The Sorrows of a Young Vampire: Writer/Director Mike O’Shea on The Transfiguration
In Mike O’Shea’s insidiously unsettling and remarkably assured debut film The Transfiguration — the most unlikely official selection at last year’s Cannes Film Festival — Milo (Eric Ruffin), a black teenager in a far flung outer borough ghetto, is first seen hunched over a dead white man in a public bathroom stall, his mouth wrapped around the cadaver’s jugular. Although he might be the super predator of Hillary Clinton’s nightmares, this kid is no regular old vampire; he can walk around during daylight hours and eats actual food. Perhaps he’s just a killer? The movie gives you little certainty on these matters, but plenty of slow burning dread as we watch Milo go about his routine of watching bizarre slaughterhouse videos on the internet and dubbed VHS tapes of old vampires while having close encounters with various people we’re primed to think are potential victims.
Alienated from older kids who bully him in and around his NYCHA housing project, he lives with his dour older brother, a scarred veteran of America’s recent foreign wars who intermittently shows Milo some tough love when he isn’t stuck in the malaise of daytime television on the couch he seems to never leave. When Milo meets a curly-haired young white woman in the foyer of his building (Chloe Levine) — also an orphan who, along with her abusive grandfather we never see, is seemingly the only white person in this exclusively black milieu — he is stricken with something that goes beyond bloodlust. They form a delicate, elusive bond that is threatened time and again by the young woman’s growing awareness that her new boyfriend isn’t like all the other boys and the increasing antagonism of the project’s courtyard dwelling gang members.
The movie is shrouded in an awareness of its genre underpinnings. Popular vampire films like Twilight and Let the Right One In get name-checked on screen (Milo is fond of the latter, more niche film, but has never seen the blockbuster series of the former), as do revered cult vampire films like 1978’s Martin and Val Lewton’s 1942 classic Cat People, another film in which one is not sure if the protagonist is a supernatural being or simply horny. Perhaps the film The Transfiguration most resembles is Bill Gunn’s criminally underappreciated 1973 Cannes Critics’ Week entry Ganja & Hess, another picture about an unusual black vampire who finds love and seeks to destroy himself to escape the troubling moral implications of vampirism.
As in Gunn’s movie, race is ever at play in The Transfiguration; Milo’s victims are universally white, from subterranean homeless men to drunken West Villagers. The project’s gang members intimidate the young interracial couple, its alpha dog shout-chiding them about “jungle fever.” Milo is asked by a couple of young whites in a nice sedan if he can help them get some drugs, leading to a significant turn in the middle of the film that imperils our anti-hero in more ways than one. When Milo, walking through Prospect Park, catches a kickball in a wooded area that a young white boy, beady eyed and privileged seeming, has lost, the tension becomes overwhelming.
In person the forty-something director, who claims to have never made a dime in the movie industry, belies an innate sweetness and deep cinephilia. Until last year, when his Queens-set, low-budget horror film debuted in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard, he had never been out of the United States. Plucked from obscurity as a blind submission to the world’s most prestigious film festival with his first feature 20 years after he failed to graduate film school at SUNY Purchase — a place long known for forging artists out of working class kids who somehow have to find a way to swim in this Rich Kids Game of indie film — O’Shea knows he’s living the dream. Among other things he confirmed in the several interviews we did that led to this Filmmaker dialogue below that he doesn’t want to return to fixing computers, his primary vocation when The Transfiguration was made.
The Transfiguration opens today from Strand Releasing.
Filmmaker: So you grew up a horror movie enthusiast, obviously, but why did you choose to take this journey?
O’Shea: Yeah, when I was 12 or 13, I worshipped horror movies. The first R-rated movie I saw was very meaningful to me. It was in the theater — The Island, playing with Jaws 2. The Island was the R-rated movie, and there was a lot of gore, and I loved it. In my teenage years, I was watching tons of David Cronenberg. I mean, I’m wearing a Videodrome shirt. Videodrome was one of my favorite films when I was a teenager and still to this day. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was a film I saw when I was 16 or 17. It was hugely influential on me and on this film. When I was in my early 20s or late teens, I was reading about Larry Fessenden’s Habit and about this idea of taking vampires and putting them into a realistic setting. I remember thinking, “I want to do that, that sounds amazing.” It was so awesome to have Larry in the movie.
Filmmaker:When did you decide to make the film about a child protagonist? And did that feel like it was limiting, or was it freeing in certain respects, in terms of what you were trying to say with the film, or with what the film could do thematically?
O’Shea: Basically, I knew I wanted to do a portrait film. I was trying to come up with a horror idea. I knew the way I wanted to do it, which was going to be long lenses, live locations, New York, a sense of place, like the ’70s work I revere. Then a friend of a friend said, “My friend’s kid is getting made fun of and bullied because he’s obsessed with vampires.” And so, I immediately thought about a kid who believes that he’s a vampire. Once it became a teen film, all my teenage stuff started coming out of me. I was a depressed, loner, weird kid. So that expanded the writing for me, and it became something much more hybrid than horror at that point.
Filmmaker:Was it scary to make him a black kid as a white director?
O’Shea: Was it scary? Yes.
Filmmaker:Was it something you had to think consciously about — what does that make the movie mean?
Filmmaker:How did your thinking evolve from that?
O’Shea: It involved me showing the script to a lot of people. The decision was because it’s part of the neighborhood I grew up. I’m a very political person and wanted to set the film in one place and then have him kill people in another place. This area where I grew up in Rockaway seemed like a really good place to focus in on, and to be able to say certain things politically about class and about America that I wanted to say, buried inside the text. But yeah, I would say it was scary. It’s still scary.
Filmmaker:What was the casting process like for Eric?
O’Shea: We saw him on TV. It’s such a boring answer. We knew casting was going to be huge. After I wrote the script, I watched Henry again, knowing how influential Henry was on it, in a way. Michael Rooker holds that entire movie together, and I’ve got a cast of 14-year-olds to hold a movie together like Michael Rooker. So we knew that was going to be an enormous challenge. [Producer] Susan [Leber] and I watch a lot of TV, and he [Eric Ruffin] was on The Good Wife in a small part. And we saw his face and — I’m looking for the term from that Russian experiment we learned about in film school, where you show the actor the plate of food and they say, “Oh, he looks so hungry,” and you show the actor the coffin, and they say, “Oh, he looks so sad,” and it’s the same photo. And I’m looking for that face that you project whatever you’re thinking onto. For me, he had that face. He had a face I could project stuff onto.
Initially, I was like, “I want to be, like, Bresson. I want to work with non-actors. I want authenticity.” And then I’m like, “I’ve got to shoot a movie in four weeks. I want someone who can show up and say all of my lines and hit their marks and command the attention of the camera and command the attention of the audience! I don’t want to be discovering that with a person who’s a non-actor.” So the fact that he was on a TV show at all was actually a big plus for me. It’s the notion that, okay, so he’s going to be able to do what has to be done to get through this shooting schedule.
We called him in, and he was fantastic. We didn’t have a casting director yet. We rented a room and just borrowed a casting director to come and sit in. We already had Chloe, because we cast Chloe when I was casting the short [Milo, from which The Transfiguration was expanded]. So we had him read with the two leads before we had money or a casting director yet.
Filmmaker:What was it like talking to him and Chloe versus the adult players? Did you have to augment how you discussed what you were doing with him, being that he was young, especially given the grisly nature of the movie?
O’Shea: The violence I didn’t really worry about, because he’s an American, and as Americans we are raised on television with the most horrific violence already. There’s no actual sex in the movie. There’s a scene where it’s implied maybe there’s sexual content. For that scene, I shot them separately. It seems like they’re in bed together, but it’s singles, so they’re not actually in bed together. I just had them do the lines, and I honestly didn’t even say what it was at all, because that’s awkward. And he did the lines correctly regardless, without me having to say anything. Also, it’s not an overt sex scene; it’s just kind of implied, because this is touchy stuff in America. The violence I was very open about. He kept saying, “When do I get to kill people?” because all of the murders happened in the last four days of shooting.
Filmmaker:You strung him along the whole time.
O’Shea: Exactly. He’s just wandering around talking, and he’s like, “I’m getting really bored of just talking. When do I get to murder people?” Which you know — he’s a very funny, charming, open, nice, well socialized kid, who just wanted to do the stunts. He’s into sports. It wasn’t like he wanted to murder people. It was like, he wanted to do the fun, physical action stuff.
Filmmaker:Jumping on people, biting things.
Filmmaker:Who wouldn’t want to bite Lloyd Kaufman, you know? [Laughs]
O’Shea: Exactly. He was very concerned that we were going to replace him with a stunt person for these things, because he very much wanted to do it himself. So we’ll make you say all your lines first, and then you get to run around and be a superhero or whatever. I was always worried about messing up children’s heads, but we’d say cut and his face would change and a big smile would come across his face every time. And you just know: “Oh, right, I’m not psychologically damaging this kid.” I showed him the movies that he loves beforehand, what his character loves. So I showed him Let the Right One In, I showed him Martin. He said he loved Let the Right One In. I was like, “Ah, cool.” And at one point during the shooting, he did turn to me and go, “You know, this kid’s really messed up.” I was like, “Yeah. He is. He’s pretty messed up.” He’s like, “It’s sad.” I’m like, “It is. It is indeed sad. I agree.”
Filmmaker:The movie has a very particular evocative tone. I’m curious about whether that was something that was tricky to find in the shooting, and then later in terms of the sound design and the way you cut the film?
O’Shea: Both. It was always the intention. I did a proof of concept before I made the film that was nine minutes long, and essentially, just him getting to New York City and the bathroom scene. So I was sending out a mission statement with the proof of concept that this film is not going to be what you’re expecting for a traditional horror film. It was kind of me saying to any potential investors, “Look out. This is going to be this.” I know you’re supposed to do a proof of concept and be like, “Invest in my movie.” Instead, I was sending out a proof of concept with this notion of, “Look out. This is going to be paced a certain way and I want you to be ready for that.”
I had all these sounds that I already had in my head that were written into the script. I gave to Coll [Anderson], our sound designer, a 40-page document of sound notes, which he just kept making fun of me for, while saying, “No, no, it’s great” — but making fun of me at the same time, because I’d given him 40 pages of sound notes. When I first came in to watch the rough cut, I didn’t know this is where the editor assembles the scene based on your favorite takes and then plays it down for you. You watch each scene and you want to kill yourself at how bad each scene is assembled with your own notes about what shot you and the continuity script person liked the most. I later found out every director goes through this, where they watch the first scene edited by the editor the way that it’s written on paper and noted as the best shot, and it just looks terrible and they just want to kill themselves — except for the scene at the end with the two brothers, the conversation they have, which was amazing. We decided at that moment, this is the pace of the film. Whenever we worry we’re pacing up, let’s look at the pace of this scene and compare it and make sure we’re still keeping the same beat. And it worked. We resisted the temptation to cut it faster. We lifted whole scenes out to keep it to 90 minutes.
Filmmaker:How long was your first cut?
O’Shea: Two hours and 20 minutes.
Filmmaker:Would you describe it as boring?
O’Shea: Others described it as boring. I love the two hour, seven minute cut. I was like, “We’re done.” And then, we showed the two hour and seven minute cuts to numerous people, and they said, “You are not done at all. This needs to be a 90-minute movie.” And then we just kept cutting and cutting and cutting. At an hour 45 people started saying, “It’s not terrible.” But we still knew we had to keep going down. We ended up at 92, and then five minutes of credits puts it up to 97.
Filmmaker:Was there an aspect of the film that you thought well into the shoot would not come together, something that could’ve hampered the thing seriously, that you were able to find a sort of creative solution to in post?
O’Shea: Yeah, the basement scene, and any big action scene in it. When you’re shooting on the kind of budget I was on, the kind of crew I had, anything that involves action and effects was risky. The basement scene was the biggest one, a 12-hour shoot in a sound stage. I’m self-conscious about it being in a sound stage, because any director you meet that does a New York indie, you have to do a sound stage day to get the tax credit. Every indie director walks away going, “Everyone’s going to know it’s a sound stage,” for their indie movie that otherwise uses authentic locations. So that was just a really tough day. That was an action scene, and it was three-camera and that took a lot of work in the editing room, and that was the scene I was the most scared about, in terms of it coming together. It eventually came together. In those [early] cuts, I would always ask the question, “Is there any scene that pops out at you as being a problem?” And at 2:07, they were still saying, “The basement.” And at 1:44, people go, “No, what do you mean?”
Filmmaker:What wasn’t working about it in the early cuts?
O’Shea: It’s just action. We cut a lot of stuff out. You lose all directorial control, and it becomes just about how do the cuts work, how does the sound work to get you through the scene and not throw you out as this being fake. It’s just strictly making sausage in a way that I also don’t like, because there’s not a lot of authorial intent. You lose all author’s intent, when you’re just trying to make a scene not throw you out, which is often what action is. There’s a language and mechanics to it that isn’t really interesting to me. But our editor said, when I was freaking out about it, “You realize this is normal. Any action scene goes through this, and you just keep editing until it starts working.” Oh, I hated it. You’d think I stopped writing action scenes, but I’ve written more since then. A part of me was, “I’m never writing an action scene again,” but I’ve kept writing action scenes.
Filmmaker:You submitted to Cannes on a lark.
O’Shea: [Laughs] Yeah. We submitted to Cannes not expecting that we would get in. We sent Blu-rays, though, so we didn’t mess around. I often say we sent DVDs, but we actually sent Blu-rays, which cost more. They cost more not just to make but to actually send for a number of reasons. We had no expectation of getting in, and since they hadn’t contacted us and it was two days before the announcement, we were already in an argument about whether to try for Toronto or that Montreal festival next. We stayed up late and watched the announcements. They said my name and they said, “The Transfiguration: A Vampire Saga,” it was the live stream, getting it at four in the morning. And it was insane.
Filmmaker:What was the experience of playing in Cannes like in reality versus what you imagined?
O’Shea: After the shock of getting into Cannes got over, I’m a very negative person, so my first thought was, “I’m going to get booed.” They boo films at Cannes, so I was obsessed with that for pretty much the whole month. I didn’t understand Cannes well enough yet to know that Un Certain Regard doesn’t get booing — they’re booing the famous guys. They’re booing Assayas, they’re booing David Lynch. The actual theater, the Debussy, it’s like a thousand people. It’s insane and it’s packed. So that’s a bigger deal than I even imagined. And then, at the end, half the place walks out during the credits, and the other half gave me a standing ovation, which is really cheesy of me to say, but it’s probably the happiest I’ve ever been in my life. It’s going to be tough to beat that for me, in my life, I think.