Sandra Adair's rhythm method
As Sandra Adair settles into her office at Detour Filmproduction, a double-wide nestled in the Austin Studios compound in East Austin, it takes her a moment to catch her breath, to catch the rhythm of our conversation. After working on multiple projects at breakneck pace, suddenly they are converging, and concluding, at once. She's the first to admit she's been a little scattered; in fact, she's not sure at first which project I'm here to ask about.
Counting them off: As Richard Linklater's longtime editor – she's worked with him on every project since Dazed and Confused – she recently completed her cut on his newest film, Bernie, with the corrected film print anticipated in mere days. She's also finished work on a locally produced documentary, Sushi: The Global Catch, which premieres this month at the Seattle International Film Festival. And the night before our talk last week, she attended the Austin premiere of Everything Must Go, a dramedy she spent six months editing for first-time director Dan Rush. Inspired by the Raymond Carver short story "Why Don't You Dance," Everything Must Go details a monumentally bad string of days for an alcoholic, played by Will Ferrell, who returns home from a business trip to discover his wife has changed the locks and dumped all his belongings in the front yard. (See "Comedy of Errors," below) It's a quiet and cutting film, in no small part due to Adair's expertise in the editing bay; she manages to catch the rhythms of Carver's distinctive style, even though she admits she avoided reading the source story.
"As an editor, you try to keep this objectivity," Adair says. "I even don't like to read the script much after I start. Once I start getting the footage, I obviously read the script for direction, but I also go off of my gut instinct on what it is that I'm seeing onscreen and how to develop the story based on that – obviously within the confines of what the director's trying to do.
"I think in some ways less information is better for me so that I can really just operate with what I actually have, rather than what is in everybody else's mind and what happened in reality. That's just part of my own process – I just have to have my own head about the material."
It's a process she's honed over many years, first operating in the belly of the beast – that is, Hollywood – and then shifting base camp to Austin in 1991 with husband Dwight Adair and their two children. When she moved to Los Angeles right out of high school, she didn't have to look far for a mentor; her brother Bob Estrin's editing CV includes Badlands, The Candidate, and A River Runs Through It.
"I did not go to film school for a day," she says. "I just learned in the field. I started out marking slates on dailies. And then I learned how to sync dailies. And then I learned how to run the Moviola, and I learned where all the labs were. I just worked my ass off in my 20s."
Adair worked her way up through the ranks, eventually transitioning from assistant and second editor to sole editor. And then the early Nineties recession hit L.A. "We could not get a job. We couldn't buy a job there. And we had these two little kids, and we were like, 'Okay, if we're going to be starving, we'd rather be starving in Austin than in L.A.'" She laughs. "We came here living on credit cards. Oh my God. It was a very, very, very scary time."
She went nine months without a job. And then, with the kind of cloud-parting narrative twist that engines the movies she edits, Adair wrote a letter. "I wrote [Linklater] and [his longtime producer] Anne Walker a long-form, snail-mail letter introducing myself, and they called me to come in for an interview" – thus beginning a professional collaboration that's a dozen-plus feature films fruitful.
Still, Adair is quick to say that it's difficult to sustain a career as a feature film editor in town. "It's hard. I'm always scrapping around in between Linklater projects."
Enter Everything Must Go. "Part of it was just lack of work in Austin," she explains. But she also felt a bond with Rush, whom she calls funny and clever and respectful and "as detail-oriented as I am." She also, crucially, felt like they were on the same wavelength regarding "a tricky script" about a guy gumming a bottle and becoming completely unglued. As Ferrell's character sets up residence in his front yard, it's hard to resist the metaphor: He's literally living just feet from the gutter.
While the film shot on location in Phoenix, Adair hunkered down in an editing suite in Los Angeles. "I worked long hours. It's hard not to take it home with you when you're there from 9 in the morning until 9 at night, and then you come home and you're just fully saturated with the process. You of course bring it home with you. I mean, I had the same reaction to the film that I had to the script, which is: It's the worst day of this poor guy's life, and I'm living it with him day after day."
And not just casually living it, either. It's sort of the plight of the editor to be locked in a room, mostly alone, Adair says, at least while she's assembling the first cut: "It takes a lot of concentration, and there are so many decisions that are being made on a second-by-second basis. Your brain is trying to chart what you're going to do next and what you just saw and where you've been and where you want to go. ... And if you get distracted, then all that you're holding in your brain about what you're going to do next – what the next shot is, is it going to be a close-up, was that take good, all the little stuff that you're compiling in your brain as you're trying to edit – you can't hold that if you're being distracted."
She smiles, drawing on her long years of experience. "I have a funny story. Rick had an editing room over on Fourth and Congress, and we were above the Speakeasy. We were editing Newton Boys there, and it was a pretty new editing space for us. We had an agreement with the bar that they would not have any bands rehearsing or warming up before 7pm. But they would always, always, always break that. And sometimes I'd be in the middle of cutting this really dramatic scene and then all of a sudden it'd be" – she drops her voice an octave and mimics a thumping bassline – "and the bass would come on, it'd be people warming up, and drums and everything. My assistant at the time, Eric Lewy, would call down there and say: 'You guys have to turn off the music! Sandra's trying to cut a dialogue scene, and her rhythm's getting all screwed up!'
"And they wouldn't stop. And so he got a boat horn, this giant boat horn. We were on the middle floor, so there was like a long staircase down to the bar. He would just like, turn the boat horn down on them." She laughs. "We finally got through to them." Rhythm restored.
Everything Must Go opens in Austin theatres Friday, May 13. Read the Chronicle's review.