Don’t believe the media hype: First-time feature filmmakers who receive a major festival premiere almost never “come out of nowhere.” Whether they start out on the short film festival circuit, experience the benefits of labs and grant programs or find a mentor inside the industry, filmmaking talent always gets discovered and tracked before premiering at a festival like Sundance. Another rule of thumb among American independent filmmakers: Don’t expect to premiere at Cannes, a global showcase with few U.S. titles, especially if you’re a first-timer.
Meet the exception to the rule: Writer-director Michael O’Shea, who’s just as amazed as everyone else that his film “The Transfiguration” will bow in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes next week. The film, which features Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman and Larry Fessenden, tells the story of Milo (Eric Ruffin), an orphaned New York City 14-year-old who escapes solitude by immersing himself in the world of vampires.
“I’ve been a bouncer, a cab driver and the last decade I fixed computers,” O’Shea told Indiewire in a recent interview, “but I’ve been writing scripts the whole time.” Since graduating film school at SUNY Purchase in the ‘90s, O’Shea hasn’t wavered from his dream of being a filmmaker, but he did start to feel trapped by it. “I never stopped being a creative person, but I bemoaned that the art that I chose requires a million dollars to do something.”
Seven years ago, O’Shea decided he needed to put a time limit on his dream. His pledge: If, in 10 years, he hadn’t found traction on career as a filmmaker, he’d stop torturing himself and give up. He also decided to give up on trying to write “the great American indie,” in his words, and switched to writing horror films, which he knew he’d have a better chance of getting financed.
“I love horror movies and it felt really natural to me,” O’Shea said. “Suddenly, I had this new language, and was having a conversation with other horror movies that you can sort of talk with and use tropes from. It was insanely freeing and I immediately knew that, creatively, this is what I wanted to be doing.”
After being unable to attach an established director to his higher budget slasher script — which O’Shea is hoping he can finally get financed while at Cannes — the filmmaker started concentrating on a smaller script he could direct himself and began working on what would become “The Transfiguration.” He also had a secret weapon: His girlfriend of 10 years is producer Susan Leber (“Down to the Bone”).
“Susan is phenomenal creative producer and the love of my life,” explained O’Shea. “She guided the project from script to proof of concept to financing. With the exception of getting into Cannes, which neither of us still quite understands, getting this film to this point has been all her.”
The irony, according to O’Shea, is that despite switching to horror, he still ended up making an indie drama, describing “The Transfiguration” as being as much teen film as it is a vampire movie. From a directing standpoint, O’Shea is drawn to what he calls the “new neo-realist movement” in indie film, led by directors like Kelly Reichardt and the Safdie Brothers.
Like the Safdies’ “Heaven Knows What,” O’Shea shot a large portion of “The Transfiguration” with an out-of-view long lens camera and had his characters interacting with real life in New York City exteriors. “I suppose if I had to describe the movie, I’d say it’s [George A. Romero’s 1977 vampire film] ‘Martin’ meets ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer,” O’Shea laughs.
By the time the film was finished, O’Shea had missed the fall deadlines for Sundance and SXSW. On a lark, he filled out the application for Cannes, but he and Leber quickly set their sights on other festivals. “We were having this slight bickering about what festival to try for next, assuming we weren’t getting in Cannes, because of course we aren’t getting into Cannes,” recalled O’Shea. “I really thought we should aim for a genre festival, I thought Fantasia in Montreal was a good fit for us, thinking they might like the film and maybe we can get in. Susan was like ‘no, we should try for a premiere in Toronto.'”
And then a funny thing happened: they never got rejected from Cannes. Calling a friend of a friend of a friend, the couple was able to determine it wasn’t an oversight. The film was under serious consideration. It wasn’t until the live morning announcement of the Cannes line-up that they got their confirmation: “The Transfiguration” made it to Cannes.
“When I heard them say ‘vampire saga’ I went nuts,” said O’Shea. “I love that Cannes calls it a vampire saga. I started yelling, ‘I made a vampire saga.'”
O’Shea has a sense of humour and perspective that younger directors getting their first break often don’t have. “If I believe people who are now blowing smoke up my butt tell me, I’ve made something that is really unique that combines indie drama and horror,” jokes O’Shea. “All I know is I never wanted to be rich, this is my dream, I’m living it right now. I’m going to really just try to enjoy it and have a stress free week and enjoy that this is a once in lifetime experience.”