For ‘The Killing of Two Lovers,’ Director Robert Machoian and Star Clayne Crawford Ventured Into Rural America To Capture Scorching Emotions

Director Robert Machoian and actor Clayne Crawford had been waiting to make a movie together for years. The opportunity arrived when Machoian began to make observations about relationships decaying all around him and simultaneously, Crawford came across funds to plan a film. Machoian sat down to write what began as a short and soon evolved into what became “The Killing of Two Lovers.” Stark and full of emotions at a threatening low-boil, the film is one of the year’s first great indies. Made on a shoestring budget, it spends time with a man named David (Crawford) in rural Utah, who is undergoing a trial separation from wife Nikki (Sepideh Moafi). David tries to put on a brave face, playing it cool when visiting the kids or taking them out, but we soon sense an obsessive behavior silently spinning out of control. Now living with his father, David obviously tells himself Nikki will come back. But when he sees another man leave what used to be their joint home, it dawns on David that she is seeing someone else, and a more violent tension will form between them. Machoian and Crawford recently spoke with Entertainment Voice about the making of “The Killing of Two Lovers.”

Robert, this is a film that is very much about people and what makes them tick in times of emotional stress. How did the story come to be?

It came out of two things. One was my wife and I were reaching 20 years of marriage, and we’ve got five kids. In marriage you go through good and rough patches and periods of normalcy, where things are kind of working. But many of our friends were separating or getting divorced and I was watching some of my male friends do things that were so out of character and kind of mind-blowing. We would talk and I would be like, “What are you doing? I want to help you, but what are you doing?” So that made me stop and think. I researched this period in relationships and I discovered it’s usually called a time of “drift,” where a couple is talking about their children and the children’s activities more than about themselves. There begins to be this disconnect. My youngest was starting kindergarten and so my wife, who had chosen to be home with the children, was entering this period where she could work and pursue things she wanted. I was excited about it, but it was also interesting in how I felt about change. Clayne called me, he was trying to also make a film for years, and he said, “Hey I’ve got some money, do you have any cameras, locations, resources? Can you write something so we can make a movie together?’” So I wrote a short film idea that was the date sequence in the film and so it expanded from there.

Clayne, what drew you to the script Robert wrote?

With this story I was first interested because we could shoot it for nothing. We had very limited resources. But Robert is drawn to character pieces. He comes from that world where if you have great performances, you will have a great film. He’s wonderful in his writing in creating worlds for his characters to live in. But he doesn’t overwrite. It allows for you to shoot in a way where the material just washes over you and you don’t need to make a lot of cuts or coverage. 

It’s a feature film but it has the compact power of a short story. A lot is said in very simple scenes. Robert, what influences were you looking at when preparing to shoot?

A friend of mine had recommended the film “Wanda” by Barbara Loden. I love the ‘70s era in film. There are other resources and films I was pulling from, like “Five Easy Pieces” was another one. Also, my dad had taught music for 25 years and I was back in our hometown walking around. We lived four or five houses from the high school he taught at. I was kind of walking back and forth and thought about the road, and how his feet walked this space for 45 years. In the writing I was motivated by that idea of centrally locating it, because most of the story takes place between just two homes. 

The location itself indeed feels very isolated and closed-in. Where did you shoot?

We shot in Kanosh, Utah, which felt so right. You have these beautiful landscapes and then this town with amazing people there, but almost every other house is falling apart, abandoned and decaying. I felt that was a great metaphor for marriage. Wanting to commit to someone for a lifetime is this beautiful idea that we’re very naïve about, but the reality is gritty. The town was like the reality of marriage. I also wanted to capture how separation in a small town is very different from separation in a big town. In a big city you can separate and never see each other again while in a small town you’re going to consistently see each other every day. I wanted that dynamic. We needed to live in the town. 

Clayne, what was shooting on location like for you and the other cast?

It was a town of 350, surrounded by mountains, with nothing around for 45 miles. So we rehearsed all the time. I had brought in Chris Coy, who plays Nikki’s new boyfriend, after meeting him on the show “Lethal Weapon,” and I brought in Sepideh after our casting director showed us her rehearsal.  They totally bought into the process. We rehearsed all the time. Me and Sepideh made that two block drive many times, driving and talking. We had 12 days and $32,000. We had to make every moment count. We knew we had a couple of takes and it had to be perfect. For me blocking is key. I am not a classically-trained actor so for me what’s important is the look of a character and where they’re from. What a dream to have a director who just wants you to live within the frame of the scene. We would wake up, put on our wardrobe and go to this gymnasium that had become our base camp/production office/sleeping and food quarters. We would eat and go to the town which was barely 1 mile in diameter. We would just go and work and talk it out. A golf cart was even the dolly at one point! Let me tell you, this doesn’t happen in Hollywood anymore. 

The casting is spot-on. Everyone almost feels taken out of a documentary. Robert, how did you go about selecting how to fill in the town?

For the leads I leaned into Clayne, because to be honest I usually use my family. My boys were the couple’s boys in the film and my dad plays David’s dad in the movie. I’ve used them in lots of things. But I needed to grow my resources. To play Nikki, the casting director sent out pictures of my boys to potential candidates, because what we were asking the actors was if they could play this role and work with kids. So Sepidedh got back to us and she was just perfect. There was an energy about her that felt right. There was still a family aspect to the whole film because we all came together and had to do it together.

But in the end Clayne, you are the key persona on screen. David is the kind of character that we can empathize with and yet also be disturbed by. What would you say makes him tick?

We start with David having his foot on the peddle and he has said ‘fuck it’ in the opening scene. But no one is black and white. We are all so complex, we are capable of such horrific and tender, beautiful things. It just depends what circumstances we are placed in. As a father, I understood David as losing his grasp on a reality that he had created, that he had spent the better part of 15 years creating. We understand by his career path that he just wants to be with his children. He does not exist without these children. When you operate from that place, and there’s a danger of all that being taken from you, and another man is coming into the picture, I very easily understood where he was coming from. It was a place of fear. Many things stem from that, fear and love.

And finally Robert, now that “The Killing of Two Lovers” is out, tell us about what you have planned next?

Once the pandemic started Clayne and I were wondering if we could pull something off in this insane situation. I had worked on a script titled “The Integrity of Joseph Chambers,” which is about an everyday guy paranoid about the world ending, as well kind of are in the back of our minds. He decides he wants to become a survivalist and will go out and hunt, but he has no business being out there (laughs). So we shot that in November and are doing post-production right now. I also have a script I’m pitching around titled, “I Love You, Now and Forever.” As a filmmaker I say to my friends who are painters that I envy them. Every day they get to go into the studio and practice their art form. I love filmmaking so much I’m just trying to stay in that same mindset like a painter.

Clayne, what do you have coming up on the horizon?

We’ll just have to wait and see.

The Killing of Two Lovers” releases May 14 in select theaters.