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“You’ve Gotta Kill Your Darlings”: Editor Adam Carter Rehmeier on Dinner in America

A still from Dinner in America by Adam Rehmeier (courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Adam Carter Rehmeier certainly enjoys “the pressure of wearing a lot of hats,” and his latest film, Dinner in America, comes as no exception. Serving as both writer and director, Rehmeier also worked as editor of his feature, which premieres at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. The story follows an unlikely duo–a punk rock singer on the run from the law and his band’s biggest fanon an absurd and comedic journey through the suburban Midwest. Here, Rehmeier deconstructs his similarly trying journey through the editing process, breaking down the ways in which the film’s score helped guide him, and how his background in documentary has influenced his work.

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?

Rehmeier: I think initially, from a budgetary standpoint, it made a lot of sense for me to edit the film, that way we were able to put every dollar on the screen. But beyond that, I have the skill set, having edited several features, docs, shorts and web content. I had a very clear vision for Dinner in America, and spent almost the entirety of my pre-pro planning everything shot-for-shot with my DP, Jean-Philippe Bernier, so it was very easy for me to articulate the style and rhythm of the film with my producers, who were all very supportive of me cutting the film myself.

Filmmaker: In terms of advancing your film from its earliest assembly to your final cut, what were goals as an editor? What elements of the film did you want to enhance, or preserve, or tease out or totally reshape?

Rehmeier: My rough cut clocked in at 2:19:54 and my final cut lands at 1:46:17, so I shaved a solid 33 minutes from my first to last pass. The biggest reshape was the first act, where I ultimately cut about 18-19 minutes total. I needed to compress the front end of the film quite a bit, because my leads were meeting each other at the 39 minute mark in the first pass and intuitively, I knew that would never fly with an audience. They needed to meet around 20 minutes in. Also, my first pass was completely dry with regards to score, so the absolute first thing I did on my second pass was integrate score elements from my composer, John Swihart, into my reshaped front end (a 9 minute sequence that had become 4.5 minutes). Rhythmically, it established the rules of how the score was going to work in this film, and gave me a good jumping off point for streamlining the first act and beyond.

Filmmaker: How did you achieve these goals? What types of editing techniques, or processes, or feedback screenings allowed this work to occur?

Rehmeier: With regard to technique for Dinner in America, I first did a front-to-back cut that includes everything I shot and all dialogue. I worked off my script linearly from the first page to last. My second pass was the harsh, attrition pass, where I worked non-linearly and did the bulk of my big cuts. I knew pretty well what wasn’t working at that point, so it was pretty easy to drop entire scenes or severely cut down dialogue within scenes that were dragging. Then I polished that cut up a bit, brought in some of the first score elements, called it a rough cut and showed it to my producers for notes. I did another pass after their first round of notes and then more notes. After that, once I got into fine cut territory, I did a pass with the picture off and listened to it like a radio play, started to fine tune the pacing by adding space or closing gaps. Next pass, I watched with the sound off and and started to adjust the rhythm of my cutting. Maybe two quick passes on the film after that, and then several microscopic passes, just nit-picky shit.

I wasn’t precious with anything in the film. You’ve gotta kill your darlings and do what’s best for the film. Editing definitely reveals a lot of the flaws of your script with regard to pacing and redundancies. Cutting my own films has definitely influenced how I write and vice versa. In hindsight, there were a few scenes I could have cut outright in pre-pro, and the time spent on them could have been allocated for beefing out other scenes.

Filmmaker: As an editor, how did you come up in the business, and what influences have affected your work?

Rehmeier: In addition to the feature narratives I’ve been involved with over the years, I have an extensive background in documentary filmmaking, as both a DP/Cam Op and editor. I think my experiences in the doc space have really influenced my work the most, overall. You get used to working very quickly and problem solving on the fly. I enjoy the pressure of wearing a lot of hats and I’m used to tight deadlines, heavy travel, brutal hours, shit food, being crammed into planes, RVs, pass vans. Having this kind of background makes feature narrative production a joy.

Filmmaker: What editing system did you use, and why?

Rehmeier: I use Adobe Premiere Pro. I’ve been an Adobe fan for a couple decades. My first digital video experiments were cut on Premiere 5.0, and I shoot a lot of stills too, so Photoshop has always been my go to for editing my snaps. I worked with Final Cut 7 for a few years, but bounced back to Premiere Pro about 10 years ago because I was shooting/editing a lot of docs with multiple cams/codecs, and it was a time saver not having to constantly transcode footage, especially with really tight turnarounds and constant travel. I find it really intuitive software and I love how it’s integrated with the other Adobe Creative Cloud applications.

Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to cut and why? And how did you do it?

Rehmeier: Probably the opening scene, because it took some reimagining. It was the only day of the shoot that I didn’t make my shotlistit was the start of the third week, right on the heels of Labor Day weekend, and production had some logistical oversights. On the page, the scene is a bit more elaborate, and designed like a title sequence, with a lot of CUs of medical machinery, sick clinical trial patients, etc. and we kind of weave through the facility and get a sense of what is going on before we land on Simon. I struggled cutting it for a while, but I think it was only because I was bringing some of the negativity/anxiety I felt from shooting the scene into the edit room with me. What worked was to make it all about Simon. So I started on a very tight single of him staring almost directly into the camera that holds an incredibly long time. He’s super nauseous from the drugs in the study, and the sound is very subjective. I pre-lapped the audio over the production company credits (over black) prior to the shot, so we are already hearing everything from his POV 15 seconds before we see him and it makes sense when we see him why the audio is muffled and distorted. Once the full scene was cut, my sound designer (Colin Alexander) really peppered in the gold, brought so much peripheral life to the scene. On my second pass of the film, this scene along with the next six had gotten compressed from 9 minutes to 4.5, and became sort of a reimagined credit sequence that is driven by John Swihart’s score.

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?

Rehmeier: I think on the page, the script reads like a Warner Bros. cartoon at times, and my biggest surprise in post production is just how much humanity Kyle and Emily really brought to Simon and Patty. It’s incredible and has been a really moving experience for me. When you’re shooting, you can have a really emotional scene sandwiched between two other really random scenes and not really have the time to process any of what just happened yourself in order to make your day. Intuitively, I felt good about everything we shot, but when I was cutting, I really had time to absorb how committed and vulnerable Kyle and Emily were throughout, and it still really blows me away.

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