Image Credit: Jeff Vespa/WireImage.com; Linda R. ChenBeing Quentin Tarantino’s film editor couldn’t have been easy work. There were the long, unexplained gaps between projects, the fact that her boss was a movie-mad perfectionist who always had the ideal version of his film already playing inside his own head, and the intimidating challenge that all of his movies hinged on cutting back and forth between time, place, and characters — imagine trying to keep all of the mobius-strip plotlines of Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction straight. But Tarantino was so devoted to Sally Menke and such a fan of her work that he never employed anyone else to cut his films. And he was such a fan of her as a person that he routinely assembled “Hi Sally” reels (included on the extras of many of his DVDs) where the cast and crew would begin each take by looking into the camera and giving her a shout-out she’d see months later to cheer her up in the editing room and push her to forge ahead. Along with Martin Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, it’s hard to imagine a more collaborative director/editor duo than Tarantino and Menke — a partnership that came to a sudden and unexpected end earlier today when the news hit that Menke, 56, was found dead near L.A.’s Griffith Park. Menke had apparently gone hiking in the morning heat with her dog and was found by searchers in Beachwood Canyon after her friends reported to police that she’d failed to come home. Her Labrador retriever was reportedly found alive beside her.
Menke graduated from the NYU film program and served as an editor on 1990’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. There were other films after that, but her career really took off when she partnered with Tarantino, an encyclopedic video store clerk-turned-auteur, on 1992’s Reservoir Dogs. The brilliant independent film about a band of nameless career criminals who assemble for a botched heist and reassemble in a warehouse trying to figure out how it all went wrong and whether or not they had a rat in their midst, made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival that year, turning Tarantino’s into one of the most electrifying debuts Hollywood had ever witnessed. There was no arguing that he was a genius, but it was Menke’s editing of the low-budget film that made it so unique and revolutionary. Cutting back and forth between characters, letting their back stories leisurely unspool before putting them back into the cinematic Cuisinart, Menke gave order to the chaos. In the years after Reservoir Dogs came out, Sundance was overrun with crime tales sporting disjointed narratives, aping Tarantino and Menke’s magic formula.
Then, in 1994, Tarantino and Menke topped themselves with Pulp Fiction — arguably the best film of the ’90s. Both were nominated for Oscars — Tarantino won for Best Screenplay with Roger Avary. Again, Tarantino’s ambitions were grand and his storytelling method, if possible, had grown even more fractured and fragmented. It could have been a mess, but in Menke’s nimble hands, Pulp Fiction redefined and re-energized independent cinema. Waiting for Tarantino’s next film, Menke took the occasional gig working with other directors — she edited 1996’s stylish noir Mulholland Falls and 1997’s chiller Nightwatch. The two collaborated again on 1997’s Jackie Brown, another sprawling, shuffling-deck epic — this one paying homage to the blaxploitation pictures of the ’70s and starring one of the genre’s queen bees, Pam Grier. The film wasn’t as kindly received as the director’s first two films, but its reputation has rightly grown with the distance of time.
After Jackie, during a six-year hiatus from the big screen, when the larger-than-life Tarantino supposedly labored on the first draft of a top-secret WWII script that would later become Inglourious Basterds, Menke worked on several other films, including 2000’s All the Pretty Horses — a film that was reportedly edited to death: not by Menke, but by Miramax, who wanted to shrink its running time. Menke must have been relieved then to reunite with the protective Tarantino for the two-part epic Kill Bill in 2003 and 2004, followed by Death Proof, Tarantino’s half of 2007’s Grindhouse. If Kill Bill was a super-sized story presenting a unique bundle of challenges to the editor, Death Proof, although pint-sized, came with its own set of hurdles: the revenge flick is essentially two films shoehorned in a larger two-part film. No easy feat. But that seemed to be par for the course with Menke — a woman who embraced a challenge. The pair’s final collaboration came last year with Inglourious Basterds, which seemed to be the culmination of all of Tarantino’s ambitions and obsessions — a multi-part, interweaving bit of army-green pulp fiction that took the horrors of WWII and recast the victims (the Jews) as avenging victors, doling out bloody justice and rewriting history, plotting and assassinating Hitler, the biggest bogeyman the world has ever conjured. And again, Menke was rightly honored with an Oscar nomination.
The sad news of Menke’s death robs movie lovers of a woman who was brilliant at her job and an unsung master of a craft that all too often goes overlooked. We’ll never get to see another Tarantino/Menke collaboration. And for that, we’re all a little poorer.