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SxSW 2017 Interview: THE TRANSFIGURATION director Michael O'Shea

by Jason Whyte

"THE TRANSFIGURATION is my take on a Vampire tale. It's an indie horror about a troubled young teen who is rather obsessed with all things vampire, and may actually be one. But then he meets a girl, and their relationship challenges his obsession. It's a dark story set against a gritty NYC backdrop. I hope it both disturbs and moves the audience." Director Michael O'Shea on THE TRANSFIGURATION which screens at the 2017 South By Southwest Conference.

It is so great to have THE TRANSFIGURATION as a part of SxSW this year! Is your first time here and are you planning to attend your screenings?

This is my first time at SXSW with a film. And my first film! I am planning to attend the first two screenings to do a Q&A and introduce it, along with some of the cast and crew. I have been touring with the movie for almost a year now but this is the North American premiere, which I am quite excited about.

So how did you get into this business? Talk to me a bit about how you got your start and what you have worked on in the past.

I went to film school 20 years ago. When I got out, I worked as a production assistant, then production manager. I was an assistant director once or twice and I produced and directed an industrial. I pretty much hated all of it and decided I didn't want to make money being sort of creative in this field and that it would kill anything original or unique about me as an artist so I quit working in film/video and worked a lot of different jobs after that: temping, cab driver, bar doorman; the last 8 years I have been fixing computers and doing tech support for rich people in the West Village of NYC. My girlfriend, Susan Leber, who is a producer, encouraged me to start writing scripts again and I started writing horror. My first horror script we failed to raise the money, and the next one I wrote was THE TRANSFIGURATION. I had given myself ten years of trying to do this silliness and then moving on with my life again. Year six we got the money for THE TRANSFIGURATION and we made it and we finished it and it got into Cannes and here I am.

So how did THE TRANSFIGURATION come together for you?

We went out to investors with a proof of concept short film, a lookbook, and the script. I was a first-time director so we knew we needed the proof of concept, which we self-financed and was basically the first scene of the movie and a few scenes that precede it. The proof of concept was pretty much exactly like the later film in look and feel, which was our point, to show what the movie would be like. The look-book was very strong as well, knowing it had to be again because I was an unknown. We used the idea that it was our lead character's journal-slash-diary-slash-notebook and luckily I'm already handy with photoshop and computers so created it with myself along with Susan and Michele Weisblatt, who helped with design and my friend Jamie Favaro who did a brilliant job being Milo's hand and creating his writings and drawings.

We sent those three things out and got a lot of rejection. After two years, I was going to move on to a new script and forget about The Transfiguration and put it on the shelf. But one and a half years after we started going out with those three items, we found the money and were shooting a few months later.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What is your drive?

Making the movie is pure adrenaline. There's no need for outside substances. Making THE TRANSFIGURATION was terrifying because what if it was terrible? I was being given the chance to prove myself one way or another. Though I didn't think about it consciously like that, because it would be paralyzing! But I bet that thought added to the adrenaline rush that I was on from prep through production through post.

With that, what was your biggest challenge with the movie, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

I'm an introvert. I imagine the biggest challenge has been to force myself to be an extrovert to both direct the film and sell it. I have accomplished this by basically pretending I am playing a character, a sort of version of myself that is extroverted. It works, happily. But it was tough and it remains tough to do even today.

The most rewarding moment was receiving a standing ovation at the Debussy Theater at the Cannes film festival in a sold out theater that held 1,000 people. That was the happiest moment in my life so far and it may well always be.

I am about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed.

The film was shot with two Canon C500 bodies and a 1DC. Canon was wonderful and donated the camera package to our film. I knew I wanted to shoot Canon because we shot the proof of concept with the C300 and I was happy both with the camera on set and the results. It's a camera that allows a small footprint in terms of tech crew as well as letting us often using the real light in locations as our key light and just trying to fill and remove and sculpt what remains to make it our look of slightly heightened, poetic reality. Canon gave us great results working like this. Our DP, Sung Rae Cho, also worked on the proof of concept. I had greatly admired his work on the film GRACELAND, and saw from it that his visual style would work very well with what I was looking for. We got a practice run with the proof of concept and got to do it again with the feature. I look forward to working with him again on the next one, should the money god's grace us again.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?

The Tex-mex breakfasts. And the music. I'm a huge music fan and am so happy I get to premiere the film in a place I have wanted to attend for years as a music fan. I also think SXSW has been a real friend to actual independent horror and indie film, not just the star-studded stuff that passes for indie at some other American independent film festivals, so I'm very proud and happy to be premiering my first film there in America.

After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next?

What's kind of funny is SxSW is near the end of our festival journey. We started in Cannes last spring and I have been touring the world almost non-stop with the film since that premiere. After SxSW, the film will be playing a few more American fests, then having its LA/NYC theatrical premiere in April, and more theaters and cities after that. It looks very likely it will eventually land on your favorite VOD/streaming platform a few months later.

If you could show your movie in any theater outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?

First off, I'm so excited to be screening at Alamo Drafthouse, a theater chain that has so much respect for great movies, cult movies, outsider cinema and horror. Some of the theaters I have shown in around the world are already tough to beat; the Debussy in Cannes was amazing, but the main cinema used at the Deauville Film Festival where we played is a 1,200 seater that is jaw droppingly gorgeous and may tie with the Debussy for one of the greatest movie theaters I have even been privileged enough to see films in, let alone have THE TRANSFIGURATION play both of them. The Olympia in Thessaloniki, Greece was also a gorgeous theater to play in that I remember fondly. In America, I am looking forward to the screening at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis and the NuArt theater in Los Angeles, both great theaters that I hope to be lucky enough to attend for our screenings there in April.

In New York, I love so many venues but I had always really hoped my film plays the Nighthawk because the owners make these short videos before the films inspired by the films playing and I love them and would love if they made one for THE TRANSFIGURATION.

What would you say to someone who was being disruptive during a movie? Even if it was your screening?

(Laughs) I am a coward. I just glare.

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?

Getting into the industry isn't that hard. Film crews are a lot like carnies and education is not necessary. You just show up and do the work. It's a group that's egalitarian for every role except above the line like directors, writers, producers, actors are a different story. If you want to do anything else in film and TV the opportunities are there if you're young and naive and willing to work for cheap or free very, very hard. Because if people like you you will find yourself getting used again and again and eventually you'll be making good money and eventually you'll be able to pick the direction you want to head. Again, if you work, very, very hard. The above the line positions are more complicated and require an answer maybe not easy to mention quickly in this interview.

And finally, what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

Cannes was the first film festival I ever attended last year with my film. I have never had a lot of money to do stuff like film festivals, quite frankly. Since touring with my film, my favorite film seen at a festival was A BOY AND HIS DOG which I got to see projected at Torino Film Festival in Italy. It's a fabulously low-budget Harlan Ellison adaptation from 1975 and involves a talking dog and Don Johnson getting jacked off by a semen-machine in a dystopian future and I don't know how I never saw it before Italy but I'm now so happy I did. Thanks Torino!

We hope you enjoyed this SxSW filmmaker interview as part of our coverage of SxSW 2017. To see the entire series click on the Live Report sidebar on your right. We will have interviews posted all throughout the festival so be sure to visit us often for more coverage!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2017 SXSW in Austin, Texas taking place March 10-18. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to or use the SxSW GO App for Android and iOS.

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

link directly to this feature at
originally posted: 03/08/17 10:55:29
last updated: 03/08/17 11:00:58
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