For many, there is an unfathomable bond of love between siblings which spans lifetimes regardless of whatever is thrown at it, and within that enduring connection exists an ineffable energy which filmmaker Giorgio Miraflor poignantly captures in his latest short Me + Lee. The second instalment in the Brooklyn based filmmaker’s genre traversing short film series, Me + Lee is a narrative led slice of life drama inspired by his own fraternal relationship, whilst also being a reflection of his Filipino heritage. Set within a flat brimming with signifiers of the rich relationship which unfolded within its walls, Miraflor effectively uses the location to immerse us in the cloistered life of his protagonist, a reclusive existence which could potential be shifted by an unexpected conversation with his pizza delivery guy. DN invited Miraflor to join us for a conversation about his desire to show realistic, non-caricature depictions of Filipino lives in his films, working in perfect symbiosis with his DP to build the hazy tone of Me + Lee and the symbiotic narrative partnership that can exist between tragedy and comedy.
Family is a rich pool of exploration within film, what inspired you to draw upon yours for Me + Lee?
Regarding the creation of Me + Lee, it all really started during the pandemic. I left Brooklyn so I could lock down closer to my family back home in St. Petersburg FL. I was able to spend more consistent time with my little brother Salmo again, and it just hit me like a wave. All the best reasons why I love the kid, the simple ones; like our countless stoned conversations that never would’ve ended if no one stopped us, the unwavering support we have for each other, and the roaring and some would describe obnoxious laughs we share. These things are evergreen to me, a feeling and energy that can live forever. So with that brewing in me while also watching High Fidelity, the Hulu Series with Zoe Kravitz, I started to really find an idea for my next short, along with a look for it as well. I am also in the middle of a genre hopping short film series, looking to complete four in total before I start my first feature. uTransfer was my first for sci-fi, and Me + Lee felt like a natural way for me to find a second story and explore the slice-of-life-drama genre for the second installation.
I wanted it to feel hazy and comfortable in order to settle into the location for viewers and the characters.
My main goals with the short were threefold. To display my adoration and love for my little brother by telling a story that allows for people to realize that certain energies, relationships, and I know it’s cheesy but I’ll say it again LOVE, can be everlasting no matter the circumstance. It’ll always be there for you. I wanted to represent Filipino culture by showing different parts of it, the good and the bad and to make people feel like they’re just in the room with these two people as they connect. The same way a lot of Mark Duplass films make me feel.
This was also my first collaboration with my now go-to DP, the brilliant Bradley Credit. We shot this on a BlackMagic URSA, and we really wanted to capture a mixture of the aforementioned High Fidelity vibe with a sprinkle of Last Black Man in San Francisco. I wanted it to feel hazy and comfortable in order to settle into the location for viewers and the characters.
You explore Filipino culture and Me + Lee represents the BIPOC nature of modern life In New York. Whilst things are slowly changing, we still don’t see enough of this on screen. Why was this all important to you to include and show as a filmmaker?
Growing up I hardly ever really found Asian representation in film and TV let alone Filipino representation; and when I did, they tended to be more stereotypical or one dimensional. I hated seeing us be the butt of jokes or our cultures be judged and used for comedic effect. So after graduating film school I made it a point to show my culture and people in my films. And more importantly, show it in a way that is intrinsically human. Not an Asian-American or Filipino-American caricature, rather humans living their lives and seeing how these cultures affect them and their circumstances. And you’re absolutely right, we are slowly seeing some changes in the industry and getting more and more interesting stories for Asian-Ams; so I think it’s the prime time to continue telling these stories and showing these faces. I love, admire, and respect my people: and I just want to open the door for others to do the same. Come on in, we don’t bite…unless you want us to!
I hated seeing us be the butt of jokes or our cultures be judged and used for comedic effect.
You mentioned Mark Duplass films, like most Mumblecore genre films, was this largely improvised dialogue?
I love this question! As we’ve discussed, while writing the film I was watching the Hulu Series High Fidelity and that was such a huge influence for the vibe. As for the dialogue, it was a heavy amount of Duplass inspo. Like you said, the improvised nature gave a lot of his films such a realistic feel to the conversations and I admired it so much. But oddly enough with Me + Lee, all of the dialogue was straight from the script. I guess I just harped on wanting the conversation to sound as real as possible with the imperfections, flow, build, at times awkwardness, and all that fun stuff DURING the writing process, that it just felt goldilocks already for us when it came down to filming. Plus, major credit to my wickedly skilled co-lead Johnny Manibusan; he really understood the character, story, and energy which made performing so easy. It was his audition that made me script lock, and when we had our first rehearsal I knew it was going to be butter because it really felt like one of the many stoned conversations I’ve had with my brother Salmo. Truly a dream scene partner.
I loved the snappy editing in your entirely relatable scenes where we see Theo desperately trying to get back to a less reclusive routine.
Oh thank you! I had a really fun time editing that sequence. I think tragedy and comedy can go hand in hand sometimes, it’s a symbiotic partnership in the right moments. While writing that portion I found it too one dimensional on paper. Sad guy tries not-sad things to not be sad but fails. So in the direction and edit, I wanted to add some flare and energy to it. One of my favorite shows of all time Fleabag does a really great job of this in its editing style, and luckily I found a way to piece it together in that way for that moment.
I think tragedy and comedy can go hand in hand sometimes, it’s a symbiotic partnership in the right moments.
I have to ask about the production design, the flat adds its own dimension to the film. How did you plan the shots and camera placements to make us feel so comfortable within the confines of that single location?
Oh yes yes, I absolutely love that flat. I spent a lot of time hunting for the right location, and once I saw this particular one I jumped on it immediately. It ticked off a lot of crucial things; the comfortability that you mentioned, the worn-in feel to show some texture, and for it to have the same character as Theo and his brother. When my mastermind DP Bradley Credit and I scouted the location, we wanted to make sure to find ways to capture as much of the flat’s personality as we could. Because the personality of the flat enhances the realism of Theo and his brother, and the type of people they were when they did live together. It’s quirky, artsy, full, and always has something to catch the eye. We wanted the viewers to feel like they were actually in the same space watching this vulnerable moment without it feeling claustrophobic.
Can you tell us more about working with your DP on that hazy vibe which immerses us entirely into Theo’s period of recluse and crisis as well as the following reinvigoration with his own life?
MORE HAZZEEEEEE! This was the chant and motto of the shoot. As I mentioned earlier, Bradley is a brilliant brilliant brilliant (yes thrice is necessary) DP and he made sure we had that haze machine ready. We were cranking that thing like there was no tomorrow. The hazy nature of the look was important because it worked on a few layers for us. One, these two have been smoking weed so it in a literal sense needed to be that. But also because of how we approached the overall look, the haze enabled the energy to feel magical without it being surreal. Kind of like when you hit a perfect high where you’re just immersed in the calming effects. We wanted you to feel like slightly stoned flies on the wall during the conversation; to make you feel even more part of the moments with Theo and Lee.
The haze enabled the energy to feel magical without it being surreal.
As the conversation veers towards the more initially uncomfortable questions about Theo’s brother the cinematography becomes more intimate with close-up shots of their faces. Could you tell me more about that choice of framing?
Oh yes, the ever so invasive close ups. Haha. This was a pivotal moment in the film for me because it’s when all the uncertainty and questions just melt away. It’s the point where we know the truth, and I wanted to go close on both because it emphasizes further that you can’t hide anything now. Both characters have to show it all, whether it’s the truth to Theo’s trauma and grief, or the truth to Lee’s understanding and reaction to the actual situation at hand. It’s about as clear of a look at their characters you can get. It shows how grief stricken Theo is, and how kind and empathetic Lee is. And I also think that it’s a way for me to visualize that as the film goes, you’re only getting closer to these characters both figuratively and literally.
Music is integral to the plot and the connection between our characters, your end song is so fitting, was this a big decision?
It was definitely a huge decision and I will take no credit haha. I am lucky enough to have a frequent collaborator and friend in the insanely talented Hollie Buhagiar. She scored my thesis film in 2017, and ever since then she’s been my go to composer. The process is always easy with her and this was no different. I sent her my references which ranged from Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, to Arcade Fire’s Song on the Beach. She understood that this music was a big connector for Theo and Lee, and that’s all she needed to come up with the wonderful concoction for the film’s score and soundtrack. When she sent her first pass for the flashback montage I straight up cried. While crying isn’t uncommon for me, that one felt special. Haha. She is incredible.
Tell me more about your short film series, having broached sci-fi and now a slice-of-life-drama, what are the next two pieces going to be and are you working on anything else outside of the series?
I am so proud of my first two installations and feel so lucky that they’ve been received well on the festival circuit; so thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about my series! I’m very excited to announce that my next two pieces are going to be a horror and a whodunnit! Just a quick tease on both; Gorge is the horror short and I co-wrote this with one of my best friends AJ Hernandez. It thematically explores some of our personal struggles with weight loss and eating disorders through the lens of horror. A Classy Man is the other and again I am blessed to be able to collaborate with an amazing writer friend of mine Libby Gardner; she solely wrote this hilarious whodunnit that magnifies and pokes fun at toxic masculinity. As far as anything outside of my series, I’m constantly writing and rewriting my first feature. It’s gotta be trim and ready by the time I finish the series.