Sandra Adair's New Calling
A master editor steps behind the camera
When Richard Linklater's Boyhood, a decades-in-the-making project, finally surfaced at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, the critical praise came fast and furious. Referred to as "The 12-Year Project," the film had been shot without fanfare over several weeks a year, every year, since 2002. A year after its release, the film had become a cultural juggernaut, racking up six Oscar nominations and near-universal praise.
One of those nominations was for the film's editor, Sandra Adair, and it was her first. Along with the actors, Linklater, and the project's executive producers, Adair had been with Boyhood from its start in 2002 (she had by that time collaborated with Linklater on six movies; the growing tally is now closer to 20). She would spend a few weeks, year-to-year, cutting footage without a finished script. Right up until its premiere in 2014, Adair managed never to reveal anything to the press that would spoil the novelty of the movie's production process.
Work had not always come quickly to Adair, a member of the American Cinema Editors guild who told the Chronicle in 2011: "I'm always scrapping around in between Linklater projects." She and her husband Dwight, a filmmaker, had moved to Austin in 1991, ready to take whatever work would help them support their children. Rarely did a movie with the scope or funding of a film like School of Rock come along, but her collaborators in Austin shared her "ethical philosophies" for how a workplace should be – "warm, respectful, and collaborative" – so she was determined to remain in Texas. Then the Boyhood roller coaster started, and her work and support for the film began to pay off: In addition to receiving a co-producer credit, Adair's editing was often singled out for its seamlessness.
Less than a year has passed since Adair received the Academy Award nomination for Best Editing, but she recognizes that the accolades have elevated her to a new echelon, saying of her current career: "I am very much on a high." Ready to seize the moment, she's making good on her bona fides by developing and producing a new documentary that will mark her filmmaking debut.
In a South Congress neighborhood, Adair's cousin owns a building with an empty lot, ripe for the sprucing. So she and her husband commissioned a large-scale metal work by the sculptor and visual artist Lance Letscher. A local legend, Letscher has works – including photography, statues, books, and surreal miscellanea – sprinkled all over town, including at the Dell Children's Medical Center and the Austin Museum of Art. Yet when she was first told about him, Adair had never heard of Letscher: "[My cousin] told me she'd commissioned this artist to do this metal collage. So I looked him up on the Internet and saw his work. That was when I was like, 'Oh my God, I would love to document this.'"
Adair knew she wanted to somehow capture the artist's unique process, which she found fascinating. "He goes and finds, and has other people help him to find, old books, old book covers, old album covers, old catalogs, old children's books with kids' scribblings in them, all kinds of really used, patina-ed found paper." She developed the idea to take some still photographs of the metal mural as it was coming up, an idea for which her subject was immediately enthusiastic. But she failed to predict how much "excitement and momentum" the idea would receive from her peers. "The idea just snowballed," she said.
On a car ride with her husband, their conversation turned to an idea for a film that Adair would direct. With concept in mind, she reached out to Karen Bernstein, an Emmy Award-winning director and longtime friend currently at work on her own doc about (who else?) Richard Linklater. Bernstein, Adair said, "was just the natural person to call. She's got connections to the American Masters series, she's made films about well-known personalities, and she understands about funding arts documentaries." Bernstein came on board as a producer, and she recommended Jason Gamble Harter, a cameraman skilled in verité-style photography (and better yet, one who owned his own equipment). Within a short while, another talented Texan – musician Graham Reynolds – agreed to score the picture. Suddenly, the director had a crew. And after drawing up a small budget, Adair and Harter began filming The Secret Life of Lance Letscher in July this year.
Although she did not expect to be behind the camera after three decades in the cutting room, Adair recognizes that the time to direct her first movie is nigh – she's never been better regarded by her peers or by the world's cinephiles than she is now. Luckily, Letscher, once a total stranger to the director, has turned out to be as ingratiating a documentary subject as he is brilliant as an artist. "He's fascinating and really funny. He's got a wonderful wit, and it's been a great process for me to get to know him." Adair and Harter even lent Letscher a GoPro camera to film himself while working, which has led to some unexpected but beautiful footage. "It's been really cool – he has such a wonderful eye, and it's like we're peeling back the veil on his process."
In addition to shooting Letscher's moving portrait, Adair's up to her teeth in upcoming projects: First up is A Single Frame, a documentary from filmmaker Brandon Dickerson, which premiered at this year's Austin Film Festival. Another feature that she cut with first-time director Sean Mewshaw, called Tumbledown, is also touring around the world (it just won the Best Narrative Feature award at the Savannah Film Festival). And finally, her most recent editorial collaboration with Linklater, Everybody Wants Some, is slated for theatrical release by April 2016.
Despite her increasingly busy schedule, which now includes academic speaking events and a steady stream of interviews, Adair isn't expecting The Secret Life of Lance Letscher to be a blockbuster doc. To help offset the many costs of production and post-production, she and Bernstein, with the help of Kristi Frazier, have launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign. The basis for the Kickstarter, she told me, is just "to get this thing shot and get into the cutting room with it," where Adair can flex her muscles. The finished film won't be about social or political issues, nor does she want it to come off like Oscar bait. She says she just wants her debut to look like "the little film that I have in my mind ... and by hook or by crook, I'm going to get it."
To donate to the Kickstarter campaign for The Secret Life of Lance Letscher, visit www.kck.st/1kjSIGd.