L'Etrange 2016: Michael O'Shea Talks Vampires, Teen Movies and THE TRANSFIGURATION
After appearing in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes this year, director Michael O’Shea took to the festival circuit with his challenging vampire movie, The Transfiguration, before finally arriving here in Paris for L’Etrange. The film follows Milo, a young boy who holds an unearthly obsession with the undead. When not selecting from his stack of old vampire movie VHS tapes or watching YouTube videos of animals being slaughtered, he’s getting out of his home in the projects to feed an appetite for blood. Mixing indie drama sensibilities with classic horror elements, O’Shea has managed to add something distinctively fresh to the sizable pantheon of vampire movies.
We sat down at the festival to talk about the film, starting with a mention of Fangoria magazine…
My age is Fangoria, I was pulling out pictures stuff and putting it on my walls…
Ha, yes, just like Milo! I think they’re worth a lot of money now.
There’s a guy over there selling old issues!
I know! I know! And mine were a lot older, I had John Carpenter’s The Thing, I bet that's worth some money now. But yeah, just like Milo. What’s going on is my teenage memories, in a very different context and very different ways, but there’s a lot of me as a teenager in there, like the way I look at adults. Someone joked that it’s like Peanuts, this kind of ‘outside’ thing. I always made the joke when Milo’s sitting in the classroom, the voice you can hear should be the "wahwahwah", you know like the Peanuts cartoons. Instead it's my voice! Well, one of them is a famous author or something. Our sound designer lived next door to a best selling author and he ran next door and said, “Talk about political corruption or something!”. You can’t hear the voices clearly because it's the idea that the adults are not important. There’s a scene with the cops and you can’t hear what they’re saying because that's not the point, the story is the kids. I thought Rivers Edge was a great movie that didn't show the adults, just thinking back to the teen movies that I loved.
Did you see this as a teen movie?
I do, yeah. I love teen movies. I love jaded alienated teen movies. Heavenly Creatures is one of my favorites. Rivers Edge. Jaded teen murder movies. Actually Paranoid Park, Gus van Sant, I feel like he made a new entry in the genre. I think this movie has a lot of different elements to it but my love of that particular genre is definitely in the movie.
Did you worry at all about keeping a balance between teen movie and horror?
No, I just made the most sensitive, honest thing I could. I threw my heart into it and didn't worry about it. There were tweaks in the editing. There was a scene with James Lorinz from Frankenhooker where he played a cop - actually I just saw Frankenhooker last night it's one of my favourite movies - but the tone wasn't quite working with the rest of it so I had to cut the scene out. So yeah, there is definitely a balance in terms of having a movie with James from Frankennhooker and wanting to do a teen film and then wanting to do something serious with the class and social stuff I wanted to include. There’s a balance and the balance is happening in editing. You shoot it all and then you make it come together.
Milo, Eric Ruffin, where did you find that kid?
I entered this as a big fan of Bresson and I know he always used non-actors and he’s great at showing the faces, showing a blank face and then showing something else so you’re reading your thoughts onto the blank face. I really wanted non-actors because I knew Bresson did that, and then somewhere along the line I found that indie film production is horrible and you can’t be using non-actors! Actually, I made a short with a non-actor and I realised this would not work in a world where I had to do four scenes in nine hours. You need actors that hit their mark perfectly so that the camera has them in focus and they actually say their lines perfectly so you don't have to do like 28 takes. I get two takes tops and then I need another angle. So then I know I have to find this kid with a great face, the perfect face and the perfect actor. Then I see him on The Good Wife, it's a US TV show where he played a small role, and Susan and I were watching TV and there he was. We called him, he read a couple of lines and I sent him the script. A joke I have about casting is when they say the lines if you don't think you’re the worst writer ever then they’re good. And it's horrible, nine times out of ten you’re thinking, “I’m the worst, I’m terrible with dialogue.” Chloe had the part from the beginning because she would read it and I would think, “I’m a great writer” and with anyone else it was, “I’m so shit, I’m terrible at this!” So yeah, the actor who doesn't make me think I’m terrible I pick. With Milo, Eric, he read and was great. And for the record it’s not like I picked someone who’s really like that; Eric’s got a big smile, he’s really into sports, has lots of friends, he’s nothing like that character. We would put him in the set in live environments, setting up from 500 feet away and he always stayed in character. He’s just performing and that's fantastic, I needed a Michael Rooker from Henry and I feel like I got one. I re-watched that recently and I thought this movie hangs on Michael Rooker, that's why it's great.
It stands out that you’re using a young, black kid which isn’t typical in the vampire genre, of course there’s Blackula and some exceptions, but it's interesting you’ve set it in the world you do.
I joked if I ever lost creative control in this film it's going to get renamed Blackula 2. That's going to be the first thing a distributor somewhere does! But yes, there’s a lot of reasons for the race choice that I made but I admit that that's one of them. It’s fun, I was trying to do something different and it’s fun to do something different with the vampire genre. Someone after the Cannes screening told me the Spike Lee movie is a remake of another vampire movie that's about an African American vampire who has trouble with what he’s doing and decides to kill himself and I was surprised. I’m kind of happy I didn't know that because of how it might have affected the writing. Like, I know Martin exists but this is different enough from Martin, but knowing about that film, would it have changed me? I’m just glad I didn't know it.
I wasn't seeing any of the new vampires; they all came out after I’d finished the script. Jarmusch, Jermaine from Flight of the Conchords did one that everyone tells me is really funny; A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, I haven’t seen any of them. I finished my script and then it was like, anything I see now is going to fuck with me and mess with my head. But I should probably see them now!
And you set it in the projects too...
Yeah, well I grew up in Rockaway a few blocks away from where we filmed. Rockaway is this social housing, and there’s a lot of stuff from my personal life that I use to help construct the story. I was looking for something that, I guess you could say I hate John Hughes movies, and I was trying to make the opposite of a John Hughes movie and that was part of this. Looking at things through a different lens. And class was very important to me. This notion that we have a very viciously classist society in America and I wanted to have that in it. But also I just wanted to grow up a few blocks from where I set it. I wanted him to grow up in one place and the place where he hunted to be this area of wealth and privilege where things looked nicer and where he lived to be more desolate. It was in the DNA of the movie from the very beginning.
It doesn't feel like you set out to write a horror film, you mentioned teen films?
I had a slasher film before this, which still might get made. But there was a decision about ten years ago to start writing horror because I thought it would be easier to finance so I started with a slasher but failed at raising the money and then I wrote this one. So there was a decision with this one, but I knew I wasn't writing the perfect horror movie but I was killing someone every twenty minutes and I had my horror movie makeup guy signed on at the script stage. He joked that it’s the only time he got sent the script three years before making the movie, normally it's two weeks, but he liked the script and he did our short. So, in terms of being a horror movie, I had the horror SFX guy, I kill someone every twenty minutes, there are horror things, I feel like the basement scene is playing with horror structures; are you waiting for this person to die or not? So it’s just a very sensitive movie, but it is a horror movie. The last murder is a very explicit murder that would upset people that aren’t used to horror movies.
So you wanted to play with that idea of who we root for?
Yeah, I feel like we do that in horror movies, in Friday 13th and Halloween. Actually what got me thinking about it was when I saw Reservoir Dogs in my twenties, that was my first thought about wanting to do a scene like this. I saw it twice in this art house cinema in New York, the scene where Michael Madsen slices up the cop; the audience are mortified at the violence. When Madsen gets shot the audience start cheering. Then I saw it in a grindhouse in Chicago that would show triple features everyday. It was about to close down because it was in a terrible area, there were a lot of homeless people around and you could get in for 99 cents before noon. So I saw it with this audience, who were cheering wildly when the cop gets mutilated and when Michael Madsen gets shot the place erupted in boos. And I thought about how the change in sympathy was insane. After that I wanted to see a Tarantino or Scorcese movie where you were confused over your feelings on what is happening. Which is what I did with the basement. I wanted that guy ‘Mike’ in the scene who’s doing something very offensive, just asking people for drugs, it’s an asshole thing to do, so yeah I wanted to mess with, “Do you want him to die or are you rooting for him?” That's what I was playing with in the basement scene. If I did it right people are going to be conflicted. I mean, I want him to die, I named him Mike and I hate myself! In a drama you’d definitely feel bad for Mike but in a horror there’s less empathy for the victims so again there’s that line of whether it's a horror or not.