Kiss of the Damned Interview with Xan Cassavetes

Kiss of the Damned tells the story of a love affair between Djuna, a vampire, and Paulo, a human (at least to begin with). Djuna at first tries to resist Paulo’s advances knowing what will unfold if she doesn’t. Of course her resistance is futile and her problems are doubled when her wayward sister, Mimi, comes to visit. Smart, sexy and thrilling, Kiss of the Damned does the most unexpected of things by offering a refreshing take on the vampire movie.

We spoke to the director Xan Cassavetes about how the movie came about, what influenced it and why vampires definitely should be reflected in mirrors.

The way you made the film didn’t shy away from the link between vampires and sex, what was the appeal of making a vampire movie and making it that way?

When it occurred to me that the story I wanted to tell would be about vampires, I’m a person who is interested in adult concepts and the lives of adult people so this was going to be an adult vampire movie. The vampire movies that I’ve always loved, the vampire mythology that I’ve always been fascinated by, definitely involved the carnal nature of vampires and sexual desire and the hunger for sex and blood. But there were also human qualities in Kiss of the Damned that make it more complicated.

Kiss of the Damned seems like a very specific vision of yours, did it turn out how you intended it to and was there any difficulty in getting it made?

I was going to make this other movie, I had these investors, it was much more expensive and it was more straightforward but I just didn’t feel connected to it anymore, it took a long time to get to the place of making it. The investors were nice though, I said “I have good news and I have bad news: I don’t want to do this movie anymore but in three weeks I wrote this vampire film, let’s take a fraction of the budget and make that” They all liked the screenplay; they knew what I wanted to do. I wasn’t pulling the wool over their eyes; they knew it wasn’t going to be like serving up on a silver platter all the things an audience would automatically want, that it was personal and they were behind it, so that part of it was pretty great. For the first time in my life trying to make a movie, it was easy at that point.

The female characters are played by French actors and the male is American, creating a separation between the male and female characters, was it always planned out that way?

Yeah definitely, but I didn’t have in mind so much  male and female but species and species, the three of them are one species and he is another who excitedly  but cautiously comes into their world and their majority and all the stuff he doesn’t know about.

Roxane [Mesquida] I’d known before and I love her, I think she’s incredible. I actually knew her, my ex-husband knew her and introduced me to her a couple of years before we worked together so we had known each other before we worked together. And then Joséphine [de La Baume] I didn’t know of, but our producer Jen showed me a picture of her and I met her and I adored her, she was really great and open. Then Anna Mouglalis, I fell in love at first sight, I was very scared she would say no to being Xenia because that would have destroyed me. Then Milo [Ventimiglia] was incredible I thought he was so handsome and the guy needs to be that much of an object and handsome. Not only an object but if he’s very beautiful and she’s very beautiful, they have to doubt at some point why they got to together, to question it, could it be for superficial reasons? And he had a great understanding of the part and I loved his performance too.

Was the dialogue over dubbed? Was that an artistic decision because it gave the film a disjointed quality?

Yes. At first we were going to do the whole movie that way, with American actors doing the voices. But then I became so surprised about the things I fell in love with in the performances, that that became a non-question. By the time I heard the actors I knew I loved the actors and knew I didn’t want to replace their voices but instead of that you get that effect, we did do a lot of ADR [automated dialogue replacement]. We mixed it so that it was just enough that you could hear it was ADR, to give it that sort of feeling.

The soundtrack features a lot of different music, German punk, classical, what was the thinking behind that?

Well there wasn’t really a plan of how to do it. I guess when you’ve got some individuals who’ve lived for the past 200 years they can just pretty much call every period of music their own with legitimacy. They’d be like “I was there when that came out, I used to be into that” Whether it’s Chopin or Maria Callas or HTRK.

So all that became appropriate and classical music of course illustrates that someone thinks they’re in high society  but you don’t want to use it all the time because it becomes corny, so even Xenia and her high society places if you slip in some odd musical choices it just makes it less corny. But then you hit home with Maria Callas singing ‘Suicidio’ and she’s biting the virgin and it’s like “Oh shoot!” Then you’ve got the score itself and the rest is all sort of experimental and dark, erotic and stream of consciousness music by Steve Hufsteter that I think is such a great soundtrack.

You didn’t decide to adhere to the rule that vampires can’t be reflected in mirrors.

No, from the vampire movies that I’ve seen, everyone takes some the rules and leaves other. For me their image of themselves was a big part of it, I liked that, I liked them having to pass mirrors, look at themselves in the mirror, have an expectation of their own beauty or be repulsed by the reality of their own image. Also I love shooting in mirrors.

There’s the scene when Djuna bites Paulo for the first time, through the door and you see it reflected in the mirror which worked really well. That justified the broken rule.

Yeah, I like that scene. You have to earn the right to break the rules.

Before Kiss of the Damned, you made Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, did watching movies on Z Channel inform your own filmmaking?

Yes. Yes, for sure although not in the way people might have thought. With Z Channel I watched everything; I saw everything and became a complete nerd at an early age, an addict, a cinema addict, that continues to this day. But what I remember most from Z Channel are two things: one was the impact that European World War II movies had on me and the other was the iconic presentation of a woman as a woman and not a girl.

It wasn’t like super Giallo or whatever, Daughters of Darkness I definitely saw on there. But what really influenced me, in terms of what ended up influencing Kiss of the Damned, are the directors like Nic Roeg, the way he shot Bad Timing, the way he was fascinated by his female subject, and the same with Bertolucci, the same with getting that decadence from Visconti, that same obsession with women that Jodorowsky had. These things I saw on Z Channel and stuck in my mind and made me look at women all through my life in a cinematic way I think and that definitely factors into this movie I think.

We’re seeing the home video release of Kiss of the Damned over here in January; it’s not uncommon for independent films to find a second life on home video, is that important for you?

Not to mention a first life [laughs]. Yes for sure, I’m an avid Blu-ray collector and I’m not sure that I’m speaking from the same perspective as a normal person with a normal healthy life but yeah for me it’s astounding that the movie is preserved on Blu-ray and people can have it because Kiss of the Damned is one of those movies that I definitely think gets better if you watch it a couple of times so I like that aspect of it. It’s great when a movie that you make and you’re never thinking of anybody seeing it, you’re just excited making it and thinking it’s so great and the people in the room are like “isn’t this great?” Then all of a sudden you realise you’re showing it in other countries and you’re just like “woah, this is overwhelming!” So I’m really happy and I’m really happy it’s on Blu-ray especially.

Obviously your family name is synonymous with filmmaking, and I’m sure you get asked this all the time, but when making your first feature film did their careers and their films have any influence on you?

I mean there’s no obvious influence; the only influence I can think has been absorbed is that I feel really free to make my own films the way I want to make them without trying to please anybody, without trying to get a particular audience, without trying to run for president. To do what is in my heart that I’m really excited to make and to create so I can share it with people and say  “This is what I love” It takes audacity to be a director, you put yourself up there and you’re ready for people to disagree or not. But you bring it from a place of love and excitement and not “am I going to be popular? Am I going to be making money? Is my next movie going to be five times as big?” I don’t care about that, and I think I get that from them.

Is there going to be a gap as big as the gap between Z Channel and Kiss of the Damned before the next one?

[Laughs] Please God no, not if I can help it. But I’m not going to compromise what I do to try to become a working director. I’d rather scrub toilets than make a movie that wasn’t anything I believed in. I have a script that I love very much and I think other people will too, and I think I’ll be making it this year, at the beginning.

Kiss of the Damned is released on Blu-ray and DVD by Eureka! Entertainment on 27 January 2014.