In her latest short film The last days of August, which shows the slow-motion desertification of a Nebraska town economically stripped of online retail, prolific filmmakers Robert Machoian and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck create haunting visual poetry – a blend of formally engaging, concisely spared imagery and heightened sound design. The two filmmakers, who appeared on our 2010 list of 25 New Faces, started out as short filmmakers and have in recent years directed compelling, character-driven, documentary-tinged feature films (God bless the child, when she walksand for machoian solo, The murder of two lovers and The integrity of Joseph Chambers). But throughout their intertwined careers, the pair have continued to revisit the short film form. Recently nominated by the Cinema Eye Honors 2023 in the Outstanding Documentary Short category, The last days of August is something of a pandemic recovery project in which the filmmakers re-watch footage originally intended to be part of a longer feature film. As they discuss below, they found in their pictorial economy an allusive way of capturing not only the physical spaces, but also the psychological ones left behind as the rush of commerce continues.
Filmmakers: I could have looked at your pictures of abandoned Nebraska prairie towns all afternoon, but the short ones are just under 13 minutes. Was a short film the original format you had in mind for this work? What were the processes, including the amount of footage you shot, that led to the current edit?
Machoian and Ojeda Beck: Our idea was to approach the film the way our favorite photographers approach a photo book, spending time on the road and reacting to the things we encountered rather than having any concrete ideas of what the end product would be. We wanted to try to make the film with no intentions and let its direction be guided by what we found along the way. We loaded our gear into a van and drove to Nebraska. Over the next ten days, conversations between us and the people we met began to guide our creative process.
We originally intended to shoot a feature film, but due to COVID we were unable to return to Nebraska to shoot more after the first trip. After sitting on the footage for over a year, we decided to see what movie already existed in the 12 hours we had.
It’s hard to describe the editing process. We tried to keep the open-ended approach we used during filming and see what came up as we worked. We made connections between our favorite moments in interviews and images, but instead of making those connections explicit, we played with creating echoes or rhymes between what was said and what was seen.
Filmmakers: How did you end up with the specific city(s) and themes you are dealing with in the film?
Machoian and Ojeda Beck: Robert lived in Nebraska for a few years when he was younger, and at one point commented on the density of small communities in the state and the culture. As we drove from Utah to Nebraska, we talked about the fear of going to an unfamiliar place because we thought you were going to make a movie and we don’t know how you’d be received.
When we got to Nebraska, the first town we stopped in was Kimball. We went to a cafe for lunch, and even though we were the only people there, we still felt like outsiders. After a while a man came in and kept looking at us. He stopped by and struck up a conversation, and it turned out that he’s not only an alchemist, but also a real film buff – he loves Andrei Tarkovsky and organized screenings for Stan Brakhage and Phil Solomon. There’s nothing like talking about cinema to calm down! John became our first subject for interview and is one of the last characters in the film. From that point on, we felt comfortable asking people for interviews and filming what stood out to us.
Filmmakers: In your director’s notes, you describe the film with the aesthetics of a photo book and talk about special inspirations, including Susan Meislas and her “Carnival Strippers”. I also thought of William Eggleston’s work, especially in relation to the shots without people, where the play of light or a certain color texture is the focus. Could you discuss these thematic, if you will, takes and the role they were intended to play in the film? And also the film’s color grading, which is exquisite – artful without being so pretty as to throw you out of the short film.
Machoian and Ojeda Beck: Although Eggleston was not a primary reference for this film, his work continues to influence us. The way we see beauty in everyday things is definitely influenced by his photographs. One shot that comes to mind are circles of sunlight dancing across the ceiling of a cafe and reflecting off mugs on the counter. In this film, we wanted to convey the everyday beauty of these changing prairie towns. Another role of the personless shots is to get people to think about what’s left after something has passed, be it a train, a storm or a city.
Color wise, our good friend J. Cody Baker colored all of our films and we consider him another key contributor to our work. The way Cody sees and talks about color is just brilliant. With this film, we gave it a few references and it just kept rolling from there. As you said, he did a wonderful job and definitely enhanced the film.
Filmmakers: Sound design is important here, with audio panning from left to right of passing cars or trains often dragging you from one take to the next, or specific environments that accentuate a sound effect, such as the sound of a car or train. B. the sound of the lowered flag. Could you discuss the sound design and how you wanted the sound to work in relation to the viewer?
Machoian and Ojeda Beck: Sound design is very important to us. In the course of our work we have developed an approach where we use tones to guide the eye. We use sound to emphasize certain parts of a recording and reveal something that might otherwise be missed.
This film also explores the use of sound to achieve the opposite. One day while we were shooting in a rundown store, a policeman stopped and asked us if we were filming ghosts. The question made us ask, how could one document the invisible? Much of the film uses sound to create the expectation of seeing a character, but visually the frame is left empty. We hear footsteps but see no one. People sometimes talk about sound working like a character; In this film, it was fun to take that literally.
Filmmakers: Finally, could you discuss the enduring role of short film throughout your practice – why you keep returning to this form, as well as the challenges and opportunities short films offer in the current exhibition and streaming landscape?
Machoian and Ojeda Beck: Although film is an audiovisual medium, it tends to become voco-centric. In feature films, it’s easy to rely on the language to make an argument because you have the runtime to work with. When you make a short film, you have to economize by speaking visually, which allows you to say more in that short amount of time. For this reason, making a short film forces you to be poetic – to create emotions instead of explaining them. We strive to bring this approach to our feature films and it is helpful to have this practice from working on short films.
In addition, you can produce a large number of short films with the same time and resources that you would devote to producing one feature film. It also allows you to be bolder in trying new styles or tackling new topics. Some of the works of our favorite filmmakers are short films only.