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‘First Kill’ creator, stars sink their teeth into the lesbian vampire love story

When Victoria “V.E.” Schwab set out to write “First Kill,” a short story about two star-crossed lovers — a vampire and a vampire hunter — which has been adapted into a new Netflix teen drama, The New York Times bestselling author wanted to create a fictional world that her teenage self desperately needed. Having grown up on fantasy dramas, including “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Schwab said she never saw herself in the queer characters at the center of the narrative and, in turn, did not realize she was gay until she was in her mid-20s.While the entertainment industry has made significant strides in queer representation in the last two decades, “it almost always feels like, in order for us to be the main characters, the show has to be about our queerness… and that’s a quietly malicious thing, because it essentially tells us that’s the only reason we’re valid as protagonists,” Schwab told NBC News. “So I was like, yeah, I want to write a lesbian story, but I want it to not be about their sexuality.”

Executive-produced by Schwab, Felicia D. Henderson and Emma Roberts, “First Kill” tells the love story of Juliette Fairmont (Sarah Catherine Hook), a descendant of a powerful matrilineal family of “legacy vampires,” and Calliope Burns (Imani Lewis), the youngest child of a family of professionally trained monster slayers. While both young women are looking for their first kill, Juliette and Calliope find themselves inexplicably attracted to one another, leading them to question everything they thought they knew about their own destinies and families. “When they see each other, they see a little bit of what they lack in themselves, and I feel like they are able to yin and yang,” Lewis said. “Both of them [are] struggling with finding their identities and who they are outside of who they were predestined to be, so I think they’re just able to confide in each other in ways that they don’t feel that same comfortability or that same safety with their own family.”First Kill,” which premiered June 10, made Netflix’s Top 10 list in 60 countries, including the United States, within its first three days of release. During the week ending June 19, the series was watched for a total of 48.8 million hours and was among the Top 10 shows in 82 countries, according to Netflix data.

Sarah Catherine Hook and Imani Lewis

The show has also reignited a larger conversation about the ways in which love stories between women are scrutinized for being “too toxic,” “too corny” or “too sexual.” Asked why she thinks sapphic representation is consistently held to such a high standard, Schwab attributed it to “a very complicated ecosystem” of homophobia, misogyny and fetishization.

“I think one of the reasons ‘Heartstopper’ is palatable is it’s two white gay men, but also it’s extraordinarily pure,” Schwab said of the fellow Netflix coming-of-age drama, which was renewed for two more seasons after making the Top 10 list in 54 countries. “It is stripped of all sexual connotation, and that’s what makes it like almost acceptable. My show is not that.”Among the most irksome reactions to the series, Schwab recalled, were the comparisons to “Carmilla,” a Gothic novella published by Sheridan Le Fanu in 1872, and the implication that no one needed another sapphic vampire story.“I saw these comments that were like, ‘You already have “Carmilla.”’ ‘Carmilla’ is a work of literature that is 150 years old,” she said. “Can you imagine saying to fans of ‘Twilight,’ ‘Vampire Diaries’ and ‘True Blood’: ‘You already have ‘Dracula,’ why do you want more of this thing?’ The critiques come from so many directions, [but] I don’t think the lesbians are the source of the critique.”

First encounte

Netflix ordered an eight-episode debut season of “First Kill” in October 2020, a month after Schwab’s short story appeared in the anthology “Vampires Never Get Old: Tales With Fresh Bite.” Following an intensive audition process, the producers cast Hook and Lewis, who both said they immediately “fell in love” with their characters and recognized the responsibility of telling a queer love story in a genre that has marginalized those narratives.In their Zoom chemistry read, Hook and Lewis read the scene in which Juliette and Calliope meet for the first time — and Hook said sparks flew immediately.

“Imani gave me this one look, and I just melted into a little puddle,” Hook recounted, smiling. “At the end of the scene, I ran off, put my head in my hands and was giddy, just blushing like, ‘That’s Calliope!’ It was just a done deal right after that one look. First kissAt a high school party in the first episode, Juliette and Calliope make out in a pantry, which was changed from a closet in the short story. “What we see is this line between attraction and violence: What starts out as just pure sex appeal — two girls colliding in a pantry — really hangs on this knife edge between danger and lust,” Schwab said. “There’s a moment where, in the first half, Cal starts to reach for the stake behind her back, and then she gets more into the moment, and she lets go of it.”

The scene is an early turning point: It’s the moment when Juliette bites Calliope, and Calliope stakes Juliette, without realizing the repercussions. “Juliette goes into the pantry to kiss Calliope; Calliope goes into the pantry to kill Juliette. They’re not on the same page when they go into that pantry,” Schwab said. “What we’re supposed to wonder is, if Juliette hadn’t bitten Calliope in that moment, would Calliope still have staked her?”Before shooting that pivotal scene, Hook had “a lot of conversations” with Lewis and the director Jet Wilkinson about establishing the “equal” power dynamic between Juliette and Calliope, because “people always want to decide who’s the dominant figure in a relationship, and we really didn’t want there to be a dominant one in these moments,” Hook said. “I felt like we accomplished that with the more intimate scenes of showing both of us being in charge or taking turns.”

First kills

Despite being ordered by their parents not to see each other again, Calliope and Juliette — in the style of Romeo and Juliet — are unable to part ways. This then leads them to bear witness to each other’s first kills. When Juliette kills and drains her first human in the fourth episode, “all thoughts are gone from her head, and her vampire instincts are taking over, and it’s almost like she blacked out,” Hook said.

“Although Calliope is well aware of what Juliette is, she has never seen Juliette in that form. She’s never seen her be violent or harmful in any kind of way, so that definitely is a big game changer for her,” Lewis said. “Although this is not news to her, and she lives in a world where she sees stuff like that, it’s different to see the one that you have feelings for, someone who has always looked so meek and shy and gentle, be this thing that you were taught to fear and trained to kill.”

Imani Lewis and Sarah Catherine Hook

The opposite is also true when Juliette watches Calliope kill her first monster — a zombie who has ripped the spine out of one of their classmates — in the fifth episode to protect the rest of the school, Hook and Lewis agreed.It almost takes them out of the fairy tale for a second, but I think that’s the tug of war of this whole story — fighting to stay in that fairy tale,” Lewis said.What’s more important than Juliette and Calliope finally making their first kills is the aftermath of those milestones, according to Schwab. “We put these moments in our lives on pedestals: If we can just perform the way we’re being told by our families to perform, we will feel secure in our identity,” she said.

But while Juliette and Calliope both, for the most part, follow their parents’ orders and secure their first kills, they “do not change fundamentally as people,” Schwab noted, and the viewer realizes these two young women are “on a different path” from their vampire and monster slayer families.
First betrayal When she first signed on to the project as an executive producer, Schwab knew she would have to give up a certain degree of creative control in the writers’ room, but she said there were a few narrative components she felt strongly enough about to fight for. One of those points comes during the finale, when Juliette reveals that, in order to save the life of Calliope’s oldest brother, she turned him into a vampire without his consent. When she first read the script, Hook had “a really hard time” understanding Juliette’s intentions, even though she knows her character’s “intention is always to do the right thing,” she said. “But sometimes we don’t actually know what the right thing is. I wasn’t sure if she accidentally turned him into a vampire, or if it was intentional.”

The revelation “completely shakes Cal’s world up, especially because Juliette was somebody that she found herself trusting,” Lewis said of her character. “Juliette was her outlet to turn to when she couldn’t be honest with herself or be honest with her family.”While she admitted that the ending makes her “really sad,” Schwab said the writers leave the star-crossed lovers in the same place they foreshadowed in the pilot. “At the end of episode one, Calliope says, ‘You’re a monster and I’m a hunter, and there’s only one way this story ends.’ It’s, hopefully, not the end for them, but we promised this entire show exactly what you get in the end,” she said.

First renewal?

While “First Kill” has not yet been renewed for a second season, Schwab, Lewis and Hook all have their hopes and ideas for a sophomore season. Schwab said she would like to see how the families of Juliette and Calliope “pick up the pieces, because things have now happened in both the Fairmont and the Burns family that means they cannot continue as they are.” She would also like to see Juliette “go on a full-on blood bender” to rebel after the heartbreaking turn of events in the finale, she added.

The last thing Calliope says to Juliette in the finale “kind of sets the tone for the kind of person that Cal thinks she’s become,” Lewis said. “That fire that we saw in her initially to prove herself and to be a monster hunter, I can only see that times 11” next season.As for Hook, she’s “really hoping for kind of a dark side from Juliette. “I hope there is a little bit of sexy battling between Calliope and Juliette, and then of course, by the end of the season, we want them to come back together,’ she said. “That is the goal, of course, but there needs to be a little bit of tussling here and there.”

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