Joséphine de la Baume and Milo Ventimiglia in 'Kiss of the Damned' / Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.
“I really went after the most beautiful people I could go after and prayed they were good actors,” Xan Cassavetes—yes, of those Cassavetes—says of casting her directorial feature debut, the sexy, atmospheric vampire movie Kiss of the Damned. “Let’s be honest! It’s a vampire movie. They’re supposed to be unnaturally beautiful. If you’re in it for the long haul, it’s gotta pop off.”
In person, Cassavetes oozes cool-kid charisma, slouching in her chair under a fedora and eagerly discussing the current crop of films in theaters before returning to Kiss of the Damned, starring Joséphine de La Baume as the gorgeous, kind Djuna, Milo Ventimiglia as her mortal lover Paolo, and Roxane Mesquida as Djuna’s wild child sister Mimi. (In theaters in NYC and LA and available on VOD.)
Set mostly in a massive, haunted mansion, Cassavetes' film hides deep questions about attraction, love, and familial devotion beneath a sheen of good looks, elegant manners, and bad behavior. And since vampires have been sexy ever since Bram Stoker had Jonathan Harker feel ecstasy at the touch of female vamps in Dracula, Kiss of the Damned doesn’t slouch in that area either. Let’s just say that Ventimiglia’s turn is everything one could ask for.
Out: So you went for gorgeous actors. Did you just flip through headshots or did you hold auditions?
Xan Cassavetes: There were no auditions! I don’t like auditions. I find them demeaning. I feel like it’s my responsibility to perceive in somebody whether or not they’re right for the part. I hate the idea of auditions. It should be up to the director to see.
Were you nervous the first day when you realized you were about to make a feature film for the first time?
Not at all! It’s just like they tell you it’s going to be painful to get a tattoo and it’s not. I remember reading that book where all the directors talk about their first day on the set and they’re so nervous. I was thinking, Oh, maybe I’ll feel that way. And I didn’t. But then again, we were in that house, living in that house, entrenched in that house. So some trucks show up at the house, big deal. I was just excited to jump into it. Every day I’d wake up I’d be like, ‘Oh my god, we get to shoot that scene today!’ And somebody makes your lunch for you! Coffee’s made! You wake up and you get a schedule! And all that’s left for you to do is exist and make decisions about the movie. It’s pretty ultimate.
Were you happy to leave that house by the end of the shoot?
That house was werked! We were all so excited to be in that house—and we lived in it during the shoot—but when it came time to leave we were all like, See ya. There came a time when it lost its charm.
What prompted you to do a feature?
I’ve always written screenplays that were fictional. I don’t feel like making movies is a career choice, for me. I made so little money on this movie that I’ve been in debt the entire time. Making a movie, the reason why it’s so fulfilling is you get to rearrange reality. I’m not real cool with how reality exists. I love life, but I love it through the prism of making a movie. It’s just very brutal out there. And it’s also beautiful and gorgeous, but making narrative films is a great way to organize certain questions. And you feel a connection with people because of it.
And why a genre film for your first?
Sometimes a genre is like a standard song. Like Billie Holiday is gonna cover it, Sinatra, Nina Simone. They’re all riffing on a classic thing. The point is there are many different variations. I’m thinking I don’t really want to make anything else other than a genre movie. There’s straight storytelling, but that’s not my craft. I like to tell a story that ends with the climax of the question but leaves enough space to explore people going through a situation. They’re confused and fighting their way through it and finding out their identity and how to be in the world. And I think genre leaves room for that. Whether it’s a vampire movie or science fiction or a Western, you are able to have a protagonist leaving one chapter of their life and moving into another.
A genre film doesn’t have to be, “I’m a cop and this is a murder and we solve the murder, and this is the story.” In any genre film, there’s so much room for existential reflection. And I’m sorry, I love that! And that type of filmmaking and telegraphing those types of things often give you an opportunity to create an atmospheric… atmosphere. [Laughs] That allows you to slow down for a minute and feel every sensual thing around you, to take those moments when atmosphere is appropriate. And I love me nothing more than atmosphere. I love me some beautiful shots, I love me some sound design. And I love me some soundtracks.”
So what made you choose vampires as your first dip into genre films?
The house. This house was put to me to see if I could think of a story for it. That house, above that lake, that sinister sort of environment? It was the house that made me think of vampires. So I walked through that house, and I wrote the screenplay a year later in three weeks. If the owner had said no at that point, I would have been screwed.
WATCH the trailer for Kiss of the Damned below: