Xan Cassavetes is from a long line of Hollywood elite. Her father, John Cassavetes, was a writer, director, and actor (he was the male lead in Rosemary’s Baby); her mother, Gena Rowlands, is a two-time Oscar nominee; her brother Nick is an actor and director. And while Xan has worked on many of her family’s projects, Kiss of the Damned marks her feature narrative directorial debut. Owing much to the Eurosleaze traditions of Jess Franco and Jean Rollin, Kiss of the Damned is the tale of demure French vampire Djuna; Paolo, the human who she is irresistibly attracted to; and Mimi, Djuna’s unpredictable sister who threatens to ruin it all.
We sat down with Xan to talk to her about Kiss of the Damned, her love of films, and why this isn’t really a “horror” movie.
Where did the idea for Kiss of the Damned come from?
The story came from me being taken on a little tour of that house, where Kiss of the Damned was shot. A big white house in Connecticut. Supposedly, the owner of the house wanted to shoot a horror film there, and I was one of the people invited to take a look and see if I had any ideas. I did have ideas. It seemed very unnatural - even though it’s a beautiful house, juxtaposed against this nature setting it felt kind of sinister and remote and isolated. The people didn’t really live in that house, so it felt like a transitional house - a house, not a home. In this way, I thought of a lonely vampiress who is in this sort of purgatory of this time and place and location. That was how I thought about.
It clearly has a 1970s Euro-sleaze feel to it. Was that by design or just a happy accident?
I’ve always been really interested in European films: horror films, sleaze films, high-brow films. I’m a big fan of Jean Rollin and Bernado Bertolucci. I do love those female-centric movies like Vampyros Lesbos that both objectify a woman’s beauty and don’t apologize for it, but also expand on that, to give them a deeper, more epic presence. It just felt very natural to this particular story.
This is your first narrative feature. Did it present any problems or difficulties that you weren’t expecting?
Problems, no. Difficulties, yes - but difficulties aren’t necessarily problems. They can be opportunities. It was one of those films that came together very quickly. There was almost no preproduction - like three weeks - and there were no rehearsals. We shot in 25 days, then it came time to edit the movie and that was difficult.
I was editing in New York, and at that point I was saying “Yes! Yes!” to everything - except the stuff that really mattered to me - to get it done. One of those things I said yes to was editing in New York. But I have two kids who live in L.A. and there came a point where I just called “Uncle.” I couldn’t do it anymore. So I came back to L.A. and I started working with this 23-year-old kid who had never edited a movie - and I’ve never edited a movie - so together we took on this movie. It was difficult and really, really fun, but it took a little longer. Also, because of the genre and fantasy nature of the project, we had to - we wanted to - work intensely and creatively with sound design and music. All of that took time, but it was the most fulfilling part. It was the hardest, too. There were times when we thought [the movie] sucked, and I thought I would be the biggest embarrassment to my family name. Like all things like that, the obsession and interest outweigh the fear, and you go back in there and say, “Dammit, we are going to make this great.” And you go in and wrestle it to submission. Of course, it ends up wrestling you into submission.
Was “bringing embarrassment to your family name” a big concern for you?
No. Only at a certain midpoint where the movie was so bad... it had never occurred to me before that to care. But at that point I was like, “What am I going to do?” Of course, I was like, “Get ahold of yourself, woman! You know what to do, just don’t be a coward. Go in there and do it.”
Someone making movies or doing anything creative should never feel comfortable with themselves or with any form of acceptance. It’s healthy.
Kiss of the Damned has vampires so it is automatically put into that horror category, but it doesn’t really feel like an out-and-out horror film. It feels more like an erotic thriller. Was that your intention?
Honestly, I didn’t even know this was a horror film until Magnet picked it up and catered it to the horror community. But looking at it... my brain and my mentality are a dark enough match, so even though it’s not filled with straight horror, and rapes and torture, what is dark about it is more psychological. There are moments of blood. You want to take it the distance when it is supposed to go the distance. I made peace with it. Now I have seen a lot of horror films and I always love to learn about different cinema. People who love [horror] movies love movies, the way I love movies, and that gives us everything in common. My mind is definitely as dark as anyone’s, I’m just not taking the same steps.
It’s dark, but it is also beautiful.
Look at Suspiria - and I’m not comparing this to Suspiria - but the reason it is so unsettling is because it is so beautiful. There is no ugliness without beauty, and there is no darkness without light. So I guess it goes together [laughs].