Editing Something in the Dirt With Michael Felker

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Michael Felker is the editor of Something in the Dirt, the latest sci fi comedy creation from writer director team Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and during the festival, Michael Felker was incredibly generous with his time connecting with CineVino and even offered some invaluable insight into editing a docu-narrative like Something in the Dirt and the pros and cons of creating movies with friends.

Michael Felker: Something in the Dirt is a weird docu narrative sci fi horror about two people who find a strange anomaly phenomenon thing in one of their apartments and try to record a documentary about it and hopefully find fame and success through their findings. 

“No realm of possibility, no realm of limitations or anything could stop us from trying out different assets or things we would find on the internet to sell a point for the characters to excel their threads in the documentary in the movie.” – Michael Felker

At what part of production did they bring you on board?

Michael Felker: They brought me on very early like script phase. Every movie that I’ve been with them since Spring, they always send me the scripts and they want my thoughts and then they go from there. We’re in the middle of the pandemic at this point and they sent me the scripts, like about a month or two before the shoot, and they’re like, “Hey, we’re going to make this in like specific quarantine” where it’s just like those two plus the producer, a good friend, Dave Lawson, are the only three crew members on set all the time. And they’re shooting in Justin and Aaron’s apartment. So they’re like “we could love you off site”, like at my house here and editing the movie. And yeah, they just brought me on very early on and I was excited because the script was nothing like else that they’ve ever made before, it’s so weird and left of center, and I was very excited to jump on board.

What is a Docu-Narrative?

Michael Felker: Well, I mean I guess in the name itself, it’s like you’re trying to edit a movie like you’re approaching it as a regular narrative/traditional movie and as a documentary. So it’s a little bit of the good and bad that come with both. Especially with the documentary part, which. the most extensive writing that a documentary does is within the editing room. Actually, a lot of figuring out the story is there, and thankfully we didn’t have to do a lot of it because the script was pretty tight where it was. But with a documentary element, we were kind of, no realm of possibility, no realm of limitations or anything could stop us from trying out different assets or things we would find on the internet to sell a point for the characters to excel their threads in the documentary in the movie. So I guess the short term would be, it’s like a narrative, but you’re allowed to do so much more and do cool things with it.

Can you elaborate further on the editing process? Did you stick to the script or improv story as you edit?

Michael Felker: Justin wrote an incredible script that what you see there is what happens like they had to still do like the scenes properly and shoot them that way but the first cut of the movie was three hours and 45 minutes long. Which, in true conspiracy theories form, it’s just like a big rambling thread of a movie. So we had to find interesting things and rewriting or tweaking or reshaping in the edit to tell this kind of rabbit hole of a movie where the runtime doesn’t go too crazy, too. So we we had the script all laid out, but what we could do in the edit kind of expanded certain things that were already there to begin with.

In Post, does the editor act as a second director? Where does the editors’ responsibilities begin and end?

Michael Felker: Well, I think with these guys specifically, this is my fourth movie editing with them. They trust me a lot in terms of creative input with the movie. So, we had a big Google Sheet for every scene we were like what if we use this asset or this image or this video to make this line pop. For example, there’s a part of the movie where a character’s talking about hunting a lobster, and on the Google Sheet we’re like “I found this video of a lobster that would go great here.” But they also left it open-ended where they’re just like, “Felker. If you want to go check out anything like or if you find anything, bring it back and we’ll cut it in the movie.” And so there’s some freedom there with these guys that you wouldn’t get with, like a traditional director, editor thing. I guess to the original question, the reason why I direct more and more on the side is that I learn a lot about telling stories visually through editing and I would say with these guys, their vision is very clear in their heads and I’m on the wavelength, but I’m not like in their heads, so I’d still trying to execute a vision and going from there. I wasn’t terribly deep in the esoteric elements that Justin would write because Justin’s just way more knowledgeable about that stuff. But I’m more of like a bullshit checker. Where it’s just like I know the movie pretty well, like those guys, I probably know it outside of Dave, Aaron, Justin, I know the movie like the back of my hand. So I tell them if something’s bouncing off me and if I need to like put my foot down being being I don’t think this is working. We do have a serious conversation and try stuff out. But that doesn’t happen too often. I usually am just like “Oh man, go even further with where they’re going” and adding more, it becomes like, yes, and especially with this movie, which “yes and big” leads to more mania and crazy, demented thinking. So I would say, as a second director, I’m definitely more of just like a second opinion to a movie I really care about. 

How do you shape pacing when editing? How do you build climax?

Michael Felker: That’s a good question, because pacing is always a thing that people talk about more when watching a movie about the editing than anything else. Like in my experience, they rarely use the word good editing or fast editing, or when they’re like, they would say too slow, too fast that they just know by feeling a movie. So when I’m doing other jobs like television editing or digital editing, there is pretty much specific rules in pacing, especially with like digital editing, which is like don’t have a two minute video drag, otherwise people are going to click off like. That’s the easy thing about that. So there’s harder rules with that. But with indie film, you can actually say something in the art of the pacing. And just because you feel something is bad doesn’t mean it’s bad. Maybe it’s done by intention. So like, you know, like, this movie is a movie that tests a lot of you going down rabbit holes and I guess it goes my point earlier, if you’re not into this type of like manic journey that these two boys are going through in these rabbit holes, the movie is going to feel pretty long because it’s like one of those things. There are things within the narrative of this specifically that even justify the edit not to spoil anything but post-production elements and people at play are actually factored into the story. And I feel like it would be disingenuous to have a tight 90 with this movie if we had a lot of post-production issues that happened in the narrative. It should start to feel lumpy. It should start to feel like off the rails at some point where you’re like, “Where is this going?” And that isn’t a negative, I guess I would say for execution, Oh, we should have cut like two minutes. I’ll be like, no that’s saying something, and it should make you feel impatient and uneasy by design. And that’s tough to articulate because I feel like editing should get a benefit of nuance that a lot of parts of filmmaking get, like writing and directing. And I feel like editing is more like a craft of like, is it tight? Am I bored? Especially with this where you know, the making of the movie is part of the whole feel and character of it. Because, you know at certain points, these boys are at least getting their hands in the edit and trying to make the movie work. So, you’ll feel it more than any other traditional narrative that their character has influenced the movie. So, when things are clicking with the movie, it’s when the characters are like, Oh, they’re they’re in sync with each other. They like these things are going down. And it feels fun because the edit this is like hypnotic and you’re into it. But then as they start to pull apart and they start to like, fight more or they start going in different directions of what they think the doc should be. You feel not only the the edit feel more erratic, but also you could feel, especially with John’s character, who is like a dominating character over Levi, you feel his hand and you feel his choices influence the edit more than what Levi would have done. Like there’s a scene that I think about a lot, and it’s kind of hard to talk about without spoilers. So SPOILER ALERT for that. But there’s a scene where the two characters are found a thread that led him to a graveyard. And while they’re shooting each other, they’re shooting each other with cameras as they’re walking through the graveyard trying to find the next thread. Levi gives a theory about what he thinks is going on. And shortly thereafter, John shoots that theory down, being like, I don’t think it works. In the edit You can see that Levi, we don’t cut to any assets with him because he’s like giving all these threads, but we’re not giving him like clear images or videos to support him, because at that point, John is taken over the edit and he would not put assets he doesn’t want to feed his theory because he doesn’t agree with it. So when John interrupts and says, my theory is the one that we should be going down, we start seeing assets with him. And that is the kind of thing that influences the character where you start to see that where assets are going is where the director of the movie is thinking the movie’s threads are going, which more and more lean towards John’s P.O.V.

Michael Felker: I’m always curious what people take away from it, because there are some people who would probably watch this movie and go like, “I have no patience for a rabbit hole movie that’s conspiracy driven, I’m out”, but there’s some people who would want to follow the threads. And that was kind of important, I guess, was to if someone really wanted to dig into the narrative of this movie and the threads, every step is there and it’s great to pick up on, especially on a rewatch. But when we started getting the movie into finer shape, the edit is where we were like, Well, what else can we talk about? What else can we expand upon? What are the options, certain things with different assets we would pull? Tbe art director on the movie Katie Simon did a lot of the illustration stuff that you would see on as an assets to draw pictures of. And that was like, something that kind of came in with the edit because sometimes we would just pull in something we would get from the internet, put it there as a placeholder, or Dave would eventually try to find the rights to it and get in the movie. But there’s like lots of extra elements that are thrown in there. Moving interviews around to give things different context. And that’s where it started to feel like a documentary because you’re like, OK, if we moved this interview here and move this interview here at intercut it with this scene, this scene gives it power, and that’s something you probably could never do in a traditional narrative. 

As an editor, what are the pros and cons of working with friends?

Michael Felker:  There’s like a double edged sword with working with friends. Friends can be, sometimes they get too comfortable and I’ve worked with friends where sometimes there’s just like creative heads can but. And that’s no fun for everybody because it kind of affects the friendship. But with Justin and Aaron, I’m the editor, and they’re the directors. So that relationship where it’s their movie, their vision and I’m collaborating with them and executing that vision, it’s always going to be there. But the friends part allows us to A) not only have a blast with editing with each other, but B) allows you to kind of put away some of the political bullshit that would come with being like, if something’s not working, like as an editor, you like, try to massage how you would say it or something like that. But with friends, you can be like, Hey, guys, I don’t think this part’s working. Can we can we workshop this more? And it’s just kind of like, Am I wrong? And it could be more casual with them about like things that aren’t working. And it allows you to have like more of a rapport back and forth as director and editor. So there’s pros and cons, but with those guys, it’s definitely pro a lot of the time.