Filmmaker Robert Machoian’s slow-burn drama, The Killing of Two Lovers (2020) opens with a startling image, a precursor to a story that will subvert audience expectations. Set in wintry Utah, it’s a dialogue sparse portrait of David, played by producer Clayne Crawford, who is trying to hold his life together during a trial separation from his wife Nikki (Sepideh Moafi), and their four children.
Crawford began working in theatre before transitioning to film and television. He has appeared in A Walk to Remember (Shankman, 2002), Swimfan (Polson, 2002), 24 (Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran, 2001-14), NCIS (Donald P. Bellisario and Don McGil, 2003-present), The Glades (Clifton Campbell, 2010-13), and Rectify (Ray McKinno, 2013-16). He starred as Martin Riggs in the Lethal Weapon (Matt Miller, 2016-19) series, which lasted only two seasons following difficulties that led to him being cut from the show. Since then, he began collaborating with Machoian, their second feature The Integrity of Joseph Chambers is currently in post-production.
In conversation with PopMatters, Crawford talks about reaching a point in his career in which he felt creatively empty, and how his collaboration with Machoian has revitalised his passion for storytelling.
Thomas Wilson-White, director of The Greenhouse (2021), told me, “I wish we could see film as an evolving conversation that never ends, because once you’ve seen that film, and once you’ve started that dialogue, you live with it forever. It’s an ecosystem inside of you, but we don’t apply that criteria to film…” I like this idea that a film is an ongoing conversation that exists outside of time.
It’s the goal when you make a film. You don’t want it to live in a specific era, and Robert and I are always conscious of that. The amount of technology you bring into a film can date a piece. We tried to only deal with human emotions and relationships, that transcend time.
To escape, we all want to be able to relate to individuals and watch them go on a journey. Hollywood has put that button on things where it wants to wrap things up. I don’t know what the analytics were that came back and said audiences want to walk away feeling that it’s all wrapped up in a nice package with a bow. The best films are the ones that we are able to see a moment in the character’s lives, and we get to experience the journey they’re on.
What excited me about Robert’s initial script, that opens with David pointing the gun at his wife’s head, is we realise that it doesn’t matter what happened to these individuals. What’s important is that it escalated to this point.
It’s a powerful opening image, but I can’t help but think that it’s a scene that we might expect to come later as the drama intensifies.
What drew me to Robert as a filmmaker and specifically this piece of material is that I was constantly surprised. I find that rare these days, in features at least. We’re finding it more with our long form storytelling, with miniseries and certainly cable, but more so in the UK. In the US we tend to want to wrap it up. With The Killing of Two Lovers, you’re not sure what’s going to happen next, and those surprises are exciting.
What did you take away from the experience of collaborating with Robert?
This was a very different experience because I’d gone through something a couple of years ago that led me to making my own films. I’d turned 40 two days before the whole Lethal Weapon thing happened. I was trying to figure out if this is what I wanted to do. I felt I’d reached the pinnacle, of how it relates to the perception in Hollywood as an actor being on a hit show. It left me feeling empty, but it gave me an opportunity to step back and say, “If I’m going to do this, I want to do it my way. I want to invest in a person I’ve always felt was talented.”
For ten years Robert and I have been trying to make a film together. No one has ever funded us. I said to myself, “If I believe in him, but no one else does, and if my heart keeps telling me he’s the right guy, and I believe in what it is I want to do as an actor, but I’ve never had the opportunity to do that kind of work, I’m just going to go and do it. If I fail miserably I’ll have my answer.” I’d know that I need to go and do something else with the next 40 years of my life, and find happiness in that.
We trusted our guts and our hearts, and it has been revitalising. It has given me a new appreciation for what I do, a new level of gratitude. You start to take things for granted, and I’ve a stronger desire to support other creatives, and to help other filmmakers get their stories told.
The story is less about what’s said, instead emphasising the physicality of the performances, the body language, the glances and the gestures as a means of communication and expression. I imagine you would have found this to be a rewarding experience?
… Filmmaking is a visual medium, it’s not radio. In the US especially, it’s all about the words. As a viewer, I don’t care what people are saying, it’s the emotion, it’s what they’re not saying. We as human beings never say what we feel, we cover it with other bullshit.
In the film Robert and I have just finished [The Integrity of Joseph Chambers], there’s less talking than there is in The Killing of Two Lovers.
I can remember sitting with my grandpa in the mall where my grandma shopped, just watching people. You can learn so much about human beings from their physical behaviour. When I read this material and realised Robert wanted to shoot it so each frame would feel like a living photograph, I knew it was a stage I’d get to perform on.
Blocking and the physicality is important for an actor, and it motivates the dialogue. To have those scenes, like the one with Sepideh [Moafi, as Nikki] and I out in front of the house, when I drag the mannequin to the truck, we knew that we had to have this fight, but could never exit the frame. We were like two caged tigers, and that’s a huge gift as an actor.
For those moments when David’s in the truck, or even sitting on the tailgate after he’s had that long day at work, when the camera is right there, in those silent moments, I don’t have to act the character, I can just be. I can literally sit with his thoughts and his feelings, letting them run through me.
I had the confidence that Robert was going to shoot the scene in a way that allowed these frames to live. It was about an intimate understanding of the character and creating that connection with the audience. The sound design also played a big part in that.
The sound design mimics the feeling of a stirring emotion inside of you that you can’t explain but you can feel. The sound is trying to replicate that throughout the film, creating unease through subtle manipulation.
Whether it’s with a performance or camera movement, or as we’re discussing sound design, we’re doing our job when, as you suggest, we don’t know why we feel the way we do. The same is to be said when it doesn’t work.
A lot of times with sound designers, before you send it to them you spend all of your time trying to get the film to where you think it should be. The first cut that Peter Albrechtsen [re-recording mixer/sound designer] sends back exceeds what you thought it was going to be. Robert and I can watch a scene that we don’t like, but we’ll keep it in the movie until Peter’s through with it because it can change the scene.
The Killing of Two Lovers effectively builds to a dramatic crescendo, but the strength of the drama lies in the authentic expression of David’s emotional anxiety.
What drew Robert and I to this story initially was that people we know were going through divorces. Especially those couples who have children, how they behave is so out of character. When we’ve created a reality for ourselves and it starts to be taken away from us, we lose our grasp and our decision-making becomes eschewed.
It was important to show David on the edge. We had to open the film the way that we did, and then show that all of us in the same moment are capable of some of the most beautiful actions, and then horrific, terrifying ones, depending on the situation we found ourselves in.
The reason I was drawn to The Lord of the Flies [William Golding, 1954] as a kid, is that the situation itself can dictate how we react. Nikki does the same thing when David’s driving away. She jumps on the car and tries to take the keys away from him. No one’s acting rational and it’s behaviour we can all relate to, whether we’re in our teens and it was our first love, or we’re going through something where we’re thinking about losing the little guys in our lives.
I’ve seen some men flip out at the idea of another man raising their children. I understand that, and it goes back to what I was saying before. I have a lot of empathy for David and his situation.
Stories can be at their most powerful when they provoke strong feelings of empathy, reminding us how powerless we are, and that life is a struggle.
People in the middle of the country are sometimes not as well represented in these types of stories. In Marriage Story (Baumbach, 2019), when Adam Driver’s attorney tells him that he owes $25k he pulls out his cheque book. I don’t know many people where I’m from [Alabama] that they’re going to pull out their cheque book.
When we were researching, a couple Robert is friends with were going through the process of divorcing. They realised they couldn’t afford it and so they had to find a way to work it out.
I’ve told this story a couple of times. My grandma and grandpa, on both sides of my family, were married for 73 years. Both of my grandpas told me, “Don’t kid yourself, it’s not because it was always roses and rainbows.” They said to me, “You have to understand when your grandma and I got married, people were still surviving.” They were still trying to stay warm, they were still trying to keep themselves fed. They were raising children and it was easier with two people. It was hard to survive alone.
Nowadays, you have a phone in your pocket that will bring anything you need to your house, even a car can come and pick you up. You don’t need anyone. It’s why they [my grandpas] believe there’s so much divorce nowadays because we don’t need another person in our lives.
Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process, where it changes you as a person?
There’s something interesting about the human body, that it doesn’t know when you’re pretending. I’m just pretending for a living, and the physical aspects of it stay with you.
I love playing characters that are going through a tough time, I love people that are broken and are struggling to make it work because we all are, even if we hide it well. There are things that will stay with me and are hard to shake off, but I’m able to.
I have a beautiful family and a little farm in the southeast of the US where I go and hide. I ride horses for a couple of weeks, and it gets everything back to normal.