One of the more provocative and powerful Midnighters to play during the 2017 SXSW Film Festival is writer/director Michael O’Shea’s The Transfiguration, a powerful story of a troubled young man named Milo (Eric Ruffin), whose obsession with vampires manifests in a rather deadly fashion. One day, he meets Chloe (Sophie Levine), a teenage girl who has also suffered her fair share of loss, and as their bond strengthens, Milo finds himself conflicted by his primal urges and his newfound connection with the one person in the world who seems to care about him.
While at SXSW, Daily Dead had the opportunity to sit down and chat with O’Shea about his feature film debut, and he discussed the challenges of creating an empathetic antagonist, paying tribute to his favorite vampire films and cinematic love stories, and working with his co-stars in The Transfiguration.
Congrats on the film, Michael. It broke my heart, but in the best possible way, and a lot of that had to due with Eric’s performance as Milo. His character is so incredible, because he's doing bad things, but yet you're so entrenched with him emotionally that you can’t help but like him, and that's a really fine line to walk as a storyteller. Was that the hardest aspect of this project, making sure he was still empathic?
Michael O’Shea: Well, TV right now has been going this direction for a while, with characters like Tony Soprano and Walter White, with this notion of the antihero that you still feel sympathy for just because they’re the center of the TV, so you are continually getting gut punched when things go wrong for them, because you’re empathizing with them over and over again. But I wanted to go further with this idea, but in a horror way.
Another film that was like this is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, which is an extreme example, but it’s fitting. When you watch Henry, he never shows any signs of change, but yet, you’re still hopeful that maybe that girl's going to change Henry, even though there’s no reason to believe he’ll ever change. And then Henry kills the girl and it just breaks your heart.
And when you're 14, like Milo is here, your brain is like wet cement, where it can still get moved around, and it’s malleable. So I was interested in that notion of Milo as this budding vampire, or even sociopath, but maybe there is still some opportunity for change in his life. And what would change me for someone like him?
In terms of wanting sympathy, that was me playing a game with the audience the whole movie, and I then do try to crush the audience in the final act, where it’s hard to empathize with him anymore, even though some people do stay with him until the end. I stay with him until the end because I love him, but I also understand that in that act, I’m taking a risk with his character. The whole script was written around that, and then when I cast Eric, it was all about a face that has these eyes that melt your heart a little. His performance has such sensitivity to it, and that softness goes against these acts that he's committing.
There are a lot of really fun homages in The Transfiguration, and clearly this feels very entrenched with a love of the horror genre, especially vampires. Is that something that comes from you personally, or did vampires simply become a vessel for you to tell Milo’s story?
Michael O’Shea: It does. In this film, I'm making a kid that’s just like me, but with these additions that are the darker aspects of his personality. In terms of me and movies, when I was a teenager, I got very depressed and I escaped into movies, and that’s when I saw The Island and Jaws 2. Those were the first two horror films I ever saw, and then I just immersed myself. I'm a huge horror fan, so I wanted to make a lot of callbacks, because I know that horror audiences are very literate of other horror movies, and I think they're cool with you doing callbacks, and they enjoy that, too.
I put Larry [Fessenden] in for that reason, and I put Lloyd Kaufman in for that reason, too, because I wanted to show that I'm a huge fan, and also that horror has a very specific language. When you go into a horror movie, it's a genre where you're expected to [know] most of the other horror movies out there, where it’s like we are all having a dialogue with each other in terms of language, and I'm making it more overt. But all horror movies are like this, where they share a similar language between movies, and so I was doing something very overt and conscious about that, where I wanted this to feel like a progression of these wonderful movies that I love.
I love the relationship Milo has with Sophie because they're both broken kids and they've got nothing in this world and they find each other. It’s so sweet and pure, and both Eric and Chloe are absolutely fantastic in it. Can you discuss casting them in this project?
Michael O’Shea: When you're a low-budget movie, you sometimes have to twist things a bit. For this, I actually had Chloe and Eric, our DP, and all the locations I used, and even the makeup guy, before I had money to even make the project. I was pretending I was making a movie for a long time before I made a movie, and I got all these key players in place way before I had the money. I had cast Chloe when I was making the proof of concept to raise money for the movie, and I knew I wanted to use her for the movie, too. It took two years, but I called her back eventually, and she said “yes.”
With Eric, I saw him on The Good Wife, and that’s a show where they cast a lot of great New York actors. He had this small part on one episode, but when I saw his face, I saw this kind of softness in his face, but also a blankness, and I knew, "That's exactly what I want." And because I'm a new filmmaker, I liked that he had had TV experience because it meant as a kid, he was going to be able to do the job, and do a great job at it, too. His experience was a bonus to me.
So then I called him in, and I had him read with Chloe before we had money, and I saw it. I saw that we had “it,” and having those two pieces in place before financing was really important. They were basically cast way before anything, and it wasn't even like I saw thousands of kids. I saw Eric a year before I made the film and put him in. I just knew he was going to be the one.
And in terms of their relationship, two big influences were Heavenly Creatures and Let the Right One In. Those are the two teen movies that I have worshiped for a long time. That kind of an intense romance is just something that goes after my heart, because I'm a bit of a macabre guy when it comes to that stuff, so that’s the approach I wanted to do, too, when it came to their relationship.
Stay tuned to Daily Dead for more reviews and interviews from SXSW, and in case you missed it, check out our other live coverage of the film festival, including Heather's review of The Transfiguration.