I met with director Michael O’Shea and cinematographer Sung Rae Cho on Saturday, March 11, 2017, to discuss their collaboration on O’Shea’s feature debut, The Transfiguration (which I also reviewed), which explores one boy’s obsession with vampirism. It premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, much to O’Shea’s delight and surprise, since he simply went through the regular submission process, without connections, which does not usually result in a first feature being accepted. It’s a mesmerizing film, and deserving of its acclaim. Here is a condensed digest of our conversation.
Hammer to Nail: Michael, let’s start with you. How did you get here? You went to film school over 20 years ago, and yet this is your first feature. What did you do before this?
Michael O’Shea: So, yes, I graduated from film school. You know, I come from a working-class background. I didn’t have any money in the bank, so it was immediately about paying rent when you get out of film school. So I worked as a production manager – or PA [production assistant] to a production manager – or an AD [assistant director], occasionally, on different indie films, commercials, music videos. In 1999, I did an industrial video for a hospital – about how Y2K would be OK for the patients – and it was the worst industrial. (laughs) And I decided at that point that I was very unhappy and I needed to leave. I wasn’t happy doing any of that. I wrote scripts and like, for whom? I was just writing to nothing, because I had no connections or…I saw my friends that were succeeding and they were people that were a lot better at socializing than me. (laughs) I just couldn’t figure out how to get to that next place. So I quit.
I then did a lot of odd jobs that let me keep being a creative person. I was a cab driver, I was a doorman for a bar, I did a lot of temp jobs, and then I fell into fixing computers – I did that for 8 years – and then I met a girl, whom I began dating, who became my producer, and she encouraged me to start writing again. I decided to write horror, and with her I began writing scripts and developing things, and then we basically got The Transfiguration off the ground after a few years of trying. It was 4 years of me trying to make movies. I gave myself 10 years, and in year or 4 or 5, we found the money, and we started shooting.
HtN: And then you got into the Cannes Film Festival…
MO’S: (laughs) And then we got into the Cannes Film Festival…out of nowhere! (laughs)
HtN: And that’s amazing! And that was the big break for the film. What was that like? Did that experience offer you a chance to parlay your other ideas into films?
MO’S: I hope so. I now have an agent, at Paradigm. That happened because of Cannes. I’ve met so many people. I have a sales agent, with Protagonist – and Protagonist is a very good sales agency – and they are now attached to my next script. So I have these tools in place that we didn’t have for The Transfiguration, but also my scripts are more expensive now, so it’s not an automatic “I get another movie.” My scripts are still weird; they’re as weird as The Transfiguration. You know, I like to be original, to try something new, but that’s risky, and when you get more expensive. So I’m still facing challenges, but I have a lot more tools thanks to Cannes. I have humans who believe in me; more humans than just my girlfriend, now. They believe in me and are fighting with me to try and get the next one made, and that’s an enormous, wonderful thing.
HtN: Now this girlfriend of yours, this producer who really helped make this happen, what is her name?
MO’S: Susan Leber.
HtN: And she had been producing films for a while, before this?
MO’S: Yes. Since out of school, she’s been a producer of many films. She works as a line producer, as well. That’s what she does for a living. And it was me and her: the film, from beginning to end, is like our child, basically. She’s been involved – creatively involved – in literally every part of it. And she is also the one who found the money. You know, we self-financed the proof-of-concept video to help people see what the film would look like. And that was our money. So yeah, she’s integral to everything.
HtN: So we’re sitting here with your wonderful cinematographer, who was able to make your film feel like a much more expensive genre picture. Before I ask Cho some questions, tell me, Michael, how you two met.
MO’S: Before we got financed, we were looking for key creative players. We brought Cho on two years before. He shot the proof-of-concept with us. We found him because he worked on a film on which Susan was a co-producer, and Susan met him on the set, and I then looked at his work, and he did a film called Graceland, which was within…it’s not exactly the style of The Transfiguration, but it showed that he was someone who would be a very good fit for our film. Graceland is a beautiful movie, shot using real locations, somehow a combination of authentic and beautiful. And while The Transfiguration is different, I saw that his talent was perfectly suited for what I wanted to do.
HtN: So, Cho, what did you shoot this film on?
Sung Rae Cho: We used the Canon C500 with the Odyssey extended recorder, so we can get ProRes 422 for editing and also 4K.
HtN: So what were some of your strategies to bring what Michael was looking for into this genre of the vampire film?
SRC: The genre part kicks in specifically when the main character, Milo, switches his mode to be executioner. Everything else, we were just basically following through the eyes of the city as if he’s just one of millions of people living in New York. So he’s very, very small, in existence. We just tried to keep that consistent. It’s a mix of the almost too-naturalistic to a little more cinematic when it comes to the time of murder. Because I think that’s how we feel about those kinds of memorable moments. But the rest of the time, everyday is just everyday, and that’s just how the light feels.
HtN: One of my favorite moments in the film – not my only one – is how you open the movie, and it’s exactly what you’re saying, Cho, which is this combination of almost harsh realism and the fantastic. Because we think we’re watching one thing, where we meet Milo, our main character, when a man in a public bathroom hears this sucking sound, and we look in the stall and think it’s a sexual encounter between two men, and then, suddenly, it shifts, and I find that to be a moment where the film clicks into place, right away. You mentioned how small Milo is, and it’s true, he comes out of the stall and he is such an ordinary boy, but with soulful eyes, and he has this blood smeared on his face, and you know right then that whatever else this movie is going to be about, this is the right kid for that part. So, Michael, how did you find your Milo?
MO’S: Like with Cho, I knew, before financing, that I wanted to find key people, because once you get financed, it’s such a rush. You’ve just got to go, go, go! And you may not make the best choices, in a rush. So we knew some of the big ones – cinematographer, lead actor – had to happen before financing. So we were on the lookout for years. And we saw Eric [Ruffin] in a TV show called “The Good Wife.” And I saw his face. I was looking for someone who could act, but I was also looking for a face, and I saw Eric’s face, and I was like, “Oh, that could be it.” And the fact that he was in a TV show…even though I am someone who wants authenticity and grittiness, the fact is that on a low-budget movie, you’re shooting so quickly, the notion that someone is a TV actor, you know is going to be an advantage to you, because he knows how to hit marks, he knows how to memorize a lot of dialogue, and you need that. Indie filmmaking is so difficult, you need everyone to know what they’re doing. And so the fact that he was on a TV show was a big plus, to me. And then he had this face and this presence, so we brought him in, and we did a casting session. We already had Chloe, as well, and…
HtN: That’s Chloe Levine…
MO’S: Yes, Chloe Levine, who plays Sophie. And we brought them in together – again, before we had financing – and videotaped them doing a few scenes. And so were set: we had Chloe, we had Cho, we had Eric, we already had Brian [Spears] – our horror make-up guy – and we had Coll [Anderson] – our sound designer – and the sound design is amazing! So we had a lot of these key creative players, before even any money came in. Which was incredibly important for the success of the film. So that’s how I got Eric. It wasn’t about casting thousands of people and finding the right one. We saw Eric on that screen and were, like: him.
HtN: That’s interesting that you cast Chloe – the female lead – before you cast Eric.
MO’S: We cast the proof-of-concept film, and Chloe read to be Sophie, and we ended up not using Sophie in the proof-of-concept. We decided to just do the bathroom, and a few scenes before the bathroom, like a preface to it. We knew we loved Chloe from her reading from two years before. So we just brought her back to read with Eric, just to make sure it worked, and it worked.
HtN: So you said you’re a working-class guy. And you’re from Queens?
HtN: So you’re a white working-class guy, and you set this story in an urban setting, in the projects, in an African-American community. What motivated that choice?
MO’S: Where we shot the film is a few blocks from where I grew up. So where I shot the film is not alien to me at all. I grew up in Rockaway, which is where the film was shot. And Rockaway has a mixture of different areas. The area that we’re talking about is literally four blocks from where I grew up, and I was there a lot.
HtN: And it’s a multi-racial neighborhood, still?
MO’S: Rockaway, like a lot of New York City, is micro-segregated. 90th to 96th is white Irish working class; 89th to 85th is this. Growing up, I didn’t treat it that way, and I had a lot of friends from all different places, so when I was building the character of Milo, and I knew that I wanted to do Rockaway, and he lives in Rockaway and hunts over here [gestures away], it very quickly came to me that I wanted to make Milo African-American and set it in these buildings, because there was a political point that I was trying to make … subtly … through the film. I knew that that would be one way.
You know, there are a lot of reasons to make that choice. It’s this organic thing that kind of happens when you’re coming up with an idea. And once I knew I was shooting in Rockaway, and I understood who Milo was, I knew that he would be in this section of Rockaway, and he’d live here and hunt in this newly gentrified New York City, and that would bring these layers of politics into play. The layers are what I call layers of predators, this idea that America sort of makes us class predators, preying on each other, in the same way that Renfield does in Dracula, which I was reading when I was trying to come up with the idea for the film. Renfield hangs out in the prison cell and creates kind of the food chain in the prison cell, which is sort of hinting at how Dracula is at the top of the food chain. And so I thought about it in terms of Western capitalism and how we’re pitted against each other, and how the people who are the poorest are the most preyed upon by market forces, in a horrible way. So that was all floating around in my head when I made that choice.
HtN: Interesting. So, did any of that affect how you shot the film, in terms of how you photographed different locations? I don’t know if you were in actual apartments or on a soundstage…
MO’S: There was a lot fun switching in and out. When he’s knocking of Sophie’s door, that is my parents’ apartment, in Rockaway. (laughs) Inside is in outer Queens. It’s a real apartment, but it’s not Rockaway. We needed a bigger apartment. To put a film camera, you need more space, so even though it seems like kind of a working-class apartment, it’s actually a very nice apartment, so that we would have enough room to get shots.
HtN: Sure. Which is why people often shoot on soundstages, just to get room. So, Cho, what were some of your strategies, in terms of the political subtext that Michael talked about? Did that work its way into your choices?
SRC: Yes, I think so. As you can see, we shot almost completely in real locations, without much retouching, with just existing production design. Strategically, and not just because of the budget. Sometimes it’s kind of taboo to do that. It was my first time scouting these projects in New York, in Rockaway, where the film took place. It was between a creative and a practical decision of, can we make this work within the story, yet also, can we make this work, assuming that people who live there also won’t be disturbed or bothered by our filming there. We were making a film, but we weren’t making a film, in a way. We still wanted to keep everything as is.
MO’S: And the interior of the apartment we used still has the same vibe, sort of an old-school, boxy apartment. It just gave us a little more room to put the camera
HtN: Well, thank you both for talking to me, and for making the film!
SRC: Thank you!
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)