“We Only Had an Official Gaffer for Two Days”: Robert Machoian on The Killing of Two Lovers
Despite the grim promise of its title, Robert Machoian’s The Killing of Two Lovers is more emotionally brutal than it is violent. Set in a Utah town so small that everyone knows everyone, the film follows David (Clayne Crawford), a depressed everyman who has recently separated from his wife and the mother of his children, Nikki (Sepideh Moafi). Well-intentioned though it may be, their agreement to spend time apart and potentially date other people sends David into a downward spiral, and once he’s made aware of his wife’s new male friend, Derek (Chris Coy), things grow more complicated and conclude with an unexpected act of aggression. Whether the two lovers of the film’s title are David and Nikki or Nikki and Derek is an ambiguous question deliberately left open for interpretation.
Having premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020, The Killing of Two Lovers is now in theaters and On Demand, courtesy of NEON. Earlier this week, I spoke with Machoian (a former 25 New Face of Independent Film making his solo directorial debut) about production challenges on the film, location-scouting in Utah, filming in different aspect ratios, and how he continues to refine his career path.
Filmmaker: You relocated to Utah a few years ago for a teaching gig at Brigham Young University and your latest film, The Killing of Two Lovers, takes place in Utah as well. How does where you’re living influence the next story you’re eager to tell?
Machoian: I do try to write about the areas I’m currently living in, as much as I can. God Bless the Child took place in Davis, California, because Rodrigo [Ojeda-Beck] and I were living in Davis at the time and discussing the types of stories we could tell there. Then, when I lived in Monterey, California, each of the films we made took place in Monterey. Once I arrive at a place, I start listening and observing the narratives that exist in that particular city, while remembering to also incorporate themes that could be considered more universal.
I should also note that while Rodrigo and I were living in Davis and making films together, I was also an adjunct teacher during the day. I chose that “career route” in an effort to have a little more creative control in the films I wanted to make. That was the idea, at least. I looked at filmmaker/professors like Kelly Reichardt and have tried to model my career after them. When I was an undergrad, I specifically remember watching Wendy and Lucy and being like, “Okay, Kelly Reichardt teaches at Bard and she’s able to make these really profound films. Maybe I should consider a similar path.” I looked into graduate schools to apply to immediately after undergrad for a similar reason, to follow in Kelly’s footsteps and eventually get into teaching. When the job here in Utah came up, it was essentially what I had been looking for for a long time. I have a family that I have certain financial responsibilities to, of course, but I still wanted to keep a creative freedom within my filmmaking [as a result of also working as a professor]. It’s a difficult balance to maintain.
There’s a certain urge to all of a sudden be like, “Okay, forget it. I’m just going to move to L.A. and see if I can make as much money as possible and hope for the best.” It’s been a back and forth battle for me, making the decision to have a “slower-paced” career trajectory. Because what you do is, you compare [yourself] to filmmakers that had films at Sundance in the same year you did, and you then watch them go on to make bigger movies that you don’t make. Rodrigo and I had two shorts at Sundance in 2013 before making our first feature, Forty Years From Yesterday, which was a very, very quiet movie. We essentially made it so that we could learn how to make a feature film….and we were very much learning on that film. It premiered at the L.A. Film Festival in the summer of 2013 and Ryan Coogler was also at the festival with his first feature, Fruitvale Station [a Gala presentation that year]. It was very obvious in the room where Ryan’s career was headed and we were, of course, making a conscious choice to be like, “Well, Ryan’s path and our path are just two different paths! Our motors are different!” I think you have to realign your thinking so that you never feel anxious.
I eventually moved to Utah, then Rodrigo and I got the idea for a film that was inspired by the amount of female runners based in the state. I’m not exaggerating when I say that not only are there a lot, but they’re really strong, competitive runners. You’ll see them participating in long distance runs while simultaneously having a stroller with two of their children next to them and I was completely blown away by their commitment. Rodrigo and I made a tiny, no-budget feature, When She Runs, that, if it doesn’t do justice to the women in the community, looks at how one woman has to toggle between her family and her career. That’s definitely something I could relate to.
Filmmaker: You include people you’re close to in your films in significant ways as well and, I believe, your leading actor on The Killing of Two Lovers, Clayne Crawford, was a friend you had made over a decade ago at Sundance. Did this film come about from a desire to work with him? Or do you always begin from a place of thinking about your personal life? What’s the initial impetus?
Machoian: Initially it’s always like, “What am I experiencing in my own world?” In the case of The Killing of Two Lovers, I was noticing that married friends of ours, who had been married for as long as my wife and I had been, were beginning to separate (they also had children, like my wife and I do). And I was like, “What is going on?” I was talking with my wife and she reassured me, “We’re fine, don’t worry about it.” And I was thinking, “I never thought they would separate…but then they did, so…” I was diving into what was happening amongst our friends, which is this thing they called drifting that made me think about how I would react if I were in a similar situation.
A few friends of mine did not act well in their marriages, doing things that were embarrassing and very outside of who they were as people. I saw a kind of primal narrative there. As I was watching this occur, I kept asking them, “Are you upset that your wife is leaving you because you love her and don’t want to lose her? Or is it that you can’t imagine her with someone else?” And then I’d ask, “Wait, do you consider her some kind of property to you? What are the instincts motivating this line of thinking?”
Of course, the situation is different for everybody, but the kernel of this film came from those questions. I began thinking about what the lead character, David, could be wrestling with, and I chose the “madly-in-love” angle. From his perspective, David had everything he ever dreamed of when he was married to Nikki. And from Nikki’s perspective, the possibility of what she could do with her life is only now opening up. How do two individuals handle those different paths, where one is like, “I could become a lawyer soon,” and the other saying, “Well, I’m happy right here. We got a house, we’ve got our hometown, we’ve got our kids…What more do you want out of life?” I wanted those questions to come up for a couple twenty years into their marriage as opposed to two or three.
Filmmaker: That hometown is particularly striking, not least for how every location in the film is so close in proximity. David’s childhood home (where he now lives with his ailing father) is a few steps from where David and Nikki’s shared home is, and you open the film with a long take that has David literally running down the block from one home to the other. It’s a great scene that establishes in one shot how tied everyone is to one another. There’s hardly any spatial distance between them and that too is a painful fact of life when going through a divorce and running into your lover (or her new boyfriend) every single day. How did you find that central location?
Machoian: Even though Kanosh is about two hours from where I live, it’s not a place you can accidentally discover. You would never, by accident, roll through Kanosh. But an amazing regional painter, Brian Kershisnik, had a studio down there that I discovered while visiting the area with another professor colleague of mine looking to shoot a short film. It was pointed out that a local building that was once an old boxing gym and then became the town’s basketball gym and then the town hall where they would put on plays, etc, was eventually bought by Brian and converted into an artist studio. Wanting to get away from home for a few days, I asked if I could stay at the studio to write, and Brian was open to it.
Around this time, I had been working on another project (actually, the film I just shot at the end of 2020) that I was going through rewrites on. The Killing of Two Lovers was tucked away, just a short in my mind, essentially the “date night” sequence that would be placed in the middle section of the feature. The Killing of Two Lovers was not my main [focus] at this time. However, one day while in Kanosh, I walked by a red-brick house [that would go on to factor into the film], took a photo and sent it to Clayton, saying, “We’re actually going to make a movie here.” I then started writing The Killing of Two Lovers as a feature with Kanosh as the central location. I liked the proximity between everything and knew that the main road [in town] was going to serve as its own character. There are good things/bad things/many things that happen on this tiny stretch of land, and I wrote the film knowing that Kanosh would play an important role.
The other major element present would be the beautiful landscapes that surround this town. Those landscapes and this small town are struggling to survive and co-exist together. That was very much a metaphor for the marriage we’re spending the film exploring, right? We’re having two characters fight who you then glance past to observe a beautiful landscape serving as their backdrop.
Filmmaker: There are several scenes in the film where those beautiful mountainous backdrops are quite prominent (David’s solitary afternoon of “target practice,” his final confrontation with Nikki, etc.). When you’re scouting locations, is it simply you driving around town and taking in these sights, saying, “OK, so here is going to be where this crucial scene takes place and over here is where I’ll set this other crucial scene?” Are those decisions dependent on the sights that make up the backdrop?
Machoian: Well, the town is very tiny (about three blocks each way), so when you drive around, you’re not driving around for too long. I spoke with the liaison for the town and, when I told him that we were going to be shooting at the red-brick house and were looking for another house within close proximity to serve as the house David lives in with his father, he said, “Well, there is my parents’ house. Let’s ask them.” We knocked on their door and asked and that’s how we secured the home. As a character, David does a lot of handyman, for-hire work in the film, so I started thinking about where he would haul away a bunch of the stuff the other characters ask him to get rid of. Our town liaison told me, “Oh, so-and-so now owns a house just down the road. Let me show you!” We’d drive down to the home and were told, “Well, they haven’t moved in yet, but let’s see if they’d be open to you featuring it in the movie.” That’s how we ended up with the home of Ms. Staples, the older character in the film who requests David’s services. Essentially, the location scouting consisted of me sharing with our location scout what I needed, then having him showing me sites that were viable options nearby.
Filmmaker: David is a character who is most at home in the driver’s seat of his truck (his destination is often less important than our just being alongside him as he drives). In these extended sequences, I couldn’t figure out if you had mounted the camera on the window of the driver’s side or if the camera was positioned inside the car itself. What was your setup like for those driving sequences?
Machoian: We had a car mount strapped down and hanging a little bit off the car door to Clayne’s side. He and I had discussed David’s emotional state quite a bit before the shoot and agreed that his character was going to have everything expressed via his face. That’s an exciting goal to have as a director, to have the actor’s performance either be really wide or very micro, depending on the shot. We only go from wide to tight (or tight to wide) in the film, resisting any form of medium space. Clayne knew where the camera was, and how close it would be in those driving sequences, and knew that every aspect of his performance had to play to that.
In and of itself, the car is really David’s only home. He’s staying at his dad’s house, yes, but that’s his childhood home. That’s not his home anymore. He’s not able to be at his actual home, or what used to be his home [before the separation] and he may never be allowed in his home again. The only refuge he has is his truck. It was critical then that we have key moments happen within it. We have his daughter let him know that she’s caught her mom [with another man] or we have the scene where David squeezes all of the kids into his truck to drive them to the local park. Each of these moments become significant to the film, because they take place in this one vehicle.
Filmmaker: When David and Nikki have their pre-scheduled “date night” that goes somewhat awry, that too is an extended dialogue scene that’s confined to the front of that truck. I believe that sequence plays out in real time, and I really appreciated how you balanced out the mundaneness of the event (driving around the block to give the impression to their daughter that Mom and Dad have left and are officially out for the night) with the uncomfortableness that arrives once Nikki’s new boyfriend, Derek, arrives to drop off flowers. Even then, Derek’s pulling up to the house isn’t shown; we just get the headlights from his car shining intrusively into David’s truck and onto David’s face. You keep us inside the truck, even as action is happening around them.
Machoian: That was very tricky because, at the time, we only had an official gaffer for two days. For most of the shoot, it was either myself, our cinematographer Oscar Ignacio Jiménez, or our sound guy gaffing for us. Luckily, one of the two days we had an official gaffer was for that sequence you described, so we were able to fake the lighting set up. Our gaffer panned several lights across Clayne’s face [to give the impression of Derek’s headlights pulling up to the house] as the scene was playing out. The whole shoot was a live orchestration, a mix between filmmaking and theater coexisting at the same time. Knowing that we would have several long takes, and that Clayne would have to drive around the block uninterrupted, and he and Sepideh would have to land their dialogue right as Clayne puts the car into park, we had to rehearse each beat. The silence in between the dialogue was just as important as the lines the actors are saying in that scene, so those too were their own beat. Their dialogue was intentionally “every-day”-like, as David and Nikki aren’t communicating on a daily basis since they separated. I can’t imagine walking into my wife unexpectedly and awkwardly being like, “Hey, how’s it going? How are….things?” We needed an awkward element hovering over that sequence, and we timed out each beat for Clayne and Sepideh to hit.
Luckily, we had our gaffer for that one day, so we were able to fake a few things. For those truck scenes, Oscar and our first AC, Nicole Hawkins, would oftentimes place themselves in the truck bed as Clayne was driving. They’d be laying down in the truck bed (to be safe) and sharing the monitor between them, Nicole pulling focus as Oscar directed.
Filmmaker: And in the final sequence, where a big argument and altercation takes place, I read that you were stationed in a golf cart tracking the action off-screen?
Machoian: That’s right. I’ve made films in the past that explore duration, sometimes duration for the sake of duration and sometimes duration due to the scene being interesting enough to force the viewer to stay in the scene and watch the arc and feel a bit trapped. While I wanted most of the scenes in The Killing of Two Lovers to primarily be two-to-three-minute one-takes, I wanted the final argument to be one long take (I can’t remember anymore if it’s seven or nine minutes). It didn’t feel right to remain static (as we had throughout the film) for that sequence. We had used a golf cart in the opening sequence of the film (where David is running from house to house), but it wound up blowing a tire while we were shooting due to how cold it was outside. We had to get the tire fixed and that took some time.
Once the tire was fixed, we used the golf cart again to shoot the final fight scene, something we shot about two days before production concluded. We didn’t have the golf cart available for any other period of time until we were able to get the tire fixed. Once it was and we knew we wanted to use it for the final fight, I told Oscar, “Look, the best way for us to do this is for you to run the camera and be framing the scene constantly”—we obviously discussed the type of framing, etc.— and “I’m going to be the one driving you on the golf cart.” I drove the golf cart, moving forward slightly depending on how the arc of the drama was unfolding between the actors, i.e. as David begins to feel isolated, I push in farther so that we could, in many ways, isolate the viewer, too, or, as David and Nikki have that brief moment together (the “calm before storm”) where he’s struggling and she realizes he’s struggling and she loves him and feels sorry for the fact that he’s struggling, and then BAM! Then the camera begins to pull back again.
It was very difficult to get right, not the least because the wheel we had gotten fixed was now constantly squeaking! And since the tension present in the scene was so high, the squeaking wheel threatened to be a real distraction for the actors. I had to be like, “I’m so sorry, this will squeak, but we need to do it this way. We can’t walk it and we can’t all of a sudden switch to handheld.” We didn’t have access to a dolly, and so I pleaded with my actors, “I need you to go with me on this,” and luckily they trusted me. When they came to watch the dailies that night, they were like, “This is amazing,” and I thanked them. For emotional purposes, we needed to have the camera establish some distance. We’d used wides and closeups for the majority of the movie, but this was the place where we needed to move in and out of those wides and closeups.
Filmmaker: I wanted to ask about your decision to frame the film in that squared, boxed Academy ratio and how that choice forms a relationship with the sound design. So much attention has been paid to the intricate sound work on the film, and I was wondering if you see the sound design as complementing the aspect ratio? We hear numerous elements offscreen that we can’t see, as the framing cuts out those things lurking around us. How did you arrive at that choice?
Machoian: It’s really tricky when you’re making films with limited budgets, right? Even so, you have to find the best way to accomplish something. There are films I’ve seen that are great movies, but sometimes I’m watching a specific scene that isn’t working because you just know that they didn’t have the right amount of resources. At that point, you’re needing to forgive the filmmaker, because you’re aware of the constraints they’re working under. You’re like, “You’re making an independent film and telling a story that a studio wouldn’t finance, and that in itself is awesome,” and you have an obligation to give them that leeway.
That’s not to say that people aren’t giving me the same amount of leeway (because, to some degree, they are), but if we take the scene where David is chasing after Derek in his truck: we didn’t have a stunt coordinator and we really didn’t have an environment where this was safe or could be done safely. The safe way to carry this scene out on a larger budget was just not available to us. It was not too long before then that I had watched Ida, the Paweł Pawlikowski film. There’s a sequence in Ida that involves a car accident, and the way they piece it together worked really well for what we were trying to accomplish on our film. When I watch Ida, I’m not asking, “Oh, you didn’t have the budget to have a car run off the road? Is that why you don’t [show it]?” It just occurs as is, and we accept that as a viewer because the story is so good.
When it came time to plan my version, I thought, “Well, we can’t have a car passing by David’s truck. We don’t have those resources available to us, but we can make the scene work via sound and performance. If we hone in on those elements, hopefully the audience will feel the tension and paranoia inherent in the characters.” That’s what we focused on as we blocked the scene out. I knew Peter Albrechtsen, our sound designer, was going to be involved in the film pretty early on, and we had numerous discussions about how he was planning to form the sound.
Now, as to how all of this relates to the film’s aspect ratio? I think we’ve arrived at a place where you get to choose your desired ratio for whatever artistic reason you may have, as opposed to being locked in on whichever film perforation you’re shooting on or so that it can be viewed on a 32-inch SD television. If you switch to Landscape mode, nobody will be able to see anything anyway! We had initially planned on [shooting] 1.66:1, as I love the aspect ratio. Once we got to the scenes in David’s truck, however, it felt like we needed to see less of his world. We needed to not be able to see in front of (or very far behind) him. If we could lock that off, the viewer would become as anxious as the character, and that felt appropriate for this movie. The final argument sequence does go to 1:66: 1 though, and in the future, I’d love to explore alternating aspect ratios in a single film, but I’m not there yet. I think Michael Bay just does whatever aspect ratio he wants to throughout his movies though.
From an artistic standpoint, it felt appropriate to primarily stay within 4:3 on this movie. I was worried we would start drawing unwanted attention if we were shifting aspect ratios too much over the course of the film, and that’s what I mean when I say that we’re not there yet. If you’re watching a movie and all of a sudden it makes a big jump in aspect ratio, you ask, “Why did they do that?” We just recently rewatched 500 Days of Summer and the film does the whole “side-panel” thing, but no one goes “Hey, what’s going on??” We’ve accepted that style choice from films of the 1970s.
Filmmaker: It’s essential film grammar now.
Machoian: I think we’re still used to a story being told with one, or at most two, aspect ratios.
Filmmaker: At the end of 2020, I believe you shot another feature with Clayne, set in Alabama. What was that experience like, shooting a film during a pandemic and under strict health-and-safety protocols? I imagine it added some extra constraints to the freeing nature of your previous sets.
Machoian: It was very challenging and was one of those experiences (as it relates to COVID anyway) that I hope to never do again. Hopefully, we all arrive at a place where we can go back to how things were [before the pandemic] soon. For example, when we were shooting interiors, I would have to wear a mask and a face-shield, which in and of itself is fine, but being Alabama [in the winter], it was relatively cold. Due to the weather, I was wearing a hoodie to stay warm, in addition to having to wear the mask and the face-shield as I was filming Jordana Brewster and Clayne. I knew Clayne fairly well, of course, and we had developed a shorthand over the years, but Jordana could only travel down for a few days and we never got the formal “Hey, let’s just hang out for an hour and chat” sort of thing. Because in the age of COVID, if you don’t need to be in the same room with each other, do not be in the same room with each other. You have to keep your distance, so I didn’t really get to dive into Jordana’s character with her as much as I had wanted.
On top of that, when we’re on set working out the scene, and I’m masked and wearing the face-shield and trying to keep my distance from Jordana (because she’s obviously not wearing a mask when we’re preparing to shoot the scene), forming a dialogue between the two of us is challenging. I felt very lucky in that Jordana is a great actress and she gave us a very authentic performance, but in a circumstance where maybe she wanted more directing or coaching, for the director to say, “Let’s try this a little bit differently…let’s put the water cup down over here at this mark…..can you tweak these little things here”—it becomes incredibly challenging to do when you’re encased in all of this protective gear. I admittedly left production thinking, “Well, I hope we have a movie…” I was very insecure for a long time until, actually just last night, when we did our first sound pass on the film. That’s when I finally felt, “OK, we do have a movie! And we’ve got a good movie!” All this time, I was worried I’d have to get back to the actors with, “I’m so, so sorry. Just remember, we shot this during COVID.” We were a bit lucky in that I had written this story in 2015, one that addresses the fear of the economy crashing throughout the world, and the script was pared down to mainly Clayne and a few other actors. I luckily didn’t have any crowd scenes on this shoot, as that probably would have been impossible to coordinate.
Filmmaker: You’ve mentioned how much of the feedback on your previous films consists of people saying that there’s no way that your films are scripted. And then with The Killing of Two Lovers (a film with a streamlined narrative and elements of a thriller), people still tell you there’s no way your work is scripted due to the naturalistic feel of the performances. Do you take that as a backhanded compliment?
Machoian: Overall? Yeah, I do consider it a compliment. I really experienced that when Clayne was performing the scene with the kids in the car as they drive to the park, and one of the things he said to me after they shot the scene was, “Your kids are so real that, if I don’t bring the same level of realness, I’ll be the one who looks like a bad actor. I don’t want that.” So, Clayne spent a lot of time with the boys to really study their cadences and develop a relationship. I think that’s what I’m striving for. It’s really only the writer in me that ever gets defensive, like, “Hey man, I wrote words and the actors are saying them!”
If I’m being honest, once we arrive on set and we’re workshopping a scene, I rarely go back to the script to make sure the exact words are being recited. I’m looking for the intention of the scene. I’m not policing lines of dialogue. The writer in me gets super defensive, and I’m always battling that as a director, because I think to myself, “Look at the great performances you’re getting. Just let it go!” I do take it as a compliment though, and the organic feel of these films is something I hope to maintain on future projects.