Marvel’s latest phenomenon tasked director Ryan Coogler and co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole with delivering a movie version of Marvel’s Black Panther, who first appeared in Captain America: Civil War. In that film, Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is introduced after the death of his father and this is the catalyst for the events in Black Panther. T’Challa succeeds to the throne of the fictional African state of Wakanda, but finds his sovereignty challenged by adversary Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and threatened by CIA man Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) and South African criminal Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis).
Coogler brought in Michael P. Shawver to edit the picture, having worked together since film school days at USC and on Fruitvale Station and Creed.
“In September 2016, Ryan asked me to put together a sequence of ‘scenes of transit,’ where characters travel from one location to another, from world-building movies like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, so he could study what they did that he liked and didn’t like,” explains Shawver. “It was really helpful to see how those filmmakers tell those personal, emotional stories while at the same time creating massive fictional universes. He had me do a similar thing on Creed with fight scenes from movies and real boxing matches and it helped both of us immensely.
“I knew Ryan and the Marvel producers were looking for the movie to have a James Bond-like feel to it but also to have a sense of history and legacy like this family and this world have been here for a long time and will continue to be. A lot of the designs in the concept art and previs combined rich African history with state-of-the-art technology, creating a beautiful contrast that helped tell our story. We had many discussions about themes of ‘the old way vs. the new’ or ‘tradition vs. innovation’ and when we got to cutting, we kept those themes in the back of our minds and let that help guide our editorial choices.”
1st Qtr, 2018
“We definitely felt her absence in the cutting room as we’d been working on Ryan’s movies together since 2010,” says Shawver. “That’s when Debbie came in and joined the team, giving us a jolt of passion and creative energy.”
Debbie Berman, ACE, had already caught the attention of Marvel execs during the edit of 2017 film Spider-Man: Homecoming, so when Coogler and Shawver needed an expert hand to guide the complex storytelling in Black Panther to completion they knew who to call.
“During production, Claudia and I split up the scenes by shooting days for the most part; she would take a day, then I would,” says Shawver. “We also worked on the scenes that each of us had been working on with the previs team because we were familiar with them. Some of the bigger sequences were split into sections depending on the workload of the other person. We like to let the process unfold organically and Ryan wants both of his editors to have a chance to inject their voice into the scene.
“When Debbie joined the team, we each took ownership over half of the project. That was extremely helpful while getting notes from Ryan and the producers. There were times when we’d work on sections in the other person’s half, but we kept it split for the most part. We’d always be open to each other’s notes and trusted that the other person was taking a ‘movie-first approach.’ Debbie’s drive, creative solutions and perspective were a great and much needed addition to our team. Her work helped me see the project in a different way which allowed me to grow as an editor.” Joining the film about halfway through the process gifted Berman a ‘clean perspective’ because she’d not seen script nor dailies.
“I felt the best use of this perspective was to focus on the parts of the film that were in the most trouble,” she says. “For me, that was the first act as there were so many stories to explore and characters to meet, and it was a constant balance of too much or too little information. Ryan gave me his blessing to just cut out anything I felt wasn’t needed as my fresh first pass, and I think I took close to 20 minutes out of the first act, and then about five of those snuck back in for the final film.
“Most of what I did was trying to streamline the narrative.As a rough rule I worked on the first half of the film, and Mike took care of the second half – but that wasn’t set in stone. He knew the footage for Warrior Falls more intimately so after I did an initial cut down of it, he worked on getting it to the next level emotionally. I initially took over the closing ‘post end battle’ scenes of the film, but we ended up passing those back and forth a lot. Mike did most of the main end battle, but I also worked on certain sections of that.
“It could have been so easy for Mike to make me feel excluded as he and Ryan were longtime filmmaking partners, but he let me know right off the bat that I was an equal collaborator in his eyes, and he truly embraced me and my work,” she adds. “As anyone working on these huge monsters knows, you really do go to war in some respects. The physical exhaustion and the intense non-stop pressure can be a lot to deal with. I feel unbelievably lucky and grateful to have such a talented and kind partner, who always had my back, who shared similar instincts, and who loved and cared about every frame in the film as much as I did.”
The movie posed an interesting challenge in that it required the set-up of past events, related to how T’Challa becomes king, then about halfway through the film, he discovers things that could cause his world to come crumbling down. The mood and pacing change when these revelations happen.
“We don’t give it all away at once, so finding ways to go from T’Challa’s daily life as a new king to a mystery unravelling in front of him takes a lot of trial and error,” says Shawver.
“There are a lot of characters and a lot of stories,” adds Berman. “Quite a few of the smaller plot lines and character moments ended up being cut but I feel we still managed to integrate complexity into their characters, to ensure you felt an emotional connection to them, while keeping the narratives that best served the film.”
They are both full of praise for the faith which Coogler put in his editors. “Mike and I would work alone, and then view our work together with Ryan as a group, and then discuss next steps,” says Berman. “Sometimes we would have directorial working sessions for more intricate notes. Ryan is the most specific person I have ever worked with, and his notes can be exceptionally detail oriented. But at the same time, he will be wide open to bold and drastic suggestions. If Mike and I felt one way, but he felt the other, he would usually honor the majority because he trusted us and our instincts. He is an exceptionally talented filmmaker who works from his heart and his gut, but also from a deep analytical understanding of filmmaking.”
Shawver adds, “Ryan wants his editors to tell the story their way without influence, to have our voices be part of the storytelling, so he let us do our thing unless he was concerned he didn’t cover a scene properly. It can be difficult at times to decide what direction to take a performance or a scene without knowing what he prefers, but the process has worked over the course of three features together, and I do always feel a strong sense of ownership on his movies.”
While keeping the story paramount, the editors had to work with interactive VFX, where characters would use props or ride armored rhinos that weren’t actually there. “This was a brand new creative muscle I had to train,” says Shawver. “My imagination became an important tool. With footage, I’m used to getting a piece of clay to sculpt, here I had to imagine the clay.“
Constant communication with Coogler and the VFX team was crucial. “I would get footage that was just a moving plate of a field with no actors in it, or another of a stunt when a henchman gets thrown, and that was it,” he relates. “Because of my work with previs, most times I knew what they were going for, but Ryan often thinks of newer and better ideas while they’re shooting, so knowing what is intended is important as to not waste time going down the wrong path.
“Once we got to post we had VFX review sessions with the Marvel producers every few days and gave notes on the evolution of the shots. These creative discussions talked about everything from ‘are we using the best take to allow the VFX to help us tell the story’ to how the technology should work, to which color the VFX elements should be. Not all ideas work, but as a team, we were able to come up with some really cool and unique things.”
One of the toughest scenes for Berman was the opener set in Oakland. “It’s the first real scene of the film, so tonally you want it to be on point,” she relates. “I also think it’s important to get a comedic moment in the first few minutes of the film because it gives the audience ‘permission to laugh.’ If you wait too long for that first laugh, all the others are harder won. But more than that, there was a lot of information in that scene … almost an overwhelming amount to grasp. The trick was working out how much information we needed now to set up things that pay off later. What information can we omit? To what extent can we set up events or character moments without disconnecting the audience because of information overload?”
She tried a version of the scene which reduced it to basics. “You almost get no information, but you get a taste of the mystery,” she says. “But the team wasn’t feeling that, so I leaned in the other direction which was to emphasize the existing information, further trying to support it with images.
“I suspect there’s still some information overload in that scene, but I think it’s forgivable. There’s something they talk about at Marvel which is ‘giving the audience the medicine early, and then getting on with the movie.’ Essentially that’s saying, you might have a rough first few minutes of the film while we feed you the information you need to know, but then you are armed with the required data, and we can get on with the actual adventure.”
Later in the film there’s a car chase set in Korea, which Berman particularly enjoyed working on. “It had a good foundation when I started on it, but I did quite a bit of work to take it to where it is now,” she relates. “I just like car chase scenes; I did the one in Spidey also. There is something so cool and fun about this one, and every time we have a screening you can feel the energy in the room rise. There’s a misconception that cutting action isn’t an intellectual endeavor. It’s actually pretty complex crafting a sequence that tells a story, drives emotion, and looks slick and cool at the same time. I didn’t do too many of the action sequences in this film, but this one I had so much fun with.”
The film is intended by Marvel to be the launchpad for another franchise, but as Shawver explains, “Our main focus
was to make the best movie – which is just about all the pressure I can handle.
“We would talk at times about what the cultural impact could be but not really about the potential of a new franchise,” he adds. “We come from a school of thought that the more unique you make a story toward a character, the more universal it becomes. It’s a personal story to all of us who were involved and I hope that future Black Panther stories will follow that path with whatever story they want to tell.”
Berman agrees that any pressure she felt came from a desire to do the film justice. “Most of my internal pressure came from being a South African and making sure I did this African story justice, as well as being a woman and making sure these goddesses (including characters played by Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright and Lupita Nyong’o) were the most kick-ass, complex female representations we’d ever seen on screen.”