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
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