EXCLUSIVE: Crafting a Weird and Modern Vampire: A Conversation with The Transfiguration Writer/ Director 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.
THE TRANSFIGURATION IS OUT NOW