Why I’m Debunking the Myth of My Own Success

Michael O'Shea, writer-director of the Cannes hit The Transfiguration, sets the record straight about his long-gestating debut feature.

I guess I should first introduce myself. My name is Michael O’Shea. I am 44 years old. My first film, The Transfiguration (which opens in New York this week), was accepted into the Cannes Film Festioval as part of Un Certain Regard and has subsequently spent the past year touring the world (often with me attached). From my understanding, it has been fairly well-received (I don’t read reviews but sometimes I see headlines on Facebook).

When I’ve peeked at the headlines and first few lines of press about The Transfiguration, I see the stories focus in large part on my “overnight success,” going from driving a taxi to directing a major festival hit. But I want to use this space to sort of debunk this very neat story of success. Because while it makes for a good article, I’m sure, it leaves out one significant piece of truth. And basically, it feels irresponsible for me to profit from a narrative that will only mislead others thinking they can travel that same “magical” road.

In truth, I was only able to make The Transfiguration because of the efforts of my life partner of 10 years, Susan Leber. In a director-obsessed world, it is important for me to give Susan the credit she deserves. As a creative producer, Susan was an incredibly important influence on every aspect of the film, from script to production to editing, and still now as we’re about to premiere in theaters. But it also matters (and this is the point I was getting to) because I could not have made the film without both her financial support and her position in the film community.

A freshman at Purchase, 18 years old.

Let’s jump back 20 years, to when I got out of film school at Purchase College. I had made a senior film that was unfinished. It needed sound design, which in 1996 you couldn’t do yourself on a home computer, and there were other finishing costs. All of which would now cost real money.

I didn’t have $100 to my name, let alone $1,000 or $2,000 or however much it would cost to finish a short film. And suddenly I had to pay rent and support myself and I was 24 and overwhelmed. I did not have family money or an inheritance. So … that was it for my senior film. It would never be finished. My new concern was simply surviving.

Making my senior film for Purchase, 24 years old.

Without financial support and connections in the film industry, my film career ended pretty quickly. I tried working in the business — AD and PM work on a few music videos and industrials and commercials, but I’m not a people person and it was not my thing. Honestly, I just did not see how that work would lead me to getting a unique and weird independent film made. So I quit film.

I had a lot of jobs, a lot of life changes, a lot of drama. I got married, I got divorced. I spent a summer in a low-rent hotel where the shared shower often had hypodermic needles in it. But I kept writing. Even though there was no point, because no one cared, I kept writing.

Still writing and barely employed, 28 years old.

I met Susan when I was 34. We quickly fell in love, and she encouraged me to start writing screenplays again. Susan was an experienced line producer and creative producer. I decided I would write a horror movie, and gave myself 10 years before I would give up. Susan went out and worked all her relationships; eight years later, we found the money for The Transfiguration.

So, again, why does all this matter? Well, I feel that no one ever shares how things really happen. How the sausage really gets made. We want to believe success is magical and possible for everyone, that the right doors will open if we have talent and work hard. If you believe in the American Dream, it will all just come true. If not, you’re just not working hard enough. You’re just not talented enough.

But I suspect that, to some degree, everyone who’s had some modicum of success is like me. They had some financial and social help to “make it” in entertainment. But I feel they never admit it. I don’t recall hearing any famous directors, actors or musicians say, “I am where I am today because my father is rich and connected and totally hooked me up.” And I totally understand why people never admit this. If anyone cops having been helped by connections or family money, it immediately gets used against the person, as if they didn’t work hard enough. “It was handed to them.” In such an environment, I understand not wanting to admit these things.

So why is it important to share what got me here? Why don’t I just leave my Cinderella story alone? “From cab driver to Cannes filmmaker” – that’s a great narrative. I get why the media likes it. But I worry it makes people who are still out there struggling just feel worse about themselves: “Why didn’t this happen to me?” So, I’m telling you here, it’s because I had help. I never could have done it without help. A lot of help.

During the past 20 years, I would have liked the occasional rock star or celebrity or writer-director to admit it wasn’t just their “talent and hard work.” Those things are pivotal to success, but when the media presents the “I just believed in myself and worked hard” narrative, it suggests to the rest of us poor bastards that we’re just not talented enough. That we’re just not working hard enough. That we don’t “believe in ourselves” enough. And that feels cruel and inaccurate to those of us who are outside and struggling.

Here’s a harsh fact about this business: talent and hard work may not be enough. You need financial support and you need connections. Without those, I believe it is very hard to get where you want to go. (And yes, I’m sure there are exceptions, and that people will not be shy in telling me that they are the exception!)

Do I have any advice to offer to the unconnected, non-wealthy, struggling artist? I wish I did. It’s incredibly hard. If you’re like me, you’ll be stuck writing and creating just because you have to, despite all the odds against your work ever getting out there. I guess I hope you are the exception or that you meet someone like Susan who can provide you with the means or entry to publish your creativity.

So … thank you, Susan. I love you and I owe you everything. And I’ll be the first to admit it.

Michael O’Shea grew up in the Rockaways in Queens, New York, where The Transfiguration, his debut feature as writer-director, is set. He studied film at the SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Theater Arts & Film. The Transfiguration premiered in Un Certain Regard at Cannes 2016, and O’Shea’s next film, A Spectacle, was selected for Rotterdam Cinemart 2017. The Transfiguration opens at the Angelika Film Center in New York City on April 7 and at the NuArt Theater in Los Angeles on April 21, with more cities to follow.