In 2020, in the height of a global pandemic, The Killing of Two Lovers, written and directed by Robert Machoian, premieres at the Sundance Film Festival.
The director’s lens guides our experience by the mastery of combining a great story with characters we can recognise within ourselves. Through the art of realistic and crafted filmmaking, symbolic setting and ground-breaking soundscapes, The Killing of Two Lovers transports a world audience.
The Killing of Two Lovers delivers the desperate rage of a husband unable to accept his wife moving on with a new lover and his new role as the spectator dad in his nowhere land of marriage separation.
Released to an Australian audience in September 2021, Simmon Wagner for Janks Reviews sat down with the Californian based film director and writer Robert Machoian to discuss the film, his inspiration, and process.
“All you needed, you know, was a saw and hammer and time. You know, getting rid of the body”.
Simmon: Where did the idea for The Killing of Two Lovers come from?
Robert: The title was probably one of the first things. Ten years ago, I had read a story about a guy who had come home and caught his wife and brother together in the bedroom, and he ended up killing them and then getting a plane ticket out of the states and then confessing to the security guard as he boarded.
And I was so drawn to that idea that I thought we should make this, and I started to research, and all you needed, you know, was a saw and hammer and time. You know, getting rid of the body. It was so dark; somebody was going to knock on my door, and I’d get arrested through the research of this. Eventually, I abandoned it altogether but this title just hung on, and I was watching a lot of the Dardenne brother’s movies at the time, and their titles are very literal, and I like that literacy.
Simmon: What was your process for writing this story?
Robert: I was really interested in this re-relationship, re-birthing in the relationship that had gone away. This weird kind of thing was interesting to me.
If you come over to your ex-wife’s home and your kids are doing something wrong, you can’t parent them—these interesting dynamics. As I wrote that out, a friend of mine told me something about a father who had come from Hawaii to LA to spend time with his kids, and his ex and her new husband lived there. He spent the weekend with his kids, and when he took the kids back to their home, there was an altercation between the new husband and the dad, and the guy actually beat the father to death and took pictures and posted them on Facebook.
Simmon: That was part of the sadness I came away with from your film. They were lovers, and now they’re unconscious of the fact of how much they’re hurting one another in their daily communication.
Robert: It’s a really weird thing we do in relationships, especially with the person we love the most. We get annoyed like we don’t with anyone else. We say these remarks that are so damaging. In these subtle interactions, in the end, we learn to mistreat the person we love the most. We’re arriving at this in the film, this weird period, and how you come back from that.
Simmon: How long did this script take to write?
Robert: I’d started writing some general ideas. I’d written the short, pitched it in August, and I was done in October. Then we started shooting in December. It was very quick.
Simmon: Your opening scene is incredibly powerful in setting up our expectation of a ticking bomb. Hitchcock has said it is in our expectation and not the bang where our tension intensifies. And then you layered that tension with a soundscape of banging doors and crazy, intensifying unnatural sounds. What questions do you ask yourself to layer that sense of dread into the script?
Robert: The last few scripts that I’ve written, I’ve adopted this idea of how writing relates to emotion more than it does to direct story narrative. That opening scene is so intense and gives us an understanding of some things but not of everything. That intense emotion can only be sustained for so long.
And then, it needs to be juxtaposed through meeting the lead character David’s father, where we learn another version of David. We’re meeting different versions of David in each of these situations. The interaction has to be more upbeat. We need to have some comedic relief, so the audience isn’t dragged through the mud all the time. And so, I try and ebb and flow through the writing. I like to write as much as possible, scenes in real-time or big chunks in real-time, because I just love to spend time with characters.
Simmon: That translated to me in the film, that I got to really hang out with the characters. You captured that so well.
Robert: Thank you.
Simmon: Can you tell me about your soundscape?
Robert: Peter Albrechtsen and I had worked together on a film prior, and there was a desire from the little bit we did on that film to push it even farther. What if we introduce an unfamiliar sound? David is in unfamiliar waters; it’s not like this is his third divorce. He screwed up. You know we would have a very different sound design.
What is interesting was Peter began taking the sounds that he felt were in David’s life. The door on the truck opens and closes 84 times in this movie. Creaky metal should be part of the sound design because we see him as a handyman in clean up and odd jobs.
If we think about our own lives, the phrase ‘we’re our own worst critics’ is so very true; we often beat ourselves up verbally and mentally way more than anybody ever would. So instead of a voice saying that, we have these sounds that remind him consistently that he’s not ok.
Simmon: It definitely gave a sound to a mind breaking from reality. The mountains overseeing this little situation that was huge for the characters. Why did you choose this snippet of rural America?
Robert: When I was scouting locations, it became very apparent that the mountains in Kanosh (Utah) are eye-catching, and I’m in awe of them.
When my cinematographer Oscar and I were thinking of this film cinematically, those mountains really began to feel like the metaphors of marriage. Like you’re going to fall madly in love with somebody, and then you’re going to hate them at times, and then you’re going to annoy them and be mean to them. We really paint this very beautiful picture, like marriage solves loneliness, and all of a sudden, you have this team member, and life is joyous, and that’s not the reality.
These mountains began to be this metaphor for marriage, and then this town’s houses, some of them broken down, some of them falling down, some of them brand new, some of them renovated, felt like conversations that David and Nicki had.
Simmon: Covid hit whilst you premiered at Sundance. How has the pandemic affected you creatively and your film?
Robert: I feel lucky. The film is a culmination of years of short films, smaller feature films hoping to arrive, and the premiere at Sundance was unbelievable. I mean, it was a real dream come true and a life goal. I’d had shorts at Sundance, and I hoped to have a feature and then covid hit, and I was like, oh my gosh.
I’ve learned to appreciate the opportunity.
Since then, everything’s been online, and people Instagramming me, saying they’ve watched the film and about the impact of it, which is really, really exciting. But for me, I always rate success on my films if the film connects with somebody. It doesn’t need to be grandiose or anything.
Simmon: I am an avid new fan and look forward to your upcoming projects. Are you working on something presently?
Robert: I’ve just finished a film called The Integrity of Joseph Chambers, which is another exploration of masculinity where a guy is afraid the world is going to end, and he needs to be the provider, and he goes out into the woods to become a hunter.
Robert Machoian’s non-negotiable top 5 writing tips.
Feed your creativity.
I always read at least a few chapters of In Cold Blood because I think it’s some of the greatest writing out there. It’s one of my favourite books; the writing, and the way he lays out landscapes and people in such short sentences – you know everything about that person.
Honour your writing space and commit to it.
I try and dedicate a location to the writing. In writing earlier scripts, I was in school. I went to the library, and I tried to be in almost the same place. If I could have the same chair and desk, then I would. Part of it is because we find ways to procrastinate. If I can dedicate that space to a writing space, the journey there is like everything I’ve slept on is percolating.
Write every idea out.
Allow yourself the unedited freedom of writing out all the ideas around your main story idea.
Set a writing time and commit to it.
I’ll normally set a time. If I get there at noon, ok, I’ve got to be here until 6. And I’m not going to leave until 6, even if I’m just staring at the wall. And I bring a drink and granola bars so I can’t use ‘I have to go to the vending machine’ as an excuse. I force it, and that forced aspect has been positive.
One writing tip Robert would give to his student self.
I would say to limit self-editing. Write the stuff that you need to get out of the way. I write lots of shorts that never get made, to really just write and clear the way.
It’s a really weird medium; scriptwriting is not like a novel. The majority of people are going to experience your work visually. Only us that nerd out on scripts make an effort to find them. Outside of that, you’re dealing with the actors, then the producers and the financiers read it.
The Killing of Two Lovers is out now on digital via Apple, Fetch, Foxtel Store, Google Play, Telstra TV Box Office, and YouTube.