After years fronting hardcore punk band Shrine, Xan Cassavetes has become a movie director. Today, the oldest daughter of indie monoliths John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands will see her film Kiss of the Damned debut on American silver screens. (It premiered at the Venice Film Festival, last fall.) The film, a modern take on ’70s erotic horror films, is lead by Josephine de La Baume and Milo Ventimiglia and sparked with all kinds of sexual intensity. Set on a grand Connecticut estate and peppered with all the gore and X-rated sensuality characteristic of the genre, Damned follows Djuna and Paolo, de La Baume and Ventimiglia respectively, as vampire and freshly-turned lover exploring the affection and primalism of their heightened, non-human romance. Here, Cassevetes discusses de La Baume’s lush and haunting look, growing up in film, and her slow path to the director’s chair.
Tell me why you chose this genre for your first narrative feature.
It’s the first film I could get made. I was going to make another film at the same time, but it just didn’t feel right, and so in a very short amount of time I got this spontaneous desire to write this other script for a location—the location of the house in the movie. And in three weeks, I wrote that, and instead of making the other film I made this one.
What were some of the themes you were looking to explore when writing this script?
Well there’s two. One was the idea of two sisters who were victimized when they were young. They were children bitten at the same time, and [it’s about] how one takes that experience and becomes sort of embittered and not comfortable with the light side of herself, and the other one isn’t comfortable with the darker side of herself which is there, so she tries to hold on to being a human. It reminded me of myself, and I think everybody—that there is a part of you that tries to be a certain kind of human intellectually and emotionally, and then there’s a primal side in us and the two sections are always in the same human being. The other theme I wanted to explore is this idea of love. Because love, I feel, is this volatile, sort of strange beautiful trick that’s played on us, and you can see somebody, and depending on that time in your life and what’s transpired in your life at that moment, and you can see an incredible amount of relatedness and attraction to someone which justifies great recklessness that can evolve into love.
How did Josephine and Milo get involved?
I didn’t write the film with anyone in mind, but I envisioned it with specific out-of-time actors that didn’t look like regular actors. Josephine was someone I became aware of afterwards. Her face is the most beautiful and timeless face, and she turned out to be an an incredible actress, and Milo, the same. I didn’t know so much about him as an actor, but I visually thought he would be great, and I had no idea how great he would be when I got there.
What was your relationship with film growing up? Did your family regularly watch movies together?
No. They were working a lot of the time, and I was doing my normal kid things, and they were good parents, but they weren’t like, “Okay. We’re cinephiles. Let’s sit down and watch cinema.” They didn’t do that. We did have this amazing channel in the house called Z Channel and it had every European film, softcore European porn, every vampire movie, every big Hollywood movie, kung fu movies—every single range of films. It was this insane channel that everybody had and everybody watched in LA. And I grew up watching that, so I saw basically 90% of everything I’ve ever seen between the ages of 12 and 18 on that channel. By having it in the house, it became a sort of education.
You only started exploring this medium and making films in the last decade. Did you have no interest in filmmaking before then?
No, not at all. I was in a band in L.A. for a really long time in my 20s, and then I started making my own videos, and then I started making other people’s videos. Then I quit my band and had kids, and the only way to keep my sanity was to go and take a break and write when they were sleeping. And so I started writing screenplays that way, and then I thought I want these made into a movie, and then I thought, I don’t want anyone else to direct them. So that’s how I started realizing that that was what I wanted to do. If I had been in my 20s, it wouldn’t have gone that way. I think because I had a lot of experience at the time, it did. I was no longer a child.
What was the best piece of advice your parents taught you about filmmaking?
Obviously, as you can imagine, I’m a fan of their work and their films. Just growing up around them, I saw them get trashed by critics and people. A lot of times these masterpieces of theirs got decimated, and I saw their attitude dealing with that—like, whatever. It was disappointing, but they had confidence even if other people didn’t understand that what they were doing was valid and good. As it all turns out in the wash, most people think that now as well. It was always a relief for me to know that, and I’m not comparing myself. You just have to take chances and not be afraid if everybody understands. Not all people will get or like what you’re doing. It’s a drag, but it’s not definitive. It doesn’t mean that what you’re doing is not legitimate. I think that’s the greatest comfort I got from being exposed to their career.
Do you plan on collaborating with your family?
There’s a trend. Right before this, I was going to do an anthology movie with my sister, Allen Hughes, and Jonathan Collette. We were each going to do a segment of a movie together, and Zoe and I worked closely on that movie, but I think it was too art-y. [Laughs] The concept was too art-y and it wasn’t able get off the ground. We’re not planning on it, but our roads do cross sometimes as far as making things. Then again, my brother and my sister are such individuals. I don’t think either of us really want to share a head when it comes to what we have to express, but we’re all very interested in each others stuff, and always share what we’re doing with each other.