Interview: Sandra Adair
While Mason, Samantha, and all the other characters of Boyhood were growing up on screen, an astounding number of technological shifts occurred over the 12 years it was shot. These changes most directly affected the editing of the film, among other things leading to a switch between nonlinear editing systems (from Final Cut to Avid), changes in frame rate between storage formats for the footage, and coping with film labs during a transitional period for the medium.
Of course, the seamless final film doesn’t reflect any of these woes, and that is to a large extent due to the work of editor Sandra Adair, ACE, who has collaborated with Richard Linklater since Dazed and Confused (93). Adair’s approach to editing could be easily mislabeled as a “light touch”; rather, she finds the rhythm in leisurely scenes, naturalistic performances, and thoughtful conversation by emphasizing the actors’ body language and physicality, getting to the heart of each scene’s emotional core.
Adair recently spoke with FILM COMMENT from her home in Austin about establishing that rhythm, the nitty-gritty of her collaboration with Linklater, and the subtle differences between the intuitive and the planned in their process.
You’ve worked with Richard Linklater for so many years. Do you two have a shorthand that you use? How do you determine what is and isn’t working?
We definitely have a routine at this point: we’ve worked together for 22 years, made 18 or 19 films so far. If we can watch the dailies together, that’s a great luxury, to get his thoughts early on in the process. But if I’m not able to interact with him during shooting, I just proceed with my editor’s cut, and then once we wrap production, I’ll screen the editor’s cut with him, and we review it a couple times. Then we just sit down and take notes—he sends all of his notes to me, and I take very detailed notes, then he goes away and I’ll address his notes. But in terms of shorthand, he shoots in a way I understand. I can always see what he’s going for and where he’s headed. Sometimes we’ll have very general conversations about the feeling he wants to create for a piece. But his films are very grounded in reality, so that always guides my editing process.
You were there during the shooting, watching dailies, and also present at the end of the process, like color correction and the sound mix. Is that because you have that sort of relationship with Richard Linklater, or is it something that you can ask for at this point in your career? Is that an ideal situation?
Oh it is ideal. There’s a lot that happens in those final days of finishing a film that can impact how people perceive the movie. If color correction, titles, the sound mix, the music need to be changed—if it needs to be, you know, moved forward eight frames or pushed back, or if it needs a cut in the song and a different ending on the song… Every time I’ve ever been on a film that I haven’t seen to total completion, I have regrets that I wasn’t there. I really like to and try to be there to the bitter end if I can.
Unlike other films, there wasn’t much room for traditional post-production work like reshoots, ADR, etc.
Well, there were no instances where we felt we needed to reshoot scenes, except for technical reasons. On one occasion, we noticed that there was a minor technical issue, but our producer managed to schedule a reshoot right away. In terms of ADR, we made a list of ADR lines that we thought we might potentially need. The only ADR that we really did year by year was for the kids, because we knew their voices would change. So we had them do their ADR as quickly as we could diagnose the problem.
As you went through each year of filming, how did you establish a logic or rhythm for the independent pieces before you started to join them together?
We found the rhythm of the pieces early on, but we’d adjust it over time. So, for example, when Mason is a young kid, there are lots of scenes where he’s just observing what’s going on. He may be participating, too, but he doesn’t have a tremendous amount of dialogue. But we needed to have each year feel consistent. I was assembling the years as they were cut, making sure that they were stylistically consistent.
What sort of changes did you wait to make until you had the twelfth year of footage?
We knew we were going to make some internal cuts in the lengthier dialogue scenes. The darkroom scene, for example, was something that we revisited many times to try to just make some internal cuts with the teacher and Mason. We also took small bits out of the car ride with the Beatles’ Black album, the truck ride with Mason and his girlfriend to Austin where they talk about Facebook, and in the scene where Patricia and Ellar are in bed together and he’s asking her about his dad. It was like a surgical strike to go in and lift one back and forth out, to get to the core of what the scene was about.
Do you feel that in more serious moments you would favor shots that were closer spatially to the actors? I’m specifically thinking of how the character of the stepfather changes over the years—I saw it in Austin, and everyone in the theater laughed the first time you see him pouring a big drink.
Well, it just depends on the moment. When he’s doing that thing where he’s going through the kids’ cellphones and he’s sitting on the coffee table interrogating them—that was a scene where the stepfather’s footage was remarkable. He was so intense, controlling and overpowering the kids, that I liked keeping in that medium shot of him so that you could see his body language and his very upright posture. Originally I had cut that scene so that when he’s talking to each child, it was on that child as they were interacting. But in year 11 I went in and added one or two shots of Mason. I did one pass where I went through the whole movie and added a few more pieces of Mason in different scenes where I felt like I really wanted to be seeing all of this going down from his point of view. And though the scenes were originally structured and designed to incorporate a lot of Mason and his perspective of everything, I feel like those strategic little moments that I added really enhanced our experience of the stepfather and his key moments throughout the movie.
Would you say that’s true of the haircutting scene as well?
[Laughs] Haircutting really didn’t change that much from the first cut, honestly. That scene broke my heart when I saw it. Those are the kinds of scenes where you’re confronted with the task of editing something where the poignancy is in there. It’s in the performance; it’s in the story. It’s just ingrained in it. So when you edit a scene like that, and you pull in all the elements—the taunting of the stepfather with the stepbrother, Mason’s look of utter humiliation and annoyance and not being in control of the situation—when you get that right, when you find the right tone in the scene, it’s just right, it feels right, and you don’t have to monkey with it too much.
As you said before, Mason goes from being a passive participant to being more of a fully formed person. And he starts having more Linklater-esque conversations. There’s a difference between when he’s first discovering girls—talking with that girl on the bike on his way home from school—and when he’s at the diner in Austin having a really intense conversation with his high-school girlfriend.
That café scene in Austin was another a scene where we lifted out a couple of little back-and-forths. In the first scene with his girlfriend Sheena, I really wanted to feel an electricity, a connection between the two of them—it’s sort of an awakening for Mason. He may have had other girlfriends or flirtations with other girls, but we didn’t get to see those. In this one, I really wanted to show his shyness and his vulnerability, and at the same time, this flirtation and connection between the two of them. That’s much different than the scene in the café or the diner where they’re now looking at their future going off to college—they’re off on their own in Austin, and out from under the wing of parents. It’s a very different type of maturity.
How would you say you approached his father, Ethan Hawke’s character? I feel like in the beginning you keep very close to him with these very intimate shots, and as Mason gets older and his father remarries, you start to pull away a bit.
It’s interesting that you would pick up on that because it’s not something that I select consciously—those are just things that I do intuitively. It probably had more to do with the physicality. That scene where they’re in the nightclub and he’s giving fatherly advice—there’s a lot of movement in that scene, they’re walking and talking, and you kind of want to see the environment that they’re in. I just don’t feel like those scenes when there’s that kind of movement require close-ups. There is one little part in that scene where I do cut in a little closer: they stand still and they have a kind of a little back-and-forth.
But the thing about that talk: as intense and as telling as it is about that father-son relationship, they have a casual relationship. It’s not like he’s in his son’s face trying to tell him something really important. It’s a casual walk where he’s just imparting his wisdom and relating to his son in a very casual way. You would only want to use close-ups and closer shots if it was like super-intense and really important, and I think that Rick shies away from that kind of stuff. He just doesn’t want to purposefully make things feel important. He wants the audience to just get it and to experience it in their own time. I feel like the close-ups of the dad early on had a lot of wonderful warm energy.
Maybe this gets at the difference between a conscious choice versus something more intuitive. In the transitions between years throughout the film, there’s never a moment where you cut from a shot of him at one age directly to another age. There’s always a space between those moments, where you know you don’t necessarily realize that time has passed. Can you talk about how you engineered those transitions?
Those transitions were very purposefully designed by Rick. Not to take away from what I brought to the movie, but he and I had several conversations about that and we didn’t want to have a clear delineation between one year and the next year. We wanted the years to wash by and for people to take a minute or however long until they realized “Oh, wait! Somebody looks different, or their hair is different, their voice is different, they have facial hair.” Those transitions came about in a way that had to do with the fact that we were able to shoot, edit, and live with the outgoing year and study the outgoing shot for each year, so that the next incoming years could be designed to transition well with it.
Having said that, we did editorially figure out the very first transition from year one to year two. It was the trickiest one, because she drives the two little kids to Houston to the new apartment and they arrive outside. The way it is in the current film, she parks the car and then the next cut is Mason bursting into his bedroom getting ready for school, and it’s the next year. But there was a shot in-between, which was the last shot of year one, where she parks the car and then we cut inside and they come into the brand-new empty apartment and they put down their pillows and all that stuff and then they’re like: “Can we see our room?” and they run down the hallway to see their new room. I think we had one version where we cut the tail off of that interior empty apartment shot so that they just come in and like put their stuff down, and then cut to him coming into the door from year two. And eventually we figured out: if we just removed the shot entirely, then what you’re expecting is, you’re expecting the next cut to be interior apartment and it is, but it’s a year later.
It’s playing with audience expectation, but it still creates a seamless transition that really sets the tone for the rest of the film.
Exactly. And once we nailed that, I feel like we got a lot better at making those annual transitions work, and of course we used a lot of music on those transitions to the new years too, which helps drag the audience in. It feels good to hear a song and you’re seeing new stuff and then suddenly you’re like, “Oh wait! Everybody looks different.”
How much input did you have on the musical choices? Music is always such an important part of Linklater’s films, but especially in this one.
Yeah, we worked for 12 years on that soundtrack. [Laughs] I mean, we did a lot of research and identifying the songs of each year, and we even had a few music consultants that were the same age as Mason who would give us tidbits of their experience of some of the songs. Rick and I worked together on those… At one point we experimented with putting score in the movie. You know with that musical part of the process was an ongoing dialogue that we had for many, many, many years.
You only had an abstract of what the story was going to be before you began the project. As your understanding increased, did you feel differently about certain scenes and want to change them?
Not at all. Because of the way that we worked, I didn’t really have to worry about what was coming next because it just didn’t exist yet. And I knew that Rick had these milestone moments in his head where he was going to go with the piece. He would tell me year by year where we were headed, and in the time between the shoots we would talk about Boyhood and talk about the characters, and he would give me a glimpse of where he was going to head the following year. But not having that pressure, and not knowing really exactly where it was headed, allowed me to be more Zen with the year that I was currently working on. I was just making sure that all of the moments that were in the footage that I actually had were resonating with me and feeling like I had really gone in there and found the moments that were going to best express what he was intending to do with those scenes. Having the patience to see what was going to be revealed the next year and not trying to second-guess anything… I wasn’t trying to lay my own interpretation of anything onto the scenes. They’re very simple scenes that have poignant moments, and I wasn’t trying to overdramatize or over-manipulate anything.