Kill Bill marks film editor Sally Menke’s fifth collaboration with Quentin Tarantino. She edited his debut feature Reservoir Dogs and received an Academy Award nomination for her editing on his next movie, Pulp Fiction. She has also worked with Oliver Stone (Heaven and Earth), Lee Tomahori (Mulholland Falls) and Billy Bob Thornton (All the Pretty Horses and Daddy and Them).
Below The Line: Explain your background.
Sally Menke: I had done some independent stuff, dramatic shorts, but I really come from documentaries in New York. That is what I did for years and had a blast. I learned a lot too. With documentaries, you toss the script out. Then you have to look at the footage for what it is. You have to feel free to interpret the material. Documentaries are great because you make a story out of gobs of footage. After that I did Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and worked with Lili Tomlin on The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.
BTL: How did you start working with Tarantino?
Menke: I met Quentin on an interview. I was just beginning my dramatic career. My agent was putting me up for low-budget films. She gave me this script and recommended that I didn’t do it because it was too little money. But I was from the tradition of making no money. It’s a nice side-thing, especially when you start out and you want to do projects that fill your heart. I went to the interview and fell in love with Quentin. I was really nervous because I liked him so much. He had such enthusiasm and was really excited about filmmaking. It turned out Quentin liked me as much as I liked him. And he hired me. I remember it was in the summer. I was hiking. I had to call [the producer] Lawrence Bender, so we found this telephone booth in the woods. That’s where my career started, on a mountain in the Canadian Rockies.
BTL: Kill Bill Vol. 2 will be your sixth Tarantino movie. What makes your collaboration so successful?
Menke: We’re patient with each other. We both get excited over the same things in filmmaking. Maybe we’re two parts that fit together well. We both feel safe to explore ideas that may not work. Because of that sense of security we are able to go places where maybe something great happens. And we like each other. If we didn’t like each other, we couldn’t work together.
BTL: What’s your approach?
Menke: Every film is different. With Kill Bill, I read the script a number of times. I spoke with Quentin in detail. He sees the film in his head. I know he does because I’ve seen him enact the whole film. He talked me through scenes and played a lot of music that was scene specific and he knew what he wanted to do for certain parts of the music. He makes comments like “This part of the music is going to be close-up on Uma’s eyes after she sees Bill.” Quentin gave me many films to watch, which I watched until I had a clear idea of how he wanted to approach certain scenes. But I didn’t want to have everything memorized. If everything is memorized, I feel the spontaneity leaves my editing. And I want to be able to layer Quentin’s style on top of it. Of course, the process still happens. “Oh Sally, I’ve got this really exciting film. I want you to see it because of this and that.” The same applies to going to the set. I don’t go if they’re doing a big set-up that’s excruciating, because if it doesn’t work I want to be able to discard portions that don’t apply to the film.
BTL: It seems that the director’s process and yours are intertwined.
Menke: He has a lot of different people intertwining with him. For Kill Bill, I was assembling the film, but I wanted him to stay focused on the shooting. I sent requests via the producer or production manager of what I thought would be needed for a scene, but I never talked to Quentin until he came back to L.A. It was 155 days.
BTL: Did you cut scenes to music because they were written to music?
Menke: I try to cut every film without music, to get it to work dramatically. Then I apply the music and adjust it. I didn’t add much music in the assembly. I waited for Quentin because I knew he would have very specific ideas. When you put music in, the close-up can hold for 30 seconds and it’s fantastic, but what holds it musically may not hold dramatically. Some editors I know put the music in right away, but I find that I get sloppy because the music can let that close-up hold for too long.
BTL: Since Kill Bill is a homage to genre films, did you edit in a stylized way?
Menke: Definitely. Quentin wanted scenes to look very stylized Japanese Samurai, very Hong Kong Kung-Fu or very spaghetti western. We were duplicating that.
BTL: How do you approach action scenes versus dialog scenes?
Menke: For me there’s no difference in the way I approach the two types of scenes. Quentin calls his dialog scenes his action scenes. Of course now he can’t say that any more.
BTL: Action has a lot more footage.
Menke: A lot more. The House of Blue Leaves took me two months to edit. That was the big action scene. It took them that long to shoot it.
BTL: That seems to be the yardstick: the amount of time it takes to shoot, it takes to cut.
Menke: It’s funny, but I never noticed it before this film. I never was clear that they were in this scene for three days and it took me three days. Whenever I’ve assembled films it usually takes two to three weeks after they’re shooting for me to be caught up because sometimes you’re waiting. But you’re probably right.
BTL: Kill Bill was intended as one film and it got divided in two. Did that change the structure?
Menke: There might be some small things, but I think that both films remain truthful to the structure as if it was one film. If you put them together the structure would be the same as the script.
BTL: How did you work with sound?
Menke: This is the first film where I’ve had the sound crew on from beginning to end. They worked as I cut the film, which is terrific. It really helped Quentin as well. He wanted to have sound effects—Kung Fu hits and stuff—cut into the dailies. Also, every single hit is angle specific. The first punch or sword hit may look great in the wide two shot, but the second one may not play as well. Where you cut— before the impact, at the impact, after the impact—affects how you feel. With that in mind, I found that I couldn’t judge it without the sound effect. Also we get used to the sound effects, so when we’re at the mix it’s not a shock. We could mix the film creatively as opposed to filling holes. I feel very fortunate to have worked with the sound crew so closely.
BTL: Did you do this with music too?
Menke: We had most of the music in place. The music editor has been on for the whole film. The composer, RZA, was in the back composing music and then would throw it up here. Everything was very intimate and immediate. Robert Rodriguez has been scoring part two. He’s so fast. It’s amazing. Robert sent up musical ideas. He figured the scene was going to last four minutes, whatever, and scored it before we had it cut. We put it in and he looks at it again. It changes the tenor of the film.
BTL: Do you mentor your assistants by assigning them scenes?
Menke: It didn’t happen too much on this film because we were way busy with wire-removals. Joan [Sobel, first assistant], had her nose in a book the whole time. When there’s time I allow them to assemble scenes, particularly in the beginning before Quentin gets in and all the optical madness happens.
BTL: What do you like about editing?
Menke: I like having close contact with the director and having the final cut, being the last person telling the story with the director. It’s exciting to give people an emotional experience and to know that you’ve been there fine-tuning it. I like doing things that I’ve never done before. It scares me, which is exciting because you have to rise to the occasion. I’ve never cut fight scenes like this. Quentin always jokes that I got my training on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He assured Uma that I could cut fight scenes because I cut that film. He was joking. I like staying on top of details too.
Most editors I know like to cook. I think that’s kind of the same thing. Putting a whole lot of ingredients together, having it come out perfectly and presenting it. I love it.