Two made-in-Utah movies wow audiences at their Sundance premieres

This image released by the Sundance Institute shows Winston Duke, left, and Zazie Beetz in a scene from "Nine Days" an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. (Wyatt Garfield/Sundance Institute via AP) .

Park City • For two hours Monday at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, the Bonneville Salt Flats took the starring role of a kind of pre-birth purgatory, and the mountains behind Kanosh were for 85 minutes the backdrop for a marriage on the rocks.

Two movies filmed in Utah, “Nine Days” and “The Killing of Two Lovers,” premiered to appreciative and sometimes rapturous audiences Monday in Park City, on the festival’s fifth day.

The salt flats, actor Winston Duke said during the post-screening Q&A at the cavernous Eccles Theatre, “had its own energy, it added its own personality” to “Nine Days.”

“The salt flats was its own personality,” said Brazilian-born writer-director Edson Oda, who shot for four straight days on the flat expanse west of Salt Lake City. Other locations in Utah were also used, along with a warehouse in West Valley City where the main set, a house, was built.

(Sean P. Means | The Salt Lake Tribune) Filmmaker Edson Oda, left, speaks during the Q&A after the world premiere of his drama “Nine Days,” at the Eccles Theatre in Park City, Utah, on Monday, Jan. 27, at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Standing next to Oda are actors Winston Duke and Bill Skarsgard.

In “Nine Days,” Duke, who starred in the horror movie “Us” and played M’Baku in “Black Panther,” portrays Will, who has the job of interviewing “souls” and deciding which of them gets the opportunity to live as a human. Benedict Wong (“Doctor Strange”) plays Kyo, who also works in this pre-existence. The applicants are played by such stars as Zazie Beetz (“Joker”), Tony Hale (“Veep”) and Bill Skarsgard (“It”).

(Sean P. Means | The Salt Lake Tribune) Actress Zazie Beetz signs autographs outside the Eccles Theatre in Park City, Utah, on Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, before the premiere of the filmed-in-Utah drama “Nine Days” at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

“The salt flats, the house, everything added the last character of the film,” Duke said. “It added the final piece to the puzzle.”

One of the key scenes, in which Duke’s character recites Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” was shot on the salt flats in a couple of hours. “We were racing against the sun,” Oda said.

Earlier Monday, Brigham Young University professor Robert Machoian got a strong positive response for his film “The Killing of Two Lovers,” which he wrote and directed. It stars Clayne Crawford and Sepideh Moafi as a small-town couple separated but trying to work out whether they will stay married.

(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.

The film was shot in the winter in Kanosh, a town of 350 people, with few distractions, so the cast and crew huddled together in their off hours, Machoian said during his films Q&A.

“That’s why the film has that feeling like a true family,” he said. Another family touch: Three of the couple’s four children were played by Machoian’s own sons.

Kanosh, Crawford said in an interview before the festival, is “almost out of a Rockwell painting. It allowed the actors to immerse themselves in the world.”

Machoian, in an interview before the festival, said the townsfolk of Kanosh was supportive of the film production.

“They allowed us to shoot in their homes, they allowed us to use equipment that we needed,” Machoian said. “We couldn’t block off roads. We just had to encourage them to drive other places.”

The surrounding mountains, Crawford said, provided “that fishbowl element” of living in an isolated small town. “Everyone is privy to your struggles and your successes,” Crawford said. “There are no secrets in these small towns.”