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Brandon C. Sites - Critic of Modern Day Horror

Interview With Pen Densham on THE KISS (Joanna Pacula)

Pen Densham is the director behind The Kiss starring exotic beauty Joanna Pacula, ever so wholesome teen superstar Meredith Salenger, the legendary Jan Rubes and feature directing superstar Shawn Levy (Cheaper by the Dozen, Night at the Museum, and Date Night to name a few). The Kiss deals with the title smooch being passed down from one generation to the next. Unfortunately, for poor little Meredith Salenger she is next in line to receive this deadly kiss from her aunt, Joanna Pacula. Initially a flop when it first came out, The Kiss has found an ever growing following over the past few years due to the film being released at the height of the DVD craze. We had the chance to ask Pen Densham a few questions about The Kiss. Here is what he had to say.

So who is Pen Densham and what are you all about?

Wow – Not an easy question. I have come to learn I am probably an artist and not a fraud. Imposter Syndrome seems to be a dark alley of anyone who explores their creativity.

I was born to parents who made 35mm theatrical shorts in England. I jokingly say my first job in show business was as a four year old, riding a seven foot “live” alligator in a film they made about people who kept strange pets. (I can’t believe my mother was there the day we filmed – the eccentric lady who ‘s pet it was, seemed very calm about it. But – I can clearly remember, she wanted me nowhere near her crocodiles!)

Cameras have remained magical instruments to me. I have spent my life trying to cast spells with them. I took photos of everything as a kid and teenager. I quit school at 15 and tried to find a way to harness my desires to create some kind of income. I photographed the Rolling Stones for BBC – I sold pix to Camera magazines. But, couldn’t really get any traction on a career path in the UK. So literally feeling an over the hill failure – I kinda fled to Canada . There I found a country that poured funds into its arts and gave grants to people, even to me, because of their ideas.

I mixed with the film community . Fell in love and married a Canadian. And founded a company with a guy called John Watson. We went on to make many short films that we financed with our small change - and the good will of our suppliers. I shot the movies and John edited them. We chose our subjects for their visual power. Ice skaters, Secretariat, Sylvester Stallone and Norman Jewison were some of our subjects. In all we won over 60 awards for our shorts – two Oscar nominations and medals, from, of all people, the Queen of England for our art in Canada.

But no one in Canada would let us make a feature, despite the awards. So I wrote and directed a half hour drama – with an all documentary crew and with no drama knowledge. I kinda made it up as I went along. It was a horrific process – almost made me want to quit.

When we had patched the film together (If Wishes Were Horses) – to my utter surprise the thing won fourteen awards, was reviewed as the best movie of any length ever shown on Canadian TV… and Norman Jewison invited me to Hollywood to mentor me on feature film making! I was sure it was all a big mistake…. Imposter syndrome, again.

I know, where does The Kiss fit in? – Bear with me.

John Watson joined me in Hollywood – with our film skills, we ended up patching up a number of Stallone movies. Including Rocky 2 – which the studio had great fears about in terms of its structure. We got credited with helping Stallone create a movie that grossed in the mega millions . We had arrived with access to the top of the game.

We decided to try to patch up our own features and used our contacts in the studio business to learn on the job. We taught ourselves screenwriting. Expanding from shorts producing to feature producing etc.

Jeff Sagansky, the president of Tri-Star, was going to make The Kiss in Montreal and our Canadian status gave us a leg up. He asked us to produce the movie. In return I asked to direct it. It was my first solo chance at directing a feature.

I am still friends with Jeff today…. Oh, and the Alligator?

A picture of me from my parents short film is on the cover of my book that comes out in January through Michael Wiese Publishing. It’s called “Riding the Alligator: strategies for a career in screenplay writing (and not getting eaten)”.

What was it about The Kiss that drew you to the material?

First – I want to make MOVIES not talkies. The supernatural in a film gives what I call PERMISSION. The imagery can be extremely inventive and atmospheric. Sound, color – a special feel are a required part of the psychology, and not intrusions. I love trying to cast spells.

I am going back to the fog of the past to do this, so I must apologize to my fellow creators if I accidentally leave out something that they contributed or thought important.

There had been a couple of strong drafts of the script – the original story and first screenplay by Stephen Volk and some great expansions by Tom Ropelesky. It was originally called the Host, but came to be called The Kiss as we saw the power in the physical transfer of the creature mouth to mouth.

Sagansky let me do a final polish to get the pace exciting and keep the budget practical. Tom and I added things like the African theme. The idea of visualizing the creature more. I wanted a kind of Rocky climax – so we invented the pool battle at the end.

And, one more thing drew me – that I did not understand at the time. It was a story about a young woman who had lost her mother.

When I was on the set in Ireland directing Robin Wright and Morgan Freeman in my historical script Moll Flanders, John Watson asked me why none of my leading characters had mothers. I am sure I hit myself on the forehead. Moll lost her mother as a baby. My version of Robin Hood had no mother. I was also trying at at that time to make my Houdini movie –a master showman who was traumatized by the loss of his mom.

My own mother had died when I was 8. I think art and pain mixed in me as a child and I was still working it out. I am passionate about several scripts of mine today. I try to write from the unconscious. Most of them have a lost mother issue hiding somewhere in them.

How much did The Kiss cost and how was funding secured?

Tri-Star had a great character on its staff. A development guy called Paul Stupin. Paul had more energy, buoyancy and love of genre than any person I had met. He was a force of nature. He loved making spooky films. And was a major champion in the studio for the Kiss. Others in the system – like many today – tended to look down at scary films as beneath them. But Paul pushed and jollied this film along. He found the Canadian group Astral, headed by Harold Greenberg who would co-invest, which lowered the risk to Tri-Star. Luckily, Harold was a friend and a fan of John and my work.

Thanks to Paul staying on top of things a deal was made where the movie would be Canadian Content. That meant that it would hire Canadians in all the key elements in return for tax breaks that lowered the budget making the movie more feasible. We ended up where Tri-Star and Astral agreed to spend $2.5 million. I would guess it would be around $8 to 10 million today.

How did Joanna Pacula become involved with the film?

My first lucky break was meeting Meredith Salenger. I had seen her work in the Journey of Natty Gann and was charmed by her. As an actress Meredith was willing to completely sink herself into the challenges of the lead role, menstrual blood scene and all! She made the perfect vulnerable teen foil to the villain. A woman of immense beauty and sophistication, who is controlled by a creature that has literally and physically possessed her. I was convinced whoever played “Aunt Felice” – who kills Meredith’s mother, seduces her father and is compelled to kill herself when she transfers the creature from own body to Meredith’s – this actress better be extraordinary. I was looking for more than just talent – I was looking for a female phenomena.

I remember going through dozens of meetings and hundreds of images during the Felice casting process… no one felt special enough. And then I saw a picture of Joanna Pacula in the Academy Directory. Her image stopped me cold. She had hypnotic eyes. A symmetry of form that was almost catlike and yet she also looked vulnerable and a little haunted.

I was supported in making her an offer. Joanna and I met – she was on the cover of major magazines as a model. But, she was willing to work with me on a horror film. I was thrilled.

What was it like working with Pacula, Meredith Salenger, and Jan Rubes?

I am always convinced there is a better director out there who knows much more than me. So my fear causes me to prepare deeply for a movie. I storyboard every frame. I will take secret readings of the script with acting students to hear and tweak the words before I expose them to the real actors.

I also assemble vast collections of images to help me find striking and powerful shots and to draw on to conjure the film’s atmosphere.

While we shot in Montreal , I met with Joanna and Meredith in Hollywood our home base, to help them prep and totally got into the mood. I shared the results of my process with them. I wanted them to understand my vision, so they could add their own thinking to the whole.

I view the most important scenes in any movie as not the walk and talk stuff. But where an actor demonstrates the most extreme of his or her feelings. Those emotions have to be believable and compelling for the audience to buy into the fantasy the characters are facing. (Today, I am incredibly impressed with the work of Jennifer Carpenter. I think her work in Emily Rose and Quarantine are truly exceptional).

(I have worked with some female and male actors who are self conscious about their looks. They are always fussing to keep their hair straight – in freaking action scenes!)

I needed to have the trust of Meredith and Joanna – so they could uninhibitedly commit themselves to the most extreme emotions. I build a psychological vision with them – trying to guide them to a loose, fun, but deeply emotional reveals. And I had to have their support to make them look like hell on screen to sell their role.

I often walked around that set with a spritz bottle of water to touch up the sweat on my talent - my theory being the supernatural should show its cost physically.

Joanna and Meredith liked each other. They were up for the experience. They both had great senses of humor. Which the movie tested.

We ended up, due to budget limits, working the most incredible hours. The climax of the film was a battle in an outdoor swimming pool at night. We were shooting in Montreal – it gets real cold there.

So we shot summer day exteriors at a real house for the pool party scene. (My son, Nevin, at age 7 paddles across the pool on… an inflatable “alligator”. Nevin is now a Hollywood screenwriter).

Next, I had the complete back of the house, yard and pool duplicated in a studio. My goal was to let us shoot the night scenes and the grand pool battle indoors and avoid the cold and exhaustion of working nights. I got it half right.

Our crew got turned around – that means as we shot each day we lost a little time and had to come back later to start filming the next day. We could not afford on our budget to buy the hours that we needed in order to get back to shooting in actual daytime.

We found our studio shoot taking place from 8 at night to 8 in the morning. It was exhausting and bizarre. It doubled the work load for our talent – fighting a lack of sleep. And shooting grueling water sequences at 4 am when the body wants out.

Joanna hung in through a lot of emotional and tough scenes. She was a pro. I can remember those middle of the night glooms. Despite her exhaustion, whether she was doing intimate and vulnerable seduction scenes – or dealing with her bloody death scene, she would share her feelings and work through issues so I could help her find her best approaches.

Jan Rubes was great to explore with – a trooper. Despite his high status as an Opera star and a revered Canadian talent. He just got into his role and loved bringing all his chemistry to playing a dark horror eminence.

Was there any research done into the black magic elements of the story?

I had this sense that if we could set up the premise in a believable way then the movie would just be more scary and effective. I researched images of African voodoo sculptures etc. And had the creature modeled off things we saw in books.

I still have the creature-totem that Felice pours her blood into. I felt that to throw your power across the city and kill from a distance one needed to have a gut reaction in the audience. I wanted the audience to feel Felice summoning her familiar. And to see the immense amount of energy it took from her.

Two cool things about this sequence.

One – Joanne and I decided that she should have strange dark tattoos all over her naked body during the summoning. My make-up people tried all kinds of experimental substances – to see what would look right and would wash off Joanna.

And… what you see on screen, is Joanna painted with designs in chocolate sauce! Yep. She smelt wonderful.


I always aim to get the best actors, even for the smallest roles. I figure my stars can only be as good as the talent they have to work with. Joanna summons her familiar to kill a young man who is driving to Meredith’s rescue. I found a really great young Montreal talent, I loved his work. Later he came to Hollywood, but he has given up acting - his name is Shawn Levy. He now directs movies like Night at the Museum, Date Night, The Pink Panther and he is just wrapping Real Steel.

Shawn Levy (Today)
What was it like having to juggle a script that was part domestic drama, part teen thriller and part black magic movie?

I apply the same logic to my approach when I revived the Outer Limits and the Twilight Zone series. To capture an audience completely, stories must be first and foremost about people. Special FX, supernatural phenomena, science fiction creations - are ways of shining a lens on human nature (kinda like a magnifier on a human ant). They speed up the characters’ emotions.

The Kiss is a family story first – the black magic tests the family. The greater the test – I felt – the stronger the demonstration of courage and love.

What was the most difficult aspect about making The Kiss?

Our special FX were not as strong as I had hoped for. We tried several approaches to our supernatural cat for instance. When I see the movie on TV now I am always annoyed that the stations pump up the gain so the image is too clear. Especially on the night scenes, which are supposed to be shadowy and spooky. Our effects looked much more subtle in the 35mm print.

Looking back at the film all these years later, what do you think of it?

To this day I have people who tell me they consider The Kiss a bit of a classic. I always feel slightly shy about claiming anything other than I was proud to make the movie and of the work contributed by everyone…. But, feel free to ask Shane Black about The Kiss, he has shared some very cool thoughts on the film.

The story for The Kiss is timeless. With that in mind, it is ripe for a remake. What would you think if they did a remake on this film?

Alex Daltas, the Vice President of Production at Trilogy, is a giant horror fan and a strong fantasy and horror writer himself. Has been making forceful arguments that the movie needs to be remade for a new generation of viewers. We have had quiet discussions with a couple of studios about that possibility. Like all things in Hollywood – these things are unpredictable. But, it might happen if the ball bounced the right way.

Maybe someone at Screen Gems (an affiliate to Tri-Star) might like to consider looking at The Kiss… maybe thinking Jennifer Carpenter playing Felice?

So what's next for you?

John Watson, Alex Daltas and myself run Trilogy as a boutique feature company. We own the rights to the properties we are trying find compatible financing for. We are working with artists we treasure like Todd Robinson, Stephen Susco, Ron Shelton, Nick de Toth, Chaz Thorne, and Gerald McMorrow. Plus, I have my own scripts as a director including projects that we have teamed up with Robin Wright and her new production company.

Our slate is totally eclectic. From Oscar caliber dramas to really cool genre movies. Our only rigid criteria is that we must be impassioned by the script or the people.

Any final comments?

Why did I write a book? I was asked to teach a class one night a week at USC film school to the graduating MFA’s. It is designed as a transition from the Academic world to the business. I searched around for a book on creating your voice as an artist and persevering with your vision when you come to selling yourself. I couldn’t find that kind of career overview. So I set out to write one.

As each chapter came out I tested it on my USC class. I am probably one of the few Professors who gave his papers to his students for grading. The book is very from-the-heart and hopes to help newer writers find their creative courage and keep their vision as they carve a career path. It is the kind of book I would have loved to have read when I was starting out. Maybe I wouldn’t have doubted myself quite so much.

You can learn more and your readers can download a free chapter at: http://ridingthealligator.com/  


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