One of the most productive indie filmmakers working today, Robert Machoian has kept busy making features and shorts, sometimes with longtime collaborator Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck, and sometimes solo. This year Machoian has two films on the festival circuit, debuting his short The Last Days of August (co-directed with Ojeda-Beck) and his solo effort the tense thriller The Integrity of Joseph Chambers. We spoke to him about his new films including The Integrity of Joseph Chambers which premiered at Tribeca and has recently screened at regional festivals including New Jersey’s Montclair Film Festival. 

The Film Stage: You’ve been really productive the last couple years. We had a short film of yours at the Buffalo International Film Festival last year (The Wind and the Kite), you have a new short film this year we showed (The Last Days of August), along with The Killing of Two Lovers, of course, in 2020. How did Joseph Chambers come about?

Robert Machoian: After Clayne [Crawford] and I shot Two Lovers, he was kind of anxious to get on it. We had been writing different versions of The Integrity of Joseph Chambers, and I had written one that was under the idea of it maybe being a miniseries, four-to-six-part series. And so doing research in Utah, I went down to this town called Fairview and interviewed a sheriff there about these accidental hunting accidents and what happened.

So I did a lot of that and then we kind of pitched it and nobody was really that interested at the time. We got a lot of, “Miniseries don’t make any money. Second seasons are going make money. You don’t have a second season. So why would I be involved?” As a result, I had the pilot and I was [thinking] we could shoot this as a feature.

The film is shot at such an intimate scale where you only have one or two people on screen at any given time. Clayne carries most of the film by himself, was that what you were envisioning for a pilot?

Yes and no. There was more as it relates to the town and the sheriff station, but it was always small in scale. We tried to make it. I had written the initial draft of this before The Killing of Two Lovers, and it was a matter of getting to this place: how can we make this for almost nothing?

Rodrigo and I had been collaborating forever and mainly been an eye on set, sort of like I was a child. Then it just felt really appropriate when we started discussing actually making it because we were dealing with COVID and the need to not have lots of people on set and a safe environment. So everything collided in that way. I had always been interested in writing this, something pared, like Moses going to the mountain, these individuals go in the woods to kind of find who they are.

And I was kind of interested in that context, what was happening in these woods, and could we explore that in context of this really small-scale thing to have bigger implications and bigger meanings. The more people you add to the narrative, you get away from this kind of fable in many ways.

It’s interesting the film is coming out right now because it’s about obviously a man who’s trying to prove himself as a survivalist. Sadly I do have a friend or two who have gone down these kinds of rabbit holes and seem to, at least in a performative way on social media, be preparing for a collapse of some kind. 

With everything going on in the world right now, there very much is, the question of what’s happening? Where are we headed? What’s going on? There’s a lot of paranoia. One of the things that started to really actually hit me was that I moved with my family from California to Utah––and Utah specifically.

So many people here are asking, “Do you think the fall is going to happen soon and to prepare for it?” I watched Chris Smith’s documentary called The Collapse. And one of the things that was really interesting about that documentary was that the main character who has been [consumed with] a lot of conspiracy theories on his end [he] and just letting this guy kind of say everything that is a dialogue that’s built up in his head. He was saying, “It’s too late for like people like you and me.” If we haven’t been preparing for the last five to ten years, it’s too late already. We should plan to be goners. And that was very impactful on me as I started to research and understand what their thinking is and what they’re interested in.

Robert Machoian

I love the moment where the drifter in the film calls the flaw in Joseph’s plan, especially if the electricity were to fail.

Oh, yeah. While this is in many ways literal, I really see that scene with Lone Wolf very much as him talking to a version of himself. In many ways it could be an internal dialogue. Another movie may at some point put him just sitting in the woods by himself after that scene. But when we spend a lot of time in our heads thinking about things, we think that we’ve got all the answers and we don’t think about the basics, which for me is a lot of what the test is trying to talk to him about in the beginning.

It really is way more efficient to learn to garden than it is to hunt, because hunting has limited resources where gardening you can continue to replenish and you can survive, if you know what you’re doing. But with these aspects of masculinity, gardening is not exciting. Maybe if it was farming and he had a tractor and ten acres.

There’s always a really interesting theme that runs through your films. I’m thinking of the other two features that you made with Rodrigo including God Bless The Child, which is where I became familiar with your work first. Both that and When She Runs along with The Killing of Two Lovers are about families and the impact of absent parents that become obsessed with quests.

Yeah. The idea sparked [with] when I was growing up there were five or six of us total and my siblings and then my two parents; my dad was a music teacher and my mom stayed home, and then she eventually substituted for a while. But for the most part, her responsibility obviously was raising us. We don’t really part with our bodies. [Joe] sees it in many ways as a negative in the context of, well, they are not providing enough. And he was right; we had food on our table and maybe it wasn’t Gap jeans and Nike shoes, but I had what I needed.

So he’s right in that context. But in the process of researching and trying to understand the things that have been embedded into me as a result of it. One of the articles I found that was really interesting was that most people in a stage of poverty have children who have lots of children because families begin to be really important because they don’t have the ability to get out of their social circumstances except family. Unless somebody did eventually go to law school or somebody goes to be a doctor––things that could link the entire family unit up––they end up stuck in that social circumstance. And so family is where they find joy.

For me, I know that it impacts me because it is a really important part of my family as a result of the way that we were raised. And so we’re in pretty regular contact all the time with siblings and we’ve had in our history and had a period of time of not talking and then realizing you have to get over that. You can’t just cut some lines, and so forth.

Can you talk a little about the collaborators that you work with? You seem to keep a tight-knit group including now Clayne Crawford. Your films are kept at a certain scale with a smaller cast and I imagine a tight crew.

When I was younger, I wanted to play in a band and that was kind of the pursuit I did. Although up until my mid-twenties I played music and then it was like, “Okay, I can’t make a living at this.” And needed to find kind of another way to provide for my own family. But I’ve always actually really loved that collaborative aspect of music. And really when I started to get involved in filmmaking, I enjoyed the same thing. So Rodrigo and I met in undergrad and he was one of the couple of people in our program that were really aggressive about making work. He was one of them, but it was a very small number.

So we started early in our friendship to be like, “Hey, let’s just try to make whatever we can without judging one another. Whatever idea.” If he had said to me, “Let’s make a horror movie where the guy never leaves the closet,” we would have made that movie. So he was very liberal and it was very non-judgmental.

We really grew a lot. We grew up together. We started to really understand in the beginning stages of developing ideas if they’re working, if they’re going to work. And there are experiences we had that kind of feeling we were on the right path. That was really exciting and we’re still collaborative. We just finished a film called The Last Days of August, which is almost going back to undergrad, where we just drove out to Nebraska, which I lived in for a period of time. I wanted him to come out there with me and we wanted to make a documentary, but we were uncertain what that documentary would be outside of this photo book. That’s all we really had, to be honest. And we were sitting in a little deli in Kimball, Nebraska. And this guy came in with his friend and started talking to us. And he had ended up presenting some experimental filmmakers who I really loved in Boulder, Colorado.

And we started chatting and it was like we were doing a documentary. He asked, “Would you be interested in interviewing me?” And that was the green light. We stayed in Kimball and we worked for about 15 days. We’re meeting people and building this kind of documentary. So with Rodrigo, there’s a real free, collaborative kind of experience there, which I love a lot, and it just brings a lot of joy.

There’s an interesting symmetry to the caution that Jordana Brewster’s character throws at him in the beginning before he sets off. You cast Jeffrey Dean Morgan here in a really terrific role as the chief of police. Can you talk about the casting?

Yeah, it’s a really great cast and I’m really grateful for every single one of them. When you get to do a scene like the end of the film, you need somebody like Jeff to be able to actually have that scene work. And it’s similar with Jordana. It was really important to establish Joe’s desire and efforts to go in the woods that no one’s asking him to do that. He’s not even asking. It’s just purely his own pride to accomplish something that not even people in the community are really encouraging him to do. And that was a really important element. She’s a great actress, but [it’s] also the way that she carries herself in these performances. Joe’s got it all. He’s got everything he’s trying to achieve. And what he’s doing is not listening to what is really the voice of reason for him.

You’ve been very productive the last couple of years, including making a short film that’s shown in many festivals including the Buffalo International Film Festival which I program––The Wind and the Kite––along with this new feature and of course The Killing of Two Lovers. What’s next and how do you stay active like this? It’s a remarkable output.

Oh, thanks. I just obviously love filmmaking. It’s such an interesting medium in the sense that many of my friends are painters or sculptors. And what I’m so envious of is the fact that they can wake up every morning and work in their studio pretty nonstop and by the end of summer, they’ve met this giant body of work that they question.

And my process is I rally a bunch of people together and try and raise some money and make a film. There’s only so long I can go until I’ve got to make something. So that’s kind of the process there. We’re working on another dance piece. In a couple weeks we’re going to shoot it. And then Rodrigo and I are in discussions on another documentary we’re hopefully shooting. And then I have another feature that we’re in the process of casting.

I also know you also teach as well.

One of the things I did want to mention is really as it relates to being a professor. I got this great opportunity last summer to work with The Killers on a companion piece to their album that they put out last year, The Pressure Machine. So I went down and shot in this town of Nephi, where the singer Brandon grew up. We had a certain budget and I pitched some general ideas. And then he was like, “Go and do it.” [Being a professor] it was really one of the first times I had the summer free since we were wrapping up Joseph Chambers and I was like, “It’s okay if I got to do this every summer and be content with just being a professor.” I walked around the Bolex, interviewing, shooting people and it was very liberating. It was a dream.

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