'The Killing Of Two Lovers' Director Robert Machoian On Making One Of The Year's Most Intense Movies [Interview]

After years of making features (God Bless the Child, When She Runs) with his directing partner Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck, Robert Machoian finally decided the time had come to branch out on his own as a writer/director with his debut solo feature The Killing of Two Lovers. The film stars Clayne Crawford as David, a man living in small-town Utah, trying desperately to keep his large family (one teenage girl played by Avery Pizzuto, and three younger boys portrayed by Machoian's three real-life sons) together during what is meant to be a temporary separation from wife Nikki (Sepideh Moafi). While they have agreed its okay to see other people during this difficult time, David is shocked when Nikki begins a relationship with Derek (Chris Coy), to the point where the film opens with the startling, silent image of David standing over the sleeping couple in bed with a gun in his hand.

A much talked about Sundance 2020 premiere, The Killing of Two Lovers does the seemingly impossible by making us empathize with David's struggle, despite that startling introduction. By all other signs, he's a good husband and father, as well as being a reasonable person when it comes to conflict, even when he's forced to confront Derek face-to-face late in the film, leading to an extraordinary, single-take sequence that takes us through David's final breaking point. Much of the film is done in longer, unbroken shots and features a jarring soundscape, made up largely of slamming car doors and other crunching metallic noises that form a rhythmic, almost musical backdrop —t he film has no actual score — for David's actions. It gives us some insight into the torment inside his head.

The pairing of Machoian and Crawford worked so well, in fact, that they spent the first few weeks of 2021 shooting their follow-up feature, The Integrity of Joseph Chambers, co-starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Jordana Brewster, which is currently in post-production.

/Film talked with Machoian recently to discuss the film's visual language, the partnership he's formed with Crawford, and a few details on his next feature.

The Killing of Two Lovers is currently playing in theaters.


Before we dive in to the movie, I have to ask—my brother and I are huge Mitch Hedberg fans, and quoting his routines is a running thing between David and his boys. Explain that. Where did that come from?

A film I had done with my collaborator Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck, God Bless the Child, it didn't make it in the movie, but Arri [Graham, one of Machoin's sons] plays this kid who's trying to learn to be a standup comedian, and he actually goes to a market and puts his hat down and performs Mitch Hedberg jokes. His whole routine is Hedberg jokes, and Arri's type of joke-telling is that way. So, that didn't make it into the movie, and it was one of the parts of the movie that killed me that didn't make it in, so as I started to write this one, I was like "I have to bring this back and find a way to weave Mitch Hedberg jokes into the storytelling." I love his type of joke-telling.

It's one of the few things that lightens the mood of the film, which is sometimes crushingly serious. The opening sequence of the film might be one of the best I've ever seen, or at least in a very long time. There's no dialogue, but by the end of it you go from "What the hell is going on?" to having a pretty clear sense of what's going on in David's head and what he's capable of. He's a little insane but also very reasonable and kind. We also get an idea of the dynamic between this couple. Talk about writing and structuring that opening and how you plotting to get those messages across in way that is so unique.

I knew that I wanted to start the film with the danger being so very present, and that happens in the title and that also happens with the way the film opens up. But one of the questions I asked myself in the writing was "Can I open a movie like this, but in the end, we're rooting for the guy who we just experienced one of the worst things in the world?" And it was difficult at times to get at the nuances as it relates to losing someone you've fallen madly in love with and created a life with. You don't know how you're going to respond or react to those things. That emotional response, there isn't another experience that mimics it. So I really want to get at that but juxtapose it, we watch this horror and then we see him walk in the front to to help his father. You get that dynamic right off the bat. What we're going to do is spend this movie looking at a nuanced person that isn't black or white; he's complicated.

It's funny you say that because I feel that most movies fight against that. They don't want nuance; they want black or white. As a result, you've made David like the rest of us. He's many things. Sometimes he wants to kill people, although he doesn't, and he's also a great dad, great husband, great son.

I think there's real value in that sort of storytelling. Someone said to me, "What you do is kind of like a short story, and you just put it into a feature." And sometimes as I'm pitching projects, they want more of something, to me, that would work in a series. But short stories can be very powerful, and in the process, they have to be very deliberate, compared to some other aspects. But I do think there is value in very human people. I think we see that in other film. Take Die Hard for example, which may seem like a funny reference. But it's the human quality of Bruce Willis that always attracted us to him, in this way that he feels very real, and I think we're losing that in the way stories are going. Even to put somebody in the superhero or fantasy world, my question is always "How can we pull this back into realism?" If you look at Batman, you have to wonder why he's not fighting corporate crime. Why is he even bothering roaming the streets? He should just be a corporate lawyer going after big companies, and that would be the story; he doesn't have to punch anybody [laughs].

You brought this up earlier—why did you give the movie a title like this? It's deliberately misleading, or is it?

Yeah [laughs]. For one, I think it helps set the stage for an audience to know what they're walking into. But he other aspect, like you said earlier, we use, in the culture we're in now, loaded words in ways that downplay the significance of their use. You say to someone "I'm going to kill you" or you say "You're a racist," and really it was just that someone wasn't sure of the racial ethnicity of someone and said the wrong thing. I thought, can we apply this to the film? Can I load it with that kind of weight, but really we're talking about the risk of ending two different relationships. The two lovers are David and Nikki, or they're Nikki and Derek. Which one of those are at risk of ending?

Fair enough, but it's very sneaky. You've made another film with Clayne Crawford since Two Lovers, so you two are starting to form a working relationship now. What does that collaboration bring and why does it work so well?

Making films is really challenging period, but it's especially challenging in the current state we're in. I grew up very poor, and I saw often that money is a real thing to me. So to ask someone for a half-million dollars to make something, I'm aware of what that ask is. What the hope and excitement in working with Clayne is, can we bring our talents and resources together? With The Killing of Two Lovers, Clayne was able to bring financings, and I was able to bring camera equipment and crew to produce a movie, and the result of it is this film. So the value of working with an actor again is, can you create a shorthand and further this ability to tell these type of stories? I just wasn't born to spend $5 million on this idea I had that probably won't make money. For me, it's this weird approach where I want to prove that I can tell these type of stories that an audience will be very interested in, and maybe we open a window back up for these types of narratives being told and having an opportunity to be in theaters.

To be honest, these are the film I remember years laster. When I go back to check my 12-year-old self and ask "How were you at judging film, 12-year-old me?" I find a movie like Unsung Heroes, for example, with John Turturro, and I'm like "You were right, that's a good movie. You didn't see it in a theater, nobody told you about it, but you made a smart selection." In my dreams, as a filmmaker, I hope some 12 year old, 20 years from now, remembers putting it on and being impacted by the storytelling and the way it was made.

I watched a short video recently about a guy named Peter Albrechtsen, who is your sound designer, because I had to know what was going on with the soundscape in this movie. Tell me about what your idea were for the sound design, how closely did you work with him, and how did you explain what you were going after? You don't have a traditional score for this film, so this takes the place in many ways. But I think it also gives us a glimpse into David's mental state.

I wrote this knowing I wanted Peter involved. Again, it was budget related, but I said to him "I'm writing this movie and I need you involved, please." We had worked on a film prior, and the relationship...it's rare in life that you meet people that you think "If I became a sound designer, you are it. Everything you love and what you're doing is great, but you're so much farther along because you years to plan it." We discussed a lot, we listened to Musique concrète, I sent him stuff, and we began to talk about David's mental state of mind. I knew I didn't want a scene where he goes to a friends's house and tries to explain what's going on. The closest we get to that is him with his dad when he says "I'm losing her." That's it. It's all we need because the sound has informed us of how scared he is and worried, and these sounds that are constantly nagging at him; things he wishes he could fix, he can't. Peter really pulled sounds from David's life, and we thought about what things are common. He said, "There are 84 car door openings and closings in the movie, Robert. That's going to be in his mind constantly. Can we use that?" So he began to build that sound design.

I would say The Killing of Two Lovers is the culmination of being in art school and doing these experimental project, coming to a head where narrative and my love of sound collide. And my dream is that Peter and I will continue to work together for years, because I think there's an evolution as we're working on this new film, The Integrity of  Joseph Chambers, which Clayne is the lead in, Peter and I are asking ourselves "How can we take what was learned in Two Lovers and further it, further these sonic explorations. We're moving into Dolby Atmos. Sound technology is advancing, but I don't know that it just needs to be a helicopter go from here to slowly landing over here. What about states of mind and subconscious? What about informing the audience in sonic way, rather than just visual or through dialogue. My dream is that one day Peter and I write a movie with no dialogue—only using visual performance and sound. That would be amazing.

What can you say about Joseph Chamber?

We're in the post-production stages on it right now. We just locked picture, and it may end up being a trilogy in ways, exploring these ideas of masculinity. We have this social dialogue that's going on, but I really want to look into it. We looked into it with Two Lovers, and in The Integrity of Joseph Chambers, it's about a father worried about the world ending, which many of us are, and thinks that the answer is to learn how to hunt and become a hunter and go out there and live off the land. And really, he has no business being there.

Like most of us.

[Laughs] Like most of us, yes. A buddy of mine is into preppering. In Utah, there's a lot of preppers, and I was thinking maybe I need to get ready, and he was like "For you, it's too late." [laughs} "What do you mean?!"

Robert, it was real pleasure talking to you. Best of luck with both films.

Talk care. See you later.