Love Bites: An Interview with 'Kiss of the Damned' Director Xan Cassavetes

The family name has long synonymous with independent filmmaking and cinephilia, and now another Cassavetes takes their place behind the camera...

Kiss of the Damned

Director: Xan Cassavetes
Cast: Josephine de La Baume, Roxane Mesquida, Milo Ventimiglia, Anna Mouglalis
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
US Release Date: 2013-05-03 (limited)

Kiss of the Damned tells the story of Djuna, a vampire who falls for a mortal named Paolo shortly before her less accepting sister shows up for a week’s stay. It’s the feature debut of Xan Cassavetes, a writer/director from a family of legendary artists that includes her father, maverick indie film director John (Faces, Husbands, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie), her mother, celebrated actress and her father's muse Gena Rowlands (A Woman Under the Influence,Opening Night, Gloria) and siblings/fellow film directors Zoe (Broken English) and Nick (Unhook the Stars and The Notebook).

Cassavetes discussed the struggles of producing her own vision during a phone conversation with PopMatters recently, as well as the importance of video on demand for independent film, and why she wanted to make an artistic vampire movie.

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I really liked how there wasn’t a clear protagonist in the story. Each character has their own set of issues and the audience identifies with different characters at different times. Was this an effort to put your own twist on the horror genre? A new way to keep the audience engaged rather than just shock and awe?

The story for me centers on these people going through these experiences and fighting battles within themselves. I was basically following that, and not as conscious of making a horror film. What I focused on more was of primal nature vs. moral/intellectual nature. These themes ran through the whole film and how they relate to love, family, and society; how much can you control, what you can accept, and not denying who you are.

What I tried to get made before wasn’t in the prism of a genre movie. It very much appeals to me to make a movie that’s within a genre because it gets rid of the hoity-toity ideas surrounding what you’re making. This isn’t an auteur film that’s trying to be fancy. I’m following the rules of the genre, but I’m doing my own thing within it. I like being a part of that and at the same time being a part of nothing.

I only want to be an artist and be enthusiastic and search for the movie I want to make. I like answering to myself.

The film dealt with the battle between love and instinct, rules vs. desire. How do you see these ideas reflected in the real world, and why were they important to discuss now?

I think vampires are different from human beings, but they’re sentenced to eternity on this planet. They have the same confusion about love and permanence, integrity, and denial. These qualities really are the same in vampire characters as in humans. I think they’re universal themes.

Obviously vampires have become a substantial part of our pop culture over the last few decades. What did you find appealing about the genre when you first thought up this story, and then how did you want to separate your film from the rest of the pack?

I think the reason vampire movies have been so popular over time is that they share so many parallels with human beings. People are fascinated with eternal life and physical power—the idea of having no vulnerability. We all feel small and powerless in the world at times, so the temptation to be a vampire is compelling.

I had a discussion the other day about whether vampire movies are ever really horror movies. I don’t typically find that they are. They’re more psychologically horrifying. Kiss of the Damned is sort of a story about how the temporary nature of life can be a beautiful thing. I don’t know if I got that idea through completely, but I wanted to reflect an emotional state—how, when you’re bitten, part of you becomes a monster and part of you remains yourself.

This separation has been depicted from Nosferatu on. It’s what attracted me to these characters and this story.

This movie feels very much like a blend of what everyone wants -- the general audience and the art house crowd. Vampires, sex, and the horror genre are all fan favorites, but there’s no compromises made to the story structure, cinematography, themes, or characters. At one point, Paulo’s agent describes him as an “artsy fartsy” writer who only wrote things he couldn’t sell. Was this your way of subtly winking to people who say you can’t do both?

For sure. There’s a lot of me in Paulo. I was 45 when I shot this movie, my first narrative movie, and it wasn’t for lack of trying. I had a long life in music and documentary, but I tried really hard for 15 years to make a narrative feature. I probably could have made one sooner if I had made something more conventional. I could do it as a writer, but I couldn’t do it as a director. I feel too strongly about rearranging reality in a movie. It gives me peace. I had a deep longing for it.

If I hadn’t been able to make this movie, I could imagine being in Paulo’s state of mind—of being ready to transcend through this woman. He’s compelled to be with her, but he’s also attracted to the mysticism and the danger. He may have given up on transcending through his craft, and now he sees a portal for transcendence through this woman. This vampire.

He sees the opportunity to transcend, and his subconscious tells him this is a way to escape the pedestrian world he’s trapped in, even if he doesn’t really know what’s going to happen when he does. I definitely relate to that a lot.

There are so many people I know who have unique ideas that may not be guaranteed money makers [at the box office]. It’s frustrating to see that they can’t get them made. So there’s definitely a part of them in Paulo, as well.

Kiss of the Damned was released on VOD and iTunes at the end of March before its theatrical release May 3. How do you feel about people viewing your movie in the different format as a filmmaker? Do you have a preference? Do you just want people to see your movies? Would you release all your movies this way?

There are great things about both. I took great care to make this a heightened sensual experience with the visuals and audio especially. Obviously, I want people who can see it in the theater to see it in the theater, but since this is an unconventional movie I like the idea that people who couldn’t see it in the theater can still see it now. It’s nice to know people in Kansas can see it and not just people in New York and L.A.

I think there’s intelligent and sensitive people everywhere, and I’m happy they can see it. It means a lot. There’s something even more pure about people who aren’t conditioned to like movies like this. People always want to say what people are going to like and not like, and I find that really dumb. There could be some really intellectual guy who hates my movie, but there could be a housewife or a bagboy who loves it. Or vice versa.

What I tried to get made before wasn’t in the prism of a genre movie, it very much appeals to me to make a movie that’s a genre movie because it gets rid of the hoity toity ideas surrounding what you’re making because you’re in a genre. This isn’t an auteur film that’s trying to be fancy. I’m following the rules of the genre, but I’m doing my own thing within it. I like being a part of that and at the same time being a part of nothing.

I only want to be an artist and be enthusiastic and search for the movie I want to make. I like answering to myself.

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Kiss of the Damned is now available on demand and will be released in select theaters May 3.

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