Premiering a film at the Sundance Film Festival isn’t a new concept for Robert Machoian Graham, who has had four of his short films accepted since 2010. Premiering a full-length feature film, though? It’s a first for the Brigham Young University professor, and with just two hours to go until his big debut Monday, he took a moment to visit with the Daily Herald about just what the experience means.
“It’s been unbelievable just because it had been a big hope of mine,” Graham said. “I love making shorts and I make them all the time, but a feature is a different beast of a movie.”
According to Graham, not only do they take more financing, but the odds of one being accepted to Sundance are pretty low: This year the festival received a record high of 15,100 film submissions, including 3,853 feature-length films. His movie, “The Killing of Two Lovers,” is one of just 118 feature-length films that were accepted, representing work from 27 countries around the world.
It’s a big honor for the photography and cinematography professor, as well as for the entire crew of the film.
“The numbers on Sundance are so high that if you don’t get in, you can’t beat yourself up because there are so many applicants,” Graham said. “To get in is a dream come true.”
But making it past the Sundance selection process is really just the first beast.
“Obviously it’s exciting because the selection process at Sundance is so grueling that you have to believe to some degree that the film was good, or else they wouldn’t have programmed it,” Graham said. But the next real challenge is the audience response, because that’s what will allow for the resources to create more feature-length projects in the future.
“I’m hoping today that the screening audience really, really connects to it and it opens doors,” he said. “When I make films, features in particular, I hope I get to make another one.”
“The Killing of Two Lovers” actually started as a short film that was expanded into feature length. Based on experiences he had on his mission in the Midwest, the film details the story of a couple facing marital challenges while living in a rural town. Despite the fact they were eventually able to work through their issues, the drama was underscored by the fact that everyone in their community was aware of it.
Graham describes the film as “raw and intense” and definitely one of his most dramatic works to date.
“I’m super nervous, and hoping that audiences connect with the film,” Graham said. “The theater we’re premiering at seats 500 people and for me, that’s a lot of people to be standing in front of.”
Following the film debut, Graham and members of the cast and crew do a question-and-answer session with the audience, with five total screenings of the film scheduled for the festival.
From start to finish, including festival application, “The Killing of Two Lovers” took about a year to make, almost exactly. According to Graham, filming started Dec. 5, 2018.
“Now we’re here,” he said. “Just a month past when we started last year. It was a very grueling process but very exciting.”
The movie filmed over 14 days in Kanosh in central Utah, with just a tiny crew including Graham, four current BYU students, and recent grad Oscar Jimenez, who also worked with Graham on last year’s Sundance-accepted short “The Minors,” which won a Special Jury Award for Directing.
“I’ve worked with small crews most of my career and really liked it,” Graham said. “It’s intimate and crew members know how vitally important they are. Not that they don’t on a bigger set, but there’s no downtime. We didn’t have one person standing off to the side, like a P.A. or grip that wasn’t being utilized. While it’s difficult to have a small crew, for me it’s really liberating because we’re all actively involved in the process. I love collaborating — it’s a very exciting thing.”
Though he didn’t necessarily realize it, being a part of the film industry is something Graham has always been interested in.
“I was in my late 20s when I decided to go to college for films,” he said, while noting that he later realized his interest in it expanded to much earlier in his life.
“I talked to my siblings, when I told them all I was going into filming,” he said. “They were like, ‘Oh yeah. Oh my gosh, going to movies with you was so annoying because all you would talk about was the blades of grass and how they were shot.’ It was nice to get their confirmation about it — it was something I loved to do but I was not aware of it until the second I got into the school work.
“Choosing to have a career in anything is a matter of time and hard work, and I think filmmaking is the same way,” Graham said. “I approach it the same way everyone else does in their profession.”
For Graham, that includes working on something every day that moves things forward, and continually developing new ideas. Being at Sundance is the ideal environment for that.
“As to the festival itself,” Graham said, “of course it’s been amazing to see great films and be around this culture of people who are excited about films and movie-making.”