Robert Machoian and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck, the collaborative co-directors of the feature length childhood drama God Bless the Child, are both thankful that the 5 children starring in the movie- subsequently Machoians own brood -were able to fly out to experience the 2015 SXSW Film Festival. A mere month before the March 14th premiere, the team could be found crowd funding on Kickstarter for just enough of a budget to fly the kids from California to Texas…and thankfully they made their goal.
I was able to sit down with Machoian and Ojeda-Beck and enjoy a conversation on film technology, technique, and working professionally with 5 real-life siblings.
Cara: How many times had you seen God Bless the Child before its premiere?
Rodrigo: That was the first time we’d seen it with an audience, as a finished product. We got great help with U.S. in Progress, so we got a rough cut a few months ago…but yeah, first time.
Robert: The San Fransisco Film Society had given us a post-production grant so we were able to do post stuff…they even paid for foley. For me that was actually the first time I got to hear it with the full effect.
Cara: I was going to say, in your previous films you guys talk about how you took care of foleying and how it’s like an entirely different aspect of filmmaking altogether. It’s just a separate hemisphere. So when I saw you guys got foley artists, I though, “They probably appreciated that.”
Rodrigo: Oh my God, nicest experience ever. For our first few shorts we could’t afford microphones, so we had to do everything MOS. We did 2 or 3 shorts like that and then we said, “We need to learn how to make money”- so thanks to the San Francisco Film Society, we just had money to spend at a post-production house for the first time. It was a really exciting process.
Cara: I read somewhere that you used a Blackmagic pocket camera for this film?
Robert & Rodrigo: Yes.
Cara: What was it like working with that?
Robert: It’s a beautiful camera. I mean, we were apprehensive because there’s so much technology coming out, and trying to figure out what the right decision for us was gonna be. But we were really happy about it.
Rodrigo: There’s all these new companies, so it’s great that there’s somebody who brought it to a price point that we’ve been waiting for, with the things we needed.
Cara: Well that’s also the joy of technology evolving, that “older” technology (which is still perfectly viable) can become affordable.
Robert: For sure, allowing it to be affordable to people like us. I mean, we just look at it and figure out how to maximize its potential. And I think this film, to be honest, is a perfect example of why…because we never expected a studio to finance this film.
Rodrigo: It’s exciting that technology’s getting good enough that if you know what to do, for a reasonable amount of money, you can express yourself.
Cara: I think that’s why I was interested in why you used a Blackmagic: because I admire the fact that you’re one of the few filmmakers I’ve seen who don’t have an inflated budget and don’t go over-the-top with things. Do you guys still teach undergrad film courses?
Robert & Rodrigo: Yeah.
Robert: I teach at Sacramento State.
Rodrigo: And I teach at Monterey State. It’s great, because I can teach a video course the way I would teach a camera course, because it has an amazing latitude. Now we can create a scenario where students can learn about filmmaking from film itself: “How can I get more exposure this way, or mess with the f-stop, what are the benefits of doing it both ways?” Suddenly the concept of depth of field becomes less abstract, and all these things suddenly become practical rather then an idea. But no matter how you approach something, be it with a different camera or editing system, the way you approach the emotion, rhythm, and story will always be the same.
Cara: Switching gears– how long did it take you to film God Bless the Child?
Robert: We shot for about four months.
Cara: Right, obviously you couldn’t shoot for a year because the kids would grow quickly.
Robert: We had that same problem in three months, to be honest. Arri just turned 8, he was 7 during shooting, and the other day he tried to wear the pants he wore in the movie to school; they were about 6 inches too short.
Cara: (Laughs) They shoot up like weeds.
Robert: Especially during the summer. Not only do they shoot up like weeds, but they tan…and because they’re mixed race kids they get really dark. Their hair goes blonde, and they lose the winter weight. We knew that all of these things would be problems.
Cara: Last night at the Q&A you talked about making the film in the style of cinéma vérité documentary while simultaneously having a script, and I find it very interesting how you balance that out. Were there certain things you did to achieve that?
Rodrigo: Yeah, I think for us having realism is always really important. When we approach form I don’t think we really think about them as separate things, but rather what benefits the scenes the most. And I think that was a big part of the writing process, because Robert gets to see these kids and observe them every single day. The script became a narrative construct of reality, but filming sort of did the reverse where this unpackaging happened and the scenes fell apart a little bit…so then you end up getting this hybrid form that’s highly directed, highly structured, but at the same time feels so real and effortless.
Robert: Honest writing confuses people as to whether or not they’re in a narrative or dealing with a documentary. But regardless, it feels very real.
Cara: How many takes for each scene, would you say on average?
Robert: On average, it’s between 10 and 12 per shot. I mean, some the kids nailed and moved on, but others we shot a lot and had to keep re-shooting. Like the waffle scene: any time we were dealing with more kids, the more takes it would require, and we needed to orchestrate that in a way that all the moving parts worked and felt natural. We shot that scene probably every other day for two months.
Cara: You get such a complete prism of childhood, from babyhood to pre-pubescence. That must have been so fun to work with.
Robert: It was a really blessing to be able to do it. I mean, they really wanted to make a movie, so it was beneficial for the children even though they struggled at certain times. When it came to shooting in the morning, they were ready to go.
Cara: They all have such distinct personalities, and I can only assume that that is essentially how they are when the camera is turned off. Am I correct?
Rodrigo: I think the kids read their roles and thought, “this is me, this is my name, these are my siblings…I do some of these things, but I’m not like this all the time”. They are somewhat exaggerated versions of themselves.
Cara: What did the kids think of the film?
Robert: They were all so excited. It was neat to talk to them afterward; they were all really proud of it. That was really satisfying for both [Rodrigo and I], how proud they were of the work that they had done.