’t end up happening. So I asked the investors if they wanted to make this less expensive movie instead. I wrote it really quickly, based on this house that I had been in a year before. I had vaguely envisioned this story about a vampire who’s a temporary guest in the house, just passing through as a stage in her immortal life, and what happens to her. And they said sure! It was a vampire movie and it was a quarter of the budget of what we had been planning. It all just came together. I think I wrote the screenplay in November 2011 and we were shooting in May.
Is it generally easier to set up a horror film as an independent? Do investors jump at them because they’re more obviously marketable?
I’m not sure what investors think… But yeah, they probably thought that it was a vampire movie, with beautiful women and bosoms… But I think they also realised quite quickly that it would be something that wasn’t necessarily a popular culture, giant moneymaking thing. They understood and were very comfortable with the idea that it was going to be something slower and more personal.
What was it about the house that inspired you?
The house and where it’s set is very sinister looking, if you recall. It’s in New Fairfield, Connecticut and it’s very remote. It took forever to find a bar nearby to shoot in. It’s just in the middle of this super-raw nature. There was Lyme disease everywhere. Our second AD was bitten by a brown recluse spider and couldn’t work for four days because he was in hospital. But that was part of the malice and the beauty of the environment. It’s an odd house with this very steep sloping lawn that goes down to a lake, and it’s surrounded by trees. There were actually pagans living across the lake. You’d hear them having these parties. It was so cool.
At one particular point that was really crucial in our lives, my sister and I lived together in a kind of similar house, so that played into the screenplay too. I thought of these vampire sisters, dealing with issues of life and death and each other and permanence. I guess all these things just factored into my subconscious. The screenplay wrote itself in my head in about 20 seconds.
How did you decide to treat all the ‘rules’ of vampire stories?
I’ve noticed that when people make vampire movies they’re always determining which of the rules they’re going to stick to and which they’ll abandon. Everyone’s quite casual about it, so I thought I would be too. I definitely wanted them to have reflections in the mirror. The protagonist, Djuna, especially, is so in denial about her reality and about herself. For the whole movie she’s going along thinking that she can be a happy, bourgeois half of a human couple, when really the mirror is a constant reminder to her of what she doesn’t want to know. Plus, I like composing shots with mirrors; that’s another, shallower explanation. But as far as making vampire movies and traditional vs. not, we wanted to do a classical, formal vampire movie, but pull focus into the minds of these two lovers, and deal with the futility of having control over your life or yourself. Those were the things that interested me.
Djuna wears lots of lace and floaty gowns: almost like a vampire uniform.
Haha, I wouldn’t argue with that. We had a great costume designer, and she and I had so much fun working on that. The idea was that Djuna should be like wicca-hot. It turned out quite Victorian, but you also have to understand that Josephine de La Baume has this insane body and you can’t help but factor that into her wardrobe. There’s something really perverse and sexy and touching about Djuna’s trying to cover herself and wear high-necked things. It’s like she’s trying to hide and be Victorian in her thoughts and her sexuality, but it’s hopeless and her physicality comes through anyway.
Why did you choose that very ’70s, European aesthetic?
I grew up on those films. I don’t know if you ever heard of The Z Channel: I made a documentary about it. The Z Channel was on in our house all day in everybody’s room. It was like a DJ playing music: you’d turn on the television and this guy Jerry Harvey was programming this array of movies. The ones that caught my attention were the European directors – some Japanese directors too – who made movies about being adult, and had things to say about what romance meant in terms of life, rather than just walks on the beach with rose petals, y’know?
They really had an impact on me as a kid and I’ve been chasing that dragon ever since. I thought a lot about Bertolucci while making this movie. I don’t think it’s like a Bertolucci movie, but I was tryin’, okay! And Visconti and these guys who had one foot in communism or whatever politics they were into, but the other in opulence and beauty and they weren’t going to let that be taken away from them. I like that and I relate to that. It’s a hard position, but it’s also very human.
What are the films that we see Djuna watching?
First she’s watching (Vittorio De Sica’s) Indiscretion Of An American Wife, when she’s in the house alone. She’s living vicariously through it because she’s so in love but it seems like it’s not possible that it can continue. Then in the video store it’s Algiers, with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr. And the third one is Viridiana, by Buñuel, which Djuna and Paolo watch together.
Why did you decide to have Djuna and Paolo meet in a video store? They’ve both got MacBooks but they still rent tapes! Do rental stores even still exist in the States?
No, they almost don’t! I think that store we shot in was the last in that area, for sure, and it closed about two months after we were there. Paolo is a screenwriter so I guess he’s in there for inspiration, and Djuna is alone and kind of lives through films, in that she’s fascinated by humans and dreams of living a life like theirs but can’t. So film is the medium through which they both live, and it’s a beautiful medium for people who are unsatisfied, and it felt right that that should be how they meet. It’s a bloody shame that all the video stores have gone, I’ll tell you. Everything’s so mechanical now. It’s all so if-you-liked-this-then-you’ll-like-this. There’s no picking something out, or finding some brilliant person to open up new worlds for you.
When Paolo is human he wants to write art movies, but when he’s a vampire with enhanced intelligence he writes an action movie that his scuzzy agent loves. What’s that about?
(Laughs) No, no! His artistic past is supposed to be very far in the past. He’s already writing the action movie when he meets Djuna, and his agent has got him this place in Connecticut where he can have peace to write it. His whole in love with life, in love with writing, in love with art thing has been squashed some time before, so his idea of finding transcendence through art is a dream of the past until he meets her.
Michael Rapaport was very enjoyable as the agent.
I love him. He’s a really great friend of mine and my ex-husband’s. His kids are best friends with our son, and his ex-wife (Lili Taylor) is one of my best friends. So we’re very close, and all the movies I’d written in the past that I couldn’t get made had a big part for Mike in them. So he had to be in this one, and him being an agent is so funny. My idea of agents at one point was that they’re just monstrous. I don’t think that anymore, but at one time I did, and Mike understood completely. He made that character kind of devilish, but he also made him really human.
I like that this couple are so uptight so often in this movie, and it takes this coke-snorting, clueless agent to make them loosen up and have fun. So he’s not just a bad character: Mike is really funny in it. He’s been doing TV recently. He’s in Justified, which I haven’t seen yet, but I want to because he cracks me up. He’s a genius. He’s a great photographer too, and a great director. Have you seen his Tribe Called Quest documentary? It’s Shakespearean. You’ve got to check it out. It’s called Beats, Rhymes & Life. See, you wouldn’t get that recommendation on Netflix. If you liked Kiss Of The Damned you’ll like this documentary about A Tribe Called Quest! [laughs]
We learn bits of Djuna and Mimi’s back story, but not a huge amount. Do you have a lot more worked out?
No, not much, I’ll be honest. I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I’ve got this whole intimate history worked out for them. The film says that Djuna has had this relationship 70 years ago, and my own supposition is that she didn’t ever consummate it. So basically Djuna is a virgin, which is preposterous with that body and that beauty and that longing, but it’s why the scene where she transforms Paolo is so intense for her (my editor and I call that the sex change scene!). It doesn’t matter to me whether people know that detail: it’s not necessary to blurt out all these factoids, because I always hate characters where you’re told every damn thing about everything.
I think Djuna and Mimi were once loving sisters and close friends, before this ballet teacher at their school took them and transformed them, and that violation changes both of them in different ways. They don’t get along anymore and haven’t for a very long time, and there have been a lot of instances like this one. The difference this time is that Djuna has a lover for the first time, which makes it very intense for Mimi to drop in and ruin it. She’s like the relative you hear about in people’s families that’s like the drug addict that keeps coming back and causing trouble, where they’re given yet another chance and then they rob the house or something. These people just bring black clouds with them, and for Mimi and Djuna it’s a pattern that keeps happening forever, which makes it even more maddening.
Do you know how old they are?
200! I just made that up. They’re 200-ish just like I’m 40-ish… So they might be a couple of years older…
How did you pick the tracks for the soundtrack? It’s very eclectic.
My composer and old friend Steve Hufsteter actually wrote a lot of it specifically for the film. I was in a band with him for ten or 15 years before I started trying to make movies. He did Repo Man and some stuff for Robert Rodriguez, and I’ve known him since I was 16. He worships Ennio Morricone, so it was great to have this chance to do something that was a bit Morricone-ish, and sort of ’60s and ’70s Euro. We lived for that stuff. So there’s one track that is absolutely that, but then the rest of the score is very atmospheric. And there’s a piece he wrote that still absolutely blows me away because it sounds like Chopin.
There is actually Chopin in the movie too, but there’s the one piece, in the scene where Djuna is in the bathtub, where I was like, ‘What Chopin piece is this?’ He said he wrote it himself and I was like, ‘YOU’RE A LIAR’! Then our music supervisor, Dina Juntila, provided some great, diverse stuff too. I’d never heard of HTRK before, but that song is so sexy in the bar the first time. And she brought a lot of punk rock for Mimi. All this music from all these different eras belongs to these vampires because they’ve been alive for so long.
What are you working on next? Are 1000 Days Of Rage And Hope, and Amazonia: A Jungle Adventure on the cards?
(Laughs) Amazonia was a job I was hired to write a treatment for. It’s a good project but it’s not mine. You look at IMDb and think, ‘How the hell did that get on there’? I was working on 1000 Days for a while, but then I was working on something else. I’m actually working on three or four things at the moment, one of which is my favourite but it’s the most expensive, so I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it. Kiss of the Damned gave me a lot of inspiration: it was so much fun to work with all these images and sound designs. I made a documentary before, and before that I was in a band, so all these things are precious to me, and to be able to work with all those elements together gives you so many ideas of what you can do and what you want to do. So I’m not committing to anything for the joy of being alive and experimenting! I’m a bit disorganised…
Kiss of the Damned was released in the UK on January 27, 2014.