Updated: Jan 22, 2020
We've been lucky enough to snag an interview with the incredibly talented filmmaker T.J. Misny, writer and director of the trilogy of short films entitled 'Intimate Semaphores'. One could argue that these three films could be the centrepiece of Misny's career to date, a career that includes shooting his first short film on 35mm, collaborating with the hilarious Paul Gale on a series of shorts which have garnered a huge following ('Why Starbucks Spells Your Name Wrong' has amassed over ten million hits) and being tapped to direct episodes of 'I Hate Being Single' and 'Broad City'.
The three stories of the 'Intimate Semaphores' movies, rather than having a narrative connection or the now all too familiar shared universe trope, are driven by characters who, like the concept that inspired Misny's production company's name 'Essential Question', don't quite have life figured out yet and shows how life can trip them up when it demands that they have answers that they have not yet discovered. 'High And Dry' introduces us to photographer, Laurel, played with incredibly nuanced sensitivity by Ariane Labed ('Before Midnight', 'Alps'), who discovers, while trying to find out why she suddenly cannot take a picture in focus, that she cannot remember the last time she cried. Thus begins a slow revelation that she may not be able to emotionally connect with other human beings, even those closest to her. There is a definite sense of loving one's craft that comes across here.
Everything about the way T.J. Misny introduces us to the protagonist and the world around her tells us that he wants us to look deeper than the surface. The often used shallow depth of field seems to speak directly to the main character's desire to see beyond herself and serves as a reminder of how even the simplest and most common things around us can often be out of our reach. One of the film's masterstrokes is using Laurel's calm composure almost as a barrier between her and the rest of the world. Only we can see the desperation for her to feel or connect with the feelings of others, a desperation that boils over into scenes that can be very uncomfortable to watch.
The masterful use of style and performance is carried over into 'The Crumb Of It' starring Jocelin Donahue as May, who is celebrating the success of her pastry chef boyfriend, Cyril (Chioke Nassor) but has a secret to tell him. This, again, wonderfully nuanced story about a young woman becoming increasingly concerned that the little things in her life continuously get in the way of the big things, is told with the kind of patience and detail often absent both within simple conversation and in the broad stroke storytelling used so commonly in contemporary cinema. Colours pop out of the screen as we are presented with the work of a character completely in love with his craft, while focus and composition are cleverly used to isolate May from everyone around her who are unknowingly able to connect with her boyfriend in a way that she cannot.
A painfully tense performance from Donahue perfectly encapsulates the dread that May carries around within her own, otherwise perfect relationship, contrasted brilliantly by Nassor's smart, talented and instantly likeable Cyril, who walks obliviously into the biggest test of his relationship with May.
Performance is front and centre with the third in the trilogy, 'Helberger In Paradise' which follows Kate Lyn Shiel's Nora, attending the funeral of her childhood friend Rosalee Helberger. Here we have a movie that utilises far less stylistic coverage than the other two, instead opting for the raw emotion of a girl who never really found her way and carries around grief and anger towards the person who was supposed to be lost along with her. So moving is the story and intricate is the emotional journey that we cannot help but empathise with a girl who it would be so easy not to like, because we can relate to being left behind.
The greater tragedy is that Nora has been dealing (or not dealing) with the fact that she lost her partner-in-listlessness long before her death, adding abandonment to her sense of loss. A towering performance from Musto Pelinkovicci as a gruff but forthright taxi driver provides an unexpected compass to our lost protagonist. Here, Misny brilliantly combines two people who could not be more different and gives Nora an opportunity that perhaps no one since Rosalee has given her.
The best thing about this trilogy of films is that it does not give you answers, it gives you people - real people. People do not always have life figured out. People do not always know how to get around even simple emotional pitfalls. And people are not always likeable. What T.J. Misny challenges us to do is empathise, not with schoolyard moral concepts, but with the complexities of the human beings that we must all encounter.
If it's neat and tidy conclusions that you are looking for, then perhaps these films are not for you. But if you are looking for movies that visually phrase questions about the human experience, and even questions about yourself that you perhaps did not think to ask, then you are in for a treat. Whether you love carefully wielded visual styles and techniques, skilfully coaxed and masterfully expressed dramatic performances (watch out for the heartbreaking pain, mixed with genuine confusion in the eyes of a dinner friend that Laurel torments in "High and Dry"), or intimate, detailed and sensitive storytelling from a sensational filmmaker whose best work, incredibly, is yet to come, the 'Intimate Semaphores' trilogy should definitely be on your watch list. Check out T.J. Misny's body of work on his site, on Vimeo and check out his comedy collaborations with Paul Gale on YouTube. Oh, and catch our interview with him below.