Kiss Of The Damned is “unapologetic and hardcore”

Kiss Of The Damned’s Xan Cassavetes on her vampire film for adults and not playing the game

Joséphine De La Baume in Kiss Of The Damned
Joséphine De La Baume in Kiss Of The Damned

After debuting at the London Film Festival back in 2012, Xan Cassavetes’ beautiful, witty erotic vampire movie Kiss Of The Damned is finally coming to the UK.

The film stars Milo Ventimiglia (Heroes) as troubled screenwriter Paolo who meets the stunning Djuna (Joséphine De La Baume), who has a dark, bloodsucking secret. Paolo embraces vampirism and discovers the joys the afterlife offers, but when Djuna’s wayward sister Mimi (Roxane Mesquida) arrives, their life together is thrown into bloody chaos.

We talked to Cassavetes about why every director wants to make a vampire movie, the films of the ’60s and ’70s that inspired her, and why she doesn’t care that the film is impossible to pigeonhole.

What inspired you to tell this story?

I really hadn’t planned on making a movie about vampires, but I was invited to look at this house where the owner wanted to make a movie, a horror film, and I was one of the directors who came through. And walking through this big, vacuous, unlived-in, beautiful house that’s set in nature but sort of sinister, with an extremely sloping hill down to the lake, the image of vampires came into my mind, as did the atmosphere of loneliness and confusion and permanence and all those things. So that fell apart at the time, but a year later I was going to make another movie, but my heart wasn’t in it and I thought of this house and that atmosphere and that vampire character and wrote the screenplay in three weeks, and it came together really quickly.

It’s heavily reminiscent of those erotic European vampire films like Daughters Of Darkness, but it’s not quite a pastiche. How consciously were you looking to those movies?

Well, I definitely didn’t try to copy any of that, but I’m very aware of all that stuff. I have loved European movies, foreign films – foreign to the United States anyway – for all my life since having this cable station V-Channel, which exposed me to all that stuff. And aside from Hammer movies and Jean Rollin and Sergio Martino, whoever, who I all love, I love all those guys, I equally love Bertolucci and Visconti and Andrzej Żuławski and Nic Roeg and these kind of guys. I found myself with my DP talking through, not channelling but mentioning those guys’ names when planning a shot or a movement or a feel. But I think it all ties into the exoticism, for me, of those movies from the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s from Europe that dealt a lot with adult issues, adult problems, sexuality and everything where your life is at stake, and those bled into this vampire movie.

The film looks amazing; the night time is shot so vibrantly. Did you have a very clear idea of how you would shoot it when you were writing?

I guess I got very lucky, because my DP [Tobias Datum] and I basically prepped by having philosophical discussions about life. And we had access to this house, so Toby and I went up there a few weeks before. We didn’t have a lot of prep with anything in this movie but Toby and I did in that we got to go up and live in that house together for a week before anyone came. So we would just walk through and look at what was there and figure out how to work with the production designer, but also just get a feel for the house.

We didn’t really, as far as composition and stuff like that, we really didn’t set shots until everyone was in the room and the lights were in the room and all that. Because that’s where you know where you want to put the camera and all that. So he played with me very loosely, and as far as colour and vibrancy and that sort of really rich but sinister look, yeah, we planned that. Not on the basis of any other movies we loved, but sort of a more painterly thing. Just taking this classical format, the formality of a vampire movie and just pulling focus on weird things and giving exaggerated proportions to certain parts of the classic form.

It’s great how it becomes more lush as he transforms.

We definitely tried to make it confusing and weird until she stops withholding, and then it became more clear and the tone changes, and we definitely had a lot of fun thinking and planning that kind of stuff out.

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Joséphine De La Baume, Roxane Mesquida and Milo Ventimiglia in Kiss Of The Damned

Did you have a cast in mind when you were writing it? Roxane Mesquida is just a perfect fit.

Yeah, I had Roxane in mind! Roxane I had known, my cousin was friends with Roxanne, and we had both fans of her in the [Catherine] Breillat movies, I was like “Who is this woman?” There’s nobody like Roxane. She’s so intelligent and demonic and sweet, and so curious and so hardcore, she’s very gonzo as a woman and an actress, and I think you can see that by looking at her face. I just thought, “Obviously this would be a very good part for Roxane!” So fortunately she wanted to do it. Joséphine [De La Baume] was sort of unknown to me. My producer Jen said you should look at this girl, and I looked at her, and physically I was like, it doesn’t get more perfect than this, hopefully we get along and she wants to do it and she can act. We got together in Paris and just rehearsed some scenes and the producers liked what they saw and she was hired, and I think she’s great too.

Milo, I think, is amazing. He walks in with all these French girls and he’s very organised and very professional and he sort of came into an unprofessional environment! [laughs] I mean, in that we were, all of us, so much less experienced at work than Milo, we were all into different types of movies than Milo, and he’s like very… it was sort of like he was Paolo in that he submerged himself into this world of crazy women and was just as macho and just as cool and just as gracious as a person as his character was in the movie. And Anna Mouglalis that was like…I worship her completely, she’s remained a really good friend of mine and I think that she’s one of the most fascinating creatures, a great actress, the most beautiful woman. I’m completely in love with her.

Was everyone open to exploring different tones?

Do you mean… Are you referring specifically to the sexual aspects of it? [laughs]

Not specifically! It’s got these quite beautiful, arty moments and the cultural satire as well, and the gore, and the sexual aspect…

Questionable things could be art scenes and nudity! [laughs]

I don’t want to ignore the questionable things!

Yeah, totally! Surprisingly enough, nobody seemed to have a problem with that, everyone seemed to be really into it. Eventually Roxane, Milo, Joséphine and I lived in the house during the shoot. Which was chaotic and interesting and great and horrifying. But there was a theatre there and we watched That Most Important Thing: Love by Andrzej Żuławski and Bad Timing; my favourite movie. I think we watched Eyes of Laura Mars, stuff that was ridiculous and melodramatic and over the top and beautiful and unapologetic and hardcore. And so I think they kind of understood what this chick wanted to make and so they thought it was cool, they were into it. Same thing, they were not at all self-conscious with the physical aspect of it, I think they realised that whatever was sexual in the movie was part of the narrative and it wasn’t cheesy, it was relatable to. And important, because they’re vampires, and one of the things they do best is make love, isn’t it?

We’re definitely familiar with that part of them.

Mmm-hmm.

kiss1Was it important to have the cultural elite of the vampires to add some comedy to the film?

Well like anything in life, there’s always a mix of one minute you’re dead serious about something then something that’s very serious or you care about and you can’t laugh but it’s so funny or messed up. I very much relate to the character of Paolo; it’s the one I relate to. I made a documentary almost ten years and before that I had tried to make films and it was very hard. Between that film and now I tried to make films and it was very hard. I was never trying to play the game, it was always on my terms and the answer was always no. [laughs]

I take this stuff very seriously, I love the idea of making movies and expressing yourself and it’s sacred and I feel like, like I’ve said to other people before, I relate to Paolo and if I hadn’t been able to make a movie at this stage of the game I probably would’ve let a vampire bite me too if I had come across one because something’s gotta give, you know. I would be very not accepting of having to live a pedestrian life where people dictate the terms of my ability to transcend.

There’s Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive about to come out but it seems like vampire films for adults aren’t that prevalent. Do you keep track of trends?

I don’t really chart what’s going on. I did take my daughter to see Twilight a long time ago and I thought “This is a really cute kids’ movie.” That’s all I thought. Then I never saw True Blood; I’ve never seen episode of it. Not that I scorn it, I just don’t watch TV. There’s always vampire movies being made, I don’t think there’s ever not been vampire movies being made, it’s like a standard, you know? I think every director would like to make his own vampire movie because it says really more about the director than the genre, because it’s a movie where you insert all your subconscious ideas because it raises every philosophical question, I mean many philosophical questions, so it becomes like a thumbprint. An exercise in revealing your own subconscious.

Are you worried about the fact that Kiss Of The Damned is difficult to categorise neatly? It’s a vampire film for grown-ups but it’s not exactly horror…

Well, you know, in my whole life I’ve never really felt too comfortable being accepted or falling into an official group of anything, so to the extent even that it’s made it more difficult for the movie to find an audience, it doesn’t bother me. I care about the investors, I care about the distributors but aside from that, I like that the film is true to what it is and isn’t trying to fall directly into some kind of category that meets expectations or tries to second guess what a movie should be and what people will respond to. It’s a movie made from a sincere place inside of me that was excited to make it the way I wanted to make it. And to me that’s as respectful to an audience as I know how to be.

It’s great that it’s finally coming out here; I remember seeing it in London at the LFF and no one knew what to expect from it. Did you enjoy the reaction?

I remember everyone being a bit dazed at that screening, including myself, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing! I know, it feels like one of the first festivals it played at was in London and I had a really great time there, I was only there for a little bit and I had a really great time there. I really like English sensibility and taste, every soundtrack I order is from the UK and there’s such a consciousness that I personally like in the UK as far as music and movies and it’s like heartbreakingly makes me happy to think that it would have an audience there. I try not to want to be accepted by anybody or have the film be accepted, to the extent that people in the UK like the movie makes me really happy.

Do you have anything you’re working on at the moment?

Yes, I’m almost done with a screenplay that I hope to make next year. I don’t want to say too much about it because I’ve been through this way too many times to not be superstitious about things falling through but I’m very excited about it and it does fit into…while it’s not vampires it definitely fits into the fantastic category of movies and I’m dying to get started.

Kiss Of The Damned is available on Blu-ray and DVD on 27 January. You can pre-order the Blu-ray for £10.31 at Amazon.co.uk.