Interview: Xan Cassavetes on ‘Kiss of the Damned’

Xan Cassavetes’ debut feature, Kiss of the Damned (2012) – released this week in the UK on both DVD and Blu-ray courtesy of Eureka Entertainment – is a wonderfully flamboyant vampire film that manages to successfully combine genre tribute with arthouse aspirations. It’s a cineliterate horror triumph that’s full of smart riffs on the way the vampire mythology has been represented on screen. The film also concerns itself with wider human questions, and where they sit in the Gothic form. With its sleek, glacial aesthetics, it’s surprising to see a modern genre picture look this good. CineVue’s Craig Williams recently sat down with Cassavetes to discuss horror, hunger and generic transcendence.

Craig Williams: It’s been a while since Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession. Why did it take so long to get your first feature off the ground?

Xan Cassavetes: Nobody wanted to make a movie with me! I’m joking, I had another movie I was working on that was about to get made, but it was deemed too arty. I wrote Kiss of the Damned as a reaction to the fact that I’d worked on a movie for five or six years but I didn’t feel attached to it anymore. So, in three or four weeks, I wrote Kiss of the Damned. I went to the investors and asked if we could make this instead for a fraction of the money and they said yes. So, in a very short amount of time, I went from abandoning a six-year project to throwing myself into the unknown.

CW: You say the initial film was too arty. With Kiss of the Damned, you’re straddling both art house and genre. You even comment on that in the film itself. Was that something you wanted to get in there?

XC: Oh yes, I was very conscious of the similarities between me and Paolo [from Kiss of the Damned]. He’s one of my favourite characters. If I hadn’t have been able to make a movie at this point in my life after all these years, I would have let a vampire bite me too. As a matter of fact, I would’ve found a vampire on purpose! But, honestly, all my investors are very proud of the movie and were happy, so I had a good experience.

CW: You’re filtering a broad range of ideas through the prism of a genre film; primal versus intellectual instinct etc. Did you want to make sure you were expressing these notions through supernatural ideas?

XC: Well, it became a part of the story I was thinking about. It was written in a stream of consciousness and a lot of those things came buried inside of me. Some are probably things I’m not very comfortable with. It’s true that vampires are these mysterious creatures, but I also think human beings are just as mysterious, to themselves not just to each other. The subconscious drives of people, and our own nature is very mysterious. So there’s not really that big divergence between the mystery of a vampire and the mystery of a human.

CW: With vampires, certain elements of humanity are exaggerated. You have love, sex and death for example. Are they the ultimate mythological beast?

XC: Exactly. Vampires are a sort of stagnation because they don’t die. All that they are and all they do is have sex and kill people. That would be very boring and depressing, especially when you look at infinity. Although it’s genre, it’s one that comes with so much potential for metaphor and philosophical thinking. You can work out human questions through them. It’s probably better than zombies for that.

CW: In that sense, I guess you’re continuing the lineage of the philosophical vampire film. What were the key cinematic inspirations for you? Films like Daughters of Darkness, The Hunger etc?

XC: I love Daughters of Darkness. It has a rhythm that’s completely unique, enthralling and unsettling. It’s a work of art, but it’s also funny and intense. The same with The Hunger. I love that with a vampire movie, you get to be so over the top. You have to be. Vampire movies are a formality. If you’re doing the classical thing like those movies are and that Kiss of the Damned is kind of trying to do too, there’s a formality that’s a bit preposterous. There are elevated emotions.

CW: Absolutely. But it seems few films are willing to go down that heightened Gothic route these days. The fact that you embrace this is one of the things that makes Kiss of the Damned terrific.

XC: Sometimes people tell me “there’s nothing new [in it]”. But I was trying to take the classical form and pull focus and proportion in a different way. That’s what appealed to me about it; to take the classicism and formality of the Gothic vampire tale and pull focus in order to make it different. Like Nosferatu, both of them. But I’m particularly obsessed with Herzog’s version. He is in such pain in the film. He’s scary, alluring and even touching. I love that guy.

CW: The film looks great. There’s a very glacial sense to it. It’s the first thing that strikes you. We are very used to seeing cheap looking genre pictures, whereas this goes back to the flair of giallo. Did you aim for the film to look as sleek as it does?

XC: Tobias Datum and I had a great understanding about what we wanted. He was such a great DoP. The house [where a large proportion of the film is shot] was a great location as was the lake, so we did try and think of things in a cold, symmetrical way. Not static and indie-ish, but with vibrancy and infused with colour. So there was a feeling of coldness and passion at the same time. Then that lightened and grew as the movie grew. But the house itself had great geometric shapes so it was great to use those. We kept running around being goofy and noticing all the shapes. Like “look at the balls on the chandelier! Crack focus!” and high-fiving each other. We were like children that were so excited.

CW: As the plot develops, there’s a sense that we the audience are dropping in on something that’s been around for so long.

XC: Good! You want to do that but you don’t want to be corny about it. I often err on the side that some people may not get that. Hey, that’s why I make the big bucks! I’m kidding. I’m glad, it’s subtle but the way the camera enters the party [that the community is hosting] – in that Eyes Wide Shut way – it gives a more disorientating feeling for Milo’s character. We’re meant to see the ground falling beneath his feet. He can’t conceptualise what he’s walking into. His performance in that scene is great too because he looks completely dusted.

CW: The mixture of European and American accents reminded me of films like Argento’s Suspiria or Fulci’s The Beyond. Was there a temptation at any point to go the full overdub route or would that have felt like a giallo pastiche?

XC: That was the original idea! But I didn’t realise that I was going to love the actors’ performances in the way that I did. I didn’t realise that their strengths were going to be what they were. So, at that point, I didn’t want to separate them from their performances in that way. We often made the actors overdub their own lines. There was times when we did that and people were like “we can tell it’s overdubbed!” and I was saying that’s what I was trying to do! It’s obviously crazy to take French girls and make them play in a high melodrama piece in English, so some opportunities were great for ADR. We weren’t dismayed by the fact that it sounds overdubbed, that’s for sure.

CW: The film had a multi-platform release in the US. Do you think that’s the future of independent filmmaking?

XC: I have such a romantic association with going to the theatre and seeing something on film, in the dark with other strangers around me and feeling that wave of response. There’s something about that that’s the full moviegoing experience. And when you’re crafting and caring so much about your movie – editing it, sound designing it etc – you do that with a cinema in mind. You don’t do that thinking it’s going to be seen on an iPhone. But, that said, a movie should hold up on an iPhone. Many years ago, a movie might have had a big theatrical release but it may have been limited to certain areas. So I’m glad the current system is a more democratic way of getting the movie out there. I would certainly want to make the movie for people who live outside the big cities. Every movie is for everybody.

You can read our DVD review of Xan Cassavetes’ Kiss of the Damned by following this link.

Craig Williams