One-hit won­der

Al­most 20 years after grad­u­at­ing from film school, Michael O’Shea found him­self se­lected for Cannes with‘ The Trans­fig­u­ra­tion ’. He tells Don­ald Clarke why his first fea­ture took so long

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM -

When, a year ago this week, it was an­nounced that an un­known film-maker called Michael O’Shea had se­cured a place in the of­fi­cial se­lec­tion at Cannes, many of us un­con­sciously knocked to­gether an im­age of the direc­tor in our heads. His de­but fea­ture, The Trans­fig­u­ra­tion, was a mono­chrome vam­pire movie set in an un­fash­ion­able cor­ner of New York. We imag­ined Michael as a young, bearded mil­len­nial with no mem­ory of a world be­fore the in­ter­net.

“What are you sug­gest­ing?” O’Shea laughs damply.

Well, it tran­spires that O’Shea – a grey-haired ec­cen­tric with ma­chine-gun vo­cal de­liv­ery – has been around a lit­tle longer than most first-time film-mak­ers.

“I was a cab driver for a while, I was a bar door­man,” he says. “Then I fell into fix­ing com­put­ers for rich peo­ple. I did that for 10 years. I ac­tu­ally started out work­ing in film. Imade a ter­ri­ble in­dus­trial video. I was a pro­duc­tion man­ager. But ul­ti­mately that was hurt­ing me cre­atively.”

Raised in the Rock­away quar­ter of Queens, O’Shea grad­u­ated from film school in the 1990s and never quite gave up on his dream of get­ting a fea­ture into cin­e­mas. But a great deal of life has in­ter­vened. Things changed things when he hooked up ro­man­ti­cally with pro­ducer Su­san Le­ber.

A por­trait film in our re­al­ity

“I rewrote an old script. Then I wrote a slasher film and we failed to get money for that,” he re­mem­bers. “Then I wrote The Trans­fig­u­ra­tion. I was think­ing to make some­thing cheaper that was a por­trait film in our re­al­ity.”

The re­sult is a very sin­gu­lar piece of work. Eric Ruf­fin plays an African-Amer­i­can kid who has be­comeob­sessed with all rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the vam­pire. He may even be a vam­pire him­self. He cer­tainly be­lieves him­self to be that.

“Where I grew up in Rock­away, there is a lot of pub­lic hous­ing,” O’Shea says. “There is a lot of Ir­ish-Amer­i­can work­ing class. I wanted him to live there and then hunt in this newly gen­tri­fied New York City with all the nice things. He would take the sub­way and go from this place that felt like a waste­land and then he’d go and hunt in the new fancy New York City. I am say­ing some­thing larger about what cap­i­tal­ism does to us. I don’t think it nec­es­sar­ily does good things.”

O’Shea is old enough to know that any num­ber of ex­cel­lent first fea­tures slip into the void. A de­cent re­view at Sun­dance or the South by South­west Fes­ti­val helps. There might be an off chance of land­ing at the semi-at­tached Di­rec­tors Fort­night at Cannes. But the Of­fi­cial Se­lec­tion – never much at home to An­glo­phone de­buts – was surely out of the ques­tion.

“It was like fill­ing in a lottery ticket,” he laughs. “We never, imag­ined we’d get in. We filled in all the dif­fer­ent sec­tions and each charges 60 bucks. We then got a very cryptic email from a friend of a friend of a friend say­ing we’d got in. So we stayed up for the press con­fer­ence. They an­nounced a ‘vam­pire saga’. Is that what we made?”

The film’s screen­ing in Un Cer­tain Re­gard on the first Satur­day trig­gered a stand­ing ovation.

“Be­ing in Cannes changed eve- ry­thing,” he says. “You have no idea. We had noth­ing. I had no agent. We had no dis­trib­u­tor. All the ma­chin­ery that goes be­hind get­ting films to view­ers was miss­ing. Cannes shows it and peo­ple think: maybe this is worth see­ing. Cannes is the rea­son that I am sit­ting here talk­ing to you now.”

Through­out The Trans­fig­u­ra­tion, we are left in some doubt as to whether Milo, the young pro­tag­o­nist, is or is not a vam­pire. We will give noth­ing away, but Michael ad­mits that a sig­nif­i­cant ma­jor­ity of au­di­ence mem­bers end up lean­ing in the same di­rec­tion.

“I like how in the orig­i­nal Cat Peo­ple, you are left in that same doubt. A guy and a girl walked up to me after a screen­ing and said: ‘Can you set­tle an ar­gu­ment?’ He thought he wasn’t a vam­pire and she thought he was. I said: ‘I’m not go­ing to an­swer that. I think it’s fan­tas­tic that you both can think that.’ If it can be an open text, that’s fan­tas­tic.”

And how in­ter­est­ing it is that peo­ple still care about vam­pires. At no stage since the late 19th cen­tury have there been so many such sto­ries around.

“I had a the­ory about this,” he says. “The old myths were about telling you that death is nat­u­ral and if you defy death, you be­come this ap­palling mon­ster. With the death of God, that’s changed. Peo­ple be­come more fright­ened of death and the vam­pire be­comes a more ro­man­tic fig­ure. The vam­pire is more as­pi­ra­tional.”

We need this kind of in­ci­sive think­ing in the do­mes­tic in­dus­try. Can we claim O’Shea for Ire­land?

“I’m ap­ply­ing for the pass­port right now,” he laughs. “You need one Ir­ish grand­par­ent and I’ve got three.”

No­tify IFTA im­me­di­ately. The Trans­fig­u­ra­tion is re­leased on April 21st

Be­ing in Cannes changed ev­ery­thing. Peo­ple think: maybe this is worth see­ing. Cannes is the rea­son I am here talk­ing to you now

Young blood Eric Ruf­fin and Chloe Levine in The Trans­fig­u­ra­tion. Be­low: Direc­tor Michael O’Shea

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