“Twilight’s Fine, But It’s for Children:” Xan Cassavetes on Kiss of the Damned
Could John Cassavetes’ children, all of whom have grabbed his passed torch, be any more different? Son Nick has dabbled in gritty crime fare (Alpha Dog) and mainstream melodrama (The Notebook), daughter Zoe helmed Broken English and has ties to the fashion biz, and now eldest daughter Alexandra — or “Xan,” for short — has carried on the tradition, making her own distinct narrative directorial debut with the vampire romance Kiss of the Damned after previously making the cinephilic doc Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession. Adamantly stylized, worldly, and nostalgic, Kiss of the Damned, which Xan also wrote, joins Neil Jordan’s forthcoming Byzantium as part of a new, collective antidote to the (arguable) bastardization of vampire cinema by Twilight and its ilk. Markedly European in terms of tone, content, and homage, Kiss of the Damned tells of isolated French vampire Djuna (Joséphine de La Baume), who holes up in a vast Connecticut manse, and sees her world thrown off track when she meets Paolo (Milo Ventimigilia), a screenwriter on assignment. Through a series of reluctant, flirtatious, and, soon, deeply salacious events, Djuna and Paolo become a vampire couple to die for, and their bond is especially tested with the arrival of Djuna’s unhinged sister Mimi (Roxanne Mesquida), an amoral vamp who’s even capable of manipulating Xenia (Anna Mouglalis), the exotic high queen of the gals’ international clan.
In person, Xan Cassavetes exhibits the sort of throwback interests her movie reflects, rocking an oversized hat and seemingly vintage jewelry that may well have been crafted in the ’70s. Within moments she reveals herself as a bona fide cineaste, well versed in the work of her father, her horror-film heroes, and beyond. With candid articulation, she spills the details of her exotic cast, her movie’s visual and aural textures, and a family legacy that, appropriately, is undying. Kiss of the Damned opens through Magnolia Pictures today, and is also available on VOD.
Filmmaker: The film’s press notes describe you as having been influenced by European filmmakers like Dario Argento. Where does your father’s influence fit into the picture?
Xan Cassavetes: Well I think Dario Argento is a mad genius. I love him so much. My father’s influence as a man definitely fit into the picture of how my brain works in all its aspects. I guess there’s a little bit of a nod to Opening Night in the movie. I’m not trying to take away the style of it, but there is definitely a shout-out to my favorite John Cassavetes movie, Opening Night. My head doesn’t work like John’s, though, so I don’t think our styles will ever really seem too similar. But as a man, he influenced me a lot. Watching his films, if anything, infused in me the importance of being totally true to your own taste, and your own style, and your own expression. He also made everything look really fun and he was really passionate about making movies. So I guess my own expectations of making movies was that I would also be happy and fulfilled and impassioned. In that way, he and my mother were both influential. But they’re on a different trip than me.
Filmmaker: Do the European influences partly explain the abundance of French actresses you have in the film? Additionally, how did Joséphine de La Baume, Roxane Mesquida, and Anna Mouglalis get on your radar?
Xan Cassavetes: Well, to answer the first part, yes. The flavor of the French girls is definitely influenced by my love of European vampire movies, horror films, and everything else. I thought that having the three French women set against the male, American protagonist would somehow also create an atmosphere where [the women] were all together and, not foreign in terms of a vampire versus a French woman, but in terms of the three of them all being from the same place. Having them speak a language that is not native to where the story is taking place [Connecticut and New York], also made it feel more like they were a clan of people…different. Roxanne, I’ve been a fan of since I saw her in Catherine Breillat movies. She just has the most powerful eyes, and she’s an incredible cinephile. She loves movies and she’ll do anything. And she’s very funny, which you wouldn’t expect from looking at any of her other performances. Joséphine is a girl that my producer Jen Gatien showed me, and she had this gorgeous face like Sharon Tate or Ursula Andress — the kind of face they didn’t make after the ’70s. So I was very happy when she turned out to be a good actress, and very happy when she decided to do the project with me. She was super open and unafraid to take her character through changes that might be awkward or unattractive, and I respected that a lot. And Anna has such a natural, hardcore elegance. She was very surprised that I wanted her to play this part of a diva, but she’s tragic and strong — there’s a sense of tragedy in her character that she makes brilliant to me.
Filmmaker: It’s interesting because, in terms of both the style and the soundtrack, the film starts with this kind of grindhouse vibe. But as more details of these worldly women’s lives are introduced, there’s this high-society sophistication that starts to juxtapose that.
Xan Cassavetes: Well, I think that the music changes with the story, and with the point of view from which the story’s being told. The beginning has a very mysterious, almost silent vibe about it, where we’re introduced to the house, the protagonist, her loneliness, her meeting the guy, her rejecting him, and him being driven toward her darkness and her beauty and not really understanding his own compulsion and her relatedness to him. And these things are all played out where not only are the characters in the middle of a mysterious situation, but where their own feelings are a mystery to themselves. So the music really reflects that psychological sort of thing, and then [Djuna and Paolo] get together, and there’s a bliss period. And then Mimi comes, and things blow open more, so we get a more objective musical thing, like Chopin at the party, and things like that that are more formal. The doors blow open, and here’s this world, and it’s formal. These women have lived through every era — they’re totally, legitimately entitled to music from any era, you know?
Filmmaker: Yeah, the soundtrack’s very eclectic. There’s the hard guitar, then the eerie piano notes, then that disorienting throbbing. It feels like there are a lot of influences there as well.
Xan Cassavetes: Sure. And, aside from the incredible source music, there are two people to thank. Steve Hufsteter is the composer, and he did a lot of the stuff, but then there are these tracks from this man Demdike Stare from Manchester, who did the sex-transformation scene — these sort of repetitive things with samples and scratchiness, and very hypnotic tracks that we used every so often, too. So in the middle of hyper-melodic things or strange, emotional dark things, there are these sort of simmering tension tracks, which I thought fit really with Steve’s work. But, then again, yes, there are your basic things that vampires might have listened to over the course of the last 200 years.
Filmmaker: In shaping the romance of Djuna and Paolo, you strengthen their bond by giving them a cinematic kinship — he’s a screenwriter, she’s a film buff, they meet a video store. Can you discuss the movies that you chose for them to watch together, and why you chose them?
Xan Cassavetes: The one they watch together is Viridiana.
Filmmaker: Yes, but she’s watching something in the beginning, as well…
Xan Cassavetes: She’s watching Indiscretion of an American Wife, where it’s just depicting Jennifer Jones being so desperate, with this almost erotic desperation for her lover — kissing him and wanting him, and there’s a sense of tragedy in the air. And problems. And [in Kiss of the Damned] we start without seeing [Indiscretion of an American Wife], just hearing the words of desire and desperation and love over the empty rooms of Djuna’s house. We establish the house, and we catch up to her watching the movie. I basically chose that film because it is very desperate and soft, and putting it over all those other things makes it sort of mirror Djuna’s feelings. And then in the video store, Algiers with Hedy Lamarr, which I’ve always loved, is on. In truth, I would have probably picked a different movie, but that was public domain and it was free! I was happy to have it, though. And then the third one was Viridiana, where they were together, and there’s just something about that scene — the ideas of trust. They’re watching the scene with the priest’s niece, and she looks like his dead wife, and he’s drugged her and put her in the wife’s wedding dress, and he’s sitting there about to rape her, and a little girl climbs up a tree, looks in, and sees the situation. I thought about what Paolo would’ve rented, and what would be realistic. Viridiana seemed right, and it has this beautiful religious music that led into the scene, and then there’s the white dress and the impending transformation — that issue is not one of trust; that scenario’s one of great violation.
Filmmaker: I like the way that you took a very blunt and literal approach to the age-old link between vampirism and sex. A lot of movies kind of skirt around it, but this one just goes for it, and some of it is quite…captivating. Did you feel a desire to take the vampire movie back from the PG-13, young-adult genre that’s watered it down in recent years?
Xan Cassavetes: Honestly, in my consciousness, none of that ever even existed in recent years! I don’t watch television, so I’ve never seen True Blood or anything like that. But if we’re talking about Twilight, I took my daughter to see that when she was eleven or something, and I felt like, “Okay, it’s fine. But it’s for children.” That’s not what vampire movies for adults ever were to me, so I didn’t think in terms of bringing it back so much. But I always wanted to do a vampire movie. A lot of people like to take song standards and sing their versions of them — I wanted to do a vampire movie. And it was based on my love of European films and my love of a certain kind of stylist horror film out of that part of the world. It wasn’t in retaliation to Twilight. To me, that’s not even really on my radar.
Filmmaker: You use a lot of mirror imagery in the film, a lot of reflections. There’s a great sequence when Djuna and Paolo kiss through a half-open door, and you see them from above, and then you see them in the mirror. Yet you chose not to take away the vampire’s reflections, as many vampire movies do. You have other tropes here, like death by sunlight, decapitation, and fire, but you avoided that trope. Was there a specific reason why?
Xan Cassavetes: Well, first of all, a very shallow reason is that I really like shooting in mirrors. A little more thoughtful reason is that I like that they have to look at themselves, and every one of them is in conflict, and whenever you see something in a mirror, usually, it’s something that the person looking in it doesn’t want to see. You’re talking about that particular scene: she’s there, and he sees her in the mirror, and that’s how he discovers she’s a vampire, with her fangs and blood and hideous eyes. He sees it, and she realizes she’s being seen too. In the beginning, she’s lighting candles and avoiding looking in mirrors because she doesn’t want to confront who she is. If there was no reflection in the mirror, it would be easier not to look at yourself, and I think part of the brutality of [the vampires'] life is that they’re always trying to avoid what they really are, and having mirrors around is just a reminder that they are that, and they have to look at themselves.
Filmmaker: To speak further about casting, some familiar faces pop up here: Michael Rappaport, Jonathan Caouette, Jay Brannan. I very much equate these guys with New York, so it made me think that this was a very New York-centric production. But I know you shot outside of New York as well.
Xan Cassavetes: It was basically in Connecticut, but then we shot for four days in the city. But I mean, yeah — let’s just say Connecticut is an hour and a half away from the city and there’s a consciousness that the city’s not too far away in the movie. To me, those guys are definitely New York, even though Michael lives in L.A. now. I’m good friends with Michael, and I’m good friends with Jonathan. I don’t know Jay as well, but I love Jay and think he’s great. But basically, I wanted to put my friends in that particular scene where you see [Jonathan and Jay]. The rest are more structured. There’s hardly any actual actors in that scene. Even Jay considers himself more of a musician. I have photographers and dancers in there too. I wanted that scene to feel real, not like central casting. And as far as Mike Rappaport goes, I like him being in this movie as an agent, as a human, because he seems like more of a monster than the monsters themselves! But still not hateable. I never wanted, in any moment, to cast judgment on any of the characters. Even when they’re doing wrong things. I feel like they’re doing them for a reason that’s, to me, touching. There’s a split in every character of humanness and misbehaving.
Filmmaker: Naturally, you’re continuing this filmic family legacy that has a lot of history and a lot of prestige surrounding it. Is there something that you see, or think of, as a unifying link between your work, your brother’s work, your sister’s work, and your father’s work?
Xan Cassavetes: Honestly, we all love our father so much, and he’s gone. And his way of expression, and even identifying himself — not only to the rest of the world, but to us — was through his work. He loved it so much and he put a lot of his personal feelings and thoughts and energies into those movies, and maybe we got what everybody else got out of it, too, aside from knowing him as a father. And we all seem to do the same by making movies. They seem to serve the same function in allowing us a way to express things. Even my brother and sister — I know them very well through their films, as well as personally. There are things about seeing their movies that tell me things about them that I wouldn’t even really focus on unless I saw their movies — what themes interest them, what preoccupies them, what upsets them, what they need to resolve through their films. So I guess the connection would just be that we’ve learned to read each other through, maybe, a subconscious disclosure in the way we make movies. And that creates an intimacy between us that I think can only really be gotten by movies.