Sally Menke Was An Ace

by Todd McCarthy
September 29, 2010 12:07 PM
9 Comments
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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.

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9 Comments

  • Old Freind | October 2, 2010 8:32 AMReply

    Any news on arrangements?

    Todd, could you update any details you have?

    Thanks.

  • Kevin Cannon | October 2, 2010 7:13 AMReply

    I met sally while working on teenage ninja turtles and instantly gravitated to her....over the years i lost contact with her and many other people that i intended getting back in touch with...so many people we loose contact with and then something like this makes me realize how unfortunate that we become too busy to appreciate those persons we should have not lost touch with..sally was one of those people..

    I will miss you sally..
    Kevin Cannon NYC

  • Kevin Cannon | October 2, 2010 7:13 AMReply

    I met sally while working on teenage ninja turtles and instantly gravitated to her....over the years i lost contact with her and many other people that i intended getting back in touch with...so many people we loose contact with and then something like this makes me realize how unfortunate that we become too busy to appreciate those persons we should have not lost touch with..sally was one of those people..

    I will miss you sally..
    Kevin Cannon NYC

  • suzanne camejo | September 30, 2010 5:47 AMReply

    I am in shock. Can't believe Sally is gone, she was such a force of energy and wit and a very successful , amazingly creative and intelligent former client ; one whose career I helped jump start as her agent by getting her an interview with Quentin Tarantino on "Reservoir Dogs" .She had only previously a shared editing credit on Ninja Turtles! :...and Quentin chose her out of three of my female clients because she was most passionate about the script and adored it, and never complained about working on a very low budget.

    Sally met with me after the meeting and we discussed whether or not she should take the offer to do Reservoir Dogs but Sally wanted that job.
    It changed her life!

    Sally was always motivated ,thoughtful and clever. She never stopped working for Quentin. He would wait weeks for her if she was not available and allow cribs installed in his editing bays.

    When Oliver Stone kept her on Heaven and Earth endlessly cutting with David , Quentin waited and finally had to start . Sally would check the dailies at night I had fought so hard to get her that job with Oliver Stone because he did not know her or Reservoir Dogs since it had not yet been released .

    So I called Richard Gladstein & asked him if he could send the print to Oliver to screen, which Richard kindly did for Sally and me.
    Oliver went crazy over the film.Sally immediately got the job. After that Oliver acquired Quentin's scripts including NBK. It was almost as if Quentin changed Oliver's path ; as if Oliver wanted to become Quentin at one point.

    All because of Sally and me history took that turn for Quentin, Sally and even Oliver!
    Fate.
    Sally had an impact on everyone. If they agreed to an interview with Sally, she always got the job! She broke down scripts like no one else I know and Directors recognized her insights .

    I remember the young director Lee Tamahori on Mulholland Falls , coming into a beehive of studio execs and producers , after having only made his documentary in NZ. Sally was there to guide him along thru the process but it was like going from a tiny, thriving pond into an ocean maelstrom for a young director. When I entered the editing room to visit Sally , the air was thick with conflict but she could handle both sides, always the diplomat .

    Sally was with me at Suzanna Camejo & Associates when she was nominated for an Oscar for PULP FICTION as well.
    Right now I am staring at the huge framed poster with Uma in the black wig, the poster that Sally gave me as a present from that film.....I am overwhelmed with sadness at her sudden departure from the busy world in which she left so many memories as well as, likely plans.....

    I wonder what happened, Sally was so wise, a trained hiker; how could she possibly succumb? The endless second guesses, the replay, the recriminations, and the 'if onlies'.
    Fate.
    Her two children with Dean, the sweetest guy, and a super film director, must be in shock . The first days are like walking in a dream, like being an automaton, going on autopilot....just mouthing words but not even thinking...

    My heart goes out to Dean and the children......there is nothing worse than sudden loss, as I can sadly contest to....having lost my gorgeous, compassionate , kind, only remaining daughter, Gabriella Giselle Camejo, who was killed in her last three months at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art) on February 15, 2009.Run over by a careless driver in an SUV 2005 Yukon that awful night......

    Gabby was just 22, a promising artist and poet, a model and a lover of animals.
    Her sister, Chantica, my first daughter, had also been killed by an SUV many years ago in Venezuela at 16yrsold

    Sally knew Gabriella well since I also brought my daughter to work everyday. In Lantana , where I had my office for years, Gabby would sell Girl Scout cookies to everyone in all the buildings, including the editing bays!

    I sincerely hope Dean and the family will seek grief support in time. I have found comfort at greifhaven.org
    but there is nothing that can stanch the flow of tears or the blood that drains daily, minute by minute, from the broken heart.....there will always be that yearning, the longing for the lost love of one's life, the mother, the wife, the daughter who left so much unfinished.

    Certain items in the refrigerator, down the supermarket aisles, in closets and hallways, gardens, in theaters, on the radio , on TV can jolt the memory back to a day, a time, a loving moment shared. I share their excruciating pain and cannot believe that Sally is gone now too!

    It is with sadness, and yes, deepest understanding of what Dean and the children are going through, that I send
    what? I guess I can only say, yes , yes yes, I understand from the bottom of my own abyss what you are feeling and
    I send my own grief in solidarity.
    Sally will always be remembered with true joy.

    suzanne

  • PB | September 30, 2010 5:04 AMReply

    I did not know her, I was not a friend just an admirer of her work. It is just so sad this happened. Creative souls of her stature are just so few and far between. And Dede Allen and Arthur Penn are gone too.

  • SteveA | September 30, 2010 4:39 AMReply

    I just heard about Sally's passing. I was shocked and kind of horrified, wanted to learn a bit more about her - thanks for this piece.

    My heart goes out to her family and friends.

  • Old Friend | September 30, 2010 4:28 AMReply

    In the small bedroom of a private home helping Sally get dressed for her wedding to Dean in 1986, wound up with excitement of the momentous
    occasion she seemed to have forgotten to exhale.
    "Breathe", I whispered to her, and we both laughed with gusto.
    I wish I had been on the trail Monday to remind her of the same thing again.

  • Gabriella Cristiani | September 30, 2010 4:06 AMReply

    My condolence to Dean, Isabella and Lucas.

    Sally and I met only once, but I still remember her smile and a rare zest for life.
    We exchanged our mutual admiration for our work.
    This morning when I read the news I felt a crack in my heart and tears came down on my cheeks.
    Bless you Sally, we will remember you, always.
    Gabriella Cristiani

  • Carole Penner | September 30, 2010 3:05 AMReply

    I was friends with Sally and Dean in the early 80's in New York. I spent a lot of great time in their Chinatown loft, working with Dean on independent films, cooking dinner, partying with their interesting friends. Even then it was obvious that Sally had a passion for editing that would pave the way for her future success. She was so much fun to be around, outspoken, and dedicated to Dean. I was at their wedding and stayed friends until I moved out to Oregon in the late 80's.

    Although I hadn't spoken to her or Dean for many years, I followed every step of their careers, letting friends know how proud I was to know both of them when we would see their credits. I am devastated by Sally's untimely death, and can't even imagine how Dean is dealing with this. I often wondered if they had children, and was able to see pictures of them online yesterday.

    Sally Jo, you were a unique woman. Headstrong, an amazing friend and a talent that surely will be a hard act to follow.