In their latest short film, The last days of August, which depicts the slow-motion desolation of a Nebraska town economically deprived of online retail, prolific filmmakers Robert Machoian and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck create a haunting visual poem – a blend of formally captivating, incisively sparse imagery and heightened sound design. The two directors, who appeared on our 25 New Faces list in 2010, started out as short film directors and have directed character-driven features and documentaries in recent years (God bless the child, When he runsand, for the Machoian solo, The killing of two lovers And The Integrity of Joseph Chambers). But throughout their intertwined careers, the two have continually revisited the short film form. Recently nominated by the Cinema Eye Honors 2023 in the Outstanding Documentary Short category, The last days of August, now a Vimeo Pick of the Week and featured above, it’s something of a pandemic remediation project, with filmmakers revisiting footage originally intended to be part of a feature film. As they discuss below, they have found in their economy of images an allusive way to capture not only the physical spaces but also the psychological ones that are left behind when the hustle and bustle of commerce shifts.
Movie director: I could have looked at your pictures of abandoned Nebraska prairie towns all afternoon, but the short is 13 minutes long. Was a short film the original format you thought of 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 film the way our favorite photographers approach a photo book shot, spending time on the road responding to things we encountered rather than having specific ideas in mind about what the final product would look like. . We wanted to try and make the film without intention, letting 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 with 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 travel back to Nebraska to shoot more after the initial 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 approach we used during the shoot, seeing what came out as we worked. We were making connections between our favorite moments in interviews and pictures, but instead of making those connections explicit, we played with creating echoes or rhymes between what is said and what is seen.
Movie director: How did you arrive at the specific cities and subjects that you feature in the film?
Machoian and Ojeda-Beck: Robert spent a couple years living in Nebraska 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 anxiety of going to an unfamiliar place thinking we were making a movie and not knowing how you will be received.
When we arrived in Nebraska, the first town we stopped in was Kimball. We went to a cafe for lunch, and even though we were the only people in there, we still felt like outsiders. After a while, a man came in and kept looking at us. He came and struck up a conversation, and it turned out that he’s not only an alchemist, but he’s also a real film buff: he loves Andrei Tarkovsky and has organized screenings for Stan Brakhage and Phil Solomon. Nothing like talking about cinema to put you at ease! John became the subject of our first interview and is one of the last people in the film. From then on, we felt comfortable asking people for interviews and filming what struck us.
Movie director: In your director’s notes, you describe the film as having a photo book aesthetic and mention particular inspirations, including Susan Meislas and her “Carnival Strippers”. I also thought about the work of William Eggleston, in particular in reference to the shots without people in which the attention is focused on the play of light or on a particular chromatic texture. Could you talk about these shots without a subject, if you like, and the role you wanted them to play in the film? And also the color correction of the film, which is exquisite, deft without being so beautiful that it throws you out of the short film.
Machoian and Ojeda-Beck: While 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 is circles of sunlight dancing across the ceiling of a café, reflecting off the cups on the counter. We wanted to convey the everyday beauty of these ever-changing prairie towns in this film. Another role of the shots without person is to prompt people to reflect on what remains after something has passed, be it a train, a storm or a city.
In regards to color, our good friend J. Cody Baker has 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. In this film, we gave him some references and he just kept following it from there. As you said, he did a great job and definitely elevated the film.
Movie director: Sound design is important here, with left-to-right audio pans of passing cars or trains often pulling you from shot to shot, or specific environments emphasizing a sound effect, such as the sound of the flag being lowered. Could you discuss sound design and how you wanted 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 based on using sound to guide the eye. We use sound to emphasize specific parts of a shot, making something that might otherwise be overlooked visible.
This film also explores the use of sound to achieve the opposite. One day, while we were filming a run-down shop, a police officer stopped and asked us if we were filming ghosts. The question made us wonder, how could the invisible be documented? Much of the film uses sound to create the expectation of seeing a figure, but visually the frame remains empty. We hear footsteps but see no one. People sometimes talk about sound working as a character; in this film it was fun to make it literal.
Movie director: Finally, you could discuss the continuing role of short film within your overall practices: why do you keep returning to form, as well as the challenges and opportunities short films offer in the current exhibition and streaming landscape?
Machoian and Ojeda-Beck: While film is an audiovisual medium, it tends to become voice-centric. In feature films, it’s easy to rely on language to make a point, because you have work time to work with. When you make a short, you need to save money by speaking visually, which allows you to say more in that short amount of time. This is why making a short film forces you to be poetic, to create emotions rather than explain them. We strive to bring this approach to our feature films and it is helpful to have this practice working on short films.
Plus, you can produce a variety of short films with the same amount of time and resources you would use to produce a feature film. For this reason, you can also be bolder in trying new styles or tackling new topics. Some of our favorite directors’ works are entirely short films.
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