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LIGHTS, CAMERA . . .

Analyzing 'Inglourious Basterds' ' tavern scene

January 13, 2010

For Lights, Camera . . . , we ask a craftsperson to talk about a specific scene in his or her latest film. This week, Sally Menke,Sally Menke, film editor on " Inglourious Basterds," talks about the shootout scene in the basement tavern.

Quentin Tarantino told the multiple stories of "Inglourious Basterds" in five distinct chapters, and we knew from the script stage the film would hinge around the set-piece in the tavern La Louisianne. The daunting task of putting a 25-page dialogue sequence, spoken almost entirely in German, in the middle of the film, weighed heavily on everyone's minds, and it all had to come together in the cutting room. Just mentioning the name La Louisianne created tension among the crew, but we needed that tension to transcend to the audience.

In La Louisianne, the Basterds meet their German movie star contact, Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) for the first time, and they must all pretend to be old friends by posing as Nazi officers. Much to the Basterds' surprise, they not only find Bridget in the dangerously cramped tavern, they find the basement bar filled with drunken, celebrating Nazis, one of whom happens to be enamored with the German movie star and continually pesters their table. The tension in the group runs high as we watch the real Nazis begin to question the origin of the British Archie Hicox's (Michael Fassbender) strange accent, and we hold our breath.

La Louisianne required detailed attention to character development as well as numerous story points, all the while using the device of language to create tension. Quentin and I felt it was essential to have the characters not simply drive the scene toward a plot point, but to be fully nuanced characters, while continually building the tension that would culminate in an explosive gun battle that kills all but one. We knew the gunfight would work all the better if we could carefully manipulate and build the tension through a give and take of emotions, playing a cat-and-mouse game with our characters -- and our audience.

Our editorial intentions had to be completely clear in how we wanted the audience to feel at any specific moment in the scene -- the Basterds are screwed, wait, no, they're OK, oh, no they aren't, this Nazi knows, he's on to them, no, no, they are OK -- until Hicox makes the fatal error that unequivocally gives them all away as impostors. Every line had a layer of tension, and we needed to play their reactions to the lines as much as the lines themselves to build it properly. Every beat counted. Every second someone delayed their response gave the audience a chance to think, "Did they figure it out? Do they know?"

We obsessively controlled every moment so that in contrast, when the climactic gun battle finally does erupt, it explodes in the loudest, craziest and most shocking way possible. But again, while doing this, we always had to return to the human element -- our character development. Hicox gets a bit of a tear in his eye when he realizes he will live no longer, and if we have done our jobs correctly, so will our audience.

Another challenge was to seamlessly integrate a lot of key information for upcoming plot points without them feeling perfunctory, heavy-handed or pedantic. For example, we needed to show a close-up of Bridget's shoes so there was no doubt in the audience's mind who it belonged to later on when Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) discovers the shoe while inspecting the aftermath in the bar. We can't draw attention to the shoe in a way that says, "We're showing you a close-up of a foot," but we do need to make enough of a point of it so the audience knows it's Bridget's -- instantly. The solution was to use the shoe as character introduction, to show the style and glamour of this movie star/double agent whom we, the audience and our characters, meet for the first time.

The tavern music was another way we developed a character. The music at first works environmentally and emotionally in the scene but then functions to locate a yet-to-be-seen, off-screen character, the Gestapo Maj. Hellstrom, who, when revealed, we see has clearly been controlling the music selections. We also now know that without a doubt Hellstrom had been listening to the Basterds' conversation the entire time, and we now use the absence of that same music when Hellstrom purposefully removes the needle from the record player to show that he has taken control of the scene. The Basterds, and our audience, are now in Hellstrom's hands.

The last issue we had to contend with was the length. A nearly 25-minute dialogue scene that starts 69 minutes into the film can be a potential challenge for audiences, as most scenes by this point play considerably shorter. But it was our belief that if we could hold the scene's tension, we could not only develop character and attend to the story but actually stop the scene to allow Hellstrom to play his King Kong card game, a story in and of itself, which cinematically alludes to another oppressed group, the slaves in America. I could go on about many other layers that needed our attention, but, unfortunately, in this situation I am not the editor with final cut and must end the piece here.

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