“None of the Real Preppers I Have Met Would Ever Go on a Reality Show…”: Robert Machoian on His Tribeca-Premiering Survivalist Drama, The Integrity of Joseph Chambers
In Robert Machoian’s The Integrity of Joseph Chambers, insurance salesman Joe (Clayne Crawford) is a kind of oxymoron: a prepper weekend warrior. If most survivalists are steadfastly in it for the long game, larding their basement bunkers with all sorts of durable foodstuffs, solar panel-driven batteries and cartons of Cipro, Joe jumps into the doomer mindset impulsively early one Saturday morning by deciding to hunt a deer. “We need to know how to do this stuff,” he says to his skeptical wife (Jordana Brewster) in their beautiful range-hooded kitchen, before heading out in his jeep, shotgun by his side. Joe’s trip in and out of a nearby forest, a one-man journey punctuated by a fatal blunder, comprises the entirety of Machoian’s picture, a follow-up to last year’s The Killing of Two Lovers that similarly explores the collision between a kind of uncritical performative masculinity and a world of shifting social mores and attitudes. And, like Killing, Machoian films in 4:3 aspect ratio and locates much of the film’s drama in the soundtrack; working again with sound designer Peter Albrechtsen, he creates a bold aural accompaniment that charts with non-diegetic sound effects the ego boosts and deflations as Joe navigates the sudden crisis of his unnecessary adventure.
Below, Machoian — a 2010 25 New Face — and I discuss the film’s take on the prepper community, shooting continuity in large outdoor locations, and the reasons for the film’s adventurous soundtrack. The Integrity of Joseph Chambers has its premiere June 9 at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Filmmaker: Let’s start with the premise, which is that of a man deciding that he needs to up his survivalist game. With fears of societal collapse among various political pockets at the moment, it’s a believable one, but I’m interested in the character of Joe, particularly. He lives in a beautiful house, and his hunting initially seems almost like a form of cosplay. What sort of person were you modeling Joe on, and what does this character have to say about the current political moment?
Machoian: I live in a part of the country now that thinks a lot about this collapse, fall, or apocalypse. Many in Utah believe it is right around the corner. Most of the people in Utah maybe wouldn’t call themselves preppers, but are prepared. When shooting The Killing of Two Lovers in Kanosh, I met people very serious about this fall, and a lot of preppers. I think that the entire town could survive at least two years if something like the apocalypse happened. They have the food, weapons, water, and are a very tight community. It made me want to do more research on preppers, so I watched this doc series on Netflix, there was this one guy in an episode who was starting out. He was a bit arrogant, he had a nice house, a good family, nice cars, and a good life, from what I could tell, and this prepping thing seemed like a hobby for him. In the show he went out to a remote place to show his son how to shoot a rifle, and ended up shooting his thumb off, first shot, on the show, while they were filming! And I thought, I want to make a script about that guy.
Maybe a side note, I also learned through meeting preppers here in Utah that none of the real preppers I have met would ever go on a reality show, they do not want anyone knowing who they are, more than they have to.
Filmmaker: A large portion of the film takes place in daylit woods. What sort of challenges were posed by this location, both in terms of practical lighting issues (position of the sun, etc.), as well as continuity and even pacing ones?
Machoian: We shot in Alabama which is a beautiful part of the country, but I learned a bit why Hollywood is where it is, because in Alabama it rained a few days and snowed for like 20 minutes at one point, it was a real challenge. That said, if you have to shoot outside, shoot in the winter, the sun stays pretty low to the earth and that helps, but with fifteen days to shoot, it’s difficult no matter what. I think what was critical with continuity and pacing was Oscar Jiménez, my DP from The Killing of Two Lovers and some other work, and I finding locations for scenes, that allowed us to take advantage of where the light was, in a forest that’s a little easier, because the trees really created the world we were looking for. Oscar and I have a great crew that we have worked with a few times now and what they and Oscar end up doing always looks so stunning.
Filmmaker: Could you discuss this film in relationship to your previous feature, also starring Clayne Crawford, The Killing of Two Lovers. They share certain formal strategies as well as, perhaps, a depiction of this country where certain shared assumptions are breaking down. How do you see this film as relating to, or perhaps differing from, Killing? What sort of dialogue does it form with it?
Machoian: These films are an exploration of different elements of toxic masculinity that our culture has embedded into the psyche of most men in our country. I think masculinity is more prevalent in smaller communities, because change is slower, small towns are less transient, and they have traditions that go back hundreds of years. I have found with this exploration of masculinity, for me, smaller communities are the right backdrop to place these stories, because I can get at the nuances. Maybe it’s also because I was raised in one, so the little things matter to me.
In The Killing of Two Lovers, you have the main character David, who is born and bred in his town, trying to change, to allow for growth in his relationship, fighting against in much of the film against what he has been taught. The gun which was a symbol for toxic masculinity, stays for the most part under the driver seat of his truck. In The Integrity of Joseph Chambers, you have Joe who is a transplant, to this smaller community, someone whom I would consider was not raised very masculine, more like the verbal assault of “being a man” spewed at him, and so he thinks he is and now he’s trying to take on what he believes are the masculine traits of the community. In Joseph Chamber, Joe walks around carrying the gun everywhere he goes, for the most part. It’s also not his rifle, but one borrowed from a friend.
Formally, the films are similar, some of that is because I love to allow actors to do what they do, if I don’t have to cut, I won’t. The other side, if I am honest, is brought on by the paired down crew, and the days we have to shoot. With The Killing we had 12 days, with Joseph Chambers we had fifteen, and the crews on both were very small, they did an amazing job, but from a directing stand point, I feel I have to think about how to exploit their talents the best I can, which in both cases meant simplifying how we blocked scenes.
Filmmaker: Both films embrace a relatively lean production model. Are you scripting these films around various means? What’s the relationship between the development and the financing process.
Machoian: Yeah, honestly I think the only difference between the two films financially was one the crew were students volunteering, and pulling favors for equipment, locations, and so forth and the other we were able to bring on and pay the crew, and rent equipment, locations, and pay the post people what they actually charge, which I am really appreciative we were able to do that. I was also able to work with an outside editor for the first time, Yvette Amirian, and that proved to be a wonderful process as we bounced ideas back and forth.
I personally am not a writer that writes just for the heck of it. I remember my writing teacher encouraging us all to write about parts of the world we wished to travel to, so when we sold our scripts we could go there with the production. She had also written and sold many script that never got made into movies. I decided from her experience that I would try and write stuff that I knew I could make, even on the tiniest of budgets. The result is writing scripts that are paired down, both these scripts if Clayne hadn’t been in them, I’d most likely tried to find local talent, and have tried to make them that way. I am hoping as I grow as a filmmaker, there will be more opportunities to make bigger ideas, but I am also thankful I am able to make films, because I can’t convey enough how much I love the entire process. I am also so greatful to get to work with such talented actors, working with non-actors is a way to make films, and I appreciate that, but to get to work with actors that really understand their craft has been a real blessing on these two films, and pushed in new, better directions. I don’t think these films would have been the same with non-actors, let me be clear, but to answer your question if someone says they have “two nickel’s and link in their pocket” to make a film, I’ll write to that! ha. My current script that is going to cast, is the first script I have written that if we don’t have the right financing can’t get made, so we will see how that goes.
Filmmaker: You’re working again in this film with Peter Albrechtsen, who is both sound designer and music editor. And, once more, you’ve embraced a bold, non-diegetic, almost musique concrete-like approach to sound design which is at times way more expressive than what’s on the screen. Could you discuss the film’s sound design, the evolution of this approach from Killing, and whether the sound design is always mirroring Joe’s internal state or not?
Machoian: Yes! Getting to work with Peter multiple times now has been a dream. Sound is one of my favorite parts of the filmmaking process because for me it’s the second half of the storytelling process. With Joseph Chambers, we wanted to push the ideas created in Killing even more, and so we reached out to Will Fritch, an amazing music composer that Peter and I had both worked with before, with producer Laura Heberton connecting us all. The collaboration between Peter and Will is pretty astounding, and I am grateful I got to jump in with them. They really went to work on the score and soundscape. Peter also brought on Thomas Rex Beverly, who is a nature sound recordist. Thomas gave us a giant library of forest sounds that really deepened the story-telling.
What we were looking for with Joseph Chambers was much more surrealism than in The Killing. In The Killing we were focused on allowing the audience to feel what David was feeling, how he was losing control emotionally, how calm his mind was around his children, and how the longer away from them he was the more chaotic his mind became. And the film itself is very grounded in reality. In Joseph Chambers, it wasn’t just about Joe’s emotional state (often it rarely is about his emotional state to be honest), it was about how the mind worked in relation to this adventure he’s on, an inner dialogue. And the world as it goes along becomes more surreal. Also the forest’s relationship to him being there, the woods are of course a major character. As we move along in the narrative, we go from real world forest sounds, actual Alabama forest and it begins to shift, as Joe makes decisions, birds start out as birds, but then become violins, creaking trunks, are replaced, wind and so forth, till the end of the film where we are in a completely fabricated sound world, because what is about to happen, will be fabricated as well. It was really exciting to deeply explore these ideas with Peter and Will, and I am so proud of what was accomplished. It will be wild to watch this with an audience in the movie theater and see how they respond to the sound design as well as what is happening on screen. I am so happy to be back at Tribeca and am grateful to Cara Cusamano for continuing to champion my work.