By Amy Leland
Black Panther was a highly anticipated film that became a massive hit with audiences and critics alike. Just the fact that it’s a Marvel film would have been enough to create both anticipation and success, but this movie went beyond that, breaking barriers as well as box office records. The film was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture.
Instead of being referred to as a great superhero film, it was simply called a great film. It’s also the kind of high-quality offering you would expect from director Ryan Coogler, whose prior credits include Fruitvale Station and Creed, both of which feature Michael B. Jordon, who is also in Black Panther.
I had a chance to talk with the Black Panther editing team — Debbie Berman and Michael Shawver — about the film and their process co-editing such a huge project.
How did you both end up on this project?
Michael Shawver: I’ve known Ryan since our days in film school at the University of Southern California. We met back in 2009 in a directing class, and he was making short films that were just above and beyond everybody else. They were about society, race, culture, everything, and they really made you feel and think. That’s the kind of thing that I always wanted to do, the whole reason I wanted to make movies.
One day after class I went up to him and said, “I’d love to work with you. I can edit a little bit.” Things then fell into place, and I was able to work on a short film we did in school. From there he fought to keep me and the rest of the short film team involved in Fruitvale Station. Then we worked on Creed and then Black Panther.
Debbie Berman: For me it was kind of a serendipitous backstory. I was awarded an editing fellowship to the Sundance Institute in 2012, and as part of the fellowship I went to the Sundance Film Festival and went to the awards ceremony for the first time. That was the year that Fruitvale won Sundance. So I was actually there watching Ryan’s career begin, and I remember absolutely loving the movie and really being drawn to him as a filmmaker. I thought Creed was absolutely brilliant. I ugly cried through most of Creed. I think it’s phenomenal.
When I was working on Spider-Man: Homecoming, I kept talking about Black Panther. As a South African, it was a film that really spoke to me, and really felt like it was going to be important to me. So Marvel connected us.
Shawver: When we met with Debbie, we just kind of knew. Ryan and I both knew a few minutes in that she was the right choice and that this was going to be the right fit. Between her work ethic, her worldview, her passion and what she focuses on to tell a story and to bring characters alive, I think it all just rang true with how we felt and our process.
And you never know. It’s tough when you co-edit with somebody because you kind of just go on one date and then you’re married. You never know how it’s going to work out. And there’s always creative discussion; there’s always, “What if this is better? What if that’s better?” But everybody left their egos at the door. We’re all “movies first.” We don’t take anything personally, and we help each other not take anything personally, and we support each other. It couldn’t have worked out better.
Berman: I totally agree. It’s like one day you’re married, but you’re married during a world war. You’re going through a very stressful time together. I did feel an instant kinship with Mike and Ryan the second we all met. It just felt like meeting old family. I’ve been passionate about filmmaking my entire life, and they have the same amount of passion. And as Mike said, we always put the film first, and with having that shared love of this movie in particular, it really just got us through everything.
I got to meet Ryan at a screening of Fruitvale Station, and I was struck by how humble he is. As a leader of a project, he must bring that to the environment. Did you all feel that when you were working with him?
Shawver: Oh yeah. That’s what he’s really like. I tell people that he’s a great director, but he’s a hundred times better person. He believes that people who make the movies are more important than the movie itself. That humility that he has allows him to learn. He’ll be the first one to say that he’s not the smartest person in the room, even though everybody would disagree with him. He understands that when you can admit that you don’t know everything, you can start to learn.
I think that, much like T’Challa does in the movie, Ryan feeds off of the people around him. There’s a reason we have certain members of the team that have stayed with Ryan for so long, and he would fight for us. When he brought Debbie into the fold, it was the same way. We all feel like we have so much to learn, and we’re so grateful to be in the position that we’re in. We can’t see operating any other way.
Berman: Ryan insists on honesty from his crew, and never feels that anything you say is a critique of him or his work. He understands that everything you say is just trying to make the film better. There is an open environment where it’s okay to say anything you want. It’s a safe environment to fail because out of a hundred ideas, if you get three that are great then it was worth the other 97 that maybe weren’t so great, because it’s all for the greater good of the film.
Were you both on the project from the beginning, and how did that process work with the two of you cutting the film together?
Berman: Mike started a bit before me, but the film as you see today is something we built from scratch together. We mostly worked on separate scenes. A film this big, it’s good to take ownership of certain sections, because there’s so much to track in terms of the visual effects load. But we collaborated on everything, we always watched each other’s work and we always gave input, suggestions and feedback. There were a couple of scenes we handed back and forth. If someone had an idea for something, then they would take over that scene and do a pass on it. It was basically a good mixture of complete ownership and collaboration all at the same time.
Shawver: I think the key for us was to work as organically as possible and never let anybody’s creative idea or creative juices go to waste. If Debbie came in one day just raring to go on a scene and had a dream about it, an epiphany about it or something, and wanted to dig in and explore more and see if she could elevate a moment, we would be dumb to get in the way of her doing that.
I think we understood that we had to find a balance of feeling of ownership over the scenes, the moments and the movie as a whole, but also understand that this is a story that needs to speak to everybody. We had a very diverse post team, and that’s not by accident. It’s because diversity can bring about the greatest art. Even down to some of our production assistants, who we would bring in to watch certain things just to give us thoughts, and that would always be filtered to Ryan. With a beast of a movie as big as Black Panther — what was it, like, 500 hours of footage.
As the editors, we’re the first audience. We’re the gatekeepers for everything else. So we have to focus on the details, and the movie as a whole. And with a thing that size and with that many people on a team, it helps to break it down but never be hard and fast with those boundaries.
Berman: One thing that was really important to me was all of the strong female characters in the film. I really focused on the ladies, and just making sure they were the most spectacular, powerful representations they could be. And, of course, we both worked on everything, but I think Mike probably took a bit more of T’Challa. It was such a difficult mix to have our central character surrounded by all of these other strong characters, but still make him feel like the strong and central presence. We both worked quite a lot on Killmonger, because we had to try creating an empathetic villain. It would have been easy to veer in either direction too far. We just had to keep the balance of, you can empathize with the point he’s making, but he’s going about it in the wrong way.
Shawver: With anything you do as an editor, these things are hard. I’m not going to lie. You’re second-guessing yourself. We all need to find our story in it, but also how we can share ourselves in each of these characters. What we focused on a lot, in our own ways, were the relationships in the movie. Because if you boil it down, the relationships make that world go upwards, downwards, leftward, rightwards. My son had just turned one at the time, so the theme of fathers and sons that’s achieved in the movie really resonated with me. Just like Debbie with the female characters. Female characters often don’t get what they deserve on screen, but we made sure that they did. Debbie really took guardianship of that, shepherding it through. I think those are some of the strongest points in the movie.
Berman: Mike was really incredible at putting emotion into scenes. The fight scenes, for example. There are these amazing Warrior Falls scenes, which are action scenes, but they’re so emotional. Most of that is the work Mike put in, like folding it around the characters watching the action, and how you’re filtering your own audience reaction through what they’re experiencing.
I remember there was a lot of talk in the press when the movie came out about representation and inclusion in the film, especially for an action or superhero film. As a woman, I really felt like, “Wow this is an action movie that’s showing people I can relate to on screen.”
Berman: Every time I watched a scene, I would do a pass where I would try to watch it through the female gaze. One of the examples of that editorially is right at the end, when the Dora Milaje are surrounded and the Jabari save them. Originally the Jabari warriors were all male. So I had a conversation with Ryan and I said, “You know, we go through this entire movie with these absolutely spectacular female warriors and then at the end of the film the men save them. I think that it undercuts a lot of what we have built up with them over the course of the film.” But I didn’t know what the solution was.
Ryan, in his brilliance, was like, “Well, what if we make some of the Jabari warriors female?” Which I thought was amazing. But, of course, they’d already shot this massive, complicated action sequence. Luckily, in additional photography, Marvel supported that idea, and they created Jabari female warriors. The very first warrior to break through the force field and save them is this absolutely kick-ass Jabari female warrior. It really made such a difference, not only to that moment, which is one of the coolest moments in the film to me, but just throughout the entire film with what we’re trying to say.
When you first started working, was there any sense of, “Okay, Michael, you’ve been working on the indie film side, so you start with some of the dialogue scenes. Debbie you just came from another Marvel film, so work on the action scenes”? How did you decide who was working on what scenes?
Shawver: We didn’t want to keep it separate in that way. I know for myself, and Debbie as well, if there’s something that we’re not as strong at as an editor, we use the opportunity to be able to edit and get better at those things.
Debbie was on Spider-Man, and I went to Atlanta a little early to start on Panther because I’d never done one of these before, and I was terrified. Every morning I woke up having to pinch myself that I was working on a movie like this. But then the whole rest of the day was, “Don’t screw this up. Don’t screw this up.” Then, when Debbie came in, and said, “This would be a good idea if we did it this way. Here’s what you can do to help this process move along faster. Here’s what you can do to have more specific discussions with the effects teams.” Just those in and outs of having gone through a process like that with Spider-Man helped us immensely. Debbie and I are strong editors. We have our strengths and we have a couple of weaknesses, but I feel like we’re both pretty well rounded. In certain ways, Debbie is stronger than I am, and she would critique certain things and give me notes.
We had a discussion early on. Ryan said he felt better when both of his editors touched a scene, because that way both of our stories could be told. He’d also say that if both of us agreed on something and he didn’t, he’d go with our idea because, “You guys are smart. If you guys say this is better and you both agree on it, then we’re going to do it.”
Berman: We actually pushed each other to go further, because there might be a point where you’re like, “Yeah, I’m happy with the scene” and then someone comes in and prompts you and questions things, and it forces you to re-evaluate and see if you can make every single moment just a little bit better.
I had just done Spider-Man, but I’d also done some indie films. I wasn’t too far removed from understanding what the knowledge gaps would be, ‘because I’d only filled those knowledge gaps myself about five seconds earlier. So I felt like I came from the same world, and I understood what they needed to know based on what I had just learned from my past experience.
Were you in edit rooms next to each other?
Berman: We had separate edit suites. But every time someone was finished with a scene we would sit together, either just the two of us or if Ryan was around sometimes the three of us together. We were on the same floor, a few doors away from each other, but we’re working on our own systems pretty much most of the day, and then checking in with each other. We also sat in the effects reviews together, making sure that the visual effects were serving the story and serving the way we created the scenes. We were also in the sound mix together.
Shawver: One of the things that I learned from Ryan, and about Ryan, is you just have to trust him. There are times as an editor, especially when you have a team of dozens and dozens of people, when they are looking at you and needing a scene to be done or a decision to be made, but we haven’t fully gotten it there yet. Ryan said to me, I think it was an Abraham Lincoln quote, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I’ll spend the first four sharpening the ax.” He told me that right after I was getting very nervous about a deadline we had, because he had to go to a bunch of other meetings and stuff like that, and that really put things into perspective.
There were times that we’d just sit and talk for an hour or two. The days are long — 10-, 12-hour days, sometimes longer. But we would have conversations; they’d be conversations about specific scenes, current events, our daily lives, how we feel, if one of us is going through something. First of all, if someone’s not having a good day, Ryan’s going to notice as soon as they step foot in the building, and he’s going to drop everything to make sure that that person is okay and find out if they need to go home. Whether it’s a personal tragedy, national tragedy, anything like that.
Berman: Whether it’s one of his key crew, or one of the PAs, he’ll notice.
Shawver: Yeah, it doesn’t matter who you are. The movie is a political movie. T’Challa’s a politician, and it has to do with world events and current events, and I think we’d be mistaken to not discuss those and see how we feel. But not just discuss, because the three of us probably agree on a lot of things that maybe a good amount of viewers in the world wouldn’t agree on. We talked from all different sides. That’s where that diversity comes in, and that love for making this movie that really is about bringing people together.
Berman: Yeah, that was very interesting to me, because I’m not used to sitting and talking so much. I’m used to like, “Editing! Editing! Editing!” It worked its way into the film. You spend a few hours chatting and you get to know each other, but it’s all working its way into the film. You’re connecting to each other as human beings and making this piece of art together, so it all works its way in… and it all makes the film better.
What’s up next for both of you?
Shawver: I’m working on a movie called Honest Thief. It’s starring Liam Neeson. It’s about a bank robber looking for redemption. It’s nice to be back on a movie just about relationships and small interpersonal drama to help sharpen those skills. It’s directed by Mark Williams, a really talented director.
Berman: I’m working on Captain Marvel, at the moment, sort of the final sprint to the finish line right now.
Amy Leland is a film director and editor. Her short film, “Echoes”, is now available on Amazon Video. She also has a feature documentary in post, a feature screenplay in development, and a new doc in pre-production. She is an editor for CBS Sports Network and recently edited the feature “Sundown.” You can follow Amy on social media on Twitter at @amy-leland and Instagram at @la_directora.