While working on films during his undergraduate studies, LDS filmmaker Robert Machoian Graham, was struck by how negative some of the people on set were. They would criticize the director or bring other negative energy to the production. When it came time to make his own films, Graham made a conscious decision that his sets would be a safe environment. This lead him to make the decision to include his family in his films.
Despite the fact that Graham’s family approach to film is a little less than mainstream, it has certainly worked. The filmmaker, who is also a BYU professor, has had four separate films accepted into the Sundance Film Festival in less than a decade.
“You have a less than 1 percent chance of getting your film in, so it’s never not going to be the most amazing thing. The excitement isn’t going to wear off,” said Graham. “But my experience this time around I feel like I’m apart of Sundance. They are interested in the things that I’m saying, and I feel like I’m a part of that community.”
This year, Graham’s film short “THE MINORS” won a Special Jury Award for Directing. The short, which stars Graham’s father and three sons, follows the story of three boys who try to get their grandpa to join their band.
Graham said the ideas that are explored in the film reflect his personal grapple with how dreams change in different stages of life. Once he started teaching at BYU, he had to reevaluate what his dreams were now that he has a secure job and has found a love for teaching.
“I have to think about the goals that I want to set now that I’m here being a teacher, but also as an artist,” said Graham. “I need to find out where those balances can happen. What can I make that can contribute socially? What things can I talk about?”
Graham said he’s starting to find that balance by focusing on films that explore important issues, like his upcoming short about the complexity of marriage. There’s also a likelihood he’ll keep making films that involve his family.
Filmmaking and Family
“In the beginning, I was insulating myself around people I knew believed in me, but now it’s shifted to being more of a collaborative idea,” said Graham. “Knowing the actor — what he can do, how I can push him, how we can grow together — is what the motivation is now.”
Even though Graham has found success in working with his family, it can also be difficult.
“The hardest thing I’ve had to learn as a filmmaker is that I need to separate when we’re making movies and when we’re not,” said Graham. “I have to go from being the director to their dad.”
For the most part, though, Graham said working with his family has been beyond beneficial.
“Working with my kids has forced me to be more collaborative,” said Graham as he recounted how his sons were the ones who pushed him to film “THE MINORS.”
One lesson he’s learned from working with his kids is that you can’t get young kids to do exactly what you want them to do. “You have to give them general notes, and then they work within those notes,” said Graham. “They understand generally what you want them to do and they have the ability to go add their creativity within that context.” Graham applies this idea to his parenting by giving his children more opportunities to make their own decisions.
Filmmaking and Faith
Graham said being in the film industry has opened him up to living like the Savior did.
“When I look at and explore films that aren’t just directed towards LDS audiences, I find myself learning to love people,” said Graham.
Graham’s films, which cover everything from suburbia to gravediggers, don’t target LDS audiences specifically; however, Graham said they do contain themes all Latter-day Saints believe in.
Graham’s films and those of other filmmakers can be used as a tool for Latter-day Saints to become better disciples of Christ.
“Everyone picks the world they want to live in and how they want to insulate themselves, but I do think empathy and understanding are crucial,” said Graham. “I think understanding other perspectives is how you can make the world a better place. And that’s what we try to do as Christians in general; we’re trying to make this a world a better place.”