Michael O’Shea’s directorial debut, The Transfiguration, had its SXSW Conferences and Festivals premiere March 11, 2017. The film had its world premiere at Cannes Film Festival in 2016. The Transfiguration follows Milo (Eric Ruffin), an outcast teenage boy living with his brother in New York. With gang violence and poverty all around him, he retreats to his vampire obsession. Except, he truly believes he’s a vampire and kills as one. He meets fellow misfit Sophie (Chloe Levine) and they find comfort together, however Milo continues to struggle with his lifestyle.
I recently talked with director Michael O’Shea, along with leads Eric Ruffin and Chloe Levine, about the success behind The Transfiguration. Be sure to also check out my review for the film.
HorrorGeekLife: Congrats on all your success, especially since it’s your debut feature film. Where did the inspiration to write The Transfiguration come from?
Michael O’Shea: What’s funny is that the shooting style kind of came first. Basically, I failed to raise money for a more expensive film. So I was thinking about “what is a cheap horror movie that could also be good,” not like trying to do something expensive cheaply? What is a shooting style that is affordable? And I had just seen a movie called The Pleasure of Being Robbed, by Josh Safdie, which is kind of a portrait film that follows this girl. A lot of times he’s on the streets of New York and he’s kind of across the street, shooting her in a live environment. I had also seen a film called Escape From Tomorrowland, which was a film shot at live locations in Disney World. Both of those films got me thinking about the idea of shooting a film in live environments. The idea of shooting a New York City movie in live environments.
I really love 70’s and 80’s horror cinema, like William Lustig or Larry Cohen. These movies are shot gritty on the streets of New York, even dramas like The Panic in Needle Park. So I thought, what if I made a horror movie in this style? In the style of across the street, spying on the character, and live locations. I have the style, and then a friend of mine mentioned that her friend’s kid was getting bullied and made fun of a lot in school because he was obsessed with vampires. That was a huge next piece, now I have my portrait. It’s not going to be an eight year old, which is what the kid was, it’s going to be a teenager and he’s going to believe he’s becoming a vampire.
So now who is this character, who is this person, how does this person exist? What made them like this? I immediately decided I wanted to set it in Rockaway. Which is this place in Queens where I grew up. And I started thinking about telling the story of, two cities. Like Rockaway being this very sad, lonely, neglected place. And kind of the new gentrified New York City being the place he hunts. I start building up the character of Milo, building up his belief system. Why does this person believe he’s becoming a vampire? What is it that created that? And from there came everything else. After I had Milo fully built, I decided I was going to set it across one summer in New York City. The plot came last, which was the introduction of Sophie and the introduction of the older kids and all of that kind of plot machination stuff. Is Milo going to change or not change over the course of the summer?
HorrorGeekLife: Milo had a great collection of classic vampire films and books. Let the Right One In was referenced several times throughout; was that a major inspiration?
Michael O’Shea: It’s a big inspiration in the sense that I literally love the movie. I mean, I just unabashedly love Let the Right One In. I can also say it was a big inspiration in the sense that location was an enormous. I think location is what works really well and is kind of like a character that gives a strong imprint on the movie. I also wanted the location to give an imprint on The Transfiguration. Let the Right One In and Heavenly Creatures, I would say, are the most influential teen movies. That’s something I’m really attracted to, this kind of like dark but yet also very sensitive style of story telling. In terms of directing style, the whole idea was that I was approaching a horror movie the way that, say, Kelly Reichardt or Josh Safdie or a good friend of mine named Azazel Jacobs, who also kind of works in sort of a what I would call a new neorealist style. I wanted to kind of approach it as a director from that style, but it’s a horror movie.
In terms of horror movies I was influenced by, I was very influenced by Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Once I realized I was making a portrait movie, and a horror movie, I immediately went back to Henry. And if you think about it, Henry is a movie about “is a girl going to change a guy that is murdering people?” And our film conclusions are sort of heartbreaking, but in different ways. So Henry is a big one, along with Let the Right One In. I always like to mention Henry because he’s the unspoken one. He says Martin out loud, he says Let the Right One In out loud, but Henry… of course he’s not going to mention because, in Milo’s mind, he’s not a serial killer. He’s a vampire. So why would he like that movie? But secretly, yeah Henry was a huge movie for me.
When I finished the script, I rewatched it and thought, let’s see how John McNaughton does it. What I came away with from that was that whole movie rests on Michael Rookers performance. So I’m like, I just have to find a fourteen year old actor who’s as good as Michael Rooker was in Henry. As a low budget film maker. Then of course I lucked out, I found Eric (Ruffin), which was amazing. It was an amazing piece of luck that I found him.
HorrorGeekLife: He was phenomenal, as was Chloe Levine. They’re both young actors and were tasked with playing very mature roles. Were you concerned about the heaviness of the film?
Michael O’Shea: I just watched a movie called Playground. It was part of a festival and I met the director. It’s a Polish film where these two kids brutally murder an eight year old. In the Q&A, he’s talking about how he had a school psychologists on set and he had them in therapy during and after the movie to make sure there was no damage being done. And I’m just sinking in my chair hearing this, like.. that was something I was supposed to do? The thing that made me really happy was that Eric is a kid that loves sports, that has a lot of friends in school and smiles easily. He brought the character to the audition. What you see in the movie, that’s Eric’s audition. Eric was eighty-five percent there when he auditioned. Rehearsals were about getting him that final fifteen percent. Every time I yelled cut on set, Eric’s face would change, his body would change, and he’d just become Eric and this big smile would come across his face again. And I would be like “Oh good, I’m not damaging a child.” It wasn’t like doing some kind of hearts of darkness method where I was like “you must be a serial killer!” It wasn’t like that at all. It was a very easy going set. So, my gut says that Eric’s fine. I’m also here with him today and he seems pretty cool.
I think Eric was old enough to understand. The snarky thing I thought about Playground, I’m sorry, was like “Huh… I just trusted my actor to know the difference between make believe and reality.” I really do feel Eric did. I mean, my biggest worry wasn’t Eric. A big thing for me was Eric seemingly showed up to the audition by himself. I think his Mom was there, but to me it appeared as though he showed up himself. Which was the exact kind of thing that I would have done as a fourteen year old. I was a very independent fourteen year old. So that was a big part of it for me, was this notion that he seemed like a mature fourteen. His face looks like he’s a little kid and you can read all that innocence on it. As an actual human, he was someone who I think was used to taking care of himself and being independent. That wasn’t necessarily important for the character, that was important for him as an actor who is about to be in an independent film with an insane schedule where you’re going to be shooting in live locations. Like you can’t really be a little kid and do that. You gotta be someone who has a certain amount of maturity. And Eric pulled it off flawlessly.
HorrorGeekLife: Hi Eric and Chloe, thanks for talking with me. I’d love to know what made you both decide to go for your roles?
Eric Ruffin: Michael sent me the script and once I started it I didn’t stop until I finished it. And I just felt like, I’ve never done anything like this before. I’ve never been in a horror film or played a character as crazy as Milo. So I was very interested in that. I thought this would be really fun to film, so I said yes to the audition. I’m happy that Michael accepted me because I had a lot of fun shooting it.
Chloe Levine: When I first saw the script, I was immediately taken with it. Particularly with the fact that it didn’t ask you to suspend your sense of disbelief to enjoy it. As an actor I was really attracted to the emotional depth and the heartache that Sophie goes through. That sounds so messed up but it’s true.
HorrorGeekLife: How is it knowing that The Transfiguration has received so much praise and recognition?
Eric Ruffin: It’s really humbling. Just receiving recognition that we worked hard on. Me being young, it’s amazing that the movie went to SXSW and people like it. I feel really appreciative and it’s a great feeling being recognized.
Chloe Levine: When I first read it, I knew that it was going to be really great. I’m thankful that something like this happened while I was still really young because it’s a good lesson. If you put your heart and soul into something and work hard like Mike did, you can make it.
HorrorGeekLife: Eric, your character has a large collection of vampire films, both older classics and more modern. Did you watch any of these films to prepare?
Eric Ruffin: Michael gave me a list of about eight classic vampire movies and I watched five to seven of the movies. I watched Let the Right One In, I watched both version of those. Nosferatu, which is watched in the film. Also Martin. So I got to be Milo and see what he’s interested in. That was great for trying to develop my character. To try and bring Milo to life.
HorrorGeekLife: You can’t go wrong with any of those! Do you think you’ll continue in the horror genre?
Eric Ruffin: I hope so cause I loved filming a horror film, it was really cool!
HorrorGeekLife: Chloe, your character has a very troubled life and is self-destructive because of it, but she still has a certain innocence. You did a great job walking the line of growing up way too fast, but keeping that quality about her. Did you feel that within your character? Was it purposeful?
Chloe Levine: Yeah, thank you for saying that. It was kind of important to me to make her not be a victim of her situation really. Mike and I had had conversations about how, even though all these horrible things happened to her, she still has an innocence in it. So that was definitely something that was important to both of us.
HorrorGeekLife: Where do you think Sophie would be, lets say, 6 months or a year after the conclusion of the film?
Chloe Levine: I think that she would have grown up into someone who had this sadness that was in her, but I don’t think that she was doomed to be that way forever.
HorrorGeekLife: She’s a strong girl, no doubt. What do both of you have planned next?
Eric Ruffin: After SXSW, I’ve been called in and requested for auditions. Hopefully something comes in soon. But as of right now, I don’t have anything solid planned.
Chloe Levine: Since wrapping on The Transfiguration, I’ve filmed this movie over the summer titled Savage Youth. It should be coming out soon, along with this other movie called No Alternative.