Interview: Xan Cassavetes on Pumping Blood Into the Vampire Passion Project “Kiss of the Damned”

“I feel like this would play on the Z Channel,” Xan Cassavetes told me just as we were finishing up an interview about “Kiss of the Damned,” a wonderfully unexpected vampire flick that serves as the followup to her acclaimed 2004 documentary about Jerry Harvey, the founder of the pay cable station that rescued such films as “Heaven’s Gate” from ignominy and countless others from obscurity during the ‘70s and ‘80s.

Without the kind of context Harvey would lovingly provide the films he presented, there should be some concern that “Kiss of the Damned” might have a difficult time finding its audience, a film that has no proper place on the shelves of the video store where its two main characters Djuna (Joséphine de La Baume) and Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia) first exchange glances. Although what follows might lend itself to the gothic romance section as Djuna and Paolo grow closer or the horror shelves once Djuna’s sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida) shows up looking for a place to stay, you know when Djuna rents Luis Bunuel’s “Viridiana,” all bets are off.

In “Kiss of the Damned,” it isn’t just the eventual bloodlust between Djuna and Paolo that proves seductive, but Cassavetes’ inclusion of German punk music to break up an evocative atmospheric score from Steven Hufstetter, Tobias Datum’s inspired camerawork and a general belief there can’t be too much of a good thing, despite taking aim at decadence as it imagines bloodsuckers to be a gilded class normally untouched by the concerns of mere mortals while it luxuriously depicts the basest of human desires that threaten to bring Djuna down. It’s an extravagant and extraordinary narrative feature debut for Cassavetes, who took time away from a busy schedule at this year’s SXSW Film Festival to discuss how a piece of real estate became the inspiration for “Kiss,” the long road to make a narrative feature involving a fascinating detour and why she couldn’t refuse cooking for one of the film’s stars Michael Rapaport even when she was shooting.

I’ve heard this started with the mansion where most of the film takes place. How did it grow out of that?

This friend of my ex-husband’s had a house in Connecticut [where] he was having people come in because he was curious about making a horror film [there]. The longer version of this story is that this house is not the one that he was talking about. He was actually talking about some shack that he owned, but I misunderstood. [laughs] So I pursued this house – it was just the physicality of it, this unnatural feeling set within this beautiful nature setting with this crazy steep hill and a lake and vacuous rooms [inside] – things that were beautiful but sinister. What I realized immediately was it would be great to shoot a vampire movie there. Maybe a year went by and I didn’t do anything, but I was about to do another movie and it just didn’t feel right. So I backed out, in three weeks wrote the script for that house, based on wanting to do an atmospheric movie, a movie that has its own pulse and rhythms and feel and vibe.

In making it your own, when you set your mind to vampires, were there certain rules you set for yourself?

I took some and discarded others. They can [be seen] in mirrors, but they can die in sunlight. There’s all different variations of the rules. You just have to stick to your own that are similar or are within context of the others. But I very much wanted to adhere to a lot of the structure of a traditional vampire movie and then just completely make it strangely other.

Being a vampire is definitely in the movie and key, but it’s just basically a heightened state of being a human. A woman who’s afraid of her own power, sexual power, that’s inexplicable and she’s trying to keep somebody out because if he finds out who she is, maybe he’ll be repulsed by her insanity or whatever parallel to vampirism. And a guy just being so disappointed by his life and his inability to find a way to transcend through his art that he’s ready for this woman to be mysterious and blow him away. Men and women are like this. There’s many different faces, but this is interesting to me.

Then the dynamics between sisters and how the two of them just crossing [paths]. They’ve been victimized together when they were young – one is good, one is bad, but the bad one wants the sister to relate to her and the good one refuses to or can’t see that she’s reaching out and that spurs her on this whole tear. This happens in real life.

Like the characters, I may not get through the rest of this without asking about my favorite scene — when Djuna and Paolo can no longer conceal their passion and makeout through a doorway where the lock only allows the door to be slightly ajar. The camera angles [from above] are incredible. How was it conceived?

I wrote it that way into the screenplay, just the way I saw it. When you’re shooting through a door, the idea of people trying to get to each other, but who are restraining each other, feel the door is safe and that’s why they can give into that passion for a minute. But [physically] you can’t really see from one side to the other. There’s two people kissing at a door, so the best view is the bird’s eye view. It looks really erotic and it shows the passion of the body language and the desperation and the clawing and going up and pulling hair. I love that scene, too.

It seems like you hit upon some alchemy soundwise with the dialogue where it still had the crispness of a perfectly tuned contemporary film, but that haunting, authoritative quality that comes from one of those overdubbed Italian giallos. How did you achieve that?

There was one point in the beginning of shooting where I was thinking we should just overdub the whole thing and make it sound like one of those movies, like a Dario Argento movie with Theresa Russell playing Daria Nicolodi’s voice. At some point, we’re just like we’re going balls out. It’s only overdubbed to get that kind of disjointed feel that I love a lot, but their acting was so good, I just had to [show restraint]. There were times where we had to do ADR. The girls have accents and sometimes you couldn’t understand them, but then we tried to incorporate that feel [once] we had to do a little more ADR. We didn’t entirely try to make it sound like it was not overdubbed, but keep the naturalness of the performance.

KissoftheDamnedXanCassavetesAfter “Z Channel,” you had tried to set up a few films over the years. Since this is your first narrative feature, what’s it like to be on set?

Man, I’ll tell you, I’d been waiting for so long for this. There’s a certain part of my happiness that I knew could never be satisfied until I did this, but part of me was worried, is this just something that you’re hoping will make you happy? If you ever get it, will you be disappointed if you don’t feel that? I’ve been on sets all my life – I’ve never thought any place was more boring in the world. But when I got to set [of “Kiss of the Damned”], from that moment on, it was pure happiness, like the most comfortable, simplest, most stripped down and the barest essential of happiness that I’ve ever felt aside from, of course, the magnitude of my love for my kids.

Speaking of which, you’re making a pretty intense movie and you’ve got a big kid in Michael Rapaport to show up to lighten things up. Did the production schedule align with the chronology of the film enough so he could have the same effect behind the scenes as on camera?

It was an intense shoot in that Josephine, Roxanne and Milo and I lived in the house, which was the set and it shot there for 80 percent of the movie, so it got to be a little claustrophobic. So when Michael came in with his crazy know, he’s a good friend of mine, his kids are friends are friends with my kids and I’m always making bolognese for him when he comes over. That’s his favorite. So even though I’m shooting a movie, he’s like “Make me some Bol-o-nyaze!” and he gets in my bed [at the house where the film is set, which is plush and fancy] with satin sheets and starts snarfing bolognese at 100 miles per hour, watching the Knicks. I’m like “Dude…” But I would do anything for him. He was making me laugh so hard, I’m like what can I do to make you happy.

Have your interests changed in recent years? I understand the first thing you were thinking of doing after “Z Channel” was a more traditional drama.

The first thing I wrote was like a dark, obsessive love story that took place in Mexico City and it was a script I was going to make and that was having trouble with something about it. Then I was going to do this anthology movie with Allen Hughes, my sister [Zoe Cassavetes] and Jonathan Caouette, who’s also in “Kiss of the Damned.”

I’d still want to see that.

No, it was cool. It was at the tail end of the Bush Administration, so we were like how come nobody is making movies that are a creative response to what’s going on. It’s like if anybody came down from the planet and looked on the movies, they wouldn’t find any evidence of even what year it was, except for like the cars or the styles of the pants.

We decided to take four classic movies that reflected on their country and transpose them to 30-minute segments about our country. We were going to do Tarkovsky’s “Sacrifice,” Pasolini’s “Accatone,” Godard’s “Vivre Sa Vie” about fame and Jonathan was going to do “Persona” about the health care system. So you can see why I didn’t get these kind of things made. [laughs] But [I’m interested now in] a bigger scale of consciousness – of being pissed off about life or the powers that be that are mortal and immortal. They’ve grown to be more interesting to me over the years. Fantasy and reality to me are not that divided in my mind anymore and again, I’d like to work within the context of fantasy and reality as a metaphor.

“Kiss of the Damned” opens on May 3rd at the Sunshine Cinema in New York and the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles with expansion to other cities to come in the weeks ahead. A full list of theaters is here. It is also available now on VOD.

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