"Editors," said Sally Menke, "are the quiet heroes of movies - and I like it that way." It's possible that, had she not had a fateful meeting with a young director named Quentin Tarantino some 20 years ago, Menke might have had her wish and lived out her days in relative anonymity. But long before her sudden, deeply tragic death last week, Menke had already been outed as a genius of the backroom, a petite, worldly New Yorker who gave all of Tarantino's movies their unique rhythm and shape, from the boysy bravado of his heist-gone-wrong debut, Reservoir Dogs, right through to their last movie together, the Oscar-nominated WW2 action-drama Inglourious Basterds (2009).
Tarantino later said that he was deliberately looking for a female editor to avoid testosterone clashes in the edit suite, and when the budding auteur took on Menke - who had only a single feature film credit to her name, 1991's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - one of the most creative partnerships of recent movie history was born. It wasn't lost on Menke that her idol Martin Scorsese worked with a female editor too,. But where the latter worked mostly as a peer (Thelma Schoonmaker likes to remind interviewers that Marty is a capable editor in his own right), Menke and Tarantino enjoyed much more of an artistic push and shove. Describing Menke as "hands down, my number one collaborator", Tarantino often said, and loudly, that he considered her skills a vital part of his storytelling. "So much so," he said, "that I truly feel that the final draft of the script is actually the first cut of the movie, and the final cut of the movie is the last draft of the script."
After cutting Reservoir Dogs (1992), Menke went onto make other films without Tarantino, for other name directors including Oliver Stone (Heaven And Earth, 1993), Lee Tamahori (Mulholland Falls, 1996) and Billy Bob Thornton (All The Pretty Horses, 2000). But although she always went back to Tarantino, and even planned her schedule around his, Menke always learned something from every job. Indeed, it was Stone who first taught her to beware the "perfunctory" cut, and this was an instinct that served her well with Tarantino, winning Menke her first Oscar nomination for 1994's Pulp Fiction. Acclaimed for its interweaving stories and timelines, the film was Tarantino's masterpiece, but it was Menke's choices that made his scriptwriting and direction seem so effortless.
Traditionally, with the exception of Scorsese and Schoonmaker (high company indeed), directors have seldom worked so closely with their editors. But then, very little about this working relationship was traditional. Menke and Tarantino eschewed edit suites, preferring to rent houses, where Menke would be ensconced during the shoot (until the Berlin adventure that was the Inglourious Basterds shoot, she rarely, if ever, went onto set). Originally, to make sure the sound on the dailies was matched with the vision, Tarantino would ask his cast to clap their hands, look to the camera and say, "Hi, Sally." But as Menke became more and more central to his vision, Tarantino started asking his cast to say hi in the middle of faux takes, knowing that she was sitting in a room alone with her Avid suite, aware that he really couldn't imagine making the film without her, wanting to make sure she knew she was a big part of the physical effort of making that movie.
Menke thrived on this, and not only adored Tarantino's mind but the way he worked, with small crews, a lot of affection and very little outside interference ("The key to good communication is to keep it intimate," she once said). Her death last week has robbed Tarantino's and his extended family of one of its most key and beloved members. Aged just 56 when exposure claimed her in the high temperatures of a Hollywood heatwave, Menke had been in high spirits when Empire last saw her - in February, at a London Bafta party to honour Inglourious Basterds. She was talkative, open and sometimes wonderfully indiscreet, excited to have been drafted in on Michel Gondry's Green Hornet and even gracious in defeat when Baftas subsequently passed her over. Many obituaries have paid tribute to Menke for her achievements and her down-to-earth personality, but here we'd like to draw attention to what we consider to be some of her finest work. The scenes that shine a well-deserved spotlight on the quiet heroine who preferred to be invisible...
Much has been written about QT's ability to write dialogue that snap, crackles and pops but it takes an editor as gifted as Menke to squeeze the most out of it. The Like A Virgin round table is a masterclass in taking a difficult word-y scene - lots of characters busting to make their point captured in mucho overlapping dialogue and a restless camera - and making a coherent conversation out of it: we don't know these characters yet everyone gets their time in the sun, be it through a killer line or a telling look.
Conversely, it takes a different type of editing skill to create a conversation that is full of awkward pregnant pauses. As hitman Vincent Vega and mobster's moll Mia Wallace struggle to get to know each over a $5 shake, Menke plays out a 35 second moment of silence as Vincent sips coke and Mia chews gum. In other hands it would be dead screen time. Menke pulls off the nifty trick of presenting boredom without being boring, the to and fro between the couple perfectly pitched.
Yet Menke it just a titan of talk. The whole House Of The Blue Leaves set-piece is virtuoso action editing at its best: exciting dynamic, perfectly synched to great music but - unlike say Michael Bay - always making sure you know where you are in the scene and withi the geography of the location. After the mania of the Crazy 88 attack, the one on one between The Bride and O-Ren Ishi has the confidence to slow it all down, playing with Leone rhythms.
Stuntman Mike crashing into a wagon full of hot girls sees Menke in bravura form. It starts brilliantly with four chicks groovin' out to Hold Tight by Dave Dee Dozy Beaky Mick & Tich - Menke does nothing as crass as cutting the images rigildy to the beat, instead she just has a real feel for the women getting off on the song. But then it goes into overdrive as Stuntman Mike readies to barrel towards them, she accumulates details - the foot on the accelerator, the headlamps switch, the hood ornament, the squealing tyres - before letting rip on a car crash that repeats itself four times, revealing the fate of the four victims in ever gorier detail. Genius.
Menke considered the opening scene from Inglourious Basterds her finest hour (well 20 odd minutes) with Tarantino and it is not hard to see why. A conversation between "Jew Hunting" Colonel Hans Landa and a farmer who is harbouring jews under his floorboards is wrung out for maximum tension and subtext. It is just two people talking in a Spartan room and Menke's switches between single shots of Landa, the farmer and a two-shot of the pair turn the acting and writing into unforgettable cinema.