Based on Adair

Sandra Adair, the longtime Austinite and Oscarnominated film editor, details the challenges of the cutting-room floor, her more than two-decades-long collaboration with director Richard Linklater and stepping into the director role for the first time.

By Rachel Merriman, Photos by Andrew Chan

In most films, there’s a pivotal scene when a character realizes who she is or what she wants to do. When asked to pinpoint the closest thing to that sort of moment in her own life, film editor Sandra Adair recalls a distinct memory.

“I remember seeing a film my brother made when he went away to college. I was probably 13 or 14 or something like that,” Adair says. “He made this black-and-white short of a person throwing a pot. It was beautifully photographed and edited; it was so visual. I was like, ‘Oh my god, look what he made and how beautiful that is.’ I always admired the craftsmanship that he opened my eyes to.”

Adair’s brother, also a film editor, gave her a job in the cutting room for a film he was working on. There, she learned the technical aspects of the filmediting process, or postproduction. As a film is being shot, editors typically receive an abundance of raw footage and are tasked with piecing it together to create a rough draft of the film. After shooting is finished, editors work closely with the director to refine that edited footage into a finished product. It’s as much of a creative process as it is a technical one.

“I started by rewinding film and coding the edge of film, which we used to do back in the day,” Adair says. “I learned the etiquette of the cutting room, film language and terminology, and the whole process, from shooting all the way through to a finished film, under [my brother’s] mentorship.”

Adair worked in Los Angeles for a number of years as an assistant editor, first cutting low-budget films (the names of which she dares not speak) and incrementally working her way up to bigger-budget films.

“I learned everything that I know—really—about postproduction in those years,” she says. “I’m continuing to learn, obviously, but I learned everything I needed to know to feel comfortable to step up to the editor position. That was a huge step for me. There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with being an editor. There’s a lot of decision-making and creative input and know-how that goes into being able to sit down and say, ‘OK, I can make a film out of all of this.’ ”

Adair came to Austin from Los Angeles for a brief stint in the late 1970s with plans to take a break from film and go back to school. However, when the industry called for her to work as an assistant editor on Outlaw Blues, the 1977 drama starring Peter Fonda, she answered. During this time, Adair also met and married her husband, and the couple soon moved back to L.A., where more jobs were available.

Reminiscing about her early work, Adair recalls Rip Torn’s The Telephone, released in 1988 and starring Whoopi Goldberg. The film’s history is messy, to say the least. (Goldberg sued Torn to prevent the film’s release.) But Adair classifies her experience as an incredible learning opportunity. “I was the editor sandwich: in the middle of the director, actor and the studio. It was a situation where I did studio, Rip, Sandra and Whoopi versions of the film,” Adair remembers.

“I was on the front lines of the editorial dilemma. Whose voice do I listen to? Who do I align myself with? Yes, the studio is paying the bill, but who am I actually working for? Who do I think has the best ideas? It was tremendously educational.”

Soon after Adair’s experience with The Telephone, a recession hit L.A., work dried up and she and her husband moved back to Austin in 1991 with their two young children in tow.

“My husband had been directing prime-time television shows Dallas and Dynasty. When we moved here, he said to me, ‘I know I can direct something, even if it’s just traffic.’ And I felt the same way, like, ‘I know I can edit something when we get there. I can get a job in a fabric store. There are lots of things I can cut—maybe material. Who knows?’ I was trying to figure out how to make a living to support our two little kids,” Adair recalls.

She got in touch with Texas Motion Picture Service, the postproduction house where she had helped edit Outlaw Blues, to see if there were any jobs available. Her friends there told her about a guy they had heard of named Richard Linklater, who was shooting a film in Austin for Universal.

“I figured out what his production office’s address was and I wrote him an oldfashioned snail-mail letter: ‘Dear Mr. Linklater, My name is Sandra Adair,’ ” Adair says, laughing. “And I enclosed a resume and mailed it off.”

Three weeks later, Linklater called Adair for an interview to work on a film called Dazed and Confused, the now beloved coming- of-age cult classic especially cherished by Austin natives. Since then, Adair has edited every single one of Linklater’s films, 19 in all, including the critically acclaimed Before trilogy, the dark comedy Bernie and box-office smash School of Rock.

“I think I appeared in the right place at the right time. He for me, and me for him,” Adair says.

Although Adair and Linklater’s longtime collaborative partnership isn’t uncommon (She points out other director-editor pairings with longevity, such as Clint Eastwood and Joel Cox, and Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker.), it isn’t the norm either. Editors usually jump around doing pilots, television series and movies, all for different directors. But Adair prefers to stick with Linklater, working on other projects between his films. Most recently, Adair edited documentaries At the Fork, which earned praise for its unbiased look at animal agriculture, and A Single Frame, which won the Audience Award at the 2015 Austin Film Festival.

“The difference between being in Austin and L.A. is that there’s not a lot of opportunity for me to stray away from Rick,” Adair says. “He has periods of time where he’s not working, and, in that amount of time, for me to do another film, I would miss the scheduling of his next film. So, I’ve made a very conscious choice to align my schedule with him as best I can. … I haven’t wanted to stray away from him. I admire him and I love working with him. He’s a brilliant filmmaker and I always enjoy the films he makes.”

Adair is also quick to point out that she’s been incredibly lucky to live and work in Austin all these years.

“There’s tremendous talent here, and I think it’s because people love living here and they’re able to do their craft here, so, they stay,” Adair says. “Sadly, the lack of work is a huge thing because of [tax-related] incentives not being as great as they used to be. The Texas film-incentive program is vital to our industry. If we don’t get incentive packages from the state to be competitive with other states, and we don’t have films to come here to shoot, people can’t make a living.”

The process of editing a film is a labor of love, to say the least. Adair works with “dailies,” or the raw footage that’s shot each day, cutting out and reordering sections to craft a scene. Since scenes are usually shot out of order, Adair cuts them as they’re filmed, using the script as a chronological blueprint to see where a scene takes places within the film. She sifts through all the footage, letting her intuition and creativity guide her, to expose what’s important about a particular scene.

“The idea is to try to pull the intent of the director, the intent of the scene and the intent of the overall script out of the footage,” Adair says. “There’s a lot of looking at the material and getting to understand what all the opportunities are, then pulling the pieces that are going to best communicate what you want to be compelling about a scene, and piecing it together in a narrative way that tells a story. And then you do that scene by scene until you have a whole film. Then you shape it and pace it and pull more meaning out and diminish other things that become less important.”

During this process, Adair makes technical decisions that seem miniscule but that impact each scene and, by extension, the film as a whole.

“A lot of the editorial process is holding everything in your head and knowing, in this take, they delivered this line really well, but there’s a microphone in the shot. This other take, the line reading is not so good, but the camera work is awesome. In this one, it’s not as evocative but it’s angrier, so, maybe that’s the way to go. There’s all these tiny little decisions that go into a scene that make it work pacing-wise, narratively and emotionally,” Adair says.

Adair usually makes an editor’s cut on her own while Linklater is still shooting. When shooting is finished, they collaborate for a period of about 10 weeks for a director’s cut, a process in which they review the film together and Adair makes changes based on his feedback. During this time, scenes might be changed slightly, reordered or cut altogether.

“That first cut is really my opportunity to bring my own take on what the footage is giving,” Adair says. “Then [Linklater] comes in and we talk, he gives me notes and I execute the notes. When he comes back, I’ll say, ‘I have six versions for you to look at. On this one, I did this. On this one, I did that.’ I show him choices and variations.”

After working together for 23 years, the Adair-Linklater partnership is a well-oiled machine. She can see where he’s going with something and trusts that he’s going in the right direction. Likewise, Linklater trusts her instincts.

“He knows the stories that he directs, inside and out, and he understands what he had to go through before the cutting room,” Adair says. “I bring my own voice and tastes to the films, and nine times out of 10, we agree. But on that 10th time, I defer to him. He’s the creator, and I’m very clear about my role.

“Sometimes, we’ll have a trouble spot in a film and we won’t really have any solutions. We’ll just identify that this one part needs something. I’ll mangle it all up and try it upside down and backwards, and many times, I can solve the problem. And then he comes in and I show it to him, and he’s like, ‘Yeah, but,’ and I’m like, ‘This works!’ Sometimes, I have to convince him and other times, he will convince me that I need to backtrack and start over. But that’s collaboration. That’s exactly the meaning of it. And I love that part.”

“It’s kind of like any working relationship that’s successful. It’s hard to pinpoint why it works so well,” Linklater says. “Beyond her obvious skills as an editor and a storyteller, it’s also her demeanor and work ethic. It’s been a wonderful ongoing collaboration. … We don’t really have creative differences. That’s probably the key to our longevity. Her first instincts are so right on that it creates a pretty seamless process. Sometimes, the director-editor relationship can be fraught. She’s not afraid to say, ‘Oh, I don’t think that works the way you wanted it to.’ I think as long as you’re making the same movie and you’re on the search together, it all works out.”

Adair’s editing skills seem unmatched when considering the 2014 critically acclaimed coming-of-age masterpiece Boyhood, which, incredibly, was filmed during the course of 12 years. Each year, Linklater would shoot for a period of three to four days. Then Adair would take over, spending about a month editing that year’s material and connecting it to the previous year’s. At the time, the film was called Untitled 12-year Project, and year after year, Adair helped it take shape.

“I kept saying to [Linklater], ‘At some point, I have to have time to edit the movie!’ I feel like I was editing these little vignettes, and I needed to have time to go through the whole thing and do a real honestto- God postproduction. But I had worked on years one through 11 enough that when he shot year 12, I connected it and we had a whole movie,” Adair says.

Boyhood was unique in our filmography together because, unlike other films, we got to sit in the editing room and talk about the future, and she could voice her opinion about what the film needed,” Linklater says. “I could discuss the storytelling elements of the film with her as it was in progress. Usually, she’s read the script and everything’s been shot and we’re working with existing material. But in this case, it was an ongoing conversation. We were always in a state of postproduction and preproduction at the same time.”

Boyhood skyrocketed after its inaugural screening at the Sundance Film Festival. The film racked up six Academy Award nominations (including one for Adair), with Patricia Arquette winning Best Supporting Actress, and five Golden Globe nominations, winning Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Director for Linklater and Best Supporting Actress for Arquette.

“The reaction was really, really exhilarating,” Adair says. “When you’re working on something that’s so drawn out, you can’t even imagine what the end result of your work is going to be, much less what people are going to think about it. I was so used to working on it for so long, it became a part of my life, like it was like a birthday or an anniversary or something.”

After the film’s theatrical release, a huge wave of people contacted Adair, Linklater and the other cast members to share how the film impacted them personally.

Boyhood struck people in their hearts in a way that nothing I had ever worked on or probably will ever work on again,” Adair says. “Everyone was showered upon with people’s personal experiences and things they wanted to talk about, their own families and their own dysfunctional stepfather. I had hundreds of emails from people I hadn’t heard from in 15 years, family members and strangers reaching out to me and sharing their personal experiences.”

In addition to her Academy Award nomination for Best Editing, Adair won the American Cinema Editors’ Eddie Award in Drama for her work on Boyhood. Since the Eddie Award is given by an honorary society of film editors, being recognized meant a great deal to Adair.

“[Winning the Eddie Award] was really, probably the most satisfying and fulfilling acknowledgement I’ve ever had for the work I’ve done,” she says.

In July 2015, Adair stepped into the role of director to produce The Secret Life of Lance Letscher, a documentary that offers an intimate view of prolific collage artist Letscher’s work and life. Adair was introduced to Letscher when her cousin, who owns a building on South Congress Avenue, commissioned a metal collage from him.

“He does amazingly intricate paper collages with vintage materials, books, album covers, children’s workbooks, scribbles on paper he collects. … And so, my desire when I first heard about the metal collage was to document its creation since it was such a change from his normal materials. When I say ‘document,’ I was thinking shoot stills. I didn’t really have in mind a documentary film,” Adair says.

But as she got to know Letscher, Adair felt compelled to capture his evolution as an artist, his artistic process and his personal life more in-depth.

“I found him so intriguing, thoughtful, funny and caring, and also just an incredible artist,” she says. “I thought, ‘Well, we’re just going to switch that still camera out for a digital movie camera, and we’re going to make a film.’ ”

Like many independent documentaries, The Secret Life of Lance Letscher needed help with funding. Adair turned to the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter to launch a grassroots fundraising effort, which ultimately raised $50,000 for the documentary.

“It was a much-needed boost. The outpouring of goodwill towards Lance and love of him and his artwork, and people who support me and want to see me do something fun like this, it was just a huge amount of goodwill just pushing us forward,” Adair says. “It was very encouraging and exciting.”

Following the success of the Kickstarter campaign, Adair brought on consulting producer Karen Bernstein, whose documentary Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny premiered at Sundance in January, and producer Kristi Frazier, who previously worked with Adair on A Single Frame.

“What has made Sandra stand out from other editors I’ve worked with is her ability to work with such nuance,” Frazier says. “She has such a lyrical way. Her artistic flow is on this intuitive level. She’s an artist, and that really shows through in how she’s approached this documentary. … This project has been really satisfying for me to be a part of because of her passion for Lance. She gets him, in some really deep way. He’s not one of those artists who want to have a lot of attention paid to them. I think he saw how much she understands him and his process. She’s committed to making this the best documentary she can about him because she’s completely in awe of how decent he is as a person, and how amazing his artwork is.”

After shooting for about a year, the film is finally ready for postproduction, and Adair is transitioning from directing to settling into the editing process. The entire documentary is neatly laid out on colorcoded cards tacked to a bulletin board in her office at Austin Studios. Scenes containing biographical information on Letscher are blue, his significant pieces and processes are yellow, interview segments with other people are green, and so on.

“Editing is the brain I live in, so, I feel like I’ve been just gathering materials to actually edit something. Directing has really been just getting to know Lance and coming up with questions for interviewing him, getting him to trust me and open up about his process and seeking out people to talk about Lance with the level of intimacy that I want in the film,” Adair says. “I’ve been just kind of following this path that is being revealed to me. I do really like the fact that I am crafting this film by what I imagine I would want to watch, and I’m not having to go by anyone else’s rules. It’s been fun, but very challenging.”

The commonality between Adair’s and Letscher’s artistic processes inspired the name of Adair’s production company, A Found Piece Productions.

“There’s this similarity between what Lance does as a collage artist and what I do as an editor,” she says. “He finds these materials and he searches out things that turn him on, and then he cuts them out, and I essentially do the same thing as an editor. There’s this mirroring of our process that has become very evident to me. Plus, I like the double entendre of a found ‘peace.’ ”

Adair hopes to finish The Secret Life of Lance Letscher by the end of the year. There are still a lot of postproduction tasks to complete— color correction, graphic design and the score by composer Graham Reynolds, to name a few—so, Adair is continuing to reach out to supporters for the final financial push that will allow her to finish the film.

“It’s been a really challenging part of the process, producing a film out of Austin. The Kickstarter money was not a small amount of money. It’s fantastic and it’s gotten us this far, but the reality is that finishing a film like this is expensive, so, we have to continue to reach out to supporters, and that’s a lot of work,” Adair says.

When asked about what she’ll do after The Secret Life of Lance Letscher is finished, Adair can’t say exactly what comes next. “I just want to finish this film,” she says, “and then I can think about my life after that!”

 

For more information about The Secret Life of Lance Letscher, including a teaser clip of the film, visit lanceletscherdoc.com.


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