An official selection of the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival in 2016, The Transfiguration is Michael O’Shea debut as a writer / director. It follows troubled teen Milo (played by Eric Ruffin from The Good Wife and 30 Rock) who hides behind his fascination with vampire lore. When he meets the equally alienated Sophie (Chloe Levin), the two form a bond that begins to challenge Milo’s dark obsession, blurring his fantasy into reality. A thrilling but understated mix of horror and minimalist realism, it announces O'Shea as a distinct new filmmaker. We spoke with him, last week in New York. The interview was condensed for clarity.
Murtada: You’ve written a lot of scripts, how did The Transfiguration come to be your first feature?
Michael O’Shea: I had failed to raise money for a slasher film. It was too expensive and I didn't have a good proof of concept idea. In other words I didn't have a good scene or a good way of shooting something in the style of the movie, as a short film to sell it to investors. That can be something that is important to a first time filmmaker. I didn't have experience, I’m not a TV director, I’m not a commercial director.
So when I came up with this film, literally I was thinking as I was writing what could be a proof of concept?
The first scene of the movie, the bathroom scene, was a perfect proof of concept, because it’s kind of a short film in and off of itself. Where you just end up with him cleaning up, and then that's the end of the movie. And you can shoot that fairly affordably. We shot it for $5000 of our own money.
The reason this script worked is because it was an affordable style of shooting. Live shooting in New York City. You go to the subway and you shoot with a long lens, and no one understands that you are shooting. You don't have to shut down city blocks, you don't have to rent stuff, you are using reality as your design.
Murtada: And that is why you shot in NY?
Michael O’Shea: Also I shot in NY because I grew up in Rockaway where Milo (the film’s main character) lives. All those locations are where I grew up. A big part of The Transfiguration was this visual motif of him living in one place and hunting in another place. The place where he lives, which is sad and desolate. Adult-less. I mention Peanuts a lot. This world without adults, sad and feels kind of neglected. And then this other city, this new gentrified New York, where he hunts. A movie of two places. By knowing Rockaway I could cherry pick locations to create this sad lost lonely environment that I was looking to make.
Knowing Rockaway gives the movie this authentic vibe which creates a good tension with the story you were telling…
I love the tension between the fantastic and reality. That is something you see in Larry Fessenden’s Habit. Larry is in our movie. Also in Martin by George Romero. This tension between the idea that he's a vampire or believes that he's a vampire, yet we are in a reality that feels very much like our own. I really love that tension. I also love the tension of is he or isn't he which is something from Tourneur’s Cat People. Is she turning into a tiger or is this just about her being horny? What is this?
The film made it all the way to Cannes so how was that experience?
That was amazing. I'm a 44 year old guy and this is my first movie. When I got the money to make the movie, I felt terror. What if I make Tommy Wiseau’s The Room? A film I haven't seen but that everyone makes fun of. What if I suck? What if I just make something terrible? So to go from that place of terror to being accepted at Cannes, it was a feeling of pure joy. We got a standing ovation at the end of our screening, in a thousand feet theater, it was literally the happiest moment of my life. It's embarrassing, there’s a photo from that night, I have this gigantic silly stupid grin on my face. That’s a photo of the happiest moment of my life.
I’ll have to find that photo.
You talked about other movies and references. There are many references in the movie, from the VHS tapes Milo keeps to the characters talking about movies. Why?
I’m very obsessed with and love the notion of reframing other frames. From reframing someone's advertising to reframing horror movies. The notion of characters that live in our world and are influenced by pop culture, that's something that obsesses me as an artist.
My favorite bit was that Milo kept saying Twilight is not realistic.
I can totally tell you where I stole that from. It's a book called Projections from 1990s where directors interview each other. The Coen Brothers interview Sam Raimi, they decide to make a joke out of the whole thing by critiquing each other based on how realistic their movies are, as if the value of the movie is based on how realistic it is. You made Raising Arizona, that wasn't realistic at all. You made Evil Dead 2 that wasn't realistic.
I loved this notion of Milo approaching all vampire movies from a barometer of how realistic they are, which of course works completely for his character, but is also very funny.
He seems to have a very clear idea which movies are realistic and which aren't.
That became part of the fun for me, looking back at vampire movies, from this lens of what would Milo think. For him realistic means his reality. I can't crawl on walls, so thereby that's not realistic. Anything that doesn't match his reality is not realistic. It was fun to come up with a list of “realistic” vampire movies.
Did you give the actors a list of movies to watch before shooting to understand what you were going for?
I didn't because I cast them based on their auditions, and they already had the characters in the audition. They had already became the characters in a way that I was very happy with.
As the movie goes along we discover that this is a story about grief. Did you set to do that or did it come as you were writing the script?
I came up first with how I was going to shoot the film. I wanted to shoot a portrait film live on the streets of New York. Similar to how Josh Safdie shoots movies. But also similar to 70s and 80s horror movies. Then I came up with the character of Milo, who believes he’s a vampire and / or a serial killer. That naturally leads itself to tragedy. Something that's most common among serial killers is physical trauma in childhood. He has this massive back scar that I never explain. The suicide of the mother and his finding the body is this giant transition for him. That's the moment when he becomes a full vampire, when he crosses the human line. And it's a huge psychological moment. I’m also writing about a girl and whether a girl is going to change him or not; a love story. You want to give the girl a sense of loss as well because otherwise what are they bonding over? Even though they are very different people, you want to give them a key commonality. So I wanted to make her an outsider like him, through her circumstances, and I wanted to give her a feeling of recent tragedy and loss as well. So it accidentally ends up becoming this film about dealing with grief.
In a larger picture the film is about death acceptance. Vampires are about living forever. That is what is hovering around the whole movie as well, the idea of accepting your own mortality, accepting your own death, and being OK with it. Death, tragedy and grief. It’s sad little poem of a movie.
About the directors that you mentioned influenced you, is this the peer group you want to be linked with? People like the Safdie brothers and Kelly Reichardt?
Those are great directors so I don't have a problem being linked to them. Azazel Jacobs is a good friend of mine and he works in a similar style and watched early cuts of the movie. He made Terry, Doll and Em and has The Lovers coming up. Also Larry Fesseden who I mentioned is in our movie. The difference between me and all those people though is that I murder people, and I'm going to continue to murder people. I maybe directing in a style similar to these people but my content is very different. I’m working in genre, even though it's not entirely like other genre movies, genre is an important influence on my work.
Is that what you are going to continue doing?
90% likely. Every script I write is genre, except for one rom com that I wrote. Even that I would direct like The Transfiguration, where the characters are living under the weight of other rom coms, in live New York city locations.
Did I read that you wrote a musical or did I imagine that?
I totally wrote a musical, and I would love to do it one day. I wrote it before I started writing horror. Although right now it may be smarter to try and raise money for the other genre scripts that I wrote.
Musicals are back in vogue though.
I should probably dust that script off now, after La La Land.
The Transfiguration is now playing in New York and will open in LA on April 21.