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Richard Linklater and Sandra Adair: Three Decades of Action and Cuts

In “Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood,” an animated comedy on Netflix set in the suburbs of 1960s Houston, a gaggle of preteens descend upon a Popsicle stand in a bid to ward off the Texas heat. One by one, they go for that first delightful lick, only to discover that their tongues instantly stick to the freezer-burned treats upon contact. Panic starts to spread, and the kids wriggle frantically, until — Rrrrip! — one daring boy ends up with a bloody tongue.

That joke, with its blend of humor and horror, comes from the ripe memory of the film’s writer and director, Richard Linklater. But its golden timing is the work of Linklater’s longtime editor, Sandra Adair.

“Apollo 10½” is the 20th feature film that Adair, 69, has edited for Linklater, 61. Its release marks 30 years since the pair first began what is among the most enduring collaborations in American movie history, producing work that has received widespread critical praise and multiple Oscar nominations.

Adair is not the only below-the-line professional who has long collaborated with Linklater. The filmmaker has made 11 features with the assistant director Vincent Palmo Jr, nine with the costume designer Kari Perkins and seven with the cinematographer Shane F. Kelly, among many others.

But Linklater has shared more credits with Adair than with any other colleague, a fact he attributes to her uncanny understanding of his aesthetic predilections.

“It used to be, ‘I’m gonna open with the wide shot, and then we’ll go to that and cut to that,’” Linklater said in a Zoom interview. “But at some point along the way, she said, ‘You don’t have to even tell me that. I know exactly what you’re thinking.’ I was like, That’s mighty convenient!”

Adair first came into the Linklater fold when she and her husband, the filmmaker Dwight Adair, decamped for Austin in 1991. A Las Vegas native, Sandra Adair had moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s to apprentice under her editor brother, Robert Estrin. There, she cut her teeth on “the basement floor” of such films as “True Confessions” and “Desert Hearts,” learning the tools of the editing trade while navigating Hollywood politics.

In 1992, the year after Adair’s move to Austin, a colleague informed her that an up-and-coming director was looking for an editor on a new project with Universal Pictures. Hungry to work, Adair sent the filmmaker, Linklater, a handwritten letter offering her services, and was soon brought on to cut what would become “Dazed and Confused.” It was her first Hollywood feature as the lead editor.

“The script came alive in such a way that it reignited my fire about editing,” Adair said. “I got on board with it, and very quickly started to understand what Rick was trying to do.”

While the production itself was messy, the film has since become a cult favorite. Still, it was not until working together on Linklater’s follow-up, “Before Sunrise,” that the director and the editor first “got in a groove,” Adair said.

The journalist and filmmaker Louis Black, who, along with Karen Bernstein, directed the documentary “Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny,” offered his thoughts over Zoom on the Linklater/Adair collaboration. “They love working with each other because they’re in sync,” he said.

Being on the same wavelength has allowed the two to sustain a consistency through projects with a vast range of subjects and styles, from raucous pop musical (“School of Rock”) to sci-fi mind-bender (“A Scanner Darkly”).

“Their sensibilities are so similar,” Black said. “In their world, the mimetic becomes spectacular.”

Linklater and Adair’s most public mutual triumph did not come until 2014, when both received Oscar nominations for “Boyhood,” a grounded family drama made in secret over 12 years.

“Obviously it was being written as it was being shot, but it was also being edited while it was being shot,” Linklater said. “So we would have conversations about what the film needs, what it lacks.” The unusual nature of that production allowed Adair to influence the film in a way few editors can. “She could weigh in as a storyteller: ‘You know, I think he needs to get his heart broken in here somewhere.’ It’s not often your editor gets to throw out a note like that.”

When “Boyhood” was finished, Adair received a co-producer credit. “It was kind of unbelievable that we made that,” she said. “I physically and mentally experienced that family maturing over and over and over again. It’s hard to describe the effect that film has had on me and a lot of other people.”

Their latest collaboration once again disavows any traditional concept of genre. Made with a combination of live-action footage, 2D animation and rotoscoping (in which live-action frames are “traced” over by animators), “Apollo 10½” stars Milo Coy as Stan, a Linklater stand-in whose father (Bill Wise) pushes paper at NASA at the height of the space race. The film is part nostalgia trip (memories of “Bonanza,” “Bewitched” and Frito pies), part flight of fancy (two government agents offering Stan what was supposed to be Neil Armstrong’s spot on the mission to the moon).

Tommy Pallotta, one of the movie’s producers and its head of animation, said that the “friendship and respect” between Linklater and Adair was paramount to navigating the more whimsical parts of Stan’s journey without losing touch with the writer-director’s deeply personal memories.

“Sandra is absolutely meshed within that,” he said. “That sort of intermingling is something that was executed in the editing process. You can’t say what percentage it was.”

Linklater and Adair are already at work on their next project, an adaptation of “Merrily We Roll Along” that began shooting in 2019 and will continue over the next 18 years. While Adair said she has yet to see any footage, Linklater insisted that she will be the film’s editor, a job that will extend their one-of-a-kind working relationship to at least 2039.

“That’s a key thing to life: to feel like you’re engaged with something you care about,” Linklater said. “We’re in this for the artistic troupe aspect, and the most creatively rewarding thing is these relationships you fall into. We fell in, and we haven’t fallen out.”

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