'The Transfiguration': How Michael O'Shea Went from Cab Driver to Neo-Realist Vampire Horror Auteur
Michael O'Shea submitted his lo-fi vampire movie to Cannes on a whim, and he got in.
Michael O'Shea's story is every first-time director's pipe dream. When he didn't have the resources to shoot his vampire coming-of-age story, O'Shea took to the streets of New York City for a run-and-gun shoot with a skeleton crew. When it came time to submit to festivals, he angled for a genre premiere, targeting Fantastic Fest or Fantasia Film Festival. On a whim, his girlfriend and producer, Susan Leber, suggested O'Shea submit to Cannes, as the deadline was fast approaching. Why not? Months later, the unknown first-time writer-director of The Transfiguration found out his film would screen at Cannes in the famed Un Certain Regard section.
But it wasn't always so easy. After graduating from SUNY Purchase in the early '90s, O'Shea spent 10 years struggling to pay the bills with odd jobs as a cab driver, doorman, and computer repairman. It was by sheer will and ingenuity that O'Shea's micro-budget film, which explores the banality of violence while playing with vampire tropes, came to be.
"People get discouraged by not having resources, but if you have a good script and good actors, and if you keep trying, eventually you come to the point where you feel comfortable just finding a place and shooting."
Since Cannes, O'Shea has been traveling the festival circuit with his horror neo-realist film. No Film School caught up with O'Shea and DP Sung Rae Cho in Austin, where their film was screening in SXSW 2017's "Festival Favorites" section. We discussed O'Shea's career transformation, what he learned on the festival circuit, why the word "auteur" needs to be debunked, why locations are the essential element in creating your film's mood, shooting on the subway guerilla-style, and much, much more.
No Film School: You went to film school initially, but then you became a cab driver, bouncer, and computer repairman. How did you find your way back to directing?
Michael O'Shea: I got out of film school and worked in film for a few years production managing and doing music videos. Then, in 2000, I did an industrial [video] for a hospital, called "Y2K Won't Kill You." It was terrible. It was the worst industrial you'd ever seen in your life. That was when I was like, "I'm not enjoying any of this. I don't wanna work in this anymore."
Then the odd jobs started, 'cause I was looking for things where I could still write and be creative. I knew I wanted to be a creative person; I was just like, maybe not filmmaking. I was a doorman at a bar, I was a cab driver, I was a temp for numerous corporations, and then I fell into fixing computers. I did that for eight years.
Then I met Susan [Leber], my producer and girlfriend, and she encouraged me to start writing again. I started writing horror because I cynically thought horror could get made [more easily] than indie drama or indie comedy, where I felt like you'd have to know a celebrity to get it financed.
NFS: Is that true, in your experience?
O'Shea: Well, I got financed without knowing a celebrity. But once I started writing horror, I was like, "I love horror and I want to keep writing horror." It started as a cynical idea, but then it became practical.
First, I wrote a slasher. We failed to raise money. Then I wrote Transfiguration. It had a good proof of concept built into it, which is the opening scene; shooting that, I met Cho [Sung Rae, the cinematographer]. Brian, our horror makeup guy, was also in the proof of concept. We already had a lot of the team together for the proof of concept.
Then, we had a year and a half of no's. We thought we were shooting one summer, and I had to call Cho and be like, "Yeah, no, it's not happening. Fell apart." We went another year. Then, it happened, and Cho was like, "Well, I'm making a movie now." He literally came back from one movie and started on ours immediately.
Sung Rae Cho: When we started prepping, there was no going back; I already invested my time and soul into Michael's script. Immediately, I was drawn to how different it was. I've never seen this film before. If I didn't do it, [I knew] someone else would do it. I was like, "No way, I have to do it."
NFS: What was compelling about the visual style that you could bring to the film?
Cho: [O'Shea] watched some of the stuff that I'd shot, and I think he wanted to talk to me because a lot of things I do are naturalistic. I often get called to do handheld shots. I do enjoy vérité.
"The crew's talent is what's holding the film up, not me. I just wrote the script and came up with the idea. You're better served to get out of their way and let them contribute." —O'Shea
I felt comfortable being able to visualize this movie. The question was, I'd never done this in the setting: live in New York. [Shooting in New York] is often an extremely controlled environment—everything is completely locked up, we have rehearsals and all this artificial production design. On [Transfiguration], didn't have any of that. We just had to dive into the environment with Mike, actors, and myself. I was a little nervous, but that was also the challenge that I was excited to take on.
NFS: What was it like shooting live?
Cho: Difficult. Difficult. Often you get "no," and you just try again.
O'Shea: We'd just go anyway.
Cho: How we did it, I don't necessarily recommend to everyone, but I think there's a way to do it well. Often, people get discouraged by not having locations or resources to make it work, but if you have a good script and good actors, and if you keep trying, eventually you come to the point where you feel comfortable just finding a place and shooting. You live in New York! The whole city is like the film set of the century just given to you. Just do it. Worry about permits and things like that later.
O'Shea: Also, pick locations carefully so that you know you can get the mood and the feeling. We got the mood and the feeling not through creating it artificially, but through spending two years finding the perfect locations that create it. We carefully chose locations that basically gave us the key light, and Cho just filled it in a little.
In live environment shooting, it's very hard on the crew, and they were very kind to not quit. Cho was great. There's a lot of random people, no security. People are buzzing, people are staring into the lens...you've got to do another take, reset. The actors are being asked to act with reality around them, and honestly, people not knowing we're even shooting, and that's a lot to ask. We got through it. It's by no means easy to shoot that way.
NFS: What did you learn about dealing with that kind of chaos and unpredictability?
Cho: Practice makes a difference. I've shot some documentaries. You develop your instinct and how to interact with people. Often, just to get in a place where I can actually photograph an actor, I have to ask people who have absolutely nothing to do with the film. Like, say we were shooting on a bus or a subway and I want to sit there. I have to go and ask. You can ask an AD to ask for me, but he can only do so much. I mean, we can't even have that many people, so I have to do it myself—with a camera on my shoulder, with an actor right in front of me. You just build a skill to somehow get mixed in with all these cinematic components and yet not intimidate people.
"I said to the producer, 'I don't know if I want to do horror films.' She was like, 'This is not horror at all. Just read it.' —Cho, DP
O'Shea: Also, your film has to suit the style. For example, something really important for shooting live is getting far away and not shooting straight on. Otherwise, everyone's going to be looking at you. We already established that the style of the film was going to be this portrait where we're spying on Milo; it feels like he's very isolated in a big frame. Those are, aesthetically, things that work with the script, but it also lets us shoot two blocks away with a zoom lens and let the actors go, so people right around them aren't even understanding that they're in a movie. That's important, 'cause otherwise, they're gonna stare right at the lens.
O'Shea: You can't just throw that style in a movie. You have to be thinking of a movie where that style is going to be effective. I wrote Transfiguration with that style in mind. I knew that's what I wanted to do. I read about Escape From Tomorrowland and how they shot live in Disneyworld, and I was like, I want to do that! I'd also seen a movie called The Pleasure of Being Robbed, by Josh Safdie, where he used a lot of long lenses to photograph his actors from across the street. I was like, yes, that. So I was literally writing the script with this shooting style in mind. Trying to place it on your existing script could be possibly disastrous, 'cause it's like, why are you five blocks away? It's got to be ingrained into the work itself.
The other important factor is knowing all your locations. I knew all the locations way before we started shooting, and that's incredibly important. You can't just wing it. You have to understand everywhere you're going. But then, as much planning as you do with live environments, you do get these magical moments. My favorite shot in the movie is when [Milo] holds [his girlfriend's] hand on the subway, which is a totally live shot. One take. Cho got a great angle out of nowhere. We had this empty car, but there are three people in the background being very natural, and [the characters] have this intimate, nicely played out, quiet moment. I just love it. That was completely us running onto the train.
"It's been an amazing year of my life, going from someone that's never left the country before 'cause I couldn't afford to, to someone film festivals bring and put up in nice hotels." —O'Shea
Cho: To the rest of New York City, they were just two kids on the subway.
O'Shea: Yeah. It was wonderful. It was literally just me, Cho, and two other people running on the subway and getting that. We had a [skeleton] crew for the days that we were shooting live like that. We broke the crew down to, I think, five of us.
NFS: The Transfiguration got into Cannes on a whim. What's next?
O'Shea: I may be going to Amsterdam and Helsinki for festivals. The film's been traveling around the world since Cannes and I've been traveling with it. It's been an amazing year of my life, going from someone that's never left the country before 'cause I couldn't afford to, to someone film festivals bring and put up in nice hotels. To get to see a country by being a film festival guest is amazing. I'm meeting other directors and I'm meeting actors.
I feel bad because no one else [on the team] got to do that, but everyone else's creativity was so integral to making this a movie that got me shipped all around the world. It's been an amazing year for me thanks to the work of everyone else. The auteur notion is [false]. Movies are collaborative. Cho was so incredibly important. Eric [Ruffin, who plays Milo, the main character] is so incredibly important.
Gillian [Arthur], our sound mixer, was enormous—we had such clean sound in such ridiculously difficult environment. She killed herself to do that. When we were shooting on a roof, were right over an airport, and planes would fly over us. So many people that make such enormous contributions. I'm not even listing all of them. The sound designer, Coll [Anderson]. Margaret [Chardiet], the composer. Kathryn [J. Schubert], the editor.
"Indie neo-realism: setting things within our reality, paying a lot of attention to character, not being worried about an MTV short attention span in terms of your pacing. Allowing more space." —O'Shea
Obviously, the crew's talent is what's holding the film up, not me. I just wrote the script and came up with the idea. They're the ones who are executing it at such a wonderful level. You're better served to get out of their way and let them contribute.
One of the actors last night was really sweet. Carter, who plays Andre, was like, "What I loved most about working with you is you let me do what I wanted to do." And I'm like, "Yeah, you're a talented person. I want to get out of your way and let you be talented, let you bring your gift to the movie." He's interested in helping me. I'm just going to guide it a little, but I'm not going to be like, "This isn't what I wrote." I think too many writers get [attached to their material.] You've got to be fluid. You hire talented people and then let them put themselves into your movie. Don't be like, "That's not my vision." No, they want to help. They gotta put their own DNA in that, and it's going to be beautiful and original.
NFS: You've described your film as a part of a new wave of indie neo-realism.
Cho: We watched a lot of independent films from the 1990s while we were prepping. Michael just gave me a plastic of bootleg DVDs.
O'Shea: One was Josh Safdie's Pleasure of Being Robbed,. Another one was Ramin Bahrani's Chop Shop. I consider them part of this movement of what I call indie neo-realism: setting things within our reality, paying a lot of attention to character, not being worried about an MTV short attention span in terms of your pacing. Allowing more space.
On the festival circuit, I kept hearing the word "tight." People would comment on a film and say, "It's so tight. It's amazing." And I'd be like, "Well, that ain't my film." I feel like the idea is that it's not tight. You're giving it room to breathe. You're giving it space, you're giving it atmosphere. You're giving the audience time to think, and you're creating a real mood. I tried to do indie neo-realism with a horror twist.
"Now I have an agent, and we're following up with a much more expensive film, and I'm getting tempted to write another cheap one. That's an interesting problem." —O'Shea
NFS: How did you work the horror elements into the cinematography, the tone, the character, and the pacing?
Cho: The horror almost came second to me. I wasn't sure if I wanted to shoot a horror film, because they're all very stylized and it becomes more of like a sizzle reel for a cinematographer. Those are not typically the things that I'm attracted to. So I said to the producer [Susan Leber], "I don't know if I want to do horror films," and then she was like, "Okay, this is not horror at all. Just read it."
And it didn't feel horror to me. It was more about the boy who struggles to find himself in this very harsh world. We all go through that as we grow up, in adolescence, and I could somewhat relate to the character. We all feel isolated, we all feel alone. We keep trying to find things to escape.
O'Shea: I knew I was going to do the horror mainly with the sound design and the score, like the "creep" factor. I was gonna do it with Coll [the sound designer], who had done Martha Marcy May Marlene, which was a film that also has a wonderful sense of "creep" while not being quite horror. I knew that we'd be pushing it a little bit further than Martha Marcy, but I knew that he basically knew how to establish the sense of dread through sound. That would give us the room, visually, to be not as "camera in the refrigerator" as horror films often are. It would give us the room to be more neo-realist.
O'Shea: But there were moments. Cho, you recommended putting the camera under the bathroom stall in the opening scene in the bathroom. There's a point where the guy kinda looks down at the two legs, and we put the camera under the stall to see his face. It's not totally "camera in the refrigerator," but there are some small angle choices, little visual things that cue the horror movie.
Cho: All the drama parts were extremely vérité. We just went with it. We were pretty flexible. But other times, when [Milo] switches into hunting [mode] and he's ready to execute the guilty adults... those parts, we shot very carefully and storyboarded.
O'Shea: Yeah, but it's still kind of neo-realism with just a little bit of those shots—a hint of those visual cues from genre, language from horror movies. But we're never going on a dolly.
NFS: Tell me a little more about your visual language in technical and specific terms.
O'Shea: Well, particularly for narrative film, even with the smallest cameras out there, the Lumix and C500, which we used, you have to build a lot of stuff around to make it work. For practical reasons, we couldn't do that—one, for the budget, and two, so that we would be very inconspicuous and blend into the environment. Half of the time, when we were shooting, people had no idea what we were doing. We didn't deck out the [camera]. You see the DPs with giant missile launchers of a camera. No, we took all those parts off.
"We got the mood and the feeling not through creating it artificially, but through spending two years finding the perfect locations that create it." —O'Shea
Cho: Nearly half the time I put the camera right in the security bag.
O'Shea: We could also just kind of say with a blank face, "We're tourists," when anyone asked what we were doing. There's a lot of interaction with the outside world when you're doing these things.
Cho: For the most part, people thought that I'm was just some nerd with a camera.
O'Shea: I've got a little viewfinder that I can look at on the sly, he's just kinda running around and getting a shot. I'm going, "Go there." We're very inconspicuous. The AD is hiding and pretending to be an extra, telling us to go or not. We'd just kind of signal "cut" and I'd wander over, whisper to the actors, and then wander back again and we'd start going again. He's just rolling the whole time.
NFS: Did traveling the world with your movie help you figure out what was next for you? Was it a launchpad?
O'Shea: We met so many people. The thing is, all my other scripts are bigger. Now I have an agent, and we're following up with a much more expensive film, and I'm getting tempted to write a cheap one. That's an interesting problem, though: Do I want to push the more expensive film and be willing to wait two, three, four years try to get it made, or do I want to write another cheap one and try to make it? I don't know.
I know I could probably get money for something small right now. That's the thing. The launchpad you're talking about—that gets me another movie for a small amount of money easily. It does not necessarily get me a multi-million dollar movie with an original script. Maybe I can get that. But that'll take years. So now I'm confused, basically.
I was sitting with a bunch of directors at FrightFest in Glasgow—it was a wonderful festival, really collegial. They're all looking at me like I'm crazy for wanting to make another film for millions of dollars. They're like, why would you? These are all these people who make half-million dollar movies. They're all very happy just getting to make their thing. They just keep going. They get to keep making movies. I was like, "You guys have a point."
NFS: And then you wonder, what do you do in between the multi-million dollar movies? Certainly not industrial videos.
O'Shea: Yeah. If I'm not doing another small one, well, do I have to go back and fix computers then? I mean, I could possibly become a director for hire. I got the Cannes thing. I want to kinda do the fancy artist/director thing, but it is true that I'm getting these scripts that are PG-13 horror that you could just kind of knock out, and I'm like, "Aah... That would get me paid."
But then I remember the industrial [video]. That didn't work. I did it just 'cause I just needed money. It was terrible. So maybe I shouldn't do that.
So, I am technically receiving opportunities. It's a matter of now trying to figure out what the best way forward is. I'm old, which is kind of helpful 'cause it makes me a little wise. But it's also making me a little more confused. I think if I were younger, I'd just make one stupid choice and go forward.
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