Exclusive: Oscar-nominee Sally Menke on editing Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Basterds’

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On Thursday, February 25, Quentin Tarantino hosted a below-the-line panel for crew members of Inglourious Basterds who were nominated for Academy Awards. Among the participants were Sally Menke, Tarantino’s longtime editor; cinematographer Robert Richardson; visual effects designer John Dykstra; Supervising sound editor Wylie Stateman; and sound re-recording mixers Michael Minkler and Tony Lamberti. Tarantino showed up late from a taping of The Craig Ferguson Show that ran late, but Menke and Dykstra kept things moving with a lively q&a session that allowed industry insiders and movie fans to ask the filmmakers about their art.

This afternoon, Hollywood News caught up with Menke via telephone to follow up on a few of the questions she answered during the panel. In addition to talking about the process of putting together Inglourious Basterds, Menke mused about the necessity for classic film rules, and reflected about her longtime partnership with Tarantino, which began when she worked with him on Reservoir Dogs back in 1991.

Hollywood News: At the panel last night, you talked about what the changes were you implemented between the Cannes screening and the film’s theatrical release. Can you talk about what prompted you to make them?

Sally Menke: We went to Cannes knowing that we were going to be coming back and making changes. We went to Cannes really proud of the movie we were presenting, but we knew there were only so many hours in the day, and I think it was only like eight weeks from the time Quentin actually walked into the editing suite at the house that we rented. We were very proud of the movie but we knew that we were going to make changes, and we just ran out of time.

One of the scenes we changed was the cream scene. It was the end of it that we elongated with Shoshanna, where she actually breaks down, and we kind of changed some of the shots a little bit. We kind of had more going back and forth between Landa and Shoshanna, and then for the commercial release, we ended up playing a little bit more on Shoshanna. [Also,] we knew that there was a 99.9 percent chance that the [scene with the] Basterds across the street from the tavern was going to go back in, but he just wanted to play it without it, and we did.

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Hollywood News: Even though Landa steals the movie in many ways, what stood out immediately for me about the film was that the story was the main character. Was the process of finding that throughline pretty faithful to how the film was shot, or did you find that it was necessary to reduce the screen time of some of the actors in order to keep the narrative moving?

Menke: I think that the balance of all of the characters was pretty much set that way in the script. Yes, there was a little bit of the characters throughout, but I would say the balance was pretty much the way it was in the script. We didn’t have to tear away from one character to give strength to another character. But as far as editing itself, in terms of how we balanced out scenes, you always do that in every single movie. You always go, okay, we’re going to play this a little bit more on Shoshanna, or we’re going to play this a little bit more on the farm. There’s always that balancing act, just specifically within scenes so that we tell the audience whose perspective this scene [is from] or who we want the audience to pay attention to. Or, to trick the audience to pay attention to this, and then, wow, really this is where we’re going with this scene.

Hollywood News: I spoke to Quentin at the junket, and interviewers were speculating about what the themes or ideas of the film were. He was pretty quick to say he wasn’t really thinking about those things consciously, and was interested to see how others analyze and interpret the movie. When you’re looking at all of a movie’s component parts and putting them together, are you thinking about what themes or motifs are emerging and which you’re now tasked with the responsibility of bringing out or fortifying?

Menke: I absolutely do, and they just become my own private feeling about what some themes and threads that I like to circulate in the back of my head. A couple of them I kept thinking about throughout the whole film that rose to the surface for me was, first of all, the power of cinema, and how we were using cinema to not only topple the Third Reich, but Winston Churchill hires Hickox based on his knowledge of German cinema. And then, also the power of words, and how Landa – and by the way, I’m working on The Green Hornet and I’m cutting a scene with Christoph Waltz right now, so I’m looking at him again as I speak to you (laughs). But Christoph’s elegance and eloquence with words – not only can he speak all of these languages, but then of course Quentin’s so eloquent with words and his ability manipulate thoughts and feelings so masterfully, and then Landa’s character can control a scene with his words and then be able to go in and out of languages and control a scene. You think that in the beginning, it’s just a contrivance that he goes, “I’m running out of my ability to speak French,” when in fact he speaks French quite well, and then you realize that is not a contrivance; he’s using it as a ploy. So the language became a thread. The cinema. The strength of a woman. There were just so many things as I was cutting this film that it was a joy and just thrilling beyond belief.

Hollywood News: Was there one sequence or scene where you and he disagreed, where you would have liked to see a shot or a cut changed a little bit, but that didn’t make it into the movie?

Menke: You know, you’re the only person who’s asked that. That’s an interesting question. I haven’t thought about that. (pauses) Let’s see… my immediate response is that there must not be because I’m having to go through all of the scenes in my head.

Hollywood News: You two share such an interesting, intimate collaboration, it would be interesting to know if you and he differed on the approach or tone or cut of any scene you worked on together.

Menke: You know, it’s pretty weird that we actually don’t have those conflicts, I have to say. It’s pretty weird, because you really are the only person to ask that, and we really do kind of agree on everything. Maybe that’s why it’s been such a long relationship, because somehow I must live in the same world as him. Even though we do live in very different worlds, we do live in the same world. Because I’m a mom and I have two kids and it’s so funny, [and I remember] after I did like the first Kill Bill and some people came over from Japan and they interviewed me and they came to my house. I have a lab and a cat and two little kids, and they came into my house and they were like, really? You’re Quentin’s editor? Where are all of the tattoos?

I remember in Kill Bill I was working so hard and I had to take a break because I was in the middle of the black and white sequence where Uma was killing all of these people and she was trying to stab this guy, and I couldn’t figure out the most effective way to stab him. So I had to go take a walk around Larchmont, and I walked outside and I was like, and I thought of all of these ways you could stab a person. Then I looked out and there was like this little baby stroller outside and I said, oh, how cute! And then I realized, oh my God, I’m thinking about how to stab a person while I’m looking at this baby! I was like, oh my God, I’m so insane.

Hollywood News: What was your initial reaction to Quentin and then how did you acclimate yourself to his world? Or was that an easy process?

Menke: Well, this is the thing: when I went to college and film school, my hero was Scorsese. I mean, my life was his world, and I lived in New York City, so when I met Quentin, which of course was on [Reservoir Dogs], the world of Reservoir Dogs was so thrilling to me, and I guess I have a dark side. I guess I do even though I couldn’t be more of a mom, and I kept thinking, Jesus, what are my kids going to think of me when they see my films? Of course, now they’re older, and they’re just normal wonderful acclimated children. But when I met Quentin, he was just so exciting and the script was so exciting and I just loved him. Every day I came home from editing Reservoir Dogs just excited. It was just so thrilling to me, and I’m so lucky. So, I don’t know – we’re just a perfect match.

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