2014 Brooklyn Film Festival Interview: TJ Misny (Writer/Director – ‘Intimate Semaphores’

INTIMATE SEMAPHORES‘ is a collection of three short stories, each a surreal and darkly comic exploration of creative expression and how our artistic impulses have the power to unite us or alienate us. “Helberger In Paradise” stars Kate Lyn Sheil as a New Yorker who returns to her hometown to make good on an anarchistic promise to a deceased lover. “High And Dry” stars Ariane Labed as a privileged street photographer who suspects that her declining eyesight might have disturbing psychological implications. “The Crumb of It” stars Jocelin Donahue as a struggling comedian dating a rising star pastry chef played by Chioke Nassor, who find that their creative pursuits may sabotage their new relationship. 

*Filmmakers Note: The three films are separate stories, much like a collection of short fiction, however they have some connective tissue that would make them ideal to watch together. The dramatic/comedic stories explore the lives of artistic young New Yorkers who find their creative pursuits coming into direct conflict with other aspects of their lives. These characters each encounter strange and surreal obstacles, both internal and external while striving to actualize their true selves. 

Intimate Semaphores‘ Screens as the Opening Night Film at the 2014 Brooklyn Film Festival on Friday, May 30 and again on Friday, June 6, 2014.  Anticipating the film’s Brooklyn Film Festival run we spoke with its Writer/Director/Editor TJ Misny on the decision to screen 3 shorts as a feature film, the challenges in making a complex, self financed indie film, navigating the new distribution landscape and much more.

Find More Information & Tickets to ‘Intimate Semaphores’ at the 2014 Brooklyn Film FestivalHERE

Why did you decide to make an anthology style film?  I know this film is, essentially, 3 shorts but was there ever a point where they existed as standalone films?
I was looking for the next thing to do after the first short I made a couple of years ago.  At the time I was 24 so I knew it had to be a “small” feature.  I also knew it had to be self financed because I did not feel like jumping the gun on a first feature.  I had 3 story ideas which all bubbled up within one week and I thought it would be fun to let the content dictate the form.  I feel like in most film related projects the form dictates what it has to be.  It liberated me to tell these stories in a way where I was not limited to form.  I knew each film could play as a short or I could put them together.  At that time, when I was writing, people were just starting to binge watch TV and I thought about how the rules of form were changing.  As much as I like feature films, why not try something that would challenge the perceptions of what a motion picture can be and how it can be viewed.


Kate Lyn Sheil stars in “Helberger In Paradise”

You assumed many roles on this film including Writer, Director & Editor. How did you balance all these responsibilities?
It is all very connected to me.  I have never done it any other way.  I have never just written or just edited.  It has always been a very interconnected workflow.

I am not sure who coined the term, but editing is like writing the last draft of the script. When I am writing I am definitely thinking about the things a Director must in terms of their actors.  In every scene I make a real point in having a very strong grasp on all characters objective and what each person in the film is trying to accomplish.  When I have these conversations with actors I listen to their incite but I also feel like I understand what every character is going through since all those things were discovered while writing.  I would have a hard time isolating any of these responsibilities.

Do you take particular enjoyment in any one of these roles?
I do not think any would be enjoyable if any other was not in the mix.  The tough part about writing and editing is that they are both very solitary processes and that is fine.  That is the way they are for me and it is not a complaint.  There is, however, something very special about being on set and watching an actor surprise you.  There is really no greater joy than that.  We had a couple of moments in each of these shorts where, I thought I knew what the scene would end up being, one of the actors would come in, commit to something and surprise me. These are the greatest moments of joy throughout the process.

How did you get the cast together?  What was your approach as a Director in working with the actors?
Casting was done by Nina Day and Zan Ludlum.  Each film had a female protagonist.  As a film lover, I find it frustrating at the amount of talented actresses out there yet the lack of complex roles I would hope existed for them. There are some but I find that number to be disappointingly low.  I thought it would be great to write three leads who would be challenging, unlikable and complex.  Nina and Zan came up with a list of names and the people who really spoke to me were ultimately the three leads (Kate Lyn Sheil, Ariane Labed, Jocelin Donahue) whom I had seen in terrific films before.  It was great to get a diverse mix of people.  I thought it would be cool to come up with a stew of different backgrounds and see what would bubble up from that tension.


Ariane Labed stars in “High And Dry”

How did you approach the film with your Director of Photography?  How did you approach the cinematography as a whole, as well as its individual parts?
Cinematographer Adam Newport Berra is someone I have worked with a handful of times before and is an essential collaborator for me.  I cannot imagine shooting a film without the discussions we would have.  For everyone of the shorts we set a handful of guidelines.  Not just for the sake of differentiation but every story has a different journey so there needs to be the right corresponding visual language to express them all.  In “High and Dry”, for example, there is a story having to do with a protagonists world closing in on her and the decisions she makes alienate her from her surroundings.  That film features scenes done in long zoom shots where the frame traps her.  This is something that does not happen in any of the other films because that is not what they do.  Consequently, “High and Dry” does not feature any hand held shots and there are some in the other two.

Did you find any of the three short films to be particularly challenging to produce?
The challenge came from the fact they were shot in sequence and at the same time.  I do not think one was harder to shoot than any other but the fact that we shot something in 16 days that featured over 40 speaking parts, 35 locations and a lot of logistics to coordinate was a lot of plates to spin.  If we had shot these separately, or with fewer pieces, it may have been ok to lose a piece here and there, but as it stands there was no real room for flexibility.

Was there any aspect of the project you had anticipated as being difficult yet ended up not being so?
I am going to say no.  I do not think anything surprised me in that way.


Jocelin Donahue stars in “The Crumb of It”

You had gone down a successful crowdfunding route with Kickstarter. What was your strategy?
I do not want to trivialize or undervalue our Kickstarter campaign as it was crucial to the completion of the film but it was a very small fraction of the film’s total expense.  I would hesitate to loop us in with filmmakers who rely on crowdsourcing for their budget because ours did not even cover a day of shooting.

I would say that the key is to appeal to people directly.  I think the mistakes people make are thinking others actually care about their film.  People are not giving money to a project, they are giving money to you.  People want to see you succeed and achieve your dreams since you are reaching out to those you know.  If you create a campaign or platform where you can express your hopes and dreams in a way people you know understand them, then you can also let people you do not know contribute since it will connect on a personal level.  I was very surprised to see people from foreign countries with no connection to anyone involved, but who had watched our short video, thinking we were doing something worthwhile and contributing.

You say that a good percentage of your backers just happened upon the project?
I am really not sure.  I know it is possible to search the Kickstarter site so that must have been how they found it.

What is your strategy in getting this film out to as wide an audience as possible?  Has your strategy evolved over the life of the film thus far?
When I was starting, I wanted to keep as open a mind as possible regarding what the possibilities for this film would be.  Now that it is finished I find it interesting (and surprising) the first place to play it is playing it as a feature.  I submitted to the Brooklyn Film Festival as three shorts but, to their credit, it was invited as an opening night feature.  I thought this was terrific and showed imagination behind their programing.  That being said, I am going to continue to be open minded.  I will keep sending them in as shorts but if there is a festival I feel has the same spirit as BFF I may send it in as a feature.  I am definitely keeping online distribution in mind as well.

Finally, who are some of your personal filmmaking influences?
One of the things I wanted to do was not go out of my way to think about it in terms of other filmmakers.  I was more inspired by thinking about different people I knew or different ideas of character and story.  In general, Steven Soderbergh has said cinema is a specificity of vision so filmmakers I am drawn to are those you can sense you are getting a very specific point of view.  Someone like Jim Jarmusch, who can make anything and you know it is coming from him.

– Interview Conducted, Edited & Transcribed by Steve Rickinson

Intimate-Semaphores-Official-PosterAbout The Filmmaker
T.J. Misny directs and photographs those moving pictures you keep hearing about. He is currently in the early stages of preproduction on the feature film COMEBACK CITY. His collection of three short films, INTIMATE SEMAPHORES starring Kate Lyn Sheil, Ariane Labed And Jocelin Donahue is premiering at the 2014 Brooklyn Film Festival. The comedy shorts T.J. directed have totaled over 3 million YouTube views, have been written about in The New Yorker, Huffington Post, Business Insider, New York Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Grantland, Complex and have been named the best webseries of 2012 (Indiewire, “the untitled webseries that Morgan Evans is doing” + USA Today, “i hate being single”) and 2013 (Variety, “little horribles”, Complex “broad city”.) He lives in New York City.







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