Stepping in as Quentin Tarantino’s editor after the sudden, tragic death of Tarantino’s longtime collaborator, Sally Menke, in 2010, editor Fred Raskin knew that he had big shoes to fill. Menke’s contribution to Tarantino’s oeuvre and tremendous success cannot be underestimated, but Raskin has thus far made a powerful impression, editing Django Unchained, which was nominated for five Academy Awards, and following that up with the phenomenally ambitious, three-hour-eight-minute 70MM extravaganza, The Hateful Eight. The film was a tricky edit for the way in which it’s split decisively down the middle—in this case, segmented by an intermission. Here, Raskin discusses his ascension to main editor, working for the legendary writer-director, and his experience editing two Kurt Russell-starring westerns this past year.
You had worked in the editorial department on the Kill Bill films, but how did you wind up becoming Tarantino’s right-hand man?
After finishing Kill Bill I would run into Quentin on numerous occasions, usually at screenings at the New Beverly Cinema—and this was before he owned it. I think he knew while we were doing Kill Bill that I was a big movie lover, and running into me at the New Beverly kind of confirmed that. So over the years we’d been in touch because we kept seeing each other, and he invited me to a screening or two. So when they finished their first rough cut of Death Proof, Sally (Menke) called me and said, “Quentin wants to invite you to our rough cut screening.” And when they finished the rough cut of Inglourious Basterds, I got this phone call: “Hey Fred, it’s Quentin Tarantino. We finished our rough cut and we want to see what kind of shape we’re in because we’re hoping to make Cannes this year. Can you come in and take a look at it on Sally’s Avid?” And I said, “You’re putting me in a very awkward position here because as a Jewish guy, there is no movie I want to see more than the movie in which the Jews kill the Nazis, especially the one directed by Quentin Tarantino. However, you’re asking me to experience it for the first time on a 35-inch standard definition TV screen.” And he said, “Fred, I feel your pain, but know that you will actually have the potential to have some impact on the movie.” And I wasn’t really going to say no.
So he kind of kept me in the family that way, and when Sally tragically passed away and everyone was wondering what Quentin was going to do next, I figured I’d be in the conversation but I didn’t think that I would be that high up on the list. I got a call from him that he’d finished his new screenplay, Django Unchained, and he was having what he called a “publication day party,” where all of his friends come by his house and pick up a copy of the script. I was honored to get that call, and I took the script home with me and I read it twice, actually, and after my second read I wrote him a gushing email where I told him how much I loved it, and I truly did. I ended the email by saying, “I realize that you are apt to have every editor in Hollywood asking you to let them edit your movie, so I figured I might as well be the first. I have significantly less experience than most of them, but I will work harder than any of them.” And Quentin emailed me back the next morning and said, “Thank you so much for your email. I’ve actually been thinking about having you do this with me. I’m in New York right now but I’ll be back in a week. Let’s talk then. Don’t take any other jobs.”
And that was truly one of the most exciting moments of my life, because you have to understand that I’m a guy who went to see Reservoir Dogs in college with three of my closest friends, and we walked out of that theatre saying, “Wow, we’ve just seen the most exciting new voice in the cinema in a decade.” And so getting to work with him is a complete thrill.
How did you feel stepping in for Sally Menke, who was so well-regarded?
They were enormous shoes to fill and I knew that I couldn’t do anything half-assed. Every cut that I made on my own needed to be something that I had gone over a dozen times and made sure that it was exactly as I felt it should be. I needed to put my best foot forward. The way Quentin works when you’re shooting a movie is that he has no interest in focusing on editing. He doesn’t want to see a frame of edited footage while he’s shooting. He wants to focus on making the movie, and so while he’s shooting I’m putting stuff together, and I’ve gotten some notes from him from our daily screenings so I have some idea as to what he wants. But a lot of it is kind of going off my gut instinct, and I know that when the shoot ends, he’s going to come in and see what I’ve done—especially for Django, where this is the first time he’s seeing anyone else working with his material. I mean, with the first thing that I show him, if it’s bad, this relationship could be over before it’s begun.
I distinctly remember the first time he came into the editing room after shooting Django, he started talking to me about the big Candyland shootout sequence and asked if he could see it, so I played it for him. I set it up and I’m about to press play, and this is incredibly nerve-racking. I’m very proud of the work that I’ve done but who knows what’s going to happen here? So I press play, and from the get-go he is vocally responding to what he’s seeing. “Oh, wow. That’s great. Oh, that’s awesome.” And when it’s at the end and he’s like, “That was terrific. Can I see it again?” I was like, “Yes. Yes, you can see it again.” And so I was hugely relieved. And now I’m getting to work alongside a truly legendary filmmaker who I could not have more respect for.
You’re describing Tarantino as a pretty generous collaborator, but is it ever difficult to work with someone who must be incredibly opinionated about every little choice?
It’s really interesting because he was very hands on, which is not surprising. He wrote the screenplay himself, he directed the movie himself, and he wants to have as firm a hand in editing as he possibly can have. But I also have to say that he understands that all of these people with whom he’s making the movie, he’s hired for a reason. My feeling while I’m putting my assembly together is, I have a pretty good sense as to what he wants, but if you see something interesting—something where I don’t know if it’s what he intended, but it’s kind of cool and seems like it fits in his wheelhouse—I’m going to try it because ultimately he can change whatever he wants. One of the nice things about working in editorial is we have the freedom to make mistakes, which really means the freedom to just try things. Sometimes we’ll hit gold and other times we won’t. So although he absolutely has a firm vision in his head—you can tell that simply from looking at his footage—he is definitely open to trying new things.
To give an example, the intermission in the movie comes at a pretty pivotal moment. He had the idea of trying a version of the end of Act One that included the poisoning of the coffee, seeing that while the coffee is being poisoned, Major Warren is telling his story to General Smithers. He saw a really neat idea that was intended to basically set up the rest of the movie at the end of the first act. We see that happen and think, “Oh, no.” Now we’ve got something where the rest of the movie has begun. And it did serve that purpose, but what it also did is it diluted the impact of the sequence between Major Warren and General Smithers, and the way the movie had originally been conceived is the way that it is in the finished movie, which is to say, deal with the Smithers and Warren scene at the end of Act One, go to the intermission, and then when Act Two begins introduce the poisoning—and the movie is off and running. But he was open to the idea of trying it. He truly came in with the idea and said, “Let’s see how this plays.” We watched it projected on 70MM film to see how that version played, and we said, “Well, I’m really glad that we tried that. It was a good experiment but now we know for sure that the way to go is the way that it was scripted.”
Tarantino isn’t shy about having a lengthy runtime if the project demands it. The Hateful Eight is his longest single film ever. What were your early discussions with Tarantino like regarding its pace?
Truthfully, I don’t know that we had any really early discussions about it. It was more about servicing the screenplay and basically just presenting the best version of the movie as written. He came into the editing room knowing a few things that we were going to cut from the get-go. He knew there were some ideas that were not going to play, and they never made their way into the director’s cut. So we kind of had that from the beginning, and then it was mostly about being conscious of the fact that the first 3/4 or so of the first act is set-up. We’re setting up the characters, we’re setting up the situation, we’re showing how much these characters have been affected in the aftermath of the Civil War, and if we haven’t done that, then the way the movie wraps up isn’t going to work. And so it’s making sure that we never lose sight of what’s important to developing these characters.
Did the fact that this was was a “bottle film,” with only two primary locations, make the editing process easier or more challenging?
I would say slightly more challenging. We had to be aware of how important it was to get outside of Minnie’s, and how important it was to not give those moments short shrift. Certainly the sequence where they’re pounding the stakes in to draw the line from the front door to the outhouse is a bigger sequence than I think it might have been in another movie, but it’s the only time we’re outside for a long stretch of time. It was very important that we not skip over those moments or consider them unimportant, because while from a story perspective they may not do much, from the claustrophobia perspective it was key.
It’s a big year for the western as a genre. Funnily enough, you edited another Kurt Russell-starring western this year, S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk. How would you compare your experiences on the two films?
Obviously they are two very different animals, although if I had to spend my entire career cutting Kurt Russell-starring westerns, I’d be very happy. But Bone Tomahawk was shot over 21 days. It was a $1.8 million movie. Quentin had a lot more time to get his vision up on the screen. Personally, as a lover of westerns, I was thrilled to get to work on both of them, and of course Bone Tomahawk was written and directed by one of my closest friends in the world and my college roommate, S. Craig Zahler, so that was just great fun for me to get to do.
It’s funny that we’ve got these two movies that are certainly going to be compared. Stylistically, they’re very different. With such a tight shooting schedule, Craig was forced to come up with a way of getting it done efficiently, quickly, and still getting these great performances on screen. I have to say, if there’s one similarity between the two movies, it’s that they are both full of exceptional performances and great monologues.
The Hateful Eight is a singular viewing experience, particularly in terms of the 70mm roadshow, with its own overture and intermission. How does it make you feel not only to have worked with Tarantino, but also to have contributed to an example of storytelling that is rare?
It feels like I’m getting to be a part of cinema history. The road show appearance is something that ended before I was born. So the fact that Quentin is bringing it back is a great honor, and I’m really excited to see how audiences respond to it. I hope that it takes off because, to a degree, the future of film presentation is resting on our success. Certainly, this will offer the opportunity to other filmmakers to do the same kind of thing. So, God willing, we’ll get to see other filmmakers follow in Quentin’s footsteps.
The Hateful Eight opens nationwide on New Year’s Day.
To see a featurette on Tarantino and the making of The Hateful Eight, click play below: