Sally Menke Was An Ace

By Todd McCarthy | Todd McCarthy's Deep Focus September 29, 2010 at 12:07PM

My wife and kids heard the helicopters rounding overhead half the hot night, not knowing, of course, who or what they were looking for at the tops of Beachwood and Bronson canyons. Not until the next day did we learn the search was for our friend, Sally Menke, who had been missing since Monday morning after bidding goodbye to her hiking partner, who evidently had decided the heat was too much. But Sally and her black lab ventured on, as Sally, a longtime hiker, must have felt she could handle it. Police found her body, watched over by her dog, in a ravine in the hills at around 2:15 a.m. Tuesday. Since learning about it I've been able to think of little else, so distraught am I for her husband Dean and children Isabella and Lucas.
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My wife and kids heard the helicopters rounding overhead half the hot night, not knowing, of course, who or what they were looking for at the tops of Beachwood and Bronson canyons. Not until the next day did we learn the search was for our friend, Sally Menke, who had been missing since Monday morning after bidding goodbye to her hiking partner, who evidently had decided the heat was too much. But Sally and her black lab ventured on, as Sally, a longtime hiker, must have felt she could handle it. Police found her body, watched over by her dog, in a ravine in the hills at around 2:15 a.m. Tuesday. Since learning about it I've been able to think of little else, so distraught am I for her husband Dean and children Isabella and Lucas.

I first became acquainted with Sally around 1989 or 1990, a couple of years before she began the most crucial collaboration of her career, with Quentin Tarantino. At the time I was finishing writing a documentary about Preston Sturges for Ken Bowser in New York and Ken reminded me today that Sally had cut his first short film a few years before. She was also a good friend of Arnie Glassman, with whom I was shortly to make the documentary "Visions of Light." So the connections were there by the time we were settled in Los Angeles.

Sally and her husband Dean Parisot's daughter and son were born at almost exactly the same times as my and Sasha's daughter and son; for quite a few years the eight of us would trick-or-treat together near their home in Hancock Park, an area where many of the houses get so decked out that it's a city-wide Halloween magnet. There were many other family get-togethers when the kids were young and I particularly remember two occasions--Dean's delightedly flummoxed reactions upon reading the first (highly favorable) reviews of "Galaxy Quest" and taking all the kids to the Cinerama Dome a few years ago to see a special presentation of the three-panel Cinerama "How the West Was Won."

The Sundance premiere of "Reservoir Dogs" was unforgettable--some granola munchers stomped noisily out at guess-which scene--and it was great to Sally basking in the success of "Pulp Fiction" in Cannes. How many film editors make the scene at film festivals? How many are ever invited? It's a measure of how much Quentin valued Sally that she was welcomed--nay, encouraged--to come; sometimes she did, while at other times family came first. In fact, it always did, as she and Dean would trade off projects so one of them could always be at home. I recall that "Kill Bill" was especially demanding, because it went on so long, but I believe she took a year off after that. As intensely curious as I was about whatever Quentin was doing or how a film was going, I was always reticent to ask much because Sally was reliably discreet and in no way inclined to betray a professional confidence. Not only that, but she was not oriented toward gossip and didn't read the trades. She was just intently into the work at which she was so good.

Quentin valued her so much that he would postpone shooting if she wasn't available to start on a certain date. Beyond that, he accommodated her by setting up his editing room around Larchmont, the small business district for Hancock Park, so she could walk to work, go home for lunch or stop in and see her kids for an hour. I do my business in Larchmont as well and I invariably ran into Sally there by chance two or three times a year. The most memorable of those occasions came in early April, 2009, scarcely a month before the scheduled world premiere of "Inglourious Basterds" in Cannes. At the time there was no film more anticipated and wondered about, so when, on the street, she asked if I wanted to come over to the cutting room and watch a scene, it was impossible to disguise my excitement.

Quentin had rented a modest bungalow house just a block away and the outer rooms were filled with young assistants who knew they were working on the coolest film in town. Sally's cutting room in back was spacious and comfortable--it was probably the house's master bedroom--and she and Quentin seemed quite at ease given the Cannes deadline breathing down their necks. At Quentin's request, Sally put on the scene in which Michael Fassbender is ushered in to meet the general played by Mike Myers, with Rod Taylor's Churchill sitting in the distance. I loved the scene, but remember being initially struck by how the formality of the setting and the conversation seemed so unusual for Quentin, and also by the funny talk about Fassbender's character having worked as a film critic and his comments about the German film industry. The scene I saw that day felt daringly protracted, but thrillingly so, and I was very surprised in Cannes to see that it had been adroitly trimmed by at least two or three minutes. That morning was also the one time I was able to observe first-hand how at ease Sally and Quentin were when working together, how he respected her judgment and encouraged her ideas and collaboration; she undoubtedly had more input into his work than he allowed from anyone else.

Sally was a great film editor and a great lady. She could worry and fret about things and I'm positive she spent more time away from her family than she would have liked; I recall the recutting of "All the Pretty Horses" and the innumerable previews and flying about as having been a particular ordeal.

Today while having lunch with Ken Bowser at a sidewalk restaurant in Greenwich Village we saw Quentin walking by to hail a taxi. I ran over to say hello and commiserate with him and he said he'd be flying back to Los Angeles imminently. But I had the feeling that neither of us had ever been so profoundly struck by how abruptly and unexpectedly it can all be taken away as we had been when we learned about Sally.