Short Films in Focus: Troy

We’ve all had that one neighbor you can hear through the walls of your apartment. The one who makes no apologies for their loudness or their peculiar habits. The one where you have to muster up the courage to knock on their door and ask, “Are you okay? Can you please take it down a notch? Do I need to contact the landlord about this?” For Thea (Adina Verson) and Charlie (Michael Braun), a couple in a strained relationship built on routines, their neighbor Troy (Florian Klein) provides the fodder for this conundrum in the form of loud, vigorous sex that seems to go on all day and all night long. 

“Troy,” directed by Mike Donahue, is very funny about this situation, but it’s not going for a cringe factor. Thea and Charlie are genuinely intrigued by Troy once they get past the mental images they have to invent based on what they hear. They hear fights Troy has with his boyfriend about his line of work (erotic massage, he calls it). When Troy is dumped, he descends into non-stop ugly-crying that also becomes hard to ignore. This sets Thea and Charlie on a new mission, one that brings them out of their routine and into a newfound interest in their own relationship. 

“Troy” gets a lot right about being a couple living in these kinds of apartments and how neighbors can upend your existence into something that becomes a mystery that has to be solved without getting directly involved. Thea and Charlie’s friends are equally interested in the drama unfolding in Troy’s apartment, and there’s even a side drama that happens when one of Thea’s friends housesits for them, which results in a small tragedy. There’s a lot people can relate to here and recognize, even if you’ve never lived near a sex worker. 

Donahue and screenwriter Jen Silverman don’t make judgments about Troy’s life, where so much of it could have been used for cheap punchlines. Much of the film is funny (particularly a moment involving Dylan Baker), but Donahue and Silverman know how to frame the story ultimately as one about empathizing with a loud, annoying neighbor and not fighting against them. There is a risk to that, of course, but also, potentially, a reward. “Troy” is a surprisingly sweet and wise film about choosing to learn about your neighbor instead of just calling the landlord to complain. 

Q&A with co-writer/director Mike Donahue

How did this movie come about?

As a director, I’ve always been drawn to stories of unexpected or surprising intimacy—and to stories about people who reveal themselves to be something other than what you initially assumed. With “Troy,” we were specifically inspired by our own experiences with a particularly wild and engaging neighbor. Though in our fictional version, it’s not even just the neighbor’s raucous sex—it’s also his monumental heartbreak, his celebratory joy. Troy is a man who unapologetically (and loudly) lives in extremes. I don’t think Thea & Charlie are in a bad relationship, but I do think they’ve become overly settled in their routine and overly comfortable. They’re people who, when we meet them, are living within a fairly narrow bandwidth of daily experiences. One of Troy’s gifts to them is that he wakes them up to the peaks and valleys of life—whether they’re turned on together because of his epic orgasm, deeply feeling his heartbreak, or feeding off the mystery of who he is. Troy shocks them out of their routine of eating takeout on the couch and silently watching TV; because of Troy, they actually start talking to each other again, find shared passions and curiosities, and make events out of their daily tasks together rather than just living routinely through them.

I noticed so many movies I ended up programming for this year’s Chicago Critics Film Festival were films that were (like yours) very sex-positive, even though the merits of “sex in film” are currently being debated by younger audiences. Did you and your co-writers have discussions about the attitude toward sex and the character of Troy and what you wanted to convey and/or avoid?

Yes! We knew from the jump that we wanted to make something sex-positive* and open-hearted. Both thematically and tonally. Thea and Charlie are continuously surprised by each new IV drip of information they get about Troy—but at every turn, when they could be judgmental, they instead lean in. I think Thea, as a character, is extraordinarily empathetic—for me, the moment she hugs their shared wall, attempting to send her neighbor a hug through the wall, is what the film is really about. At a talk back in my conservative hometown, one well-meaning person said: “I think this movie is so important right now because it teaches us that gay people are people too.” And while that isn’t … quite what I think the takeaway is—I do love that she was zeroing in on that. Ultimately, this little film is humbly hoping to inspire us all to have more curiosity and compassion for one another. Sex-positivity and a non-judgemental approach to Troy and his sex work are key to that.

*Maybe worth noting, the actor who plays Troy is an internationally known gay porn star under the name Hans Berlin.

I love that Dylan Baker shows up briefly, turning in a memorable performance with so little screen time. Can you talk about that scene and how he got involved?

Dylan Baker is the most extraordinary and transformative actor—he elevates every single film and TV series he’s in. For the past decade, I’ve worked primarily as a theater director. Dylan was one of the first directors I ever assisted back when I got out of grad school and had moved back to NYC from Berlin. Dylan has remained incredibly supportive of me, and I’m so grateful he was game to come in and shoot with us for a few hours. 

With “Troy,” we wanted to craft something tonally slippery and off-kilter, so hopefully, you’re on the ride with Thea & Charlie, but never quite sure exactly which way the ride will veer next. We wanted an audience to live on the knife’s edge of a mystery, thriller, comedy, and love story. From a character standpoint, Thea & Charlie feed off an injection of mystery into their staid lives—eventually, their questions about Troy and his life drive and reinvigorate them. With this particular scene that Dylan is in, we wanted to immediately upend Thea & the audience’s assumptions of who might be engaging sexually with Troy (and what that then may or may not allow us to conclude about Troy). The character Dylan plays—his clothes, class, age, seeming lack of comfort being clocked as gay, yet his total desperation for Troy—is all designed to knock Thea off-kilter and inspire even more questions about who her neighbor is and what’s going on.  

In addition to Dylan’s character, we wrote most of these roles for folks we’ve worked with in NYC theatre—Adina and Dana Delany were in the last play Jen and I did in NYC together, Max Jenkins starred in an Ana Nogueira play I directed the premiere of in NYC last year. Because theatre generally requires you to be so economical with the number of actors you work with, I was so excited to structure something with Jen Silverman that called for a bunch of cameos in quick cut scenes—so we could get a sense of how pervasive Troy’s reach actually is. And to tailor each of these roles for actors we love, actors who are specific and sharp with tone. For me and writer Jen Silverman, tone is so critical—we wanted to make a grounded, dry, absurdist comedy in which real people, making emotionally grounded choices, escalate into increasingly more extreme absurdity. The fun comes from how far we can push these micro-escalations while keeping the performances grounded so that we can stay on the ride with them.  

There are so many ways this could have ended. Did you have other ideas?

That ending has always been the ending. We wanted to land the surprisingly profound loss Thea & Charlie experience when Troy vanishes and then we wanted to button out with a sense of joy and hope for them—to see them have the creativity, ingenuity, and inspiration to keep living in this more keyed-in way even though the initial catalyst for their transformation is gone. We’ve started working on the feature-length version of “Troy,” though—where the short serves as a first-act launchpad into a wilder, queerer but still open-hearted adventure for our lead couple (and Troy)—about blowing up the rules to live more spontaneously, joyously, and connectedly. And in the feature, Troy’s disappearance isn’t quite so easily buttoned and solved.

What’s next for you?

Jen Silverman and I are working on our first feature with Ed Helms’ production company, Pacific Electric. And we just started work on the feature-length version of “Troy.” This winter at The Goodman Theatre, with producer Mark Gordon, I’m directing the world premiere of a piece Jen Silverman, Dane Laffrey, Dana Delany, and I have been building together for the last five years based on a relationship in Dana’s life that was entirely online. The play is called Highway Patrol, and it’s set during the early days of Twitter when Dana was doing “Body of Proof” on ABC. The network asked her to start a Twitter account to promote the show, and she ended up in this really intimate and intense—and unexpectedly escalating—relationship with a young fan and his family. It’s crafted from thousands of direct messages and emails, and we think of it as part thriller, part ghost story, and part love story.