With the enormous success of the "Twilight" series, vampires are arguably as hot as they've ever been. And as the progeny of a famous filmmaking tandem, actor-director John Cassavetes and actress Gena Rowlands, Xan Cassavetes has a ready-made stamp of auteur authenticity. Her narrative feature debut as writer-director, however, is far from some shrewd, market-strike genre capitalization.
An artfully muted exploration of amorous longing and existential crisis, "Kiss of the Damned," which premiered at the SXSW Festival, hits theaters this week following a VOD bow. In it, lonely vampire Djuna (Josephine de la Baume) gives in to the advances of human screenwriter Paolo (Milo Ventimiglia), and bites him, but soon has to contend with a series of expanding consequences following the unexpected arrival of her troublemaking sister, Mimi (Roxanne Mesquida). Recently, Cassavetes spoke one-on-one with me, about the enduring nature of vampire stories and the origins of her name.
Brent Simon: Your name (pronounced "Zan") is a bit unusual, and shortened from Alexandra - it was originally your father's nickname for you, right?
Xan Cassavetes: My parents had a boy named Nicholas and then my mom had me and put on my birth certificate Alexandra, even though my dad didn't like that because he'd had a mean babysitter (with the same name) who was Greek and had a deep-cut, old-school tattoo of a cross on her forehead, and thin lips. So he didn't like the name Alexandra and right there at the hospital he changed it Xan. Sometimes people think I made it up to be unique or something. Of course, as a child I was horrified - it just seemed like the most unfeminine, really scary name. But as I've gotten older I can't imagine my name as anything else.
BS: There's a deep ribbon of sisterly conflict in "Kiss of the Damned," which is probably as invested if not more so in the psychological elements of vampirism as the physical.
XC: It's one of the classical things about vampire stories - the lonely vampire whose life becomes meaningless due to the repetition, repeated nights of violence and subverted existence. But I guess I wanted to personalize it in a way. At the time I conceived this I had certain ideas about love and relationships. I have kids and have an ex-husband that I get along with so well - we live in the same house in L.A. after 10 years of not being together. I'm not cynical, but I don't really want to have a boyfriend or husband again. I wanted to have my compadres, and people thought that there was something wrong with me. But now that I've had children and that relationship in my life I think that the most romantic vision of being with a man that I can imagine is whatever happens at that moment with no (other) expectation. … Love is a component of many different things - the baggage you bring, the moment, what you need in your life, seeing someone as a portal for understanding everything, and all the intensity that brings. It's not something to count on, and act like it's a stable thing. Love is a gift, and it's some weird, mysterious place that we're (taken). The idea that people that love one another are separate beings, and even when you love you're alone and have to answer to your own primal natures - I wanted to explore that through the prism of these classic conditions for vampires.
BS: Parts of the movie reminded me some of Jean Rollin. Were there specific films that influenced the visual scheme and tone for which you were aiming?
XC: I love Jean Rollin. He's one of my very favorite directors and I consider him as heavy in some of his movies as Bergman. I think he has to re-evaluated for the range of what he does, on an emotional and philosophical level as much as a visual one. But when I made "Kiss of the Damned" I had only really seen "Rape of the Vampire," "Requiem" and "The Shiver of the Vampires." And I liked them a lot. I just didn't relate them as much to what I wanted to do with this film. A lot of movies that influenced me for this movie weren't literal, and weren't vampire movies - it was just more of a vibe, like Bertolucci or Visconti, and the decadence and presentation of women, and how they can be acknowledged as sexual and beautiful objects even, but then go above and beyond that.
BS: Why do you think vampires have such staying power?
XC: I think it has to do with the reality that we all get old and ugly before we die, and vulnerable and sick. It has to do with the fact that most of us have money problems and feel very small and powerless at certain points in our lives, and the fantasy of all those opposites is understandably enduring. But when you think through the vampire reality you get to the other side where you think how beautiful the temporary nature of life really is, and how natural the course and aging and death is.
BS: You made the wonderful documentary "Z Channel" in 2004, then labored for a while on a bigger budget project that didn't end up happening. Was "Kiss" in part in response to that struggle?
XC: Well, maybe this is dumb of me, but I've never really been motivated by anything that has to do with having to be smart about a career. I think of making a movie in such a romantic way. I mean, I never intended to make a documentary! When I made "Z Channel" I was at a dinner party and asked what had happened to it, and in a few weeks I was making a movie about it. Both movies are very similar in that they were each conceived of very quickly and very purely, and the wind was at my back to make them very easily - that's what they have in common. It's great to feel that way because you don't care about people-pleasing or pandering. You have tireless energy, sometimes much to the horror of everyone else around you. And I always thought making a documentary was like having a child that's adopted - it comes with none of the ego and guilt and anxiety that bringing something into the world that didn't already exist has. With an original idea and characters you've written (there's) more opportunity to play with acting, music, sound design and all of that. To care intensely about all of that is to take on a beast, but it's the most beautiful beast of all.
Watch the trailer for 'Kiss of the Damned':