Utah provides desolate backdrops for two movies at Sundance 2020

Writer-director Edson Oda’s movie, “Nine Days,” he said, “happens in this reality that’s different from ours.”

So, naturally, Oda chose the Bonneville Salt Flats to film.

“The salt flats give you the sense that you’re not really on Earth, but you’re somewhere else,” Oda said Wednesday, the day the Sundance Institute announced that “Nine Days” would be one of 118 movies to screen at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

“Nine Days,” which will screen in the prestigious U.S. Dramatic competition, is one of two movies filmed in Utah to be picked for the festival, which runs Jan. 23 to Feb. 2 in Park City and venues in Salt Lake City and the Sundance resort.

The other — “The Killing of Two Lovers,” a domestic drama written and directed by Brigham Young University associate professor Robert Machoian — will screen in the festival’s Next program, dedicated to lower-budget and more offbeat films.

Both Oda and Machoian got the call from Sundance’s programming team just before Thanksgiving — a long-standing tradition for the festival, which showcases the best of American independent film along with a slate of international movies.

“I wasn’t expecting the call,” said Oda, who was born in Brazil to Japanese parents and educated at the University of Southern California. “They said [the film] was so unique and so original.”

“It’s a very offbeat story, an alternate reality, a purgatory of sorts,” said John Cooper, the festival’s director. Cooper then joked, “When I think of purgatory, I think of Utah — there’s your quote.”

Machoian, who teaches photography in BYU’s design school, was just back from Denmark, where he was working on his film’s sound mix. “My parents picked me up from the airport, and on the drive back, they called,” Machoian said. “They were very complimentary. They said it was something they hadn’t seen before.”

Kim Yutani, the festival’s program director, called Machoian “an exciting filmmaker. … He’s a filmmaker who always uses his own kids. They have a special quality. They’ve grown up being in their dad’s movies.” Yutani called it “a gritty film,” and praised “the performances, and the intimacy he captures in the film.”

Oda’s film, “Nine Days,” centers on an interviewer — played by Winston Duke, who played the dad in Jordan Peele’s thriller “Us” — who talks to souls, who are embodied by such actors as Zazie Beets (“Joker”), Bill Skarsgård (“It”) and Benedict Wong (“Doctor Strange”). “He has to choose one to be born,” Oda said.

Though the premise is ethereal, he said, “the movie is very grounded. The souls, they look like regular people like us. We already have a hint of their personality.”

Machoian’s movie, “The Killing of Two Lovers,” focuses on a couple whose marriage is falling apart. The husband, played by Clayne Crawford, tries to keep himself together for the sake of their children — played by Machoian’s own kids — but has trouble accepting that his wife (Sepideh Moafi) has begun a relationship with another man (Chris Coy).

“These are two people who make this commitment to each other when they’re very young,” Machoian said. “You grow as a person. In ways, you grow together, and you grow not together. … I put it all into this one couple.”

(Oscar Ignacio Jiminez | courtesy of Sundance Institute) Clayne Crawford stars in "The Killing of Two Lovers," written and directed by Robert Machoian, and filmed in Kanosh, Utah. It is an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Machoian filmed his movie last December in Kanosh, Utah, an isolated small town of about 500, in Millard County, about 150 miles by car south of Salt Lake City.

“There was snow in the morning, and it melted off by afternoon,” Machoian said. Shooting in long takes, with a crew mostly of BYU film students, the production wrapped after 14 days, he said.

“I really try to run a small set, a safe environment for my actors,” Machoian said. Sometimes the drama got intense; once during the shoot, one of his actors took Machoian aside and said, “My brain knows this is pretend, but my body doesn’t know it’s pretend.”

Machoian and Crawford have been friends for a decade, the filmmaker said, and had been looking for a space in their schedules to work together when “The Killing of Two Lovers” came together. Crawford had been the star of the “Lethal Weapon” TV series on Fox, until he was fired in 2018 for alleged bad behavior on the set. Machoian’s movie might be seen as a step toward the actor’s career rehabilitation.

Oda shot “Nine Days” over three months this summer, with exterior shots on the salt flats and the interior photography — mostly in one house — on a set built in a warehouse in West Valley City. It wasn’t Oda’s first trip to Utah, having workshopped “Nine Days” through the Sundance Institute’s January screenwriting lab in 2017.

Oda said he enjoyed “working in Utah, hanging out there, getting to know the city, being in contact with nature.”

Even though both films have been accepted into Sundance, the filmmakers’ work getting ready for their January premieres isn’t done. Oda is completing the sound mix on “Nine Days,” and Machoian is working with a Provo post-production company on the titles for “The Killing of Two Lovers.”

Machoian hopes Sundance audiences will see his movie and “think about the difficulty of relationships, and history and time. Each of us aren’t perfect. There are things we regret, but we rebuild and move on.”

For Oda, “Nine Days” is a chance for viewers to reflect on their lives. “We kind of lose perspective, in the sense of, ‘Oh, actually, this is a good life that I have,’” he said. “There’s so much joy and hope and happiness in the world. I want people to just look back at their lives and … try to enjoy it.”


Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper and Salt Lake Tribune critic/reporter Sean P. Means will talk about the movies of the 2020 festival.

Where • Tower Theatre, 876 E. 900 South, Salt Lake City.

When • Monday, Jan. 6, 2020, at 7 p.m.

Tickets • On sale Dec. 11 from the Salt Lake Film Society; $15 in advance, $20 on the day of the show.