In Kiss of the Damned writer and director Xan Cassavetes has created not only a stylish, sexy and utterly gripping horror but she has also managed to bring new blood to the vampire genre in the story of destructive sisters Djuna and Mimi played by Josephine de La Baume and Roxane Mesquida.
As the sun set in London and rose in L.A we chatted with Xan about her film, her inspiration, the movies magnificent music and whether cougars are really vampires in disguise.
Love Horror: Hi Xan it’s great to talk to you all the way in L.A, thank you for doing this interview with us its only 9.30 in the morning over there isn’t it?
Xan Cassavetes: I know, I’m drinking my first cup of coffee. I did the first interview with no coffee.
Love Horror: Haha so you’ll be a bit more fired up for us will you?
Xan Cassavetes: Yeah fired up!
Love Horror: Kiss of the Damned is set in a world full of film references and your family have very strong ties to cinema, did you always want to work in the movie industry?
Xan Cassavetes: No not at all. I have always been into movies because I had this channel, the Z Channel which I made a documentary about (Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession) and the channel played everything especially all these Euro movies. In there were all these erotica movies and the stylish horror movies, Bertolucci and Bergman and Buñuel and Kung Fu and whatever. So I was really obsessed with this channel and that’s where I became obsessed with movies. And then I was in a band and I was into music only.
I had my band for a really long time with Steven Hufsteter, who composed all the music for Kiss of the Damned, and he loved movies too as did all my friends. We started making music videos and that’s how I started working with images and after that I wanted to be a writer. Once I wrote things down I thought “no one can direct this the way I see it so I have to direct it” and that’s when I realised. It was all in my 30’s so it took a while even though all this time everyone else was doing movies around me in the family. I never thought I would be doing it but turns out it’s my passion numero uno.
Love Horror: How did the story for Kiss of the Damned come about and what drew you to make a movie about vampires?
Xan Cassavetes: Well I have always loved vampires especially vampiresses they amuse me and enchant me and I am very into them. But actually it was the location that prompted the story. A friend of a friend had a house and he wanted to shoot a movie in it and I was one of several directors who toured the house to see if I could get an idea for a low budget horror film. I think he was thinking a lot more low budget than I was and I started thinking of this lonely woman in a house that didn’t belong to her on a lake and the sinister natural environment.
The atmosphere of the house and the nature really made a huge impression on me and even though I went on to forget about that for a year. A year later I was about to shoot another movie and I realised I didn’t want to make it so in three weeks I wrote the screenplay for Kiss of the Damned based on my memory of that house and the feeling and atmosphere there and that became the movie I made.
Love Horror: The house is an amazing location with a palpable ambiance and creeping atmosphere to it which translates right into the film.
Xan Cassavetes: Thank you. The house made me think of vampires and also some of my own subconscious memories of a house that I spent time in that looked like that with my sister when I was young. I didn’t realise at the time but a lot of the subconscious feelings came out when I was formulating the story of the vampire sisters. (Background noise and Xan starts talking to someone else) Bye sweetie oh sorry just saying goodbye to my daughter, have a good final.
Love Horror: (Laughing) Good luck to her
Xan Cassavetes: (Laughing) Yeah I know it’s crazy where were we, yes you know it’s strange a lot of things just converged when I was walking through that empty house. It was owned by some people but it was a weekend house so they didn’t come there often so there was a feeling in the house that it was sort of unlived in, a lonely place that didn’t really see humanity moving through it too much.
Love Horror: What were your influences if any in making the movie?
Xan Cassavetes: To be honest I can’t really remember the truth of it as it all becomes mythology at some point but I definitely wanted to make something that wasn’t derivative. Obviously looking back on it now the movies complete I understand why people say it reminds them of Mario Bava and Bertolucci and Visconti and definitely we thought of all those guys a little bit in our shots that we set up but as far as the story it wasn’t influenced by anything.
Looking back on it it had a lot of my point of view about relationships and the futility of keeping something forever and my criticisms of bourgeois but also my understanding that we have to nest down into something to be a part of the world. I was just trying to work out my own ideas and my own opinions through these vampires.
Love Horror: Unlike so many horror’s your film is very character driven, you mentioned basing it on your own relationship with your sister but how did you go about crafting such interesting characters and getting such a great cast to bring them to life?
Xan Cassavetes: Joséphine (de La Baume who plays the lead Djuna) I hadn’t seen in any films, she was somebody that my producer Jen showed me a picture of and I was like “are you joking this is the perfect looking girl for this role.” Everyone was worried because I hadn’t seen her act so I flew to Paris and we worked on some scenes and she was really good and we got along really well.
I already knew Roxane (Mesquida) and I really wanted Roxane to play Mimi, because come on! The two girls met during a costume fitting in New York City and they were very, not nervous but shy, to meet each other. We were all going to go out to lunch and at the last minute I said “I’m not going” and they begged me please please and I said “no” but when they came back from that moment on it was like as if they were real sisters.
They were these two angels who were obsessed with each other and they spoke French and ate candy and were so pretty and we all lived in a house together during the shoot but they formed a real bond which you can see in the performances. There is a history more than just two actresses trying to get the prettiest lighting. They really loved each other and that comes through in the movie.
Love Horror: I agree. For me what I found most interesting was the differences in the sisters. Mimi in many ways is a modern vampire in that she over indulges in sex and violence and on the other side you have Djuna who is a more gothic romantic ideal of vampires yet both are extremely destructive in very different ways.
Xan Cassavetes: Yeah. In the end there is that little bit where you see them dancing and playing in the sun in their Victorian dresses when they were children before they were bitten. As far as the sisters go they were victimised almost molested and that changed them. That did something to their psyche and to survive it affected them in very different ways. At that moment their intimacy was sealed forever and ripped apart forever. I think they both want to connect but the way they have handled what happened to them has made them so radically different that they can never relate or connect again which causes a huge hurt and rage between them.
Love Horror: The music in the movie is extremely compelling and interesting, how did you come about adding in such an eclectic soundtrack?
Xan Cassavetes: Well there was only one piece of music that was written at the start and that was the love theme. It’s gorgeous and very Morricone-esque. The rest of the movie music whether it was sourced or scored was really constructed around the making of the movie, it was tailored. We would have sequences and we would try and find the character and the vibe.
With the placement of the music we had classical music but also that jazzy stuff and the punk rock stuff all of that is real, what I mean is it doesn’t stick out like they wouldn’t be listening to that because they would. These vampires have been around a long time. The German punk rock that’s the only thing that lets you know in that scene that Mimi is in Europe, that and the European siren. From all that Maria Callas, punk rock, techno club freaky music all that stuff it’s just great to have it as it creates a world. It’s not a one dimensional world, the music adds more dimensions as well.
Love Horror: It works really well and as you said if you have been living all this time you would be into all sort of varied music from all across history.
Xan Cassavetes: Yeah you could claim a bunch of music as your own having lived for hundreds of years you would be like “I remember coming up with that” or “I was making out with a guy on the back seat when Chopin was playing that” (laughs)
Love Horror: The film is extremely stylishly shot and beautifully cinematic, as visually rich as the vampire’s lavish lifestyles.
Xan Cassavetes: Yes the thought of decadence came to mind and the word privileged when we were making it but I think the more that that was highlighted the more you saw the vulnerability and the trap that they all lived in. You saw the longing for freedom and the longing for a release from the monotony and this is why they are trying to abide by other rules and emulate humans. They want to understand why humans don’t want to die and why they beg for mercy at the idea of death and why they are terrified of death and parting with life.
They are like little birds in a cage who can’t go outside without being monsters, without being targeted. It’s a bad life. In some ways it’s like being a very, very rich person who really has no relationship with humanity as well because they have nothing in common with most people. They must have a cut off lonely feeling I imagine, I can’t speak from experience (laughs)
Love Horror: Why do you think vampire movies are so popular and why has the idea of vampires dominated fiction for so long?
Xan Cassavetes: Maybe it’s our own preoccupation with death and age and poverty and feeling insignificant. These are the dilemmas of human life and a vampire pretty much represents the antithesis of that. At the same time we never stop to think how crappy it would be to have to live forever doing the same mundane destructive things night after night, never finding peace or release or even the dignity of death. I would say that the more the world becomes a totally youth obsessed place and people try to look like they haven’t aged (laughing) I guess that’s pretty much a shoe in for vampire hit right?
Love Horror: (Laughing) I guess so and it’s a good way of thinking about it. All the plastic surgery people have they are all ultimately aiming to be vampires.
Xan Cassavetes: (Laughing) What with all the cougars and their young boyfriends who they are sucking the life out of.
Love Horror: What’s next for you, more fiction or are you going back to documentaries?
Xan Cassavetes: Hopefully both, I love both. The only thing I want to do is what genuinely interests me at the time and what I want to put everything into so I can try to make something great and share it with people. That’s my only modus operandi.
Love Horror: Well I loved Kiss of the Damned, it looks great and the soundtrack is great and well done for creating something original in such an over done genre.
Xan Cassavetes: Oh god thank you very much I really appreciate you saying so.
Love Horror: Thank you Xan.
Xan Cassavetes: Thanks it’s been great talking to you.