You can’t work with the same group of people for 12 years and not come to feel a certain kinship towards them. And indeed that’s how the creative team behind Richard Linklater’s decade-in-the-making film “Boyhood” have framed their experience, with the movie’s young star Ellar Coltrane—who ages from age 6 to 18 during the course of the 166-minute coming-of-age epic—recently telling The New York Times that he considers Linklater and his co-stars (including Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) to be his “other family.”
One key member of that family who played a crucial role in the film’s evolution is “Boyhood”‘s editor Sandra Adair, who has cut every Linklater feature since “Dazed and Confused” way back in 1993. That includes each of the nine films the director made while “Boyhood” was in production, from 2003’s “School of Rock” to 2013’s “Before Midnight.” (Her non-Linklater credits include the 2010 Will Ferrell film “Everything Must Go” and the 2012 documentary “Shepard & Dark.”) Indiewire recently spoke with Adair about the challenges of editing a movie filmed over 12 years and why we shouldn’t expect to see a special “Editor’s Cut” of “Boyhood.”
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What was your initial reaction when Richard Linklater first pitched the idea of making a movie over a 12-year period?
It seems like every time Rick brings in a new project, it’s something completely unexpected and different, like [in 2001] when he walked into the room and said, “I’m making this animated film called ‘Waking Life’ and we’re going to cut it on this new system called Final Cut Pro,” which I had never heard of [at the time], by the way. So when he started talking about ‘Boyhood,’ I was like, ‘Yeah, sign me up!’ I had no concept of how long 12 years would really be, but in the moment it sounded great. My assistant at the time, Chris Roldan, and I tried to wrap our heads around what the technological challenges were going to be and we really kind of guessed wrong in some ways, but we decided whatever we did we had to be consistent.
Which specific challenges did you end up guessing wrong about?
Originally we planned to cut on Final Cut Pro using a match back program called Cinema Tools. Final Cut Pro was still a fairly new software and we weren’t sure if it was going to have longevity in the industry. A few years into the project, Chris and I decided it may be easier to keep track of everything with one system, rather than FCP and Cinema Tools, so we switched to Avid Media Composer. We wanted to remain on a system that we could count on to have updated versions for the next decade. In the end, my current assistant, Mike Saenz, still had a lot of sorting out to do but we managed to complete the project on Avid with only a few hitches.
Linklater’s shooting process was to assemble the cast for roughly one week of filming every year for 12 years. Did you edit on an equivalent timeline?
Every year, I would work for three to four weeks editing that year’s material. For the first few years, we wouldn’t really worry about attaching one segment to the next, but once we got down the line about four or five years, we started making an assembly of all the years [up to that point]. And each year after that, when that year’s segment was edited, we’d attach it to the tail of the other years. Then, at the end of my editing period, we’d watch the whole thing and make notes. I started to compile a running list of editorial notes that we might try, though I didn’t want to address them too early because our philosophy was that, as the movie matured, there might be things that resonate more [in the future] than we can see in the moment. It was like, “Let’s leave it in there and when we get way down the line, we’ll re-examine if there’s material that maybe isn’t resonating the way we thought it might and we might take it out.” I actually think that I did more shaping and close re-examination of the whole film within this last year; we had the movie pretty finely edited by the time we attached the most recent material.
Were there specific sequences or moments you remember losing as the movie took shape?
We did lift out some scenes, but that was pretty early on in the process because we felt very certain early on that we didn’t need them. There were several scenes in these later years of editing that we went through and tightened, extracting maybe a line here and a line there. But there wasn’t anything we went back and removed to fix a story point. There’s no instance of that I can recall anyway; it’s really hard to remember everything we did over the course of 12 years! I wish I had kept a journal of some kind.
How did your experience working with Linklater on “Boyhood” differ from the other films you’ve collaborated on?
When you work on a film that’s shot over the course of 30 or 40 days, you pretty quickly get a sense of what you’re dealing with. In this situation, I got on-board with what the style of the film was early on, because I know Rick and I had a sense of his style. But I didn’t really know what the story was going to become, so that was a whole discovery [process] for me as we went along year-by-year. I was as surprised as everyone as to what the next chapter was going to be. Sometimes Rick would share with me some of the events he thought might happen the next year, but there was never really an outline. A lot of the specifics got worked out between him and the cast as they prepared to shoot each segment.
The transitions between the different years of Mason’s life are very subtle; one recurring motif is that each of the different “chapters” often concludes with a shot of Mason gazing at something off-screen. Was that a strategy you and Linklater discussed?
I think that came about pretty naturally. It wasn’t a spoken rule were we said, “We’re going to end every year on Mason.” It just felt like the most natural way to stay connected to his experience, having that last look at him at that period of time. I was very conscious of selecting shots to [let the audience] stay as connected to him and his experience as possible, even as everybody else in his family was changing. The last time I went back through the film, I was really looking to see if there were more little moments—just little looks, little pieces of Mason I could pepper in throughout the film, making him more active and more present in as many scenes as I could. I think I found three or four of those moments that I added in the last year.
In terms of how each chapter begins, it’s interesting that you avoid opening with a lingering shot of Mason, allowing the audience to see exactly how he’s grown and changed during the course of the year.
That was by design; Rick was pretty certain that he didn’t want to have a big delineation between Year 1 and Year 2 or Year 2 and Year 3. He wanted it to be very subtle and glide by and just feel like a cut to the next scene, which could be the next day, but it’s really the next year. That was very purposeful on our parts to make those transitions as seamless as possible and not make a big deal out of the characters’ aging. I think that’s part of the beauty of the film: you’re experiencing these things the same way you are in your life. You don’t notice when and how you grow up; you don’t say “Now my hair looks different” or “Now my voice sounds different.” It’s more of a cumulative effect so that when you look back, you really go, “Oh my God, from this age to that age, it’s a huge change!” It’s the cumulative effect of all those moments and all those stages that really resonates.
The earlier chapters, with Mason as a child, possess a more observational style than his teenage years, which consist of longer, more dialogue-heavy takes that are akin to the “Before” trilogy.
I think it had more to do with Mason’s character than it did Rick’s style. As Mason matures and starts to have ideas he can talk about and express verbally, the film goes there with the character and allows him to talk about who he is and what he thinks and what his philosophy is. A little kid isn’t going to do that; they are kind of more experiencing things moment-by-moment and experience-by-experience. So I think that’s what changed—I don’t think the style of the movie-making changed.
I’m thinking primarily of the sequence where a teenaged Mason visits Austin with his girlfriend; that chapter put me in mind of one of the “Before” movies.
That’s Richard Linklater. That’s who he is as a filmmaker and those are the kinds of films he makes. And in “Boyhood,” there’s not a lot of those single takes; there are one or two single take scenes, while the rest are long monologues and they’re covered. I don’t feel like it’s the same as the “Before” sequences, which were really designed as long, sitting camera shots. There’s some of that in “Boyhood,” but not as much in the “Before” films.
You collaborated with Linklater on nine other films while “Boyhood” was in production. Were there lessons that you learned on any of those films that you then applied to “Boyhood?” Or vice versa?
With every film that I edit, I encounter incredible challenges that have to be addressed and I think all of that experience of editing diverse kind of films—broad comedy, serious dramas and documentaries—enhances my ability to tell a story and feel what the appropriate pace for a scene is. In the 12 years that we were shooting “Boyhood,” I feel I got better as an editor, but I couldn’t tell you, “Oh yeah, I learned this one thing on ‘School of Rock’ that I used on ‘Boyhood.'” As you write articles, you hone your skills as a writer and a journalist and what you write now is only going to enhance [your style] 12 years from now. Same with a photographer who is shooting on 35mm film: what they shoot in the first frame will be different than the 24th or 36th frame. But “Boyhood” was funny in that, once my three or four weeks of editing was completed for that year, I’d just put it on the shelf. I’d back it up on some hard drives and put it away for the year; sometimes it was even more than a year before I was able to come back to the next editing session.
During that time away, it kind of recedes in your memory and you get on with the other things that are happening at the time. Then when you open it up again, it’s like “Oh wow, remember this school project we were working on? Let’s see what we’ve got here.” Sometimes we’d make notes to revisit a scene or line of dialogue and make sure we really want to have this little section in there. And then the next year we’d go, “I’m feeling the same way about that piece I did last year and the year before, so maybe it’s time to take it out.” Or we’d go, “Remember that thing we took out? I really miss that thing—let’s put it back in.” It was like coming back to an old friend, revisiting something in a really terrific way.
Over the 12 years that “Boyhood” was edited, were there ever discussions about exploring a version of the film that didn’t unfold in chronological order?
Rick and I did have that conversation; I remember very specifically asking him in Year 2 or Year 3 if he had thought about, as the film developed, whether we were going to have flashbacks or flip around in time and he was very clear that we were going to tell this story in a very linear way. And that was the end of that conversation; we just decided we were going to tell this as a linear story and we really never switched time around at all. Although as an editor, it seems like something you’d want to experiment with.
So there’s no alternate cut of the movie sitting on your hard drive that you edited off the clock in which time is more elastic?
Like the “Memento” version? [Laughs] No—the movie unfolds in a fantastic kind of time capsule-y kind of way. It washes over you. Again and again, I’ve been struck by what the cumulative effect of the film is. And maybe that is because I’ve had these compartmentalized year-by-year experiences of the film, but then when it’s finally finished and you sit down and watch the entire thing, it has this amazing cumulative effect.