Cutting For Quentin
An Interview with Sally Menke
By Garrett Gilchrist
For The Editor's Guild Magazine
Interview Recorded 7/13/09
Sharp dialogue. Splintered chronology. Bursts of extreme violence. Obscure film references. Quentin Tarantino burst onto the American film scene in the early 90s, like an adrenaline shot to the heart. He won an Oscar and a BAFTA for the screenplay to Pulp Fiction (with Roger Avary), and was nominated for Best Director, with BAFTA nominations for Best Director and Best Film. Editor Sally Menke was nominated for the Oscar and BAFTA, and has been there every step of the way, providing the brilliantly bold editing for all of Quentin's films. Tarantino vanished after 1997's Jackie Brown, resurfacing in 2003 with that roaring rampage of revenge, Kill Bill Volumes 1 & 2, for which Sally Menke received another BAFTA nomination. Tarantino's latest film is one he's wanted to make for a long time- Inglourious Basterds. The World War II piece follows an audacious plot to assassinate the entire Nazi high command during a film premiere. So what can you say about Quentin Tarantino and Sally Menke, a team who have given us some of the most unforgettable images, characters and scenes in recent cinema history? A glowing briefcase. A Hattori Hanzo sword. A missing ear. A Deathproof car. You could easily be forgiven for forgetting about all the fine films Sally Menke has edited for other directors. Sally Menke took a moment out of her busy schedule to talk to the Editor's Guild Magazine about the unique cinematic world of Quentin Tarantino, and about what they call a Quarter Pounder With Cheese in Nazi-occupied France.
GG: All his films come off as love letters to the cinema.
SM: Quentin and his characters live in a cinematic world. There's a lot of films that try to hide that, but we embrace the process of filmmaking. I think he likes to explore as many different types of filmmaking, and genres, as he can.
GG: In Inglourious Basterds, the power of cinema is literally used to destroy the Third Reich.
SM: It's not history or biography. It's a fairy tale, once upon a time in Nazi Occupied France. The point is that cinema is a powerful tool, and always has been. When I was starting out at CBS, I worked on a documentary about teenage pregnancy. It was such a poignant, emotional film that it actually changed policy at the White House. All films are powerful one way or another, and that power can be used for bad or good. My kids will not go to McDonald's anymore because of Super Size Me...
GG: There's been a lot of talk about Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, the Jew Hunter.
SM: He is so beguiling. He's remarkable. Quentin is brilliant at casting. When he found his Landa, he knew he needed to start shooting right away. Brad is amazing- he's terrific in this film. It's a group protagonist, three intertwining stories. Landa, Shoshana, and the Basterds.
GG: I've heard one critic criticize the final line of the film. Brad Pitt's character says "This might be my masterpiece."
SM: (laughs) What can I say? Quentin's films are always divisive, and they're always inspiring. There's gonna be a lot of people who love it, and a lot of people who don't like it. But I think this film really is going to hit home with a lot of people.
GG: As a cathartic piece?
SM: I hope so.
GG: From 1997 to 2003, Quentin wasn't making films at all.
SM: He was thinking about what he needed to do. I was raising my family, so it was perfect timing.
GG: You've worked with some great directors. Oliver Stone, Lee Tamahori, Ken Burns, Billy Bob Thornton, Ole Bornedal, Steve Barron...
SM: I love all of them. I've learnt so much from every film and every director- a new perspective, a greater appreciation of the art. On one scene Oliver said, "It's just so perfunctory." I couldn't figure out what he meant, then a lightbulb went off in my head. It was just one cut too! I realized every single edit is important. Years ago, this documentary was a very serious piece and I made this cut that made people laugh. I realized the power of cinema.
GG: Has your relationship with Quentin changed over the years?
SM: It's definitely grown and matured but it's always been as supportive and exciting as it was on day one. I understand him more fully. There's a huge amount of understanding that's very tacit and unspoken. It's like living with a person, like my husband. You grow accustomed to their habits and their wants, though their needs change. We've been working so fast. All of us have worked together for so many years that we step right on board, knowing it's gonna be a new ride, a different challenge, but we know how we want to do it. (Supervising sound editor) Wylie (Stateman) and (sound designer) Harry (Cohen) and their whole team. Mike Minkler, the mixer. He can go ahead and start doing the pre-dubs without us even being there. And we don't use very much ADR. Only when, say, some huge truck goes by and you can't hear a really important word, and even then we would try to use a track recorded onset. We keep our team very small. I don't like to be in a big corporate building. When I was at CBS, it was CBS, it was huge. It was great when I was working there, but I wouldn't choose to work in that environment now. We like this little house, that we kind of have to squish into. The whole team, including Harvey, and Shannon McIntosh. If it gets too big it becomes too corporate, and that's not what we do.
GG: Music and sound from other films are frequently referenced.
SM: Occasionally, we'll even borrow a sound effect directly, if it's cool and appropriate. Or an entire segment of a film, which might have music and sound effects in it. Of course 99.9% of our sound effects are new. Stylistically, creatively, we allow ourselves to copy other films, recreating from a similar palette of colors.
GG: You might not understand every reference, but it puts you in a specific time period and genre. Kill Bill had a vintage Shaw Brothers logo at the beginning.
SM: We study the genre we're entering into, via Quentin suggesting films to watch, or on our own. The music especially- (music supervisor) Mary Ramos. Sometimes the influences are surprising. There's some western influences in this film. The way we cut some picture, and structured the film.
GG: Reviewers have noted the early farm scene, its use of space. There's also Ennio Morricone music on the soundtrack.
SM: Quentin's western.
GG: A David Bowie track from Cat People is also used- unusual for the 1940s.
SM: Quentin's use of music is pretty darn remarkable. He really articulates scenes with music. For Kill Bill, I went into his music room and he played me a lot of music for specific scenes. That's when Uma's going to come out of the ground. He thinks very clearly about all the music, for months if not years in advance. I don't cut with his music before he comes in. Then we work together- adjust and edit the music to fit the film.
GG: The editing of Kill Bill seems very microscopic, showing you clearly the details of what's going on.
SM: We muse over everything for a long time. Nothing is simply connected for the sake of connecting. That doesn't mean the film doesn't change, but he doesn't shoot by the hip. All directors embellish as they go along - a new idea because the actors are suddenly doing something. But Quentin really has a vision in his head, and it's such a small group of people that we're all able to really support his vision in one way or another. The key to good communication is to keep it intimate. It's wonderful to find people you can work with again and again. We're on the same page, and the control that comes from that makes for a very refined product. We're willing to explore new approaches to making a film.
GG: Quentin often uses long takes, as in O-Ren Ishii's parlor.
SM: Bob Richardson is brilliant of course. Together they plan things really well so that it will keep an audience's attention.
GG: A long take opens a shoot up to so much imperfection if the shoot's not careful.
SM: I haven't had it not work with Quentin, but if it didn't work, there's always tricks to get around any problems.
GG: Either cut away, audio work, or a special effects fix...
SM: Quentin doesn't use CGI. We use a little bit in this new film but he likes everything to be practically composed.
GG: Which makes Kill Bill (and Deathproof) work.
SM: The fighting we didn't speed up. Only one or two shots, which we did in camera.
GG: A lot of wire removal.
SM: Sure. But no real gadgets beyond that. The swordfights feel real. A CGI fight can just gloss over you. It feels more exciting when you can see the people actually did it.
GG: Kill Bill blinked in and out of black and white, to get an R rating.
SM: No, it wasn't for censorship. That could be a secondary reason, but we never do things without an artistic intention. The MPAA are a good group of people. We've had to address many things that would have lost us the R. But the blink was a decision on our part.
GG: The Kill Bill movies feel differently paced. The first being chopsocky Hong Kong action, the second a slower western with bursts of violence.
SM: It worked out perfectly that way. The idea was there early on, to divide it. A lot of story needed to be told, and it turned out the films were so beautifully divided. We were thrilled.
GG: Deathproof embraces the Grindhouse aesthetic, with a comical use of missing footage, missing frames and leader. It looks like a beat-up old print.
SM: We'd take a pen, a needle, or some other implement and scratch the film. Nina Kawasaki, my assistant, would go out- we have video of it; it's actually kind of funny- and would thrash it against the bushes on the driveway. We kept asking the lab to make this section dirtier. We never even got it- we were too careful. We should have gotten it dirtier in some places. The lab had a lot of fun, though, not being careful. Want to smoke a cigarette over that? No problem.
GG: The second half feels much cleaner to me.
SM: Absolutely intentional. A different style.
GG: Some critics saw Deathproof as being padded and talky to the point of self-parody, a tossed-off side project.
SM: Quentin never tosses anything off. He takes everything very seriously. It's a film that was made with very specific ideas. Maybe we should have made it shorter, for the double feature. I suppose some people have the patience for it, and some people don't! I love the film. Kurt Russell- wasn't he great? And those trailers...
GG: And one of the greatest car chases ever put on film. Zoe Bell distinguishes herself.
SM: Zoe's a star. She's amazing, and one of the nicest people on planet earth. Really a big talent.
GG: How would you describe the specific style that you bring? Of course describing the art of editing in words is not easy. And an editor's style can differ depending on the style of the film and the director.
SM: Yes. On the other hand, I do feel there's an internal rhythm in every person which is reflected in your work. Somehow a painting looks like its painter. There's an innate response to footage that I feel is very much mine. Sometimes it's not at all what Quentin or another director wants, so I change it. I approach the footage in a detailed way, looking at mannerisms as much as I listen to the dialogue- what their body is saying.
GG: As dialogue-centric as parts of Tarantino's films are, there is a muscular physicality to some of your edits.
SM: As long as it's not perfunctory! I try to keep a strength of motion. I don't do match cuts really. That's a ridiculous thing to say- I do. But we always explore how we can propel a scene, and that's including dialogue, without doing match cuts. Because the audience is really willing to accept a lot of discontinuity.
GG: You got away with murder in Deathproof on purpose. Leader was inserted between shots that didn't match. Did that allow you to do things that ordinarily you wouldn't be able to do?
SM: A cut is a cut no matter what. The leader and the missing scenes didn't simplify anything. It still was frame perfect, in terms of our decisions. Leader or a cartoon- everything's done for a reason, to keep it strong. Muscular. Not perfunctory. There's always a reason to go to the other shot.
GG: To keep the scene alive and to keep the audience awake!
SM: (laughs) If they're falling asleep we're doomed! Every single frame is important, whether dialogue or action. Quentin is such a strong visionary and unbelievable auteur that it's a pleasure each time. So what else? I was just in my little dark room.
GG: We could still find out what's in the briefcase.
SM: We'll never find out what's in the briefcase.
GG: I think it's a light bulb.
SM: (laughs) That's the genius of Quentin right there. It's a light bulb, or its something really special.
Garrett Gilchrist is a freelance writer, filmmaker and film editor. He can be reached at orangecow.org.