How ‘Boyhood’ Editor Sandra Adair Stitched 12 Long Years Into the Year’s Best Movie

Longtime Richard Linklater collaborator speaks with TheWrap about the unlikely accomplishment

Now that the mysterious, so-called “12 Year Project” has hit theaters under the name “Boyhood,” Richard Linklater is very deservedly receiving all the plaudits in the world for successfully shepherding such a daunting, ambitious and ultimately touching project to fruition. After all, he had to cast, finance, write and direct the years-long tale of a young Texan millennial — all while keeping all participants engaged and involved, which may have been the hardest part of all.

It was, indeed, an amazing accomplishment — but it may not have been possible without a trusted editor to make sense of all those years of footage, to turn it into something watchable, let alone reflective of life’s journey. Luckily, he had indie editor extraordinaire Sandra Adair on his side.

Adair, a New Mexico native, has worked with Linklater since his second film, 1993’s “Dazed and Confused,” editing just about every one of his subsequent pictures. That gave her a decade of experience with Linklater before “Boyhood” ever shot a single frame, creating an understanding and trust between the two that became essential over such a long-term, risky project.

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She also got to witness the growth of star Ellar Coltrane in much the way theatergoers did, giving her a unique perspective in the editing room each year.

“It was a surprise to me every year when I would come to the new material and go, ‘Oh my gosh, look how much he has changed this year’ or ‘Look how much mom has changed or dad,’” she told TheWrap, laughing. “It was always kind of a surprise to me to see what was going to happen next.”

Warning: The following conversation has a few spoilers.

TheWrap: Did the story ever need to be changed, or did it build on itself every year?
Adair: Both. For the first couple of years, we really did not make any major changes, and then we compiled a list of notes of things that we thought we would want to go back and revisit. Then when we started to get into it a little bit, probably four or five years, we started to compile one year after the other. I’d edit that year and then I would attach it to the tail of the previous years. We did start going back and making a few extractions.

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In the last year, I did spend some time going back and really shaving and revisiting the material, making sure I had the best material from each moment in the movie. Early on we just kind of took our time. I didn’t feel like we had pressure to make hard decisions too early. We wanted to wait. What we didn’t want to do was remove material or be hasty about taking things out until we understood how those moments were going to resonate once we got the entire film put together. We kept a running list of notes and then it did become easier to say “OK, we have to make that smaller.”

Did you leave a lot of leeway for story development earlier on? The scene early in the mother’s marriage to the college professor, he yells at his son for playing a game at the table, and that foreshadows what happens down the line… Could it have gone differently? 
Adair: The genius of Richard is that he knew who his character was going to be in the following years. He may not have known the specific scenes, … but he did know that the stepfather’s character was going to develop into ultimately the type of person he was going to be. He is still in the honeymoon stage at that dinner.

They had just come back from their honeymoon so of course everything is hunky-dory in the relationship, and it appears that it’s going to be very rosy. But his character is who he is. He is a bad, flawed person. Those little tiny indicators of who these people are about to become, that’s just Richard Linklater. He has a very firm understanding of where he is going even though he may not have the specifics.

Also read: Richard Linklater’s ‘Boyhood’ Breaks Out at Specialty Box Office

Was there ever a point when you wanted to change a character’s story? You can’t really do reshoots for this movie, especially down the line.
Adair: No you can’t. We did one pick up shot. We did a few little pick up shots but they didn’t involve people, they were just insert shots. We did do ADR along the way because we knew the kids’ voices would change. If we had some audio issues or little lines that we needed to get, we got them within the year that we needed them, from the kids at least. There were no problems really that we had to go back and try to solve. There were no characters that were entirely lost or anything like that.

Was there a temptation at any moment to make a six-hour version of this?
Adair: I mean the goal was to have 10 or 15 minutes per year. That’s 120-180 minutes, so that’s up to three hours. Obviously we went over [the lower estimate]. Pretty early on we realized that some years may run over but it was never really a big concern. We just wanted to make the best film that we could.

The transition from year to year was seamless, just a fade to black and then the next segment. Why was that the decision that was made?
Adair: That was by design. Rick and I, he was certain that he didn’t want to have clear delineations between the years. The idea of having seamless transitions was completely purposeful and the idea was to have those delineations of time wash by, much like a memory would, and then you realize a few moments later: something’s different, something’s changed but I’m not exactly sure what, and you realize, his hair is different, his voice has changed, there are new people in their lives. We tried to make those transitions as smooth and invisible as possible.

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Were there ever any technological problems over the years, in transitioning to new cameras or programs?
Adair: In terms of the editing? No, we tried to keep it as consistent as possible. They shot on 35 mm, even though that was old technology by the time we got to years 2008-12. We to be consistent as possible … we didn’t want to treat each year differently, we just wanted to be able to do the whole film as consistently as possible, and when we get to the end, troubleshoot and figure out what we had to do to bring it up to the place where we could get it out of the Avid and scan it.

I read that there’s going to be a Criterion Collection edition. What stuff are you excited for people to see that they haven’t seen yet?
Adair: I think there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes footage that was shot throughout the whole process that will be on the Criterion DVD, and probably some of the lifted scenes or partial scenes that ended up not being in the movie. I haven’t had that conversation with Rick, so I don’t know specifically what he’s thinking, but I’m sure it’ll be very interesting and very rich.  

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The scene that killed me the most was Patricia’s last scene where she’s crying saying “I thought there would be something more,” that was like a stab in the heart. Was that always the plan, to have that be her last scene? Or was there something else that you cut because you knew that that was such a good ending for her?
Adair: No, there was nothing else planned. That was a real moment that happened; that was the evolution of her character, and I think it came to Patricia and Rick in a very honest and real way, and it was incorporated into the movie. I think it rings true so much for mothers and children. It’s such a universal emotion, and Patricia did such an amazing job. And no, we did not cut anything from that. That’s the full scene.

My friend was joking to me that he heard a rumor there’s so much extra footage of Lorelai, you could make “Girlhood.” There’s so much of her, especially in the beginning, so I imagine that almost could be a possibility, though of course it was a joke.
Adair: I think that most of Lorelai’s footage is in the movie, and pretty much intact. There’s not much that I can think of offhand that remains unseen in terms of her character and her story. I mean, she did an amazing job. She’s hilarious. Rick said she sort of cast herself.