CHEWIN’ THE FAT with Editor Michael Felker

2017 is shaping up to be a pretty big year for editor Michael Felker. He’s had one flick, the genre-bending Get the Girl, already released in theatres and on-demand. His next film, the Aaron Moorhead & Justin Benson time travel sci-fi-thriller, The Endless, world premieres at the TriBeCa Film Festival next month. Add to that his working on his own material and this just seemed like an opportune time to chew the fat.

Known primarily for his collaborations with Moorhead and Benson, Felker is a proud FSU graduate and has an extensive love of cinema, which we discuss (or chew) in depth.

First off: Moonlight just took home Oscars for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor. Like Barry Jenkins, you’re a graduate of the FSU film program. How exciting is that win for the school, and talk a little bit about what your FSU experience was like?

It’s awesome, right? Now I know how all the NYU and USC grads feel after many years of their alumni winning Oscars. It’s exciting because the Florida State Film School hasn’t broken out in the awards scene like this before. We have had alumni success before in festival runs, and good stints at the box office. David Robert Mitchell’s last film in 2015, It Follows, is the first picture that comes to mind. But nothing on a level like this. Leading up to the Oscars, it wasn’t just our circle of friends talking about an independent movie being released in like two theaters nationwide. This was everyone and their mom talking about Moonlight. And talking highly of it too.  It deserved all the awards because it’s an amazing movie (school bias aside) made by kind and talented people.

To transition to your second question, I watched the awards with a lot of Florida State Film School alum. Anyone who knows anything about our university, we are first and foremost a football school. Not far removed from winning the college football national championship, school pride carries over to every subject. So when we were watching and Moonlight won for supporting actor, we cheered like we had just beaten the Gators by two touchdowns. It was nuts. And you can only imagine what it was like when the whole envelope twist happened at the end. To say the least, we are a dedicated and passionate bunch.

That shared, intimate experience is a microcosm of what it’s like attending the FSU film school. Unlike the other top film schools in the country, FSU film school is tiny and young. I think the school is a couple of years short of its 30th year. And they only have roughly 30 people per class in the bachelors program. So everyone knows everyone, whether you like them or not. And you get to know the years ahead of you very well and the years below you too. It’s a very tightly knit group. When you start school there, everyone gets lots of one-on-one experience with the teachers. They train you to be the foot soldiers of the industry. You learn every department very well. And then they throw you on sets with your 30 brothers and sisters and see what sticks. Then, when you leave the school, you’re pretty much qualified for any entry level production job out there. Now, the school has pivoted more towards digital arts in recent years, but the work ethic and passion are still the same.

Backing up: Where did movies fit in to your childhood? Were you a geek since day one or did you grow into it? What kinds of films did you gravitate towards as a kid?

Movies fit into my life from being a child of divorce. My parents divorced when I was very young. Probably 6 or 7 years old. I moved with my mother and sister to another city, but I would commute to see my dad every other weekend. And, given the struggles that come from being a single parent, they mostly wanted to unwind at the movies on their free time. And this is how my sister and I bonded with our parents. Watching movies. Getting into discussions. Escaping from struggles of lower-middle class life. It brought us closer together.

And each of them had different tastes. My mom would rent contemporary Rom Coms on tape from the local blockbuster. My dad would buy older classic dramas on DVD from Best Buy. And, just like that, I had a crash course on visual storytelling. I gravitated first towards the easy going stuff that was geared to an eight year old’s sensibilities  I think Austin Powers is the first one I can remember. But then I was shown some classic R-rated movies not soon thereafter. And that didn’t scar me in anyway. It brought me into the medium that opened up in fascinating ways. I watched a lot of Kubrick, Coppola, Kurosawa, Scorsese, Allen, Tarantino. And, for the most part, I didn’t understand a lot of it. I was like “Man, this black and white boxer movie is pretty boring. Why is this the best movie ever made?” I then forced myself to understand the intricate storytelling techniques. The tricks that wouldn’t spell it out for you. The subtle looks, the shots, the cuts that would say something layered deeper that would open my eyes to truer narratives and bigger themes. I felt like I had discovered another world. And then I’d watch something like You’ve Got Mail. It was a lot of that. Seven Samurai one night, A Fish Called Wanda the next night. It was a weird firehose of old art house and contemporary Hollywood that would overwhelm me for several years.

When was it that you first thought, “Hey – I wanna edit”? Was it a particular film, or the work of a particular editor, or was it just something that developed over the years?

I wouldn’t say it was a particular film. I wanted to edit because, on the first day I tried editing, it was like a bunch of neurons in my brain fired off for the first time. And it felt so good. That day was my second day at the NYU Summer Filmmaker Workshop. I think I was a junior in high school. They brought us into an editing lab, sat us down with random clips from a bunch of big movies, and showed us how to use the razor tool in Final Cut Pro. And from there, I was hooked. After the program finished, I came home and asked for a MacBook and Final Cut for my next three birthdays and Christmases. That was almost 11 years ago and I’ve edited for almost every day of my life since.

You’ve worked a lot with Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, as editor on Spring, their segment from theV/H/S Viral film, and on their upcoming feature, The Endless. Describe that working relationship, and how involved are you throughout the process?

It’s exhilirating because they’re the only two filmmakers I’ve worked with who edit along with me. With everyone else I work with, I’m very much the only person touching the keyboard. The director is on the couch behind me, we collaborate with discussion, and then I execute our discussion into the edit. Justin and Aaron edited their first feature, Resolution, themselves. They didn’t need another editor. They’re great editors and saved money by doing it. But, as their subsequent work got bigger budgets and became more elaborate in scale, another pair of eyes in the edit really goes a long way. They called me into V/H/S: Viral after I had been freelance editing for about a year, and I’ve worked with them on basically everything they’ve done since.

Our working relationship is very hands-on and extremely fluid. I work on an assembly as soon as the footage comes in. I work on the editor’s cut by myself for about a month (usually a couple of passes). Then they watch my cut and we discuss where to go from there. Then I get a break, and they take over the edit. Once they’ve gone through a couple of passes, I jump back in and we commence with the more traditional director/editor workflow until it locks. And, even after we picture lock, they send me later cuts with polished sound and VFX for more feedback. They’re so incredible to work for because they know exactly what they’re going for, but are still open to all suggestions. And it’s refreshing as an editor to see a cut you’re so familiar with change and grow after a little break.

Is there a particular genre of film you prefer editing, or do you like mixing it up?

I don’t have one, honestly. I’m hired more for horror/thriller feature work, but I’m open to anything that’s exciting, new, and engaging. You name it. I’ll only pass on something if I’m just not into the script. The rest, I at least entertain discussion with the director before considering it.

What’s the most common misconception people have about the editing process?

Hmmm. A lot of things, honestly. It used to be the broader things like thinking you can fix anything in post, when really – if you don’t shoot it right, nothing you do in post can fix it. But, I think in features, the most common misconception is the idea of ‘the best take’. Script supervisors, most of the times, are instructed by a director to note the best takes on set. But, when in post, these notes can be meaningless guideposts. More often than not, I sit with directors at dailies, watch the ‘best take’, and we’re all like, “That one?” Because the final edit is never just a stringout of ‘best takes’. It’s a constantly evolving process. The unusable take where the light falls in the background may, in fact, have the best two seconds of a performance in that scene. And, if you make it work, worst takes can be surprising. Watch everything, try everything, and a scene can have the potential to feel organic and natural in ways that no one single take can match.

The film, Get the Girl, was released earlier this year – another feature you cut. The film plays like a hyperactive hybrid along the lines of Very Bad Things, True Romance, and Go.  How did that project come about and what was your approach to it?

I was approached by the director, Eric England, after he saw a screening of V/H/S: Viral. He loved our segment, Bonestorm, for its kinetic energy, if I recall. And I dug Contracted’s unique social take on the zombie film. And, from there, he sent me the script. Now – Eric’s about the same age as me. So, when we met up and talked about the script, we saw that we grew up with a lot of the same movies – the mid-to-late 90’s horror films and thrillers especially. Get the Girl is a throwback to those. The ones that upended traditional audience expectations with a maniacal laugh. Scream was one big example we talked about quite a bit. And it’s funny you mention True Romance and Go since we talked about those at great length too: genre movies that knew they had a smart audience and then gave them something absurdly darker and different.

Hacksaw Ridge took home the gold statue at the Oscars – a win which came as a surprise to quite a few. What do you think was the best edited film of 2016 – was it even one of the nominees?

I did not see Hacksaw Ridge. It’s a shame I didn’t see it. I especially pay attention to nominees in that category. The winners for Best Editing lately have been some of my favorite films of that given year: Whiplash, Mad Max and The Social Network. Most of the winners have landed somewhere in my annual Top 5 or 10 favorite films. This year – I try not to be biased, but Moonlight’s editing was impeccable. It highlights what I mentioned before – finding layers and themes in-between the frames that a script can’t spell out. It’s also tight and well paced. I’d also highlight The Witch given how the editing contributes to a lot of that film’s unsettling tone. And, if I had to give a ‘most valuable editing’, it’d be Arrival. The way that movie is edited is so integral to the power of that narrative that moving any shots could potentially make for a lesser movie. One that would probably clear up some of the story, but make it emotionally cold and sterile. That’s death to a movie like that.

You’ve dabbled in writing and directing of late. Is that where you see yourself headed? Do you foresee a future where you’re only working on your own projects, and not for others?

Writing and directing is where I’m pivoting at the moment. I love editing, but I love all the other parts of filmmaking too. And I learned SO much about writing and directing from being an editor. It’s sharpened my senses. It’s helped me discover what kind of stories I want to tell. Because, as I mentioned before, I watched a lot of movies growing up. But I didn’t have a refined taste. I liked it all. Even the bad films. But seeing where my gut likes to cut a shot and where to hold a shot has shown me what kind of movies I’d like to make. It’s weird. It’s one thing to watch a movie and feel inspired to make something in the same vein. But, when you edit for a while, you discover what kind of filmmaker you really are. I’ll absolutely still work as an editor for others. Especially if I like the filmmaker and the script. But I’m definitely carving more of my editing time for myself and my own projects.

Rapid Fire Questions:

Thelma Schoonmaker or Michael Kahn? There can be only one.

Ha! You gave me editors that have been known for working with one director: Thelma with Scorsese and Kahn for Spielberg. So I’ll pick based off their work NOT working with those directors. And that’s Thelma. See, with Kahn, while he’s amazing with the craft, his work is only as strong as the director he works with, in my opinion (see Prince of Persia and A Series of Unfortunate Events). While that applies to a lot of editors (you work with what you got), Thelma did a lot with her work 2014 film Learning to Drive. It’s her first non-Scorsese narrative feature in decades, and yet you can feel her presence in the cut. See her style between shots. Experiment with the narrative in ways you don’t see from any other editor. Her work elevates that movie. She’s one of the few editors that can leave an auteur-like presence in her work.

Favorite Nic Cage film and what makes it amazing?

My brain chooses Adaptation. My heart chooses Raising Arizona. My gut chooses Birdy. My penis chooses Face/Off. My ass chooses The Wicker Man.

You’re stuck in Addams Family Values and are about to be forced to watch one movie, over and over, for days at a time – just like Wednesday and Pugsley. Which film do you want chosen?

Ha! The obvious choice would be Groundhog Day (and that’s a great choice!) But I’m not going there. I’m going The Matrix. That movie transports me to a time where I was 11, and movies were still magic. No sequel or backlash can tarnish how so damn awesome that movie is.

What’s next? Any projects you’re cutting – or writing/directing? Also: everyone has that one dream project they’d love to tackle or be asked to tackle. What’s yours?

I’m currently finalizing a cut for another feature film, while juggling a bunch of editing to pay the bills. My girlfriend and I have founded a production company to focus on filming grounded stories centering around nerd culture (not officially announced yet as our paperwork finalizes). We’re in pre-pro for our first short that’s scheduled to shoot in late spring, with another two projects on the horizon. Also writing another feature to hopefully pitch and fundraise in the coming year.. So very very busy!

As for my dream project, I have some personal features I wrote that I’d love to get made, but ultimately if I can find a way to tackle A Legend of Zelda television series, that would be the dream. But a lot of hurdles have to be jumped before that can happen: A) Can anyone make a movie or tv series adapted from a video game that’s legitimately good? B) Can anyone tackle The Zelda narrative where the main character (Link) in the source material has no personality by design? It’ll be tricky. Some fans don’t even want it made, but it’s going to happen eventually. So lets figure it out.

Final question: What is the film you find to be the most criminally underrated – the film you encourage people to check out despite what they might have heard from everyone else?

The Wachowski’s Speed Racer. I know it has a cult following now, but that’s not enough! That movie was critically panned by out-of-touch critics, and Iron Man ate its lunch at the box office. It needs all of our love to match its insanely rhythmic editing, eye-melting cinematography, and go-for-broke performances. It gives us everything for an amazing movie experience, and we left it on the stoop of the bad movie orphanage. Save Speed Racer!

Billy Ray Brewton

Billy Ray Brewton

Billy Ray Brewton is a writer/director of stage and screen from Alabama, California, and anywhere else that will take him. Until late-2013, he called Birmingham home, where he founded Theatre Downtown, a community theatre specializing in original and contemporary works. His original musical comedy, “Skanks in a One Horse Town”, was the subject of the documentary, “Skanks”, which premiered at the 2014 Slamdance Film Festival. His debut feature horror film, “Show Yourself”, world premiered at Bruce Campbell’s Horror Film Festival and is currently on the festival circuit. He is in pre-production for his second feature, “Midnights at the Sad Captain”, filming in 2017.
Billy Ray Brewton

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