In an age over-saturated with slick American teen drama series with a supernatural theme – many still characterised by the enduring influence of BUFFY and all of them hoping to be as long running as SUPERNATURAL – HEARTLESS is a distinctively Danish take on the form. Played commendably straight and without the smart-arse, self-aware humour that tends to dominate its U.S. equivalents, it’s an absorbing, if sometimes ponderous, eight-episode serial that has scope for further seasons.
In the early going of episode one, we witness photogenic teen twins Sofie (Julie Zangenberg) and Sebastian (Sebastian Jessen) luring and feeding in an almost vampiric fashion from an unfortunate young man in a nightclub who, as a result of their necessary act, promptly bursts into flames. The siblings have to feed on the life force of other people in order to survive and fatal consequences result if their feeding reaches a certain level. Sebastian, the more sensitive of the duo, wrestles with his own conscience of their activities, and together the twins set out to find out who and what they really are. They revisit the orphanage from which they originally ran away as infants, and discover that their mother attended an ultra-strict, rural boarding school. Joining as second year students, they learn about the dark history of the school itself – with the sadistic modern hierarchy carrying on old traditions of persecution and torture - and its inextricable links to their own bloodline.
Shot in muted tones and colours with the central school permanently enshrouded by mist, HEARTLESS is an atmospheric series built around a premise that inevitably echoes significant earlier American genre works. Sebastian (who tortuously reins in his need to feed wherever possible) gets the come-on from various girls at the school but his perfectly normal lustiness blurs with the unavoidable needs of his monstrous self when aroused, a la CAT PEOPLE. (The notion of a tortured, handsome male lead unable to fulfil romantic relationships due to the threat he poses, is of course, a throwback to BUFFY and ANGEL). The concept of family members with a desperate compulsion to feed on humans and a peculiarly incestuous relationship with each other has echoes of Stephen King’s far sillier SLEEPWALKERS. There are also CARRIE-inspired sub-plots involving the telekinetic powers of key secondary characters.
It could very easily be reincarnated as a generic, slick U.S. series, but the execution here is very Scandinavian. The tone is sombre and understated, with an underlying erotic charge and a real effort to minimise FX and melodrama in favour of a realistic approach to the potentially outlandish material. The backstory, including flashbacks to 17th century witch-hunts linked to the school principal’s three daughters, is effectively integrated into the contemporary narrative, and the performances are strong all round: the two leads are striking. For those that crave such things, there are occasional intrusions of predictably bad CGI fire and some fleeting, gratuitous shower-room nudity, but HEARTLESS has a beguiling style of its own, even when retreading age-old plot threads like the old “Only love can break the curse…” chestnut that we have seen in sundry earlier genre projects.
IN CONVERSATION - Michael O’Shea
The debut feature of writer-director Michael O’Shea contrasts with the rich cinematic heritage of the vampire. An offshoot of this notorious creature in literature and folklore spanning centuries only deepens the contrast with a filmmaker having reached in the words of Sir Winston Churchill: “The end of the beginning.”
THE TRANSFIGURATION embraces the heritage of horror, referencing vampire films amidst its lead protagonists attempts to understand why he lacks the defining characteristics of a vampire – is he really a vampire or is vampirism an adopted defence mechanism against grief and his hostile surroundings?
In conversation with FrightFest, O’Shea reflected on a personal connection to cinema that led to challenging aspirations. He also discussed the pervasive encounter with death within the filmmaking process, the denial of credit through film authorship and the transformation of art and the fantastical.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
I curse myself for it, when in my twenties I suddenly realised, who chooses as a means of expression something that costs a million dollars to make. I became very depressed when I was around eleven or twelve and what drew me out of the depression and saved me a little were the movies on Wometco Home Theater·(WHT), the old rare cable network in Rockaway. And it was movies like AFTER HOURS, HOTEL NEW HAMPSHIRE and HEAVY METAL, which was an adolescent movie, but also REPO MAN and SUBURBIA. These were all movies that showed me that there was something different out there, a different way of looking at things, a different way of being that I feel kind of saved me. So what drove me to want to make movies were these films I saw when I was very young that made a big impression, and saved me from my own depression.
C.G. Jung contextualises dreams as a means to solve the problems we cannot solve in our waking state. Could we perceive cinema as not only existing on a dream level, but offering a cathartic experience?
I can say that yes, films offered me a way out. How films work as a psychologically cathartic experience, I can say that when I've seen a film that effects me, or a film that I love, I will think about that film when I am going to sleep, and I'll then change it in my dreams because it actually enters my waking dreams before I go to sleep. And I find that to be a very enjoyable experience. My dreams are often entering into my writing and so a lot of my ideas for films come from my dreams. I'll wake up and I have to write them down immediately because the best ideas, the best moments come from a theological place that you wouldn't necessarily understand why it works, or why it's correct. It comes from a much more subconscious instinctual place that dreams reside.
There is a perspective amongst filmmakers that there are three versions of the script – the script that is written, the script that is shot and the script that is edited. Do you agree and is the process one of discovery leading up to the final cut?
Yes, you have to kill the previous film to get to the next one, which is what is so intensely painful about it. There are things in the script that have to die during the shooting, but then maybe even more painful than that is the stuff that has to die in the editing, when you are trying to get it to its final form, before it will hopefully resonate and communicate with people. To do that successfully you end up having to lose things that you just love, which survived the script and the production phase, but which then have to die in the edit. I was furious of certain things getting cut out of the movie that I said would never be cut. We took a month off, then came back and I allowed them to be cut, but it was upsetting. So there are these little deaths that happen through the course of it and you have to rediscover the story you are telling twice - there's the script and then you have to rediscover it in the shooting. So yes, I completely agree.
It's unfortunate because if you are a writer-director it is very hard to have to do that, but when you are a director and it's not your script, then you don't have as much attachment. If you are the one that comes up with the whole thing then that process of page to reality to editing is a little gruelling. But it's worth it now because I'm in this place where I get to show people the film, and when they say: “I liked it and it connected with me”, it's an ecstatic moment of happiness that makes it absolutely worthwhile.
Filmmaker Hope Dickson Leach told me: “The film takes over, creates a logic and world that everyone has to bend to. You ignore it at your peril.” Do you perceive there to be an organic side to filmmaking, where you are not the one in control, but the film is actively creating itself? Is it important to know when to step back as a filmmaker and does the organic aspect take place in these moments of death you speak of?
To me it's not just the film, it's also the collaborators. I am just one of many very talented creative people behind the movie. There are the actors who are incredibly talented, there is my creative producer, editor, composer and sound designer. All of these people have their own voices and if you are going to make the best film possible, you have to let their voices in. You have to let their life come into the film and their life can actually alter the film in ways you were not anticipating. If you want to make the best story possible you have to let that collaboration happen, you have to let their personality and creativity through, and it does turn the film into a new organism that you'd never thought of in the writing.
The festival circuit is very much about the way the director is the author, but there are an enormous number of voices besides mine inside of the movie. I am not sure there's such a thing as a true good director or bad director, but for me, it is very important to listen to those voices and let them shape the film in collaboration.
So the auteur theory should not necessarily be seen as defining the director as author in a literal sense, rather as a filter for all of the individual creative voices.
Absolutely, and it’s not the same thing as a painter because you are not doing everything, and you are really short changing all those people that make enormous contributions. I think that in general people understand that, but it's just a lot easier to say it's one person, it's their vision, when in fact it's a lot of people making enormous contributions that the director then gets all the credit for. Part of that is being able to stand and get out of the way, especially with actors, but not just actors, any creative person. Your relationship with your editor, you can't let your editor kill your baby to get it to the right place, you have to work with them to kill it. But yes, an incredibly important part of this process is to allow others in to collaborate.
On the subject of collaboration the film features visual and conversations references to other vampire films. Is THE TRANSFIGURATION also a collaboration with horror cinema and its filmmakers?
Definitely, and even though I am having an overt conversation, I think horror is a genre in general that is always having a conversation. It is a genre that is often telling the same stories with slight variations, which is the case in many genres, but I feel with horror it's very true. And that's something that the audiences understand and expect. A lot of times it's that we are going to tell a story, but there's going to be this one small variation that's going to totally change how you view it. I just feel that there is a lot of expectation of already knowing the language and it's an audience that really likes referencing, and likes how this is part of an ongoing language of an ongoing story. So it was important for me to overtly reference, but not only verbally. There are constant frames within frames, both YouTube clips and horror movies, and there is also a lot of commercial audio. All of those things are then becoming a part of the movie. I'm a big fan of this idea of appropriation in art and how by appropriating something changes it. How is the art now different because it is being framed in a frame? Or if you are using something pure, but it is in your context, how is it being transformed? There are not just horror movies that's happening with in THE TRANSFIGURATION, there is also commercial audio, and I love pop art which I am testing how that is transformed in the context of this film.
While NOSFERATU was an example of nightmares invading the reality of the characters, THE TRANSFIGURATION is confronting the discourse on the realism of the vampire within our reality.
For me the idea of realism came out of the psychology of a character who had to explain to himself why he doesn't have magical powers yet. Since he's starting from the conclusion that he is a vampire, he's post-justifying, he has to figure out what's a realistic definition of a vampire. But the notion of applying our rules and our laws to the fantastic, taking the ideas of the fantastic and shoving them into essentially our universe is an interesting idea to me – what happens when you take NOSFERATU and you shove him into our universe, which is the question that SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE asks, and is a film I reference. But that's an idea in all of my horror writing, taking this genre that has fantastical elements and shoving it into a world with our physics, with a world that is very similar to our own and seeing what that looks like, and what it becomes. This is in all of my writing. You don't know that yet, but hopefully you'll get to if I make other movies.
Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
It's very hard for me to say because this is my first film. It has literally transformed my life because I was fixing computers and now I am touring the world with a movie. So suddenly I have validation as an artist and as a creative that I spent forty three years without. Just being able to get the money to make a film after twenty years of trying was a transformative experience, as was making the movie, and so it would be impossible to say. In other words, if I am lucky enough to make a second film I will be able to answer this question for you. This film has certainly been transformative for me externally and internally, to both who I am and how I think of myself. But we’ll have to find out on the next movie whether the process of making each film is transformative because this one has been such a huge deal for my life.
THE TRANSFIGURATION is playing in select London cinemas courtesy of Thunderbird Releasing.