Sandra Adair, Linklater's Lifelong Editor: 'If You Can Make It Work Musically, It Can Work Visually'
How do you take a thousand disparate pieces, and arrange them into one meaningful picture?
World-class artist Lance Letscher has spent a lifetime cutting intricate scraps of material and re-imagining them into dazzling collages. Most of us would get utterly lost in his process. It’s no wonder that it took world-class film editor Sandra Adair, someone who has spent a lifetime cutting and arranging scraps herself, to tell his story in The Secret Life of Lance Letscher.
If you’ve ever seen a Richard Linklater film, you’ve seen Sandra Adair’s work. She’s been his editor since 1993, and she’s won the ACE Eddie Award and been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Film Editing. “Documentaries are so incredibly different from narrative films,” said Adair about her directorial debut. “I started out with only the seed of an idea, and when I discovered Lance was a strong character, that seed of an idea grew and mushroomed and snowballed until it became a larger portrait of a father, a husband, an artist, and a complex, multi-faceted person.”
Sandra Adair first sat down with No Film School at SXSW 2017 to talk about the tricky feat of capturing a secretive artist, using color coded transcriptions, and the pivotal role of music in the edit.
NFS: How did you go about capturing Lance in his studio? It’s a secret life, after all!
Sandra Adair: I hired a young cameraman, Jason Gamble Harter. He's about 29 years old and he's the same age as one of Lance's sons. They hit it off fantastic and became fast friends, which was good for me, because my goal was to allow Lance to do his thing as unencumbered as possible.
Jason and I had a conversation about not using any lights or bringing lights into the studio. There was a certain rapid nature to getting the microphone on. Some of the shoots you can see his microphone kind of hanging off his t-shirt. Now, it's embarrassing for me to see, but it was about not making him feel self-conscious.
"There was a little bit of espionage going on."
NFS: So did minimizing the presence of the crew have the intended effect of making Lance feel comfortable enough to work in front of the camera?
Adair: In the beginning, Lance would also sneak around when Jason wasn't there, and do a lot of work. Jason would be gone. The metal would be at a certain stage, and Jason would leave and come back at an agreed time say, next Thursday. But when Jason would come back on Thursday, it would be a whole different thing. Lance had cut a bunch of stuff and rearranged everything. I caught on to that quickly. I told Jason, "You have to try to go there as frequently as you can!" Eventually, Jason and Lance spent a lot of time together and had a lot of in-depth conversations.
Meanwhile, I would come to the studio, and check in, and kind of re-think what I needed. I was not cutting yet, but I was logging, transcribing and watching the footage as it was coming in. So I was constantly working in the cutting room and listening to these conversations. Lance would say something and I would think, “that's something I'm going to dig into when I do an interview.“ I did all the interviews. There was a little bit of espionage going on. I accumulated a really keen sense of what the hints were, and then I developed those in the interviews.
NFS: With the logging and transcribing, did you feel the need to print out the text version and ever do a paper cut? Is that part of your process?
Adair: We transcribed everything. We put all of the interviews in Google Docs, and those were things that I definitely used in the edit. I didn't really start formulating a structure or a plan for what the movie was going to be until February of 2016.
We started shooting in July and [Letscher] hung the metal in March of the following year. I started formulating an idea of what the edit would be in February. Once I'd listened and transcribed all of the interviews, I really had a really good idea of what the film could be. I just sat down over a period of two or three days with three-by-five cards, and laid out the structure. I color-coded the structure. Pretty much the final film ended up mirroring my initial three-by-five cards.
"Some of the sequences, I like to cut with music. It's something that I have done a lot on my Linklater films."
NFS: How do you feel about editing in terms of rhythm and musicality? In this film, for example, there are lots of macro shots pieced together in a rhythmic way. How important is finding the rhythm or musicality in your edit?
Adair: Graham Reynolds released an album about a decade ago called The Difference Engine, which was an album that I'd listened to early on. I always kept it in my mind as music that one day I'll be able to use for something awesome. So when I started this project, I pulled out that CD and I listened to it. It was a real inspiration for me, to help me find a style for editing the film. There are certain sequences, like the opening and several smaller sequences in the film that I knew I was going to use that music from The Difference Engine, which I eventually licensed from him.
Some of the sequences, I like to cut with music. It's something that I have done a lot on my Linklater films. It helps to place a film in that, if you can make it work musically, it can work visually. I utilize that as much as I possibly can. There's a sequence in the film where Lance has a little bit of a mental breakdown. I knew that I wanted to create a hectic feel, so I found the perfect music cue to help me cut that.
NFS: You've edited so many films, you were nominated for an Oscar, but this is your first stab at directing a documentary. What would your advice be to others about to embark on their first doc?
Adair: Try to find a story that you can get passionate about, that’s not too complex and that doesn't bore you. I think a lot of filmmakers make their first film so complex that they get bogged down and can never finish, or they can never really get a clear, concise cut. I think there's something to be said for digging deep into a character and just telling that story.
Also, I would really heartily recommend having an idea of what it is the story is that you want to tell. A lot of documentaries, they go on for so many years and it’s an ever-moving target. This happens, and that happens, and we're covering this, and covering that. There has to be some clarity about what story is you're trying to tell. Focus your energies on that.