This ain’t no Lost Boys, let alone Twilight. Maybe the Chinese food scene in Lost Boys, or the feeling in your stomach when you read about how much money Twilight has made. Waiting for the supernatural to appear will doubtless become a distraction for the audience, something to think about while covering one’s eyes during the gruesome moments—which won’t help, the soundtrack by Pharmakon is excruciating. Viewers will be perched on the edge of their seats while Milo deadeye-stares down his adversaries, his only friend, or the camera. Clint Eastwood had nothing on young lead Eric Ruffin (The Good Wife).
In between his screenings at SXSW, we caught up with O’Shea to talk vampires, violence, and suicide. No spoilers.The film is unnerving even in its style: handheld work, a tendency to focus only on Milo, so that almost everything else is blurry, background, or nebulous. How purposeful was your filming style, and how much was defined by the locations? (dark nights, the subway, the projects).
I first came up with a style of shooting before the concept or plot of the film. That is, first I wanted to make a horror portrait film using the style that you are describing, using real locations and shooting in live, uncontrolled environments. And from there I started trying to figure out the “idea,” the “who” of the portrait. So before the first sentence was written, before I had the character, I had the style. And I wrote tailoring the plot and the character and the setting to the fact that this would be my style.
There’s a great dialogue happening, not just between the characters of Milo and the young girl, Sophie, but between two schools of vampire thought: vampire as undead ghoul vs. vampire as sexy aristocrat. Milo likes Nosferatu and “realistic” tales like Shadow of the Vampire, Sophie is all about Twilight. Your film defiitely pays homage to the former. How do you think sanitized vampire lore like Twilight influences young women?
When I realized I was writing about vampires, I started thinking about what vampires were. And, to me, vampires first and foremost are about immortality. And that, to me, brings up fear of death. So, in addition to reading Stoker’s Dracula for inspiration, I also began reading The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker. While reading these books I became interested in how the vampire myth has changed. Originally, in folklore, the vampire was a disgusting creature, and the point of the creature, I think, was to teach people that dying was natural. If you didn’t die, look at what happens—you become this horrific creature that is monstrous and drinks blood.
As our society and culture has become more secular, I feel the vampire has changed. Now instead of a creature that inspires fear, we are creating vampires that we look up to, that are sexy, that are “vegetarian.” This is what I was trying to poke some fun at with The Transfiguration, while also trying to make a poetic film about death and grieving and death acceptance.
I have not. I saw the movies, and I think what got me thinking Twilight vs. other “aspirational” vampire stories I could have used was hearing that Stephanie Meyers wrote Twilight intending to promote chastity before marriage. And that may have irked the debaucherous and anti-religious part of my psychology and personality.
But my primary reason for the Twilight bits is it’s funny. Here’s Milo, a sort of vampire connoisseur, I guess you could say, a sort of “hipster” of vampire lore, being recommended Twilight over and over again, a book that he likely is annoyed by both for its popularity and (in his mind) what he assumes is its inauthenticity. That’s very funny to me. The film is very grim, but I like to put in my sort of humor like this throughout. But I admit I may have a strange sense of humor.
I think all PG-13 and PG horror is absolutely a cynical commercial move. Horror is our most transgressive genre. Firing correctly, horror should be pushing at our boundaries in some way. The MPAA rating system is almost by definition the opposite of that—the whole point of that rating system is to protect against transgressive content. So when your vampire or horror film is rated PG or PG-13, that to me is the same thing as admitting you went against a foundational principle of the genre for strictly commercial reasons (aka: access to a wider audience).
I wasn’t very concerned with commercial accessibility when I wrote and directed the script. My only concerns with commercial accessibility came in the editing, when I worked very hard to get it from a 2-hour, 7-minute cut I loved down to a 92-minute cut that audiences would find more palatable (now 97 minutes with credits).
The amount of disgust/gore is calibrated, I hope, for the story. There is one, I hope, very disturbing gore scene towards the end of the movie, and I hold back on showing too much of the violence up until that moment so that this moment has the most potential visual, emotional, and narrative impact.
I have no idea. Haha. I mean I think my writing is intended for my fellow outsiders, freaks and weirdos. I was a very depressed kid, and it was movies that showed me that there were others that thought like me, that there were other outsiders in the world that I could hopefully one day find when I was older (and I did!). So when I started writing movies, I basically started writing and making them for a fellow younger version of me that’s maybe out there. It seems from festival screenings that the film is connecting with audiences, which makes me very happy.
I’m a music geek, and a big fan of Pharmakon and other Sacred Bones recording artists. I had read about how Under the Skin didn’t use a traditional composer, that they went with an indie musician instead, and I loved their results and decided that would be a great direction for me as well. So I reached out to Margaret Chardiet (Pharmakon) through Sacred Bones records and luckily she was indeed interested in composing for movies, and she then also responded positively to our cut of the film at the time, and so we started working together. I am very, very happy with the results and her work. I’m a little sad now that the film will mostly live its life on small, stereo televisions and laptops after our festival and theatrical run because I love the sound design and score so much!
There’s so much “screen time” in this film, the various characters always plugged in to other media. Where do you weigh in on the argument about media causing people to become desensitized to violence?
I think Milo would have been Milo in any age. 100 years ago Milo would have found a way to justify his existence, whether you think he is a sociopathic serial killer or a vampire, just as he did in 2016.
I am disturbed in America at how much easier we show violence over sex, especially on television. I think it leads to a problematically aggressive and repressed culture of rage. However, this is not me preaching “less violence,” it’s me preaching that American media and its culture should lighten up about nudity and sex.
I very much wanted to make a film in the “now.” While I realize many creatives think using contemporary references dates their work in problematic ways, here I swerved in the opposite direction, trying very hard to give the film as much documentary-like authenticity as possible.
I’m also a huge fan of remix culture, like say Girl Talk, or appropriation as practiced by artists like Richard Prince. Those sorts of ideas are very strongly in my work, frames within frames and how the art and creativity of others changes through another artist’s frame. And to this point, I am incredibly thankful to the other artists and producers that shared their work with me in this way.
This is a film about grief and death. While as a depressed person I’m very empathetic to those that commit suicide, I also am friends with those who have had family and very close friends kill themselves, and their lives have been brutally impacted. Two acquaintances and one close friend have committed suicide so far in my own life, and… what can I say about that? It’s horrible. But I have no rage towards the people, because as a person that suffers from depression I can easily empathize what they are going through. But yes, when you kill yourself you aren’t just harming yourself, you are setting off an emotional bomb that inflicts enormous damage to those closest to you outward affecting everyone that knew you.
The film weighs heavily between the vampiric violence and the violent world Milo was brought up in—the death of both his parents, the violent gangs that threaten him. Would you call his vampire tendencies an escape or a coping mechanism?
I would say Milo’s vampire beliefs are both escape and coping, just like any religion. And hey just like any religion maybe he’s right? The film never proves him wrong. I think Milo and Sophie are very similar in that they both are coming from tragedy, but Sophie is responding to it as an open bruise, while Milo has responded by building a fortress inside his mind. I am suggesting that Sophie is, in a way, more of a survivor than Milo in her willingness to cry very often and her willingness to keep taking risks and remaining open despite bad things happening to her. Of course, Milo has been having bad things happening to him from a very early age, which makes him retreating into this sort of psychological fortress very understandable.
Where to set it came soon after the vampire idea. But it was the vampire idea that came first. In the creation of the character of Milo (and reading Stoker’s Dracula), I realized where I wanted the setting to be. So it’s a vampire movie first, set in outer Queens.