2017-04-05 / Movie Review

The Transfiguration, A Cannes Festival Selection


A n official selection at the Cannes Film Festival, writer/director Michael O’Shea’s debut feature The Transfiguration follows troubled teen Milo who hides behind his fascination with vampire lore. When he meets the equally alienated Sophie, the two form a bond that begins to challenge Milo’s dark obsession, blurring his fantasy into reality. A chilling portrait of violence, The Transfiguration is an atmospheric thriller set against the grit of New York City.

The Transfiguration is making its NYC debut this Friday, April 7th, at the Angelika Film Center. Nicollette Barsamian and Jon Headlee interviewed the director, Michael O’Shea, and actors Eric Ruffin and Chloe Levine about the film.

Q: What was it like shooting your directorial debut in your hometown?

Michael O’Shea (r.), director and writer of The Transfiguration, poses with the films’ lead actors, Eric Ruffin (c.) and Chloe Levine (l.). Michael O’Shea (r.), director and writer of The Transfiguration, poses with the films’ lead actors, Eric Ruffin (c.) and Chloe Levine (l.). Michael O’Shea: It was fantastic. One of the unique things about the movie is the locations. People say, where did you find these locations, because this is a New York you don’t see anymore. Well, this is where I grew up. I grew up in Rockaway, Queens, and I knew all these locations from growing up. I wanted to make this kind of fable about two New Yorks, about this New York that is very gentrified, filled with people and their fancy strollers, and this kind of lonely, Peanuts-ish land without adults, with deserted lots and this lonely sadness that the city forgot.

You know, what’s funny about Rockaway is that it is gentrifying rather quickly. I grew up playing in the empty lots, and a lot of those have been filling up over the past 10 years as New York’s population increases. So in a way, I’m showing something that’s going to be gone in 5- 10 years. Those lots where we recorded, half of them have buildings on them now, and we had to carefully shoot angles to hide all the construction that was happening. While they’re sitting on the couch in that one scene, there’s literally a construction crane 10 feet away from them. I’m glad I actually got that part of Rockaway because that’s the Rockaway I grew up in, and it’s very special to me.

Q: When did you shoot this?

MOS: August 2015.

Q: What made you want to not show the construction?

MOS: Well, I’m doing kind of a fable, and I wanted to show this idea of two New York Citys. There’s a political element to the movie, of haves and have-nots, and there’s a slight critique of capitalism happening in the movie. I wanted to visualize that with a place that looks lonely and has some sadness going on, versus wealth and overpopulation, so I was able to cherry-pick locations in Rockaway to create that fable.

Q: Can you elaborate on what you mean by fable? MOS: The whole film is a fable. Magical realism is a term that’s brought up a lot in reference to the movie. Is he a vampire or isn’t he a vampire? This idea of slightly heightened reality. The ending also has a fable element to it, like a morality play.

Q: Why did you take so long to make your first feature?

MOS: I just had no way to make a movie. I graduated from film school, I’m from a working class family, I’m not the most charming person, or at least, I didn’t feel very charming at 22, and I worked low-end jobs in film for a time. What broke me was in 2000. I had made an industrial video for Woodhull Hospital, reassuring patients that Y2K wouldn’t break their medical equipment, and it was the worst industrial ever. The production company that hired me was like, did you go to film school, do you know how to make images? It was just so bad, and it broke me. It was just that, all the jobs I had before as a PA, and production manager were demoralizing, and none of it felt like I was getting closer to making an independent film, so I quit.

I was a doorman at Dempsey’s for awhile. I did a lot of temp jobs, being a corporate drone that gets sent around, and by 2006, I fell into the job of fixing computers for rich people in the West Village. I was also a cab driver in Rockaway for two summers, driving around drunks as the night driver.

Around that point, I met Susan (Leber, producer), who became my partner, and she encouraged me to start writing scripts again. I started writing horror, and my first script I didn’t raise the money for; I failed. Then I came up with Transfiguration, and I succeeded. I gave myself 10 years when I met Susan: if everyone said no to all of my ideas, I’d give up after 10 years.

My next plan was to take photos of old barns and sell them in craft shops. I thought it might be a nice way to retire, you know, drive around America on a motorcycle and take pictures of old barns. I still may do it.

That was my plan if it didn’t work out, but six years in, we got the money. So basically, the reason I hadn’t made a film yet, is I hadn’t met Susan. Not only did she encourage me to write, but living together, she helped support me, so I could focus creatively instead of working hard just to make the rent each month. Once we had a proof of concept video and a script, she knew the people who could finance the film, and if you don’t have that infrastructure, you have nothing.

Often the media narrative is, “he just tried really hard and he believed in himself and had enough talent,” and I just think that’s so mean to all the people who have talent, and are working hard, but they just don’t have that person like Susan, or they don’t have family money so they can sit at home all day and write instead of worrying about making the rent all the time. No one ever says how they really did it. No one wants to say, “my dad had a trust fund.” It’s going to be used against them.

Q: How much did you shoot in Queens?

MOS: Most of the film was Rockaway, the movie theater was Cinemart in Forest Hills, and the street scenes were near Cinemart. The reason we used those locations in Forest Hills is because the apartment interiors were all in Forest Hills.

Q: Did you do any research on real-life vampires, like Father Sebastian, before making Transfiguration?

MOS: Only insomuch as to build the character transition from the folklore notion of an evil monster creature that sucks your blood to what I call an “aspirational vampire” of Twilight and Vampire Diaries, and I was making a critique of that. That was where my interest in vampires lived. I looked up people who actually drank blood, that’s where I got the vomiting from. What I liked about the vomiting was it helped create an open text, where he could be a vampire or he might not be. An actual medical response to drinking a lot of blood is vomiting blood, but what’s also true is if you think you’re transitioning into a vampire, you probably think you’re getting rid of your human blood. I liked the duality of having a medical reason for why he’s not a vampire, while also having a reason for why he would think he is becoming one – that it’s part of his supernatural transformation.

Q: This film is atypical for vampire films in that it also deals with social issues, is set in the projects, and deals with suicide. Can you elaborate on those themes?

MOS: The setting and the idea for the setting came pretty soon after I had the character. I was hearkening back to horror movies from the ‘70s and ‘80s that used a lot of real New York City locations. Another thing that those horror movies did was that there was always a political element to them. I’m very influenced by George Romero who always had a political allegory happening inside his movies, and I wanted to do that as well. That led to the setting choice, wanting to have a horror movie that also had a political element. It’s also very much a film about outsiders, and the choice of setting plays into that notion too.

Q: The film also seems to be a commentary on realism in the vampire genre. What do you think is a realistic depiction of vampires?

MOS: Milo mentions one, which is Martin. All of Milo’s favorite films depict the notion of realistic vampires. The other one that influenced me was Habit by Larry Fessenden, who’s actually in Transfiguration, which was kind of awesome. That was a film that takes the notion of vampires and places it in the East Village in the 1990s. It’s also a great film for showing the East Village of the 1990s which is what I was trying to do with Transfiguration, the Rockaways, and the realism of New York in 2015. Martin and Habit are my two go-to vampire texts.

Q: Did you change anything in the script while shooting?

MOS: We changed one of the lines in the church because Chloe didn’t want to say it. She felt it was out of character and so we went with it. I never sweat it when they change the lines as long as it sounds good, and when the continuity director tries to correct them, I’m like, “stop it, stop it, that’s enough!” A lot of improv happened with the bullies. They improvised a lot, and I encouraged it because I think they did better than I was doing as a writer.

Q: What was it like having your North American premiere at SXSW?

Eric Ruffin (Milo): It was amazing. The energy there was great – people watching the movie and then coming up to me and saying how much they loved it. I was in the airport in Houston, on a layover flight, and a guy came up to me and was like, “you did amazing.” We weren’t even in Austin anymore, and this guy was just giving me all this positive feedback. It felt good to receive recognition for something I worked hard on. It’s a great feeling.

Chloe Levine (Sophie): It was really cool. Austin is this really wild town, and it was cool to have the Transfiguration family in a really cool setting. It was so much fun.

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