Nearly 16 months after it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, Robert Machoian’s The Killing of Two Lovers, picked up by NEON, has arrived. Machoian, who grew up in King City and told me he used to frequent the punk scene in San Luis Obispo, has spent most of his days somewhere in California, in small towns with citizens that all know each other’s relationship statuses. With a population hovering around 700, Kanosh, Utah became the site for this project, his first solo film in years, working without his frequent collaborator and friend Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck. 

Starring Clayne Crawford and Sepideh Moafi as David and Nikki, a separated family, The Killing of Two Lovers follows these parents as they try to hold a bond while keeping the distance necessary for both of them to grow. David wants to reconnect. Nikki wants space. Shot with an amount of intimacy felt in the midst of this relationship breaking, through the use of long, uncut shots, Machoian’s drama captures the vastness that exists in a small town like Kanosh and the space that can be felt between people living only a few blocks from one another. 

Machoian talked to The Film Stage about directing without a safety net, shooting under a tight timeline, and the decisions that risk the crumbling of a marriage. 

The Film Stage: How did you actually find and pick the town that the film is set in? The film has a very specific and intentional sense of place? It feels tight-knit. 

Robert Machoian: I think there’s real value in telling very specific stories, I think as a result of, for me as a director, the more specific you can be, the more people can come to the film, and bring their own life to it. And Kanosh, I had been down there helping a friend of mine on a project. And that was my introduction to the town and I love the length, the vastness of the landscape. I really love flatlands, personally, and the hills were so distant. And then it just felt really appropriate, and as I began to create the story and actually start to work on the story, I went down there and did some writing. A painter had a studio down there. And he allowed me to use it. And Jeremy Davis, who manages the studio and premises, I was talking to him about the story about this couple, and [how] I want to place it there, and they’re struggling with their marriage. He took me two blocks over, and he pointed and he said, “Here’s where the wife lives.” And then he pointed across the street four houses down and said, “Here’s where the husband lives. The story that you’re talking about actually exists right here.” And even though I didn’t pick those houses or shoot on that block, as an artist, you’re always looking for these green lights. And that very much was like you need to write a story that takes place here. And the idea that you have is a good idea. So sit with it and flesh it out.

It’s kind of beautiful that someone else came in and gave you that perspective. Did it put it more clearly in mind? Were you able to see it? 

It helped establish how significant the distance between the spaces could have been. With access, for example, we could have ended up still being in this small town but not on the same block. And created the narrative that way. But as soon as I understood that dynamic, and then I had met other people who had separated and done the same thing, and I realized that it allowed the kids to navigate back and forth. It’s this attempt: “If we’re separated, can we give the kids as normal of a life as they had prior? Because they can navigate between dad’s house and mom’s house.” And I thought that was a dynamic I hadn’t really considered. Then I started to think, as I was looking at this, how hard that must be to be a husband out on the porch of your dad’s house and your wife down the street is playing frisbee with the kids. And it’s actually not appropriate for you to walk down there and participate because it’s her time with them. So it amplified this difficulty in ways that I was very excited about as a writer and filmmaker.

For most of your past projects, you’ve worked with other collaborators, often with a co-director and co-writer. Why did you decide to go out at this alone?

Some of it was time and space related. I did my grad work at UC Davis and Rodrigo [Ojeda-Beck], who I collaborate with often, grew up in Davis. We had met at undergrad, and then I moved to do my grad work, and he just moved back home. Again, these green lights are the signs. I was like, “Oh, we should keep working together, you just moved home, and I’m in grad school.” And then he did his grad work at Berkeley. And we continued to work together because he would just stay at his parents. And moving to Utah was a big shift between the two of us, we wouldn’t be in the same place. We couldn’t just go grab lunch and talk about projects or ideas. And we lost that ability for daily interaction. We were shooting in the winter. And he’s a professor and he’d have to cancel classes and so forth. So one aspect of it was definitely time and distance. I kind of knew that we weren’t gonna be able to work together, then I started to think about some of the things, in an odd way, some of the things that I’ve compromised because of our collaboration. I don’t necessarily need to compromise on [them] now, because we’re not building this idea or storyline together. So I started to think about some of those risks and having my own children and family. I was like, “Well, maybe we’ll address this theme that we haven’t done.” One I haven’t really explored.

How big of a change was that on set? How did it feel different to be making a film without someone you trust so well? 

It took a little while to really get in a rhythm. One of the experiences for example, when we shot the first scene between Nikki and David arguing when he’s putting the dummy in the truck, we did one of those takes, and I looked over to the cinematographer Oscar [Ignacio Jiménez], and I was like, “Hey, how do you think that went?” And he looked back at me, he’s like, “I don’t know, I’m just looking in the frame. Why are you asking me?” Then I realized. I was like, “Oh, Rod, and I have this shorthand where we watch the performance, then we’re discussing what worked, what didn’t work.” And then we’d go and give notes to the actor. It was only me that had to make the decision if that performance was good. It was only me. Because sometimes there’s kind of this safety and me looking at Rod like, “That wasn’t very great, right?” And he goes, “Yeah,” and then we commit together to go tell the actors. I’ve got to do it again here. So there’s this different confidence that needs to be readjusted, because you rely on one another. And then you can only rely on yourself. 

Were the single, long takes one of the risks you were talking about? They contained so much silence. How do you think that silence contributes to relationships crumbling as well as coming back together? 

Yeah, I mean, there’s two aspects. One is we had 12 days to shoot the film. From a directing standpoint, you’ve got to say, “There needs to be a film at the end of it.” You can’t have two-thirds of a film and then say, “Well, you know, if you gave me five more days, we could finish it.” Your obligation is to finish it. So you need to structure a film in a way that allows it to be finished, and I knew that the actors all had theater backgrounds, and I knew that they could handle longer performances. And then the other aspect of it was I actually really think that the silence in the space in-between is as critical as what is actually said. I think the value of cinema and the importance of cinema is the actual image, a cinematic image. My oldest daughter will watch television shows and never look up. She just plays them on her headphones. And there’s no need because it’s really a radio play with images occurring in the background, and I don’t want to make those types of films. The nuances, you know, as they’re driving around on the date, for example, and the awkwardness that they’ve decided to do this thing, but they’ve been married for like 20 years. So it’s almost those scenes that I’m not a big fan of in movies, when they’re like, “Can we start again?” And the guy’s, “Yes, my name is Tom.” “And I’m Janet.” And you’re like, “You guys have known each other? What? What the heck is that supposed to do?” And what’s the opposite of that is living in this scene, where they are attempting to do that in many ways, to go on these dates where they are no longer together. And the awkwardness in the beginning is critical, like having conversations about how’s your dad doing, which is not a conversation if you were married you’d be having, You would already know, or David would come home and be like, “I just got back from my dad’s He’s such and such and such.” 

That scene you mentioned, where she gets in the car and they just drive around the block, it stuck with me. How did you prepare the actors for that scene, because it contains such a specific emotion that is hard to capture? It sometimes feels like it only exists if you’ve been in a situation like that with someone you love. 

There are two aspects. The technical aspect, I need for you to finish these storylines when you arrive at putting the car in park, so that when she asks if you’re going to get your own place, we’ve dropped a bomb that now is not going to happen while they’re driving. But in this kind of static space, which is David’s truck, which is really the safest space for him. And then the other was really getting at the nuances of that moment. Nikki does love David. And when she’s with him, she feels that love. When she’s not with him, she’s growing as a person, right? She’s a paralegal at a law firm, and she’s good at it. And that’s opening up this can of, “Who am I as a person?” And that growth, that’s really necessary. So this isn’t a question about whether Nikki loves David or not, it is really a question about what life she is going to create for herself going forward. And David is very, very content with the life that they had. And so they’re really at odds. And so they knew that the motivation was this isn’t two people that have said so many mean things to each other that they’re trying to rectify it. It’s literally an element of growth that’s occurring.

The ending snuck up on me, in terms of insanity and violence. Why have it almost explode like that, when you don’t really feel like the tension can get to that level?

It was really about the unknown third variable. And that’s kind of the reality when we start to make these kinds of decisions. I have a friend of mine, for example, him and his wife, the wife was suggesting maybe they have an open marriage. And he was like, “I may be open to the idea. But I’m not willing to deal with the consequences. The risk is our relationship ends because it doesn’t work for me, but maybe it works for you.” There’s that variable that’s always unknown in the decision-making aspect of things. I wanted that unknown to be as dangerous and as violent as it really is. Obviously in a metaphorical way, but when you make these very very risky decisions, you risk really everything in a very aggressive way. And so that’s why in the writing aspect of it, it arrives at this very violent point that I don’t think David or Nikki really understood they could bring it to.

The Killing of Two Lovers is now in theaters and available digitally.

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