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Entries in New York City (1)

Friday
Sep022016

THE TRANSFIGURATION: THE MICHAEL O'SHEA INTERVIEW 

Michael O’Shea’s The Transfiguration caught the international film community by surprise at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The New Yorker’s brooding inner-urban vampire story, which earned a coveted Un Certain Regard slot, is an extraordinarily accomplished debut work, yet still had to it maneuver a path through the mass of festival hopefuls before taking centre stage based upon its rich aesthetic and narrative strengths. Jet-lagged and slightly dishevelled, his prematurely grey hair and all-black attire affirming his ‘NYC auteur’ aura, O’Shea talked to SCREEN-SPACE on the balcony of the Palais de Festival about crafting a film out of images that have been brewing in his subconscious since his teenage years…

“The class element in the script is simply because that’s what I know, that’s how I grew up. I was bullied, beaten up a lot,” says O’Shea. “I retreated into my room and got very depressed.” The central figure is teen loner Milo (the remarkable Eric Ruffin; pictured, below), a softly-spoken orphan growing up in the projects of Queens whose obsession with vampirism has led to him committing heinous, bloody acts. “(Milo’s life) brings back the extremes of my teenage emotions, when you say things like ‘I’d kill for you!’ Those years between 13 and 17 are pivotal years that we remember for the rest of our lives and most of my scripts feature characters that are caught up in those years.”

The Transfiguration is a work filled with O’Shea’s own obsessive love for film in general, and the history of vampire lore in particular. Several modern horror classics are referenced, as well as little known works that indicate O’Shea is a true film fan. “While I was writing, I would put vampire movies on over and over again and just take what I wanted and make it mine,” he openly admits. “Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In, Romero’s Martin and Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures are films about teenage love and the darkness of life that I connected to. They are influences that are then reworked in my voice and vision.”

Slightly more left-field but no less influential are the cinematic musings of French underground icon Jean Rollin. “Oh God, those soft-core porn vampire movies, where girls in mini-skirts are wandering across desolate landscapes!” he beams. “They are absolutely inspiring.” It is this wildly diverse mix of styles and sources that has made The Transfiguration so bracingly unique. As O’Shea states, “It is a vampire movie influenced and inspired by vampire stories through the centuries, but is not going to look or be like any other vampire story.”

Working closely with DOP Sung Rae Cho (pictured, left; on-set with O'Shea), the director also drew upon the great filmmaking aesthetic of 1970s New York to create an observational ‘cinema verite’ feel. “I just love the 70’s American filmmaking so much,” O’Shea enthuses, “The films feel as if the filmmakers where energised just being outside. Cinema was breaking free of that very static ‘Old Hollywood’ notion of cameras being clamped to the ground. Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To was and is an inspiration; it looks great and also appeals because it mixes the personal and the genre in a crazy way.”

Often filming the action far removed from his actors allowed O’Shea to employ lens and framing techniques that have gone out-of-fashion for all but the most committed visionaries. “Recently, The Pleasure of Being Robbed was shot with a long lens in live New York City locations. That was the first film that I saw that made me think I could make a horror film that way,” he says, recalling the 2008 mumblecore film from alternative sector identity Joshua Safdie. “I wanted to harken back to an older New York, the New York of films like Death Wish, as a setting for this fable. That said, I was also working within the newly gentrified New York, which was also fun.”

The casting of Milo was crucial, the part not only requiring a leading man presence but also a maturity that allowed for some very gruesome moments. Eric Ruffin had done some fine work on television (notably, an eight episode arc on The Good Wife; memorably, as a young Tracy Morgan on 30 Rock), but O’Shea was still cautious as to how the young actor would respond to his character’s psychology. “I was terrified that just the darkness of the character was going to fuck this kid up. But I would say ‘cut’ after some really intense scene and this giant smile would come across Eric’s face,” say the director. “At one point he said to me, ‘Mike, this kid is really mixed up.’”  

Setting his work on the mean streets of Queens and deciding to cast his lead as an African-American dictated Michael O’Shea not simply pander to exploitation horror tropes. Drugs, violence and racial tension all play a part in Milo’s daily life (as does a blossoming romance with white neighbour Sophie, played by Chloe Levine; pictured, above) and are tackled with a forthright honesty by the hometown filmmaker. “I’m making a social realism film that is combined with horror, and a lot of responsibility comes with that,” he says. “Those are all aspects of Milo’s life, even before the vampirism is addressed.”

His decision to self-pen a genre narrative that tackles the urban plight of inner-city black lives no doubt helped to impress the Cannes selection panel, but has also led to some observers say it is not a horror film per se. Such an observation does not sit well with the debutant director. “I have a kill every 20 minutes, so come on,” he says with a wry smile. “I don’t ever want to hear that I somehow find myself better than horror, just because I tackle some issues in my film. I’m telling a personal story and a political story, but I murder people and I show it and I enjoyed doing it!”