first met Sally Menke in the summer of 1998. She hired Joan Sobel and me to assist her on a Billy Bob Thornton movie called Daddy and Them, which was scheduled to start shooting in Little Rock, Ark., about a month later. Joan was not available for the first few weeks of the shoot, so it was determined that I would be on location with Sally. But while Sally had met and liked Joan, she hadn’t met me, and, as I was the one with whom she was going to be stuck in a small office in the middle of Little Rock, she thought it prudent that we at least meet before embarking on this journey. So, Sally, Joan and I met at a now-shuttered Thai restaurant on Larchmont Boulevard called Chan Dara for lunch.
I was a fan of Sally’s work, of course. Her collaborations with Quentin Tarantino had a tremendous influence on me when I was in film school (not unlike, well, pretty much anyone else trying to make movies in the mid-’90s), and I felt that her work cutting the first live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie was no small contributor to what my friends and I all considered to be the best Ninja Turtles movie that could have possibly been made. Sally also had a bit of a reputation in the editorial community. “Sally’s tough,” an editor friend told me when I’d gotten the gig. He didn’t mean difficult, he meant demanding, and I would later learn that it was primarily with regard to ensuring that her directors were given exactly what they wanted (a fairly basic expectation for anyone in her position). But that was knowledge I didn’t have at the time, so I went into that lunch meeting with no small amount of trepidation.
I needn’t have worried. Sally was warm, friendly and very funny, openly sharing tales of working with Tarantino, Oliver Stone, Ken Burns and, of course, the Ninja Turtles. We bonded over the fact that one of my college writing professors, Carol Dysinger, had been Sally’s roommate when they had attended film school together at NYU. Sally was excited about the movie as well, letting me know that the script was both heartfelt and hilarious (Joan told me she thought I was going to love it and she was right), and that Billy Bob was genuinely charming and that she hoped this would be the start of a long collaboration. When our lunch ended, I was still a little nervous about the gig, but I felt comfortable with Sally, despite being rather in awe of her.
My first recollection of working with Sally is seared into my memory, primarily because it was so exemplary of Sally’s personality. I arrived in Little Rock on the first day of shooting, but owing to a scheduling conflict, Sally would not be starting for another two weeks. At the end of every shoot day, the whole crew would screen the 35mm dailies, and I would sit next to Billy Bob and take his notes for Sally. After about a week of shooting, the director was itching to see some of the footage cut together, so he asked me to assemble the main title sequence and the opening scene of the movie. Opportunities to cut happen rarely for a second assistant editor, so I jumped at the chance, working long into the night for the next couple of days until I had a version with which I was happy. I put the six-minute sequence on a VHS cassette and had it delivered to set, where Billy Bob watched it with his producers, passing along generally positive feedback.
When Sally landed in the editing room on the third week of shooting, I brought her up to speed on what had been shot thus far, took her through the way I’d set up the project in the Avid, and let her know about the sequence that I’d assembled, asking if she’d like to see it. She watched for about a minute before interrupting with, “God, this is terribly boring.” I was crushed, of course, not having expected Sally to be quite so blunt. But I was also aware that she was right. And that, in a nutshell, was Sally: brutally direct and creatively spot-on. I was going to have to up my game if I was going to continue to show her my work.
I assisted Sally for six years, working on two movies directed by Billy Bob Thornton and two movies directed by Quentin Tarantino (though whether the latter two are actually only one movie is open for debate). Our second picture together was All the Pretty Horses. During production, I was on location in San Antonio and Santa Fe, watching dailies with Billy Bob and taking notes for Sally, who stayed back in Los Angeles to be with her family. (If ever there was an editor who appreciated the value of spending time with her kids, it was Sally.) I had an Avid on location, and occasionally Sally would give me scenes to assemble. When I completed them, I would email the sequences back to the cutting room in L.A. for Sally to watch. After she viewed them, she would make adjustments to the cuts and then she would call me to explain what she had changed and why. This was an incredibly valuable learning experience for me: I had a master of the craft guiding me through her creative process and illustrating how she had altered my work in order to improve upon it. The fact that she was taking time out of her busy workday to do that was not lost on me.
For Sally, character was everything. What was the perspective and driving motivation of each character in a given scene? How can the eyes of the actors communicate this? There were also what Quentin calls “Sally cuts,” edits in which the continuity doesn’t match at all, but the viewer doesn’t notice because it just feels right. I can distinctly recall Sally excitedly bringing us all into her editing room on Pretty Horses to show us a moment in which Matt Damon jumps from one end of a room to the other in the space of an edit, but because his body positioning matched, the cut didn’t throw the viewer at all. Quentin and I have continued the tradition of making those types of edits, with Quentin regularly remarking, “Sally would have loved that cut.”
If I can credit one editor with showing me how to run a cutting room, it’s Sally. She kept her assistants creatively involved throughout the entire process of post-production. Whenever she finished a pass on a scene, she brought her whole crew — from the first assistant editor to the post-production assistant — into her office to be the scene’s first audience. She wanted to feel our reactions as we watched, and she welcomed our feedback, no matter how critical. (Unlike many creatives, she could take it as well as she could dish it out.) She would frequently ask her assistants to cut sound effects for her, and I’m hard-pressed to think of anything that was more exciting for me than when a handful of those sound effects made their way into the final mix of the movie. The four (or three) movies for which I assisted Sally were all edited in houses on Larchmont Boulevard, regular homes that we had converted into editing rooms. That environment no doubt contributed to the sense that Sally and her crew were one big family. It came as no surprise to me that when we were prepping Django Unchained, Quentin told me he wanted to edit in a house; the family environment that Sally had cultivated lives on to this day.
My time working with Sally ended with the Kill Bill films. I landed my first solo editing gig a few months later, and my career was off and running. But Quentin and Sally kept me in the family, inviting me to attend rough-cut screenings of both Death Proof and Inglourious Basterds. This allowed me to relive my experiences as an assistant editor audience member, now at feature length. As usual, open and honest feedback was welcomed and appreciated. Quentin would later tell me that part of his reason for hiring me onto Django was my willingness to speak my mind in those screenings. As a relatively shy guy, I can honestly say that it was primarily owing to the fact that Sally had created an environment in which I felt comfortable doing so.
When Sally Menke tragically passed away in September of 2010, we lost a legendary craftsperson, a respected artist, collaborator and mentor. One of the last times I saw Sally was when she spoke at a screening of Inglourious Basterds at the Director’s Guild of America, and Quentin introduced her as “my right hand, and four fingers on my left.” I don’t know that there’s anyone out there who could have successfully filled her shoes. All I was able to do was to work as hard as I could and feel confident that I had done my best. In the films that he has made over the last eight years, whenever Quentin shoots an overhead shot, longtime script supervisor Marty Kitrosser will list it in the script notes as a “Sally Point of View.” I’d like to think that somewhere, Sally is watching proudly … though I’m pretty sure she’s got a suggestion or two for me.
Fred Raskin, ACE is the editor of Fast Five, Guardians of the Galaxy, Bone Tomahawk and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.