Something in the Dirt is the fifth feature by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, indie multi-hyphenates who directed, wrote, shot, co-edited, and produced the story about a pair of fast friends who attempt to turn an encounter with the supernatural into fast money. Co-editor Michael Felker discusses how the film’s form enabled him to take risks and creatively approach the editing process.
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the editor of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
Felker: I’ve been the editor for Benson and Moorhead’s last three movies, so they brought me on because of our history and because we like working together. I met them fresh out of college back in 2011 when they were looking for a production assistant on their first feature, Resolution. I didn’t really know them too well, but after a quick intro over beers, we got along great, so I jumped on board and had an incredible time working on that movie for them.
After that I worked in post halls for a couple of years before editing freelance in 2013. At that time, Justin and Aaron had a lot of success with Resolution and were brought on to make a segment of V/H/S Viral called Bonestorm. They wanted to work with me on set like before, but they knew I had pivoted into post-production, so they brought me on as a DIT/Assistant Editor which meant that I can still be on set, but now in a post capacity. They had me do a rough edit of Bonestorm which they really liked, so they bumped me up to editor, and it was a blast. Since then, they’ve brought me on to edit all of their features, including Something In The Dirt, which was a great way for all of us to work together again after a long time apart during the pandemic.
Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were your goals as an editor? What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?
Felker: Something in the Dirt is really cool because it does not behave like a traditional narrative feature. It’s a wild docu-narrative where the characters record everything as they go and their choices reshape the storytelling techniques you can use from scene to scene. But it also bends a lot of rules that come with making a docu-narrative too. It’s fascinating but also hard to explain without going super deep into the film’s lore.
To keep it general, one of my goals was to always engrain as much of the characters’ personalities into the actual edit as possible. Anytime we would hold on a shot or cut to a new angle, we had to ask ourselves not just why we’d make this choice, but why would these characters make this choice too. We did this with interviews, conversations, set pieces, etc. And while that’s not entirely unique in the world of docu-narratives, Something in the Dirt also makes us ask questions of the world beyond the one our characters are filming because it’s never just a character pointing and shooting a camera. There’s always another layer or two going on top of that. And that made this the most fascinating edit process I’ve ever had with a movie. No idea was out of the realm of possibility because the freedom we had in the medium just enhanced every part of the film. The wilder the edit got, the more I fell in love with the movie.
Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?
Felker: We had all kinds of tricks. We had both the traditional narrative toolset and the documentary toolset to play with. And for a movie that constantly challenges what you’re actually seeing, it was really fun to blur these two arsenals of filmmaking together. So we’d flash documentary assets into the middle of conversations. We’d shift interviews around to break up scenes. We’d use different motifs, like reoccurring inserts, home videos, or sound cues, to tie together an endless amount of ongoing threads. There were even a couple of times where one of us would pitch a wild new take in the edit using stock footage and mockup voiceover just to see how it would reshape characters within the fabric of the film and tighten the pacing even more. It all sounds nuts, but it was genuinely great. And I feel like it worked well because I trusted Benson and Moorhead’s vision and because we had really helpful feedback from a small group of respected peers that helped inform us where we might’ve gone too far or where we didn’t go far enough.
Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?
Felker: I started post after I realized I was terrible at being a development intern. My first post job was a night logger at a post production hall that specialized in making behind-the-scenes videos for feature films. There were only a few people who worked during the nights, so I had a lot of downtime to learn more about Avid and study the other assistant editors working there. I then took a job as a post production assistant in a reality TV post hall where, in the second week, they had more shows coming through than post staff working on them. So they promoted me to assistant editor, and I learned the job as I went. It was hard and I made a lot of mistakes, but I really bonded with the team there and I eventually found my footing.
Near the end of my time there, I tried to pivot into editing, but all the editors who worked there were actually hired out-of-house. So I thought if I could go independent, I could find more opportunities in editing. So I quit and used my savings to float while I built my editing portfolio. I’d cut web series and music videos with my friends for free until that eventually led to small paid work and, luckily, bigger projects like features and TV shows.
I have a ton of influences—almost too many—but the biggest influences for me on Dirt were, weirdly, JFK and Shutter Island. JFK is obviously an editing masterclass, but specifically it’s fascinating to see how the editors would meticulously weave old footage and flashbacks into the middle of scenes. Figuring out when to cut away, how long to hold, what the audience can process, and when to cut back in a dense three hour narrative is just maddening. It’s borderline insane. And that’s exactly why it was perfect for Something in the Dirt.
And Shutter Island is just magic. Every time I revisit it, I discover something new in the edit that just blows me away. Schoonmaker is a genius. The tools she uses to take us into Teddy Daniels head specifically are so subtle yet affecting, and then when you watch it again and see how she accomplishes that in the edit, it’s beautiful. That specificity in the POV really helped guide my hand in cutting Dirt.
Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?
Felker: Because of the film’s fluid nature, Adobe Premiere was definitely the way to go. The malleable nature of the program allowed us to blend different film formats and resolutions together very easily and allowed us to try things in After Effects and Audition with rarely any hiccups.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?
Felker: Funny enough, the most difficult scene to cut was a very emotional dialogue scene just between the two main characters in an apartment. It’s the only time the film shows restraint in its storytelling style, so all I had were the two actors and a few inserts to help break things up.
Not a big deal honestly, but there were two extra challenges that made the scene surprisingly tricky: First, the two directors are also the two lead actors, so I really had to be the objective third eye on all of their performances. Especially in a performance driven scene like this one. Second, there was only one other crew member on set—the ever-talented producer Dave Lawson—and he was very occupied with camera and sound. So there was no one left to actually time the takes with a stopwatch. And with a very emotional scene like this, the takes were coming in longer than they were scripted for. And that’s the recipe for a draggy scene. So the goal was to trim down this emotionally charged scene so it never dragged but not to the point where it was emotionally stunted.
I workshopped this scene a lot with Benson and Moorhead. It took a lot of long conversations about what’s important to keep in and what we could afford to take out. We finally reached a point where if we cut anymore, the scene lost something special, but if we added anymore, it would feel bloated. And that’s it. It was nothing crazy technical or execution based. It was just having good long talks with your collaborators about what’s truly important in a scene and understanding why. I feel incredibly proud of how that scene turned out and it may be my favorite in the film.
Filmmaker: What role did VFX work, or compositing, or other post-production techniques play in terms of the final edit?
Felker: Like anything I’ve worked on, crucial VFX work really helped bring home a few scenes that were almost there but not quite there yet. I did some quick temp VFX work and compositing to see roughly how some scenes would feel in the edit, but for something out of this world, you can only muster up a VFX temp card, and imagining crazy VFX is really difficult when figuring out pacing. So the great VFX work done for Dirt really helped snap some scenes together, and are honestly better than anything I could’ve pictured.
Filmmaker: Finally, now that the process is over, what new meanings has the film taken on for you? What did you discover in the footage that you might not have seen initially, and how does your final understanding of the film differ from the understanding that you began with?
Felker: Honestly, the new meaning to me is seeing how much heart went into making the film. Yeah, it’s a film that skirts pretty far from any sentimentality, but when I watch it, I can’t shake that this was shot by three friends who all missed making cool movies together. And that type of heart really does bleed into the movie’s DNA, even if it’s not a part of the subject matter. You see that the characters really just long for companionship and meaning in this world, and it wouldn’t come out that way if it weren’t for how it was made by these guys. That’s maybe just my read after seeing this movie a hundred times, but I hope it’s the type of read that can come through even on a first viewing.