The Transfiguration is the best horror movie of ‘17 that you’re only just starting to hear about. But trust this writer when he says, come the close of this year, the New York City tale of a young bloodsucker (Eric Ruffin) and his new best friend (Chloe Levine) is going to end up on the savviest “Best Of” lists. Playing like a throwback to the cinema of Bill Lustig, Abel Ferrara and Larry Cohen, it’s the most authentic Big Apple scare picture since the heyday of the Deuce. Steeped in urban texture and loaded with pathos, The Transfiguration perfectly captures the loneliness of adolescence, and how young people deal with the transformative power of trauma. It’s stunning; the best coming-of-age terror flick since Let the Right One In (another title it most certainly seems to have drawn inspiration from).
As Strand releases O’Shea’s lo-fi horror feature into NY this weekend (and a national/VOD release to follow), we took a moment to catch up with the writer/director. What followed was a casual conversation regarding horror cinephilia, and what it takes to write a rulebook for a burgeoning serial killer…
Birth.Movies.Death: Being a hardcore horror nerd and something of an NYC horror junkie, I was wondering what the key influences for The Transfiguration were?
Michael O’Shea: I’d failed to raise money for a slasher that was more expensive, and was trying to come up with an idea for a cheap horror movie. I’d just seen Joshua Safdie’s The Pleasure of Being Robbed, and Randy Moore’s Escape From Tomorrow. Both of those films involved shooting in live locations; Robbed being a New York film where they’re constantly shooting the actors from across the street, and Tomorrow obviously being famous for covertly shooting in Disneyland. You can see the people around the actors are obviously not extras, and I wanted to do a horror movie like that. I wanted to do a horror movie that harkened back to the '70s and '80s New York City horror movies – like Bill Lustig or Larry Cohen – where we were shooting on location and got a real sense of the city. So, essentially I had a style before I had a plot. Then a friend of a friend relayed a story that their kid was getting bullied in school because he was obsessed with vampires. That became my character.
I started thinking about what this kid would be like – this kid who thinks he’s becoming a vampire. I made him fourteen, and wanted to make a film that took place over the course of one summer. Because when you’re a teenager, summer is everything. It’s a such a big deal. This was going to be one summer in [lead character] Milo’s life. Then the horror movies I loved flowed in – [Larry Fessenden’s] Habit, [George A. Romero’s] Martin – but the secret influence on the movie was [John McNaughton’s] Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Because I was mainly interested in how you become a serial killer, and how a character who thinks he’s becoming a vampire will take every stage of becoming a serial killer and repurpose it toward this creature he believes he’s transforming into. Once I had the character of Milo, his backstory, then I came up with the setting of public housing in Rockaway, which is where I grew up. There, I wanted to explore two New Yorks – the sad, lonely, barren, run down New York, and the gentrified New York that’s slowly overtaking it. That’s where Milo goes hunting; where all the bikes and baby strollers are.
Once I had all that, then I came up with a plot. I was like, “and then he meets a girl…” [laughs] But that’s when I was thinking about Henry at that point, and Martin, too. Both of those movies have these central monsters who meet a girl. But then the text becomes: is the girl going to change him?
BMD: When I came out of [The Transfiguration], I was describing it to people as Abel Ferrara’s Let the Right One In.
MO: Well, thank you. I love Abel Ferrara. I also love Larry Clark, who comes from that very intense school of location shooting.
BMD: Being from New York and being so familiar with the city, how did you approach photographing it? Was it done on the fly? Were the locations meticulously scouted?
MO: To shoot live like this, it actually involves more planning. Because you can’t just show up and hope it all comes together. The only time that really happened and when I tortured my DP to frame a shot out of nowhere was when we were filming on the subway. On the subway, you can’t control who’s going to be sitting where. So, when we got on the train, the actors knew what their characters needed to do, and I quickly worked with the cameramen to find the frame. You never really have permission to shoot on the subway; you’re legally allowed to film, but you can’t change any of the surroundings. There’s no permit. It was the only time during the production that was pure chaos. But it also resulted in my favorite shot of the movie – when they’re just sitting there and Sophie reaches over and takes Milo’s hand. It’s such a sweet moment and being in this live environment, it just felt so authentic.
Being from Rockaway, I knew these locations and figured out where I wanted to shoot while writing the script. I knew the lots; the old graveyard they walk through together. I knew the rooftop they’d sit on – which is my parents' building, by the way. So, I kinda knew all this stuff, and for the live shooting, we scouted heavily, so we knew where the camera was going to go. Even though it’s an unaltered environment, we knew what we wanted the movie to look like already. It was a combination of careful planning and chaos.
BMD: Which results in the very authentic texture the movie owns. But you hit on something that fascinated me about the film – it’s very horrific, while also being very sweet at the same time. How did you strike a balance between this grisly violence and rather touching coming-of-age story?
MO: A bad thing about horror is that sometimes it skimps on sensitivity. I decided I wanted to bring as much humanity to it as I could. One movie that has a lot of violence and darkness, but is also very sensitive toward its characters is Heavenly Creatures by Peter Jackson. That was a film that was very influential on me in terms of that. I really like the romance; it’s very sweet, but also turns horrific. I wanted to bring this combination of neorealism and romance and violence together into something that was my own. That’s a really weird mixture and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure how it was going to come out. You never know how that’s going to play with people.
BMD: It’s a very tricky tightrope you’re walking here.
MO: But there’s also the balance between being ‘genre’ and being an ‘art film’. It’s a strange line to walk, and you just hope you’re able to navigate it well. But a lot of people who really like horror movies seem to really like the movie. In fact, it seems to play better with horror fans than with indie art house crowds, and I’m pretty happy with that because I love horror.
BMD: Milo has this stack of VHS tapes he constantly watches (of old vampire films like Habit and Near Dark) and this book of “rules” he’s written for himself regarding being a vampire. How did you determine the “rules” for how his character operates?
MO: There are two sets of rules – rules for hunting, and then rules for existing as a vampire. His rules for hunting I wrote myself. I wrote ten rules. I came up with them by studying serial killers and thinking about how they operate. But then the vampire rules are kind of a joke. Milo’s entire character is an example of confirmation bias. So, anything that coincides with his life and how he experiences being a vampire (like Near Dark) is deemed “realistic”. Anything that doesn’t is rejected. That’s how Milo creates his own rules for existing as a vampire.
BMD: [The Transfiguration] almost becomes a metatextual commentary about how we, as fans of certain types of art, interact with it. Milo can almost be an extreme stand-in for fans of horror cinema and how they use it to sometimes insulate themselves from the horrors of existence.
MO: You know, I made a film for fellow outsiders. For 99% of us, horror is something that makes us feel like we’re less alone in the world. For Milo, because of certain traumatic events that coincide with him becoming a sociopath, horror becomes part of the fabric of the illusion that he’s becoming a vampire. As a writer, I feel he’s actually a serial killer – but the film leaves it open as to whether or not he actually is a vampire. I secretly harbor the answer, but I want the audience to come to their own conclusion. I like the film existing on both levels, because it’d be kind of beautiful if he’s right (about being a vampire). I’m certainly not saying that horror films make you kill people, but the way he’s entrenched in horror and the vampire myth is something that I can relate to, as I did it as a teenager. I was an outsider, made fun of mercilessly, and I felt very alone in my town. Escaping into movies and fiction kept me from losing it. Art can save your life, if you let it.
BMD: Do you see yourself continuing in the horror genre?
MO: Yes. I cynically wrote my first script – at thirty-six, when I decided I was going to try and write movies again – as a horror film. But the second I began writing, it opened a door in my mind that made me think “why weren’t you doing this since you were eighteen?” I thought it would be easier to get a horror movie financed, but it ended up just being something I loved, and I now have three scripts completed that all have horror elements to them. I’m in it. I’m fully committed.
The Transfiguration opens today in New York at the Angelika, with a Los Angeles and national release to follow.