EXCLUSIVE: Crafting a Weird and Modern Vampire: A Conversation with Michael O’Shea
An atmospheric, intricate study of a troubled young mind, THE TRANSFIGURATION follows orphaned teen Milo (Eric Ruffin) as he immerses himself in vampire lore to escape his troubled life. In Queens, New York, 14 year-old Milo is a total outsider. Ignored by his schoolmates and bullied by older children, he takes refuge in the apartment he shares with his older brother. To escape his solitude, he studies vampire mythology, to the point of obsession. Milo hides a terrible secret, but a chance encounter with neighbour Sophie (Chloe Levine) leads him to develop new feelings. But will it be enough to quash his dark urges? This first feature from writer/director Michael O’Shea took Cannes 2016 by storm, where it competed in Un Certain Regard, and received widespread praise for it’s bold, unusual take on the classic coming of age tale… with added bite.
In our exclusive interview, Michael O’Shea tells The Fan Carpet‘s Marc Jason Ali about his muse; Susan, who convinced him to get back to his writing, finding the perfect Milo and Sophie and looking to the future with is Inglorious Basterds-esque script…
Before we get started, congratulations on a fantastic film. I was sitting there with one of my colleagues and half the time, in a good way, I didn’t quite know what I was watching. It takes you on a journey and you don’t know which direction it’s going to go and I find that refreshing because too often do I go into cinemas and watch films where I know pretty much beat for beat what’s going to happen, and with your film I didn’t.
Thank you. I tried very hard to be original and unpredictable so thank you very much.
No worries, myself and Lydia both loved it and it was like, it invoked a lot of conversation afterwards about the film and what we actually thought of it and yeah I thought it was incredible and they really should make more films like this, then again if they made more films like this then I probably wouldn’t like them too much because you would know what was going to happen, but yeah it’s a double edged sword isn’t it, but I like the originality of it, it was cool.
So if we go back to the beginning, was there a defining moment for you to get into the film industry?
The defining moment for me getting into the film industry was meeting my girlfriend and partner Susan, who I’ve been with for 10 years. She was a film producer already when I met her and she was the one who gave me, she suggested that I start writing scripts again.
I guess you can say before that, I went to film school in New York and that was the Conservatory of the Arts that had a film school and I studied film for 4 years and I made some films, I never finished any of them because I couldn’t afford to, and then I got out of school and that was pretty much it for me and film, I couldn’t really afford to pursue it any more so you know I had a lot of odd jobs and then, I’m 44 years old so then ten years ago I met Susan and you know we started dating and fell in love and she suggested that I start writing scripts again and I decided that I would start writing horror and this was my second horror script that I wrote that I tried to get produced, the first one I failed to get produced so this is my second one and this one got money and so I made it and now here I am (laughs).
Great well congratulations on that, it’s always nice to bounce ideas off of someone and to gel like that for ten years is incredible, that’s great. So I know you wrote it, but what was it about The Transfiguration that got you to work on it, what was the impetus for the story?
Basically I failed to raise money for the first film, first film was more expensive and was a slasher film and I had recently seen a film called The Pleasure of Being Robbed by the Safdie Brothers and I also read about a film called Escape from Tomorrow that was shot illegally in Disneyworld and I started to think about how I wanted to make a horror portrait movie using these styles, because Pleasure of Being Robbed is a movie where they’re kinda across the street and their shooting with a zoomed in lens at the character, with a live city environment and I liked that style and I wanted to make a horror movie in that style, a kind of documentary on location, across the street almost spying on the character and I want to make a portrait movie, a kind of horror portrait movie. So I had that much in mind, I had the style of shooting and I had a setting, but I didn’t have a plot yet, and then a friend told me that a friend’s kid was being bullied by kids at school because he was obsessed with vampires and then that sparked the idea of the character of Milo in my head and then I immediately made the kid a little older, before he was like 8 years old, so I immediately started thinking what if this 8 year old kid was 14 and what if he believed he was becoming a vampire, what would this be like, what would this character be like now that he thinks he’s a vampire.
So I started to build this character and then once I built the character, the plot started to come into focus, like this idea that it had to be over the course of one summer, because now once you’re doing a teen film you have to think about what happens over summer; because summer’s such a big deal when you’re that age, so the idea of it happening over the course of a summer seemed like a natural thing.
And then I’m thinking “Oh maybe he can meet a girl” and then so the plot starts to develop. So that’s basically the genesis of the project, of the story.
Like I said at the beginning, being taken that journey. I was actually quite worried for the girl that he meets because I wasn’t sure, that was one of the things that I liked about it, you’re never knew whether he was going to be his next victim and ultimately she wasn’t…
A film that’s very connected, well it’s a film that inspired me, I noticed later on was Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and the way that it inspired me was how they’re both films about someone who is murdering people who meets a girl and the question put to the audience is “Is she going to change him in some way or is she going to become a victim?” and both films kind of share that tension in this question and of course my film resolved differently than Henry (laughs).
For those who haven’t seen it, what can you tell us about The Transfiguration and why people should go and watch this incredible film?
(laughs) Well I hope horror fans will go and watch it, because it’s made by someone who deeply loves horror movies like them, and for non-horror fans I can let them know that I do spend a lot more time on character and performance than maybe your average horror movie so they may be surprised, even if they don’t normally like horror movies they make like this one because it has elements of drama in it as well.
Great. This does feed into, if you’ll excuse the pun, into my next question. What is your preferred genre? You mentioned horror films and the horror genre, is that you’re preferred genre, do you have other favourite films?
Yes it’s absolutely my preferred genre, I am always going to murder people; I should say that 80/90% of my scripts involve people being murdered horribly (laughs) so I definitely live in the horror genre. I may not live in the “scare” genre as much you know like pop you out of your seat genre, but I definitely live in the horror genre in terms of horrific acts and that’s somewhere you know I would say that 9 out of 10 of my ideas, my scripts are going to follow that idea because it’s a genre of film making that absolutely love so it enters all of my writing because of it.
And favourite films? Are there films that you look to? You mentioned Henry, are there films that you look to that inspire you when you’re writing or films that you want to aspire to write, not so much copy but just in terms of seeing certain tropes?
I suppose what I’m asking is like crafting an enticing story like this one and avoiding the pitfalls that other horror films fall victim of in terms of the “beat for beat” motions they go through.
I’m too weird, I couldn’t make a film like other films if I tried. The Transfiguration ended up the way it was because that was literally the only film that I knew how to make, I showed it to preview audiences and you know I’d been given money by my investors to make a horror film, and I showed it to friends of friends just to see how the film was playing and what they said back, the audience, what they said back was, the people who liked it, said back “wow you made a really beautiful movie” and I’m laughing to myself and I’m going “oh s**t they gave me money to make a horror movie and people are telling me I made a beautiful movie I hope that’s ok” (laughs) “I hope I didn’t screw up too much” (laughs), because normally I don’t think people say beautiful when they’re talking about horror movies. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that I couldn’t help but make this and in the future it’ll be similar, I have other scripts that are inspired by other horror movies but the way I kind of do them and the way that I kind of make them kind of come out in this sort of unique way, like I take these other horror movies and I jumble them around in a different way than you’d be expecting and I can’t help it basically.
Well it shows (both laugh) Are there any other aspects of the film industry that you would like to pursue?
I mean I do need money (laughs) so it’s a good question I should definitely look into it. I mean right now I have 3 scripts finished and I’m trying to make all of them and whoever gives me money for the next one that’s the script I’ll make, but I’m also interested in directing other people’s material if I connect to the material well enough, so I’m interested in directing only if that’s possible and I wouldn’t say no to re-writing jobs but no one’s offered me one, but I would totally be a ghost writer but no one’s offered me that yet but I’ve had weeks of meetings in LA so we’ll see what happens, it’s not like I’m allergic to money or something (laughs).
You assembled a fantastic cast of fresh faces for The Transfiguration, so you’ve worked with a great crop of talent there. Do you have a wish list of who you’d like to work with?
I have different movies and they all have a wish list cast for sure. I have an all guy movie that I haven’t written yet, where I have my Inglorious Basterds list of men that I won’t to work with you know what I mean, like Inglorious Basterds you know movies like The Dirty Dozen you know one of those films where it’s 8 amazing guys, I actually have a movie like that and Willem Dafoe is on that list I can tell you that… (laughs)
Willem Dafoe is a chameleon the guy can do no wrong in my opinion. He’s just awesome (laughs).
And I have a list of like 8 guys like Willem Dafoe to do my version of Inglorious Basterds, you know the “guys team up together” movies, the dream guy cast, maybe The Hateful Eight is a better example of that, because almost every Tarantino movie has a list of guys.
Tarantino is one of the best, keeps threatening to retire, it’s not going happen (laughs). Following on from that, what make Eric and Chloe the perfect castings for Milo and Sophie respectively?
I have a very sort of unpretentious sort of self-hating way that I am; so you pick the actor who doesn’t make you hate your own writing as they say it, like you audition like 10 actors a day and 9 of those actors are going to think your writing is terrible, and I’ll go “oh my god I’m such a bad writer” and one of those actors is going to say your words and you’ll go “oh my good I’m a great writer” and you’re not a great or a bad writer this actor is just transforming the words and make them amazing, and Chloe did that with Sophie’s lines in the audition and I knew it had to be her and Eric I saw on a TV show called The Good Wife and his face I was like “I think he could really work” and I brought him in and I had him read with Chloe and I videotaped it and I had them read the loft scene together in the audition, the scene where she finds him in the loft he was amazing, it was probably close to what you saw in the movie, so you know I just knew that I had him when I saw it, I knew I had gotten really lucky because it’s really hard to cast well on a very low budget movie like this, it’s very very hard to cast well. So I knew I had found these two people which is an amazing bit of luck on my part you know and I’m incredibly grateful that I found them.
Both of them have got glittering careers ahead of them, fresh faces you want to see more of that in the industry, in films, you don’t want to see the same person each time, even if the same person is great…
I would cast unknowns all the time (can’t make out) money I’m not allowed to do that (both laugh). They don’t give you money when you do that a lot of times, but I would totally do that, I love new faces.
Other than the people that you’ve mentioned like Tarantino and Dafoe, who would you inspires you within the industry?
Lars Von Trier, Gaspar Noe, those are the two contemporary directors that I’m most inspired by.
But also you know at Cannes, when I got into Cannes I noticed that Nicolas Refn had a film there, Neon Demon, and Oliver Assayas had Personal Shopper and both of those movies kind of showed me that there is a possibility to make kind of weird film and they’re not that big budget but they’re not that low budget either, so both of those films kind of inspired me that I could have a career doing something like that. Another person who has been very inspirational is Ben Wheatley who has been able to make unique sort of genre movies and have a career doing it.
Yeah absolutely. Have you seen Free Fire yet?
I have, it’s a lot of fun (laughs) it’s a lot of fun.
I saw it last year at the London Film Festival, it is just so much fun. It makes no apologies with what it’s doing, it just does it, it just goes for it. (Michael laughs)
It’s a 90 minute shoot out and it’s unapologetic about it (laughs)
Yeah in a very similar way to The Transfiguration it makes no apologies for what it is, it just is what it is.
Yeah no apologies and it’s great. Although I’ll admit that if this wasn’t part of my job it is a film that may have slipped past me, in terms of the sort of films that I go to the cinema to see with my friends, but that would have been a mistake on my part, and I can see The Transfiguration fitting into, if the release wasn’t this Friday then I can see it fitting in quite well at FrightFest because I’m there every year as well doing press.
I mean, I’m happy that because of you’re work that you were able to see it and that you liked it, I understand that it’s a tough film to sell, so I’m really glad that that’s not my job (both laugh) because I understand that it’s probably a really tough film to sell.
When crafting the film, was the mythology something that you did a lot of research into? Because obviously that’s a big part of the film, the fact that he’s looking back various different vampire lore and films, referencing things like Twilight not being real vampires and stuff like that. I couldn’t make out the film that they loved and really enjoyed. But did the whole vampire lore play into your research into making the film?
When I was writing it I did a fair amount of research into vampire books, vampire movies, vampire folklore, but at the same time I only did enough research to make Milo sound really smart in it, which is what I sometimes tell people after the movie when someone comes up to me with a really obscure pure vampire movie and I’ll say back “No I only researched vampire’s enough to make you believe Milo’s an expert” I’m not actually an expert, I only did enough to trick you into thinking Milo was one.
Well it worked (laughs)
But I did look into the origins of vampires, I was very interested in how vampires were created in folklore and how they changed over the last century because I found that very, very interesting, I also read the book Dracula by Bram Stoker, that was the book that I was reading to inspire me when I was writing the script. So yeah I did a fair amount of research, I’m not actually a vampire expert from it I didn’t do that much research (laughs).
Well like I said you convinced me! (both laugh)
Exactly I did my job (laughs)
You did what you wanted to do and it made him convincing I was scared of him (laughs).
You mentioned you were working on three other screenplays at the moment. What are you allowed to tell us at the moment?
Sure, I actually have 3 scripts finished because remember, the good thing is I have these scripts finished the downside of being 44 is that I’m closer to death but the scripts are ready.
So yeah I have a ghost film, a slasher and a cross country serial murder rampage film and I’m trying to…..I’m going to LA next week and I’m going to have a lot of meetings and I’m going to pitch all 3 of them and hopefully I’ll get a bite and I’ll start making one of those movies soon.
Great well I look forward to that. Final few questions, fandoms are a big part of the industry, who and what are you a fan of, other than the people you have mentioned already?
I mentioned so many already (laughs) let me think. I feel like I covered a lot of them but I’ll throw in David Cronenberg; he’s great, I mean I worship Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre and I worship Pascal (Laugier) and the French film Martyrs, I think that’s the best horror film of the last 30 years, the French film Martyrs.
I mean Don Hertzfeldt is someone I worship, when I see him I think I’m completely talentless, he’s an animator who made a film called World of Tomorrow and It’s Such a Beautiful Day, if you haven’t seen his stuff check it out, his stuff leaves me breathless, basically he makes me feel like a completely talentless hack whenever I see his movies, his name is Don Hertzfeldt. So that’s a bunch of other names (laughs).
You’re absolutely not a talentless hack, you’re not.
I know but if you see Don Hertzefledt’s movies he just makes it seem so brilliant and he does this just with stick figures and you’re just like “wow” (laughs) He does so much just by drawing stick figures himself and you’re just like “wow I’m not an artist compared to this guy”. But thank you for saying I’m not a talentless hack I appreciate that. (laughs)
Is there a book that you like that hasn’t been adapted to film yet that you’d love to be apart of?
You have some good questions (laughs) I’m scrambling (laughs) Yes, no Lifetime did it. I had an answer but Lifetime did a TV movie of it, but I still want to make it.
That’s a TV movie it’s not the same as theatrical (laughs) What one was it?
There’s a book called Perfect Victim a true crime movie about a guy who picks up a hitch-hiker in the 70s and he kept her in a box in his basement and then convinced her that she was a slave of a corporation and had her doing household chores around the house and having her brainwashed.
It’s a true crime story and I always though that was amazing and insane and horrible and I’d love to do a film out of that.
Cool. And my final question, I could talk to you all day, but final question. What advice do to you have for someone embarking upon a career in the film industry?
Just that it’s very hard to break in and you actually need connections to get in and you should remember that you need connections and financial support, because 20 years ago I wanted to break into the film industry and what I discovered was that if you’re not friends with someone, if you don’t have any kind of financial support then there’s just no way in.
So it’s not just talent and hard work, talent and hard work will eventually become a part of it, but until you have connections and financial support you’re not going to be able to do anything and that’s something that everyone should be aware of going in, that’s an element of the business that’s as important as talent and hard work and so if you haven’t succeeded it isn’t necessarily because you’re not talented or because you’re lazy, you know there’s a third whole other element to this business, that’s like being in the right places at the right time and knowing the right people, that’s an enormous part of the film business because of course it is, these are things that cost like half million dollars, 10 million dollars, 20 million dollars.
So really there’s a huge element kind of social and connections and money that’s this huge part of it that you should be aware of before you go into it, but obviously you’re going to go into it because you love movies, but just be aware of this giant element, it’s just something that I (wasn’t?) prepared for 20 years ago.
Right congratulations for a great film again, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you Michael and I look forward to seeing what you come up with next.
I hope so too, I hope we get to talk again because it’s been lovely talking, and thanks you much for loving the movie.
THE TRANSFIGURATION IS OUT NOW