Community + Culture: Profile
A sculptor of film, Sandra Adair shapes the movies we all want to be watching
by Hannah Morrow
Photographs by Taylor Prinsen
IN HER EDITING BAY, SANDRA ADAIR SCULPTS MOMENTS. To say she “creates” them would do a disservice to the raw material from which she chisels; unlike a block of marble or a hunk of clay, the footage she receives isn’t raw at all. It’s the product of effort, vision, and production of a creative army over the course of weeks, months, or in one case, years. “My job is to go into what we have and pull out the gems that best respect the vision of the director,” she says, sitting in her Mueller studio. “A lot of moments peek out, and then you try to carve around so it can surface a little bit better. Other times, you just have to wait to see how you can make them emerge.”
Adair has masterminded the moments of more than 30 films through her career, many of which garnered critical acclaim: 1993’s cult classic “Dazed and Confused,” 2003’s jovial “School of Rock,” 2011’s finely tuned tragicomedy “Bernie,” and 2014’s ode to adolescence “Boyhood.” Besides Adair, the common denominator of these films is her longtime confidant, director Richard Linklater. But it’s her eye, trained to carve out the peripherals, that shapes the moments that audiences long to see.
Born in New Mexico and raised in Las Vegas, Adair wasted no time moving to the industry epicenter, Los Angeles, after her high school graduation. Her brother, Robert Estrin (“Badlands,” “The Candidate,” “A River Runs Through It”), was working as an editor and hired her on as an apprentice, spending days rewinding film, edge coating, and syncing dailies. “That was back in the day when everything was on film,” she emphasizes. “I didn’t know anything about film or editing.” Through her 20s, she worked for different editors around Hollywood, learning cutting technique and, equally important, cutting-room etiquette. “When you’re green and you come into that situation, you don’t really understand,” she says. “You have to learn what your job is in the context.”
High on the hierarchy was Verna Fields, whom Adair grew fond of as a mentor. Young directors like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, whom she taught as a professor at the University of Southern California in the 1960s, had dubbed Fields “Mother Cutter” for her indisputable sound-and film-editing talent. While Fields was on location in Martha’s Vineyard shooting “Jaws” in 1974, Adair found herself housesitting Fields’ home in Sherman Oaks. “They didn’t kick me out, so I just kept living there,” Adair says now with a laugh. She hung around to watch, fascinated by the ingenuity and creativity of her process, while Fields edited what would unexpectedly become one of America’s highest-grossing cinematic masterpieces.
“It’s her eye, trained to carve out the peripherals, that shapes the moments that audiences long to see.”
Fields would go on to receive an Academy Award and an American Cinema Editors Award for the work that Adair partly witnessed. Subsequently, Universal Studios appointed Fields as vice president for feature production at Universal Studios in 1975, making her one of the first women to enter upper-level management at a major studio. “Jaws” would be the last of her films, as she died from cancer in 1982.
Reflecting on that piece of personal and cinematic history, Adair is still struck by Fields’ confidence in her craft. “It’s so intimidating to be on a huge movie like “Jaws” and have a young Steven Spielberg darting around and a big studio and all that money and all that pressure … and she was very calm and focused,” says Adair. “When you see people doing a job like that, not being frazzled and frayed and unkind and barking orders, but just being normal, it’s pretty awesome. I’ve always kind of held her in high regard because of the way she dealt with people around her.”
Around the same time, Adair made her first visit to Austin. She met her husband, Dwight Adair, here in 1976. They married and returned to L.A., having two children before the recession and calamity of the early ’90s struck the city. Seeking sanctuary and employment, the family trailed back to Austin in 1993. After nine months without a job, Adair sculpted an off-screen moment, the locomotion of which would be the beginning of an immense friendship and career. It was a pen-to-paper letter to Linklater that brought on their first meeting. Not long after, Adair began editing “Dazed and Confused.”
A textbook sleeper hit, “Dazed” remains one of Linklater’s most iconic and an early indication of his thematic Venn diagram: nostalgic, universally personal, and more or less plot-less. He’s a prolific filmmaker whose work inspires think pieces and begs introspection. Commendable, too, is his loyalty: to films, like “Boyhood,” which was filmed over the course of 12 years; to actors, like Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke, who have starred in several of his titles; and to his editor, Adair.
“He’s not a director for hire,” says Adair. “I love being able to do my craft and pursue my art and have it be in collaboration with a person of such integrity. His projects, the ones he commits to, mean something to him,” she says.
The loyalty is mutual, as she’s purposely stayed in sync with Linklater projects, not that it wasn’t difficult at times. “He’s always got things lined up like planes coming in for a landing,” she laughs. In what little time she has off, she’s edited other projects, like 2010’s “Everything Must Go” starring Will Ferrell and documentaries like 2011’s “Sushi: The Global Catch” and 2015’s “A Single Frame.” Amid a Linklater interlude, less than a year after she received an Academy Award nomination for best editing on “Boyhood,” Adair’s cousin mentioned she had commissioned an artist to do a metal collage on the southern exterior of her store, South Congress Books. By July, Adair had begun filming a documentary on the artist, Lance Letscher.
Though she never intended on directing her own work, “The Secret Life of Lance Letscher” became a passion project that she would end up not only directing but also co-producing and editing. The more she befriended Letscher, the more compelling his story and work became. Letscher, an Austin native and University of Texas grad, produces kaleidoscopic collages, impossibly pieced together from bits of matured books and ripe folios. The film, which premiered at SXSW last year, draws a portrait of Letscher’s intricate process and personal chaos from which he has long derived his art. Letscher admits in the documentary: “It’s a complex and mysterious process, and I don’t fully understand it. But I’m aware of it. I can coax it along, or I can get out of the way and let it happen.”
A chaotic score by Austin-based composer Graham Reynolds bolsters Letscher’s intensely fantastical pieces, but it’s how Adair articulates Letscher in all his endearing grace that has the film delving deeper than the usual chronological biography. It pulls back the veil on the artist and his mind, its earnest poignancy expertly extricated by Adair. “The measure for me was going to be trying to make a film that would do him justice and his work justice,” she says. “He’s a very sensitive person and a very thoughtful person, and I wanted the film to reflect that.”
It’s hard not to draw similarities from Letscher’s work to Adair’s. Highly focused for months at a time, she cuts and crops, adding layers and structure and stories. There are always an unthinkable number of moving parts, and every piece of work is a challenge, with its own unique characters, conflicts, and vulnerabilities.
She’s currently in post-production on a Linklater project, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” due out later this year. Based on the 2013 novel by Maria Semple, the film stars Cate Blanchett, Kristen Wiig, Billy Crudup, and Laurence Fishburne. It will be her 23rd film in collaboration with Linklater, continuing a streak of admirable allegiance between artists. Young film-makers and editors often ask Adair advice on how to get such a dream job. The answer, she says kindly, is simple: “Make yourself indispensable.”