Eli Hughes, Harper Hughes and the Machoian family in "God Bless the Child"

Robert Machoian can remember exactly when and where he was when he first met his filmmaking partner Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck when they were both students at Cal State Monterey Bay.

“Meeting Rodrigo was very similar to meeting my wife,” laughs Machoian now, recalling how they’d harass each other on the set of their first production. “I remember him coming off the grip truck and I had this feeling we were going to end up working together.”

It may have taken a year after for the two to do so, both interested in different things as filmmakers and taking classes in different departments. Yet after an undergrad professor paired the two for an independent study course, they became inseparable with a regular place setting at the Machoian household for Ojeda-Beck. The two would become family, which is fitting considering how much the rest of Machoian’s kin have become a part of the duo’s initial two features, their first, “Forty Years from Yesterday,” employing Machoian’s real-life parents to play the roles of a widower and his recently deceased wife whose death ripples throughout their brood, and now “God Bless the Child,” which features Machoian’s five children, ranging from the one-year-old Jonah to the 13-year-old Harper, as a quintet of kids left to their own devices when it appears their mother may have abandoned them.

For the filmmakers, these aren’t vanity projects but rather a way to achieve a naturalism that even within an era of independent filmmaking where the blending of reality and fiction seems uncommon. And contrary to what one may think after seeing any of Machoian and Ojeda-Beck’s magic tricks, which include their extensive collection of shorts, the films are actually extensively scripted, worked and reworked on set until the words arrive from the characters subconsciously, a process that gives their work a narrative heft even as it flutters off the screen as if it was light as air. The co-writer/directors have achieved this rather magnificent feat by realizing prioritizing the resources they have over lamenting the ones that they don’t, taking the time they gain from having relatives as their primary cast and settings in their own backyards in Davis, California, and putting it towards crafting the finest experiential films they can.

This is certainly the case with “God Bless the Child,” which can convey the exuberant joy of adolescence, opening up with the blond curls of the mischievous middle child Eli bouncing up and down on a trampoline, while getting just right the longing that can accompany an unanswered phone call at that age, with each dial tone unanswered from Harper to her absent mother feeling as if it’s a prick to the chest. Revealing itself slowly over the course of its 94-minute run time, the film is arresting in its compositions, the darkness of the children’s situation manifesting itself literally in the frame with the light that emerges from the promise of youth eking its way in. Yet it’s the unvarnished look at family and responsibility to one another that lingers the most, each minor revelation that Machoian and Ojeda-Beck’s script provides seeming to tap directly into the faultines that reside just underneath their home base of Davis, California for little earthquakes.

Shortly after “God Bless the Child” premiered at SXSW and subsequently won Best Narrative Feature at the Atlanta Film Festival, Machoian and Ojeda-Beck spoke of the tumultuous making of the film – they did have five kids to wrangle, after all – as well as how they’ve honed their approach to filmmaking, and letting the film decide when it’s ready.

How did this one come about?

Robert Machoian: When we finished our first feature film for four years ago, we started to talk about what it was we wanted to do. Since we had dealt with a theme of [being older], we thought we would do the reverse. We dealt with aging, so we thought let’s deal with growing up.

How did you find this family?

Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck: It’s all Robert’s kids. We had worked made two or three shorts with the kids collaboratively and Robert’s made some solo shorts with them too. We knew they were comfortable on the camera and really had a lot of talent and ultimately,we knew that we could work them pretty hard because Dad’s not going to pull them out of the film, so it’s how we found them.

Robert Machoian: Harper was really interested, and she was part of the motivation, like, “How can we make a film we can put Harper in?” When we finished “Forty Years,” she really wanted to make a bigger film like this.

Did the family have input on what they’d be doing onscreen?

Robert Machoian: We didn’t really look for them for direct input as far as getting opinions or talking to them about it. When we knew we wanted to make a film with them, we started observing their actions. We were trying to prep for another film and two of them were with us for a location scout and though the location scout was great, it started to be more about how they interacted with each other over long periods of time. Those things were direct influences on the script.

Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck: Yeah, I really like this quote by [Roberto] Rossellini where he talks about when he asks somebody to be in a film, he really observes them before he actually asks them and watches their mannerisms and gets to know them really well. All he does is in his directing is taking them back to that state before the cameras are placed on them and just making them be natural. We just watched the kids really closely.

Robert and I were writing and Jonah did this thing [where] he was playing with this balloon – we made a scene out of it. You just look at someone differently when you ask them to be in your film and kids are so giving, it’s really easy to sit back and observe those kind of things and then construct some pretty interesting scenes out of that.

The environments definitely seem to play into the creation of the scenes as well. How did you settle on which places to film?

Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck: Something we learned on our first feature was that it was really exciting to make a film in someone’s home because then the space begins to direct those actions. It makes our job a little easier. We shot in Robert’s house, so it’s his kids in their home and they’re really comfortable. It’s a lot easier to pretend that this is your house if it’s actually your house. Then all of the sudden, the space becomes a character and that was a lot of fun when we were inside. When we were outside, it was very similar – when we’re doing the hide and go seek or the kick the can game. We’d be like, “Hey let’s put these kids over here and try something over here and see how the space effects their actions.” We were really conscious about that.

Now that I know this was your house, did you actually do much to dress it up differently than you normally have it?

Robert Machoian: We definitely changed a lot of it for the film. My wife helped with the set dressing of it, like Harper’s room with the records. We set-dressed, like we normally would and we had to repaint all the walls to be the right colors. Even though it was our actual location, they slept in the beds that were there and we rearranged it all for the production before we started shooting.

Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck: That process is pretty indicative of our creative process – there’s a lot of honesty, realism and truth in the film, but it’s definitely manipulated and structured to fit what we needed it to be.

With these kids running around the set, was it controlled chaos or just out of control?

Robert Machoian: Any of the scenes that had all of five of them in there were really hard. The breakfast scene, which people sometimes think that we just had them have breakfast and we fed them, there was a story arc that was going on with them. We ended up shooting that every other day for a month-and-a-half. Any scene with five people in it’s going to be hard to direct anyway, but the fact that you’re dealing with five children…yeah, those elements were chaotic.

It was the same with the hide-and-go-seek scene because they just wanted to actually play, so then to try to wrangle them to get a scene to actually happen becomes really difficult because the second you start directing or talking to one of the children about the scene and helping them work out their character arc, another one was off somewhere in the woods hiding. You have to go back and look.

Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck: If we had two [children in a scene], or one to three, we could get them to say every line we wanted. Above that, there would be too many variables to really control. I like to work that way, when you get that element because it saves you from yourself sometimes. Sometimes you’re trying to get that scene out of your brain on screen and it’s just not the right scene for the movie, so when you have somebody who could just literally shriek out and ruin the shot because just their going to blow out all the mics – and Jonah would do that all the time – it keeps you honest to your talent is and what they can actually do because you can see what’s not going to work.

That’s fascinating that you had the luxury of working on an individual scene for a month-and-a-half. Is that something you felt you could really take advantage of?

Robert Machoian: When you see the independent films, it’s really important to understand what you have access to. Sometimes productions, like “Birdman,” for example, say they shot for 30 days and everyone believes that, but nobody acknowledges that they rehearse for six months prior. A camera may not have been on set, but they blocked off all the rooms and plotted out all the movement. For us, we’re like, “Okay, we don’t have access to certain things that bigger budgets allow for, but let’s take advantage of the things we do – time.” This is my house, I’m paying rent on it, and we can leave things, for the most part, where they are. Let’s use that to our advantage. With the breakfast scene again, on a normal production, you’d say you’ve got one or two days to shoot this awful scene. For us, that wasn’t going to happen. We’d shoot it every other day for a month and we’re going to get the one that’s the right one.

Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck: Yeah, we had a little more help on this one, but for more than half the shoot, it was just the two of us and all of that presents a real challenge as far as getting production finished. We had Tom as the producer, who flew in to production, and the same with an intern. It does maximize the time we have because we can have a set that last for months or if we need to do something 50 times, we have the money to do it. Then it just comes down to how hard you’re willing to go, how many takes you’re willing to do, and if the talent goes with you there. It’s really a good formula to get what you need. It’s just a grind sometimes, but I’d much rather work hard and get the film I want than work a little easier and not be happy with the finished product.

How long did the actual filming take?

Robert Machoian: We started shooting in May and then we didn’t wrap until September, so it was about four months.

Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck: Yeah, and those September weeks were just one or two days a week.

Robert Machoian: That’s right, that’s when school started.

Since this was largely scripted, was it pretty locked in going into the edit or did you really find the film there?

Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck: It was a little bit of both. We always set rules for ourselves. We break them all the time, but we still try to get that consistency out of the film. One of our rules is if we can get what we wanted out of a scene in one take, that’s what we did and those kind of shots were just an embarrassment of riches, like when Harper puts Jonah down, right at the end of her story, he falls asleep. That was the universe telling me to use that clip, so I’m going to use it. Other scenes were a little harder to find, so we would be flexible [on set] so that even though we had to make more edits, we could go back and get the right shot for the edit.

We had this term on set that we would use – “intentional B-roll” or “intentional coverage.” We’d go back the next day [after shooting a scene] and we’d say, “We need to start from [here] so what could we cut away from that would be somewhat seamless?” And we already had that edit point from [what we saw from what] we’d been editing. Then we could start there, pan away from there, or move the scene into that angle or move the camera back a little bit and finish the scene. Sometimes we’d get a great moment and then we’d think, we really need to hone in at the end to have a complete scene. We have the flexibility to go back and try and find those.

Another reason I asked is because the narrative economy is so impressive – there’s just the barest of storylines to drive things forward and to keep revealing itself in a surprising way. Was that something that got stripped away throughout the process?

Robert Machoian: That was really in the script. In our work, we always try and see how we can leave remnants of the story arc there so the audience can focus on the scenes themselves.

Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck: One of the things we tried specifically for this film was how can we contain the narrative on screen to one scene but yet make it feel like a larger piece? It subverts, I think, how the motor runs for a lot of narrative cinema, [with] one scene leading to the next and having a protagonist push the story forward. We’re more interested in making the best scenes possible, all the while having enough of those elements that Robert’s put in the script that culminate into a narrative at the end of the film.

With one feature already under your belt, did you feel more confident to push the limits on this one?

Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck: Definitely.

Robert Machoian: We learned a lot. Somebody said to me, “If you shot a feature film, you would learn everything you learn in film school” and that’s very much true, especially the way that we work with such a small crew. We learned how much we love long takes as long as there’s a purpose for them rather than the just trying to target your audience’s endurance. We also learned to protect ourselves as filmmakers and make sure that we created environments where we felt safe to try and explore.

It’s scary as a filmmaker. You want to try some stuff and we’ve worked so well together that sometimes Rodrigo’s pitching stuff I don’t believe in, but I trust him and I’m going to bring everything I can to make sure that what he’s trying to get to work out, works out. And he’ll do the same. That puts us in a really safe place that if a scene doesn’t work, rather than saying, we just wasted an hour because we thought we had this great idea, we move on. We’re still learning. I mean, we’re only on our second feature. As we have progressed as a team, those things get tighter. On the next film, the things that we’ve learned from this film will tighten our work relationship so we can be even more calculated and more supportive of each other.

Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck: Yeah, one of our friends is a painter and he once said he was trying to get to a point where all of his reference points were his own work [because] all those ideas you’re thinking of come from yourself. I think every time you make work, you’re getting closer and closer to that idea that you are your own influence. Of course, all the works are influenced by other people, but you’ve made so much work that when you think back to other things that worked that’s coming from your own movies.

Robert and I have been working together for so long that we’re starting to get to that point. There were so many scenes in the script that I read on paper and I’m like, “That’s not going to work.” Then we would shoot it and it would totally work. That’s happened to me enough times that I know to shut my mouth and bring the energy and make sure I’m giving it my all. Ultimately, what’s great about working with each other is, the film will decide if it works or not. In the edit room, we’re both editors so we can’t lie to each other. Something works or doesn’t. Usually, we end up haggling over two shots and you just choose your battles at that point. But when the film decides, that’s really exciting.

“God Bless the Child” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will next play the Sarasota Film Festival on April 13th at the SunTrust Theatre 11 and 19th at Theatre 8 and River Run Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on April 17, 18 and 19 at the a/perture 1 theater.