Strasbourg 2013 Interview: Xan Cassavetes On Shooting Sex, Sibling Rivalry, And The Vampire's Kiss
Xan Cassavetes has had one hell of a showbiz story. Daughter of John and Gena, she made her screen debut in her father's films Husbands and Minnie and Moskowitz. Trawling the Lower East Side art-punk scene during early 80's, she found herself at both KRS-One and Madonna's very first shows. Later, she toured for almost ten years with the group Shrine before taking up the family business in 2004 with the documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession.
We spoke this past fall at the incredible Strasbourg International Fantastic Film Festival, where her erotic vampire feature KIss of the Damned took the top prize. How many times do you get to write that?
ScreenAnarchy: Let's start with a softball question. Why chose this as your fiction debut?
Well, I didn't choose it actually! I tried to make about a million other movies before, but this was just the first one to get off the ground. I'm glad to have made a vampire first though. There's something very loose about the genre and this film in particular. It doesn't take itself too seriously, and you're encouraged to sort of play with vampires and their milieu, you're given a whole set of metaphors to twist at your will. It gives you a kind of artistic freedom - which is the best way to make a film.
The big homages aside, there are a lot of references in the work that aren't necessarily genre film specific. The main character is a screenwriter who becomes a kind of 'kept man'; he's brought into this older, hidden world, which really made me think of SUNSET BOULEVARD.
That's really cool. I hadn't even thought of that but I like it. Just like William Holden, Paolo is someone whose life is pretty aimless. At the point of entry of the movie we find him kind of despondent in an emotional way, and that's what gets them both into trouble.
You reference not just specific films, but the industry itself. The movie business never really figures into the plot per se, but its always sort of there, on the periphery. I don't imagine it's just by chance that one of the eventual victims is a Hollywood agent...
I can't help but think, in a snarky way, that a certain kind of human monster is an agent! [Laughs]
I really loved that character, Mike Rapaport's character of the agent. He's sweet and innocent and doesn't really know what he's doing. I loved that among all these vampires, he's this frantic coked-out monstrosity.
But yeah, the character that I for sure relate to the most is the screenwriter, Paolo. Like, you asked why I made a vampire movie and I told you my whole story about not making a movie until I was 45 and trying for a long time, and that really informs the character. He's a kind of burned out writer, disappointed by Hollywood and when he meets Djuna, well, she offers him entry into a whole new world. That's sort of the vampire promise. Just like, get me out of these rules I don't want to play by, being mired in this destiny that I don't sign off on.
I often think that if I hadn't been able to make this movie, and maybe if I'm not able to make another one, and I met an a vampire, would I let them bite me? Well, yeah!
You sort of were a vampire, weren't you? As a touring musician for ten years, how much daylight did you really see?
Most of that time is spent in tour bus with guys making crude jokes, actually.
Being in a band and touring is crazy. There's a great anonymity coming into new places and then leaving the next day. We weren't famous. Pretty underground really. I almost got beat up so many times. There were a million times bad things were gonna happen. You know, we played a good show and then all of a sudden everything turns around and now there's these weird girls following us or trying to get up on stage. Nothing spectacular for stories, but a lot of day-to-day absurdity.
Your first film, Z CHANNEL: A MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, was a documentary about a cult Los Angeles TV station, while KISS OF THE DAMNED is a Jean Rollin/Jess Franco erotic horror throwback, and yet both are two sides of the same coin. Both are kind of meditations on a very specific 1970s cinema.
The most impact Z Channel had on me was how it exposed me to European films. Euro-horror, sure, but also Visconti and Bertolucci and movies I can't even remember the titles for because I had no idea what they were at the time. They were all films that really centered on adult life, as opposed to this worship of youth, which we have in the States and has really gotten huge in the past few decades. Whether or not the protagonist was a twenty-year-old girl, you would still find her dressing like a woman, having the problems of a woman, and I was really fascinated by that. It's funny talking about that in the context of a vampire movie, but I do think we tried to broach that with Kiss of the Damned. Life is very difficult, very challenging. Thing are impermanent and unstable, either love or family or blood ties. No matter who you are in the world or where you're going, it's a freaky journey, and those European films really drove that out.
Blood ties is definitely a big subject here. The film is basically about sibling rivalry, and as it goes on the character of Paolo sort of fades to the background to let Djuna and Mimi's crazy dynamic take over. It's not so much good sister/bad sister, but the tightly wound vs. the out of control.
Roxanne [Mesquida] had such an interesting thing to say about her character. She thinks that Mimi is almost a figment of Djuna's imagination. Like her alter ego, the person she wishes she could be.
I never thought of it that way, but I did write them as two sides of the same person. I have my own sister, and people may say, "Well this is about you and her." It's not, its about the prissy me and the prissy Zoe and the fire-walk-with-me me and the fire-walk-with-me Zoe. We all have that divide in us. Djuna, played by Josephine [de la Baume], who's so incredibly beautiful, is very afraid of her own sexual power. Both as a woman and as a vampire. She has a lot of power, and has to come to terms with her carnality to master it. Arousal is really tied to that. She's so repressed, that when she loses control of one part of herself, the other comes with it. Blood drinking is tied up with "I must not do this" kinkiness for her.
Were you always planning on casting French women for the two sisters?
Uh-huh. Yup. It was always going to be Roxanne. I've been a huge fan since I saw her in the Catherine Breillat movies. I just have an incredible impression of her. She actually changed the part. I had imagined Mimi to be way more evil and threatening, and Roxanne came in and made it like this annoying little sister who suddenly turns bad.
Josephine we found through auditions. I told my producer Jen Gatien what I needed, and there she was. Josephine is actually a bit younger than Roxanne, but her performance was so clear you never wonder who is the older sister.Also the fact that they're quote unquote foreign, that they speak another language to each other, even when we weren't shooting there was a cliquiness an 'otherness' between them that really worked for the dynamic
Sibling competition is something that both your characters contend with, and, professionally, yourself as well. What's it like being a filmmaker with both a brother (THE NOTEBOOK and JOHN Q director Nick Cassavetes) and sister (BROKEN ENGLISH director Zoe Cassavetes) working in the same field? Is there any tension?
If there is any tension, it's very subconscious. [Laughs] We're all super super different. At least none of us want to say the same things or in the same way. It's not like, "you take this project and I'll take, or we'll trade..." It's totally organic that we would never make the same thing, so we're all very invested in each other's work. I mean, I don't make movies like Zoe or Nick, and I'm always so captivated to see what they're doing. I love Nick's movies. They're so over the top. And Nick is genuinely operatic in his feelings. It's no game; it's no trying to get people to cry. That comes from deep inside. He's so that way that it goes into artiness. Watching him make those movies, it's like, whoa!
So what kind of film would you consider 'organic to you'?
As I have become able to make a movie, and think about making other ones, I most love to realize that I can work in places I didn't think I belonged at all. Like a film that comes to my mind is of some style or some way of expression that I had never imagined I would do.Before this I had thought my realm was kind of psychosexual whatever, but now the next two films I've written have nothing of that at all. Now, that actually may cause a problem for me... The producers think I shoot good sex scenes!
What does it take to shoot a good sex scene?
Well, I think what it takes to shoot a sex scene is that there's a narrative about the scene, and you're just trying to achieve the storytelling element of it. They're kind of effortless that way. And you know, 'beauty is beautiful' shots, which I think we have a lot of in the film, thanks entirely to our amazing DP [Tobias Datum], but it's actually saying something within the story. The more narrative it is, the more striking. You would think it might detract from the power of sensuality speaking for itself, but it actually is more shocking, more obscene when it actually is anchored in narrative.
I never shot-listed anything in the film except the transformation sex scene, and that had to be planned out with camera where would be. But you never really choreograph anything. Just, "let 'er rip! You're freaking out, you love him, he loves you, you're embarrassed, you're ashamed, you're scared, go!" You can't get too precious about the shots. You come in and think, how would I want to see this, and what is the best way of showing it? I wish I had a more intellectual answer. But you just walk around and get excited and think what would look great.
On a totally different note, I love that you cast Jonathan Caouette in a small role. Francis Ford Coppola had that famous quote (ed. and I'm heavily paraphrasing here, so bear with me!) about the fat kid in Montana who picks up a video camera and makes a masterpiece, and Caoutte actually did that. He made his film TARNATION for $300 and edited it on iMovie, and it's a mindblower. How did he end up in the film?
Oh, yeah, Tarnation is a masterpiece.
Jonathan is a genius. I've been friends with him ever since we did the festival circuit when he made Tarnation and I made Z Channel, and stayed friends. We relate in a lot different ways. When the time came to shoot that scene at the party, out of wanting it to not look like central casting I just threw my friends in there. One's a dancer, one's a writer, one a photographer. They're all artists, as well as my friends, but I had never seen any of them act before! But I think they made the party feel 'real'. Looking over the footage in editing was really fun. Jonathan was really working it. He stole every moment he could.
Last question! (And barely one at that.) Without any buffer or constraint, what is the one message you want to impart to ScreenAnarchy readers?
I would say that what's really overdue, and what needs to happen, is a reevaluation of the work of Jean Rollin. He's known for having made sexy vampire movies, but was really one of the most visual and emotional directors of his time. You see a movie like The Night of the Hunted and realize that nobody's better. Nobody's more emotionally connected or blisteringly profound. His films could be like Bergman-level deep, but with humor and political commentary all while being entertaining and unique. He was a hardcore, hardcore director.
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