Sandra Adair creates a canvas for Lance Letscher’s life and art in a new doc

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Portraying the life of an artist and his abstract world in a runtime of 90 minutes can be a challenging task, yet one Austin filmmaker pulls it off with her directorial debut, “The Secret Life of Lance Letscher.”

In 2015, Academy-award nominated film editor Sandra Adair decided to make a documentary on Lance Letscher, a local artist who takes scraps of paper from wherever he can find — books, magazines, newspapers — and makes intricate collages on canvas. Adair took intrigue in Letscher’s work after he was commissioned to create a mural for South Congress Books.

Adair said her approach for this documentary was not about remaining detached or unbiased but rather telling an entertaining story as if she were making a Hollywood film.

“As a film editor and person who’s worked in film for many, many years, what attracts me are really interesting human characters, and that’s what I found in Lance,” Adair said. “To me, it was a winning combination of elements that make a beautiful film about a very interesting, multi-faceted character.”

Adair said a big part of successfully filming the documentary was the gradual comradery between Letscher and the cameraman, Jason Gamble Harter. Harter said since he was basically a one-man crew, the completion of the documentary lied heavily on his shoulders.

“You film until you’re completely exhausted and completely drained, and then you come back the next day, and your mindset is finding a way to reinvent yourself,” Harter said. “You challenge yourself and find that (thousandth) way to invent the lightbulb.”

Because of his introverted nature and never having been filmed before, Letscher said he felt guarded and that it was difficult to initially trust Adair and Harter. Because it took him almost two months to open up, he said his shyness played into Adair’s approach when documenting his story. On many occasions, she would interview Letscher on the same subject five times until he finally felt comfortable. 

“I eventually gained the courage to trust them, and a lot of that happened because of the cameraman — he was a 28 year-old guy, but he acts like he’s about 40,” Letscher said. “He would say things that someone who’s very experienced with life would say, and we became friends.”

Adair and Harter said they were both aware they were encroaching on Letscher’s life, his workshop and his most private creative process and tried to be as non-intrusive as possible while filming. Harter said Adair didn’t want to overwhelm Letscher with a lot of lights and equipment, so they went for a minimalist style, using natural lighting and small microphones.

As Adair got to know Letscher a lot better, the making of the documentary became more focused. She said she wanted to explore Letscher’s imagination as much as his personal struggles and hopes the emotional arc in the film connects with the audience.

“I think the film has a very human message above all,” Adair said. “I think audiences will find the film an inspiration because Lance is not a celebrity or a larger than life character. He’s a very easy-going, sweet guy who has an incredible mind and his work is just stunning.”

Despite his initial reservations, Letscher said he was ultimately pleased and moved by Adair’s final cut of the documentary that will be showing in various venues at SXSW.

“I told her right off the bat, you know, there are several facets to my personality,” Letscher said. “I’ve got all these bad qualities. (Adair) chose to craft a story about a person that seems to be a very good person, and I’m grateful for that.”