The Transfiguration: An interview with director Michael O’Shea
Michael O’Shea’s debut feature, The Transfiguration, was a surprise inclusion in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes Film Festival. Here, O’Shea discusses his influences and the themes prominent in the movie, which combines indie neorealism with tropes from the horror genre.
Is this a horror film for people who usually enjoy the horror genre?
I hope horror film lovers will love it because I’m a horror film lover, and I want my fellow horror film lovers to like the movie… but I don’t know.
It is not just the fact that you make explicit references [to past films] for horror buffs but also the techniques used in the film…
Yes, there were people I got before we were financed and one of them was my monster movie make-up guy. If you’re in indie drama you don’t get your monster movie make-up guy before you even have financing. I wanted to get that right so badly so I gave the script to Brian [Spears] and he said “normally people don’t approach me before there is any money,” and I said “but I want you.” Because I love his work and I knew he could work at our budget range and do “realistic”. Another thing indie dramas don’t do is cut out murders. I cut from two and a half hours 97 minutes but not a single murder was cut. There are murders on screen and there is blood, I mean in America that’s just not a big deal any more because that’s now on TV at 7:30.
So it’s saturated. It’s effective, the way you build the scenes up rather than just showing arbitrary violence.
I hope so, I mean I wanted there to be violence, I didn’t want to cut away. I didn’t want to make a PG movie. I wanted you to see the stuff I used to cut out of Fangoria and put up on my wall when I was a little kid: the stills of those gruesome things. I wanted those moments there too, you know.
Milo is a fascinating character and the video watching on his laptop is interesting – not even always watching, just kind of staring and absorbing. Do you think for Milo those videos mitigate his instincts and impulses or are they a way of contributing to his acts of physical violence?
I did a director’s statement in a look book, which is a pretentious thing that I can’t do, so instead I decided to put ten movie posters and I said: “these are the movies that make up this movie.” Put these ten movies together in a lab and out comes my movie. One of those movies was Benny’s Video by [Michael] Haneke and there’s actually a scene that has Benny’s Video in it. So Benny’s Video also asks that question of what the role of video is relating to him. I certainly don’t think that it creates it. I do think that we live in a world where pop culture has replaced religion to some degree. While I’m not saying that we need religion, maybe I am making some kind of comment that we’re all terrified of death and that there is something wrong with the facts that vampires were created to teach us that death is natural. I feel that somewhere along the line that changed and vampires became a romantic figure of a good thing. I think vampires are supposed to teach us that we should die because you become a monster if you don’t die. You become horrible and drink blood. You’re disgusting and that’s teaching you it’s good to die. I think it says something about us that somewhere along the line we made the vampire a romantic and beautiful thing and he gets to live forever and isn’t that amazing, and that’s teaching the wrong lessons. That can pervert us and make us do crazy things. But I’m not saying that movies make people kill people.
So the film is reclaiming this idea of what a vampire should be understood as?
Yes, and also that death doesn’t have to be something to be avoided. It’s a dark film – I mean we all die and it’s a part of what’s going to happen. Just don’t get too crazy with what you do in order to avoid that.
Are you saying films like Twilight and series like True Blood romanticise this?
Sure. True Blood plays with the sexuality of it. It kind of uses vampires as a way to have an orgy and that’s pretty cool. I love it and honestly I reference it because of the scene on the roof, and also because I realised that in that scene Sophie needed to say something back and I realised that she’d probably seen True Blood. And I thought: “OK, maybe I can make a connection here.” So then it got true-blooded. But no, I was just watching True Blood and loving it, I wasn’t trying to make a criticism. Something Stephanie Meyer said about Twilight is that she was trying to teach people to wait on sex until marriage – that the book was trying to teach that lesson. So there was a little bit of me that thought “I’m going to do the opposite of that. I’m going to do something which messes with that idea because I’m a bit of a punk. I want to mess with that because it’s funny to me.”
It is a ludicrously conservative perspective – slightly frightening and out-dated…
Well it’s shocking that it’s so popular – that there is this secret religious propaganda happening in the text.
Well, though it may be Meyer’s intention, how likely is a teenager to read it and assimilates those values?
You don’t get control over how people interpret your films unfortunately and people can interpret things the wrong way too. And that’s the case both for me and for her. We don’t get to control it. We’re lucky if people actually go to see it. You’ve let loose now and they get to write whatever they want and have whatever opinions they want. There could be tons of teenage pregnancies because of Twilight, you know? The joke is on her.
There are themes of race and class that are quite evident in the film – you could write thesis on vampires and class, race and gender and how they interlink. How difficult was it to avoid from being too explicit when dealing with these things?
You want these things to be in the background. It’s very natural to me because I don’t want to preach. I have very strong political ideas and they’re bursting out of me; it’s very easy not to preach them because they come out anyway. I was worried they weren’t going to come out because in the process of writing a movie I try to give it like 20 layers. Everything is chaos and you lose so much – you lose many layers that you wanted to keep. I was worried that a lot of the political stuff was gone and a friend of mine saw it and told me it was also there. But I wasn’t going to let it all go. I mean there is the speech. For me, the climax of the movie is Lewis saying: “There are bad people doing bad things all the time much worse than whatever you’re thinking about.” So the director does show up: a small editorial comment in the climax! I do the thing that I make fun of.
There are little lines like “You’ve got to look out for the police”.
I had a scene I had to cut out where the police are really horrible. I had to cut it for time. I wanted this idea of layers in terms of predators. How capitalist society has these horrible layers of predators. I wanted to get that out but it’s hard because you’re telling a small story.
It is interesting that in the scenes you do keep, the police are quite generous and kind and helpful. They drop him back and everything!
They sort of prey on him; they’re trying to coerce him.
But it’s not a cruel, evil organisation that is out to get him.
True. It’s tricky and I just couldn’t deal with it. First of all, I had to cut a scene and secondly it’s a distraction because I’m not making an anti-police movie. To me it’s just about levels of power and predators and that no one is good. I did want to suggest this notion of [Cheryl] Rainfield’s books in that there is this chain and that everybody is horrible. Each level higher is horrible. The character of the kid that ends up on the basement, I almost wanted him to say: “My dad is the governor.” I want to infer this notion of hierarchy of horror that I feel American capitalism is. It’s funny in horror movies. This notion of: “Are you rooting for people to die?” It’s a fun thing to play with.
The idea of teenage angst is very prominent. Could you comment on how this manifests differently for Milo and for Sophie?
Milo is learning something about himself. Sophie is more of a Faulkner character. To me, Faulkner has this funny idea that the only way for salvation is to get out. There is that barn-burning story where the kid is in the background and he is just running. For Sophie, salvation comes through leaving a very bad situation and finding hope on the other end.
Photos: Dominique Charriau/WireImage
Read our review of The Transfiguration here.
Read more of our reviews and interviews from the festival here.
For further information about Cannes Film Festival 2016 visit here.