The Editors of 'Black Panther' Explain Marvel's Labor of Love

Long-time Marvel and Ryan Coogler collaborators respectively, editors Debbie Berman and Michael P. Shawver tell all about their invaluable contributions to Wakanda in the cutting room.

Black Panther
Marvel Studios

Touted as a well-deserved repeated fave here on Film School Rejects, Black Panther did not just experience some flash-in-the-pan success as yet another installment in the ever-growing Marvel Cinematic Universe. Rather, the legacy of this origin story will continue to inform our expectations of all the films to come, even as it moves forward toward higher stakes of inevitable doom and welcome rebirth.

Truly, it takes a village to put together one of the best movies of 2018. In post-production, editors Debbie Berman and Michael P. Shawver aided Black Panther helmer Ryan Coogler in determining the nuances of storylines and character arcs that make us love the movie all the more. In our interview with Berman and Shawver, they break down some key cinematic milestones that combine for a richly immersive experience of the African nation of Wakanda.

The road that this powerful blockbuster took from page to screen was a long but exhilarating process. Let’s take a deep dive into it in our edited chat with Berman and Shawver.

Black Panther is so perfectly-paced as a politically-infused coming-of-age story and an overtly enjoyable blockbuster. How did you and Ryan Coogler find a balance between all those elements?

Debbie Berman (DB): Tonally, balancing all these things was certainly a challenge, but we let the heart of the story and the characters lead the way. Did we want to have fun? Or feel something? Or did we need to learn something to move the story or characters forward? What we personally wanted to see, feel, or know dictated what journey we would go on cinematically.

Michael Shawver (MS): There’s an interesting paradox in filmmaking that we’ve learned through the years that the more unique you make something, the more universal it becomes. We have a very diverse team, made up of men and women, of all ages, from all over the world, and every one of us has a story to tell. Ryan will be the first one to admit when someone has a better idea than him and leans on his team to tell their own version of his story. In the cutting room, there were days we’d spend a few hours talking about the current state of the world… and in a lot of ways, those conversations and feelings make their way into the movie, sometimes even subconsciously.

One of my favorite things about Black Panther is that it invites us as viewers to richly immerse ourselves in Wakanda, instead of just hearing about it in pure exposition. What was it like crafting this nation in the editing room to ensure that kind of experience?

DB: It was an editorial balancing act, deciding how much time to spend simply feeling the culture and traditions, and when it was time to move on with the story. Some of the action and the comedy is in the DNA of the film, but we could discern when to lean into these moments if we felt that they had an emotional payoff, or when to abandon them if they didn’t serve the emotion or the core narrative of the film.

MS: I think you nailed it when you said “experience.” This should be an experience. Before every project, Ryan has me do research and put together sequences of other movies that achieve what we’re trying to do. Panther was “scenes of transit” and “world-building.” I compiled clips from Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Blade Runner, even Willow, and we watched them while he was in pre-production.

We constantly check ourselves and our work in the editing room, making sure we’re telling the story from the perspectives of the characters. We want you to feel like you could reach out and touch things. Ryan also will shoot scenes that show everyday life in a very documentary style, like the scene in the market with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o). That scene actually has a lot of exposition in it as far as what Wakanda is to the people who live in it and those people’s opposing viewpoints.

However, every scene is on the chopping block at all times, especially expository scenes, and our job is to keep the viewer immersed in the story enough to gain information without feeling like we’re explaining everything to them.

Black Panther Shuri

The film excels in little details that organically build around characters and their arcs. For example, Shuri (Letitia Wright) works on her Vibranium gauntlets before actually using them later on in the film. Was there a specific discussion with Ryan about the narrative purpose of such technicalities?

MS: The question of whether or to show Shuri’s gauntlets earlier in the film was ultimately decided in post. We decided that leaning on Everett’s (Martin Freeman) POV in that scene was the better way to go because he is a closer representation of where is the audience is, as far as their knowledge of Wakanda and Vibranium [goes]. We had versions where we didn’t see the gauntlets in service of the story but we eventually found a way to have the gauntlets in an organic way.

We’re constantly looking for ways to plant things that will pay off later. Thematically, Shuri is also an innovator and even has a line at the beginning of the film that says, “just because something works, doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.” That line has so much depth for all aspects of the movie, from T’Challa’s story to Wakanda’s role in the world. The whole theme of innovation and process while honoring your history and heritage is interwoven in almost every aspect of the movie, which starts and ends with Ryan.

DB: Ryan is a deep thinker and it is almost unbelievable how many layers are embedded in every single frame of the film.  So yes, this was all intentional and planned, and one of the things I love about the film is that every time you watch it, you can see some new detail you didn’t notice before.

The throwdown in the underground casino in South Korea operates like a seamless fluid shot. Talk us through weaving a scene like that.

MS: A lot of work went into that scene. During the month before principal photography, I was involved in the rehearsals with Ryan, the producers, assistant director, stunts and camera departments, and others. Ryan wanted to do the whole scene as a oner once the action kicks off. But because of the mayhem and extras and practical effects, it was necessary to shoot in sections to be stitched together later, hiding the cuts in whip pans or characters crossing the camera.

I would stitch together the rehearsals and watch with the team to discuss what was working and what wasn’t, and how to improve it. Once Ryan and the team felt good about a take, they would run it over to me and I’d build the sequence live. Once we all felt good, we’d move to the next take.

DB: I think it is important for any action scene to function at multiple levels. Yes, it should be fun and exciting, but you should have enough clarity to be able to understand and follow the action — because if you are confused and trying to figure out what is going on, you emotionally detach from the moment. If you can add in character moment, like with Klaue [and T’Challa acknowledging each other] at the top of the stairs, it adds another layer. I usually also try to find ways to integrate humor into the scene so that it can be more enjoyable.

And speaking of action, you excelled at putting together the very emotional and harrowing challenge battle between T’Challa and Killmonger. Was all that already in the script or was it something that had to be finetuned with Ryan during the editing process?

DB: This is Mike’s masterpiece, so I am leaving this question to him.

MS: When it comes to fights, all the punching and kicking in the world won’t make you feel for the characters as much as a reaction shot of someone who loves the person getting hit. In that scene, knowing [that this is] not the same T’Challa from the first Warrior Falls fight was very important. He’s conflicted and doesn’t want to kill his cousin. We know where Killmonger is, emotionally, because he has his speech of how he got there and the previous [confrontation] in the throne room.

But it’s also important to check in with the other characters who have something at stake. The key is finding which moments to go the which character and how they’ll react to the specific moments of the fight based on their individual story arc. And if we did our job leading up to the moment where T’Challa is thrown from the Falls, we just need to make sure it builds to a climax and the audience should be along for the ride.

Black Panther T'challa Killmonger Challenge

Killmonger is easily one of the best villains the MCU has ever had by virtue of how he resists singular characterization. It’s easy to see how Michael B. Jordan’s powerful performance brings a lot of that to life, but how much of it was further enhanced in editing?

DB: We both put a lot of love into honing the character and performance editorially. We wanted to create an empathetic villain, but also expose enough of his intentions to understand that, ultimately, he was going about it in the wrong way. We wanted the audience to have a complicated relationship with him. Michael B. Jordan gave a fantastic performance, and we leaned into its authenticity and were very careful to craft it in a complex manner.

MS: Mike is a great actor and gives his editors a great range of performance. He understands that…his job is to be as honest to the character and his story as possible and give us the tools we need to bring his story to life.

There were some things we realized once we had the movie put together that we needed to work on, whether grounding the character more or making him more dangerous. We focused in post-production on the specifics of Killmonger’s plan and the clarity of what he was doing and why. There were some new lines and scenes written that were shot in reshoots to help this. We felt like we wanted to see a more strategic side to him. A lot of it was honing in [Jordan’s] performance so [Killmonger] felt grounded but justifiably extreme in his decision and actions.

On the flip side, Chadwick Boseman finds a real hero in T’Challa. His subtle gravitas – especially when he’s just observing situations – and his character’s arc are in perfect sync. What’s the secret behind making him just as immediately impactful on screen, even without the extremism of Killmonger?

DB: We put a lot of work into ensuring that despite the fact that the film is layered with so many other strong characters, we kept things in T’Challa’s perspective. An example of this would be when we go to Warrior Falls. Originally, there was a whole introduction to this scene explaining the traditions before T’Challa arrives. We decided we needed to see the scene through his eyes. So, we enter the scene when he does, on his back, through the doors, and view the moment through his eyes. And Chadwick gives a really fantastic performance — sometimes it was about just letting us spend a moment sitting with him while he takes in information so that we can feel the scene through his emotional perspective.

MS: The thing that we had to thread as editors was when to let T’Challa let his team figure things out, or when he should be the one who is proactive. One of the reshoot moments that helped his character in being a strategic thinker was when he asks Shuri to turn off the Sonic Stabilizers during the train fight and use them to disable Killmonger’s suit, giving them a chance to win the fight. Giving that decision to T’Challa shows a side of him that he is still learning, but that ultimately — in the comics and possible future movies — is a side that will let him be the Panther he needs to be.

In general, no character overstayed their welcome. But is there any that either of you would have included more of if given the time to craft specific scenes?

DB: I’m so in love with all the strong female characters in this movie. I would refer to them as my “Goddesses.” I think ultimately the right amount of time was given to each character, but I could easily watch an entire film with any of them as the sole protagonist.

MS: There are two scenes that I would have loved to see in the final cut. The first is between T’Challa and Zuri (Forest Whittaker). It was after T’Challa sees his father in the ancestral realm for the first time and he is talking to Zuri about what it was like. It was nice because it gave us a more intimate look into what T’Challa was going through. But it also established Zuri as a father figure, making the moment he is killed more emotional.

The other is a scene after T’Challa is thrown from the Falls. It’s between Okoye (Danai Gurira) and W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) and it has some of the best performances in the movie. It was about what direction Wakanda will move in and, since they’re in a relationship, what the world will be like for their kids. The problem with that scene was that it fell during a time we all think T’Challa is dead and that section had to be paced just right. On one side we had to feel the loss of our beloved king and give the other characters their time to save Wakanda. But we also know that the audience knows in the back of their mind that T’Challa is coming back.

I think both of these scenes are on the DVD, so at least the world can see them for how great they are.

Lupita Nyong'o Black Panther

Was there anything in particular that drastically needed to be reshot for Black Panther to tie together well?

DB: There were no drastic reshoots, but there were many little moments that were shot to take things to the next level emotionally or narratively.  It wasn’t clear why T’Challa was getting Nakia from Nigeria. It potentially seemed that they might be going home for a funeral. So we added a moment of him saying, “I will be crowned King tomorrow, and I wish for you to be there.”

We wanted to strengthen W’Kabi’s reasons for betraying T’Challa, so we added in a moment in the throne room where he speaks about Klaue killing his parents, and T’Challa promises him that he will bring Klaue back.

One of the reshoots that I am particularly happy about is that [at first] all the Jabari Warriors at the end of the film who save the Dora Milaje used to be male. I told Ryan that I felt that took away from so much of the female empowerment we’d explored with these strong characters over the rest of the film. He agreed and had the brilliant idea to make some of the Jabari female, which changed the whole impact of that moment.

MS: There were a lot of little moment and lines that were done the elevate the film and story. But the ending scene in Oakland was part of the reshoot and ultimately became one of our favorite scenes and the perfect ending to our story.

That ending is definitely impeccable. How did you and Ryan come to the conclusion to come full circle to the very beginning of the film?

DB: Interestingly enough, this wasn’t the planned ending. In fact, it didn’t even exist in original photography. The film used to end with a longer version of United Nations scene, and although it was a beautiful moment and it was amazing to see T’Challa so strong and speaking so eloquently to the world, it felt like it wasn’t personal enough. It never sat right with me, and I had quite a few conversations about it with Ryan, who ultimately felt the same way.

While searching for a new ending, I suggested that he look and see what was already planted in the film. He then disappeared into his room for two days and researched great endings to films, and emerged with this amazing idea of going back to where it all began. As soon as he pitched this small, personal ending to this huge epic film, we all knew it was the right one.

This was such a last-minute decision that we literally didn’t have time to watch the entire film through to see how this felt, and the first time we managed to do so was when we were sitting on the soundstage and we had a final run-through. I remember telling Ryan that it was kind of crazy that we locked the film without watching it through…sometimes you don’t know how something feels until you play it in complete context of the entire film and experience it.

I remember holding my breath hoping it would play, and when it did, I remember just feeling this deep emotional moment that we had found the true ending to the film. I think the entire room felt it because as the playback ended I heard [producer] Kevin Feige lean over to Ryan and whisper to him:

“I think this is the best movie we’ve ever made.”

MS: The idea of showing kids in Oakland the Royal Talon Fighter (the King’s ship) was, in spirit, a concept that in the script and early cuts actually came from Killmonger. In the scene where Killmonger dies on the cliff, he had a few lines to T’Challa about how beautiful Wakanda was and maybe if people around the world could see what was done there, that’s all they would need to realize their own potential.

We realized in that scene that one, T’Challa shouldn’t get his answer to the whole movie from Killmonger. He can be influenced, but shouldn’t get the idea directly from him; he needs to decide this himself. Two, Killmonger felt like he was changing too much in his last moment and it was more honest to the characters that he goes out with the same ideals he came in with.

So, we kept the line about him being buried in the ocean with his ancestors and being in control of his own fate, which completed his arc perfectly and memorably. Ultimately, [this leaves] T’Challa to show those kids in Oakland what human potential can be manifested into. It also allowed us to end the movie with the line “who are you?” which comes up through the whole film [as] a major theme throughout.

Debbie, now that you’re onto editing your third MCU film (Berman edited Spider-Man: Homecoming and is now working on Captain Marvel), how has the process differed between each project?

Essentially, the storytelling process was the same as I try to delve into what makes these characters tick, what is their conflict, what is their journey. From my personal experience, Spidey was my big break and I always felt such a huge correlation to the character; I was trying to prove myself, and so was Spidey. And I think that really connected me to not only the film [and] Spidey, but also to [Homecoming director] Jon Watts. We were two film lovers whose lifelong dream of making movies was finally coming true, and we got to do it together, and every frame of the film felt like it was the most important thing in the world.

With Ryan Coogler, everything feels so intimate, intense, and personal. At the same time, he is absolutely hilarious, so you get to have fun also. He is a truly phenomenal human being and filmmaker, and I told him on my second day of the film that he is the greatest person I have ever met. I still feel that way.

Being a South African, Black Panther felt exceptionally personal to me, and I was able to utilize some of the skills I had acquired on Spidey to help tell the story. With Captain Marvel, I finally feel fairly comfortable in this world, having basically done two films back-to-back and jumping straight onto my third.

But now I am working with two directors, which has been a whole new dynamic to deal with. I got lucky because both [Captain Marvel directors] Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are pretty amazing people and filmmakers. And of course, Captain Marvel being the first female to helm her own solo film in the MCU has made it an extremely important and personal story for me, too.

So, every film has been about nurturing creative relationships with the people around me and finding the heart, humor, stakes, and excitement in the stories we are trying to tell.

And Michael, what’s it like evolving a working relationship with Ryan over the years from intimate films Fruitvale Station to huge ones like Creed and Black Panther?

Ryan is big on loyalty and trust. It’s a big reason why you’ll see the same names in the credits on several [of his] movies. We actually met in film school at [the University of Southern California] and first worked together there. Ryan and I work well together because we’ll be the first to admit we don’t know the answer to something, but will work until we find a solution.

As each movie has gotten bigger and bigger, each of our responsibilities has grown as well. Ryan went from directing a crew of a few dozen on Fruitvale to several hundred on Panther. I know Ryan is always going to immerse himself fully into whatever he needs to at the time. So, during production, I only talk to him a handful of times about the cut. But other than that, he trusts his editors, much like he does with every other department, to tell their version of the story.

It’s a lot of responsibility, especially never having done a movie of this size before, but it’s also freeing. We also both know that we’re going to be spending lots of time together during post-production finding the best movie anyway, and because of our history, I have a bit of a safety net to try things that may not have been intended.

Producers and directors freaking out and firing editors is a real thing. The reality is that as an editor you may only get one crack at a scene or a movie before the director sees it even though there’s 10 hours of footage for one three-minute scene. But I can fully immerse myself and tell my story knowing that I’m still going to have a job after Ryan watches the first cut.

This level of trust was invaluable on a project of this size at a company like Marvel. With the amount that Marvel expects of their editors to fill multiple creative roles, knowing that Ryan trusts my taste and is comfortable with me representing him when he’s busy with something else, allowed this movie to evolve in the way it needed to.

Black Panther

One thing that a lot of superhero films are sort of saddled with nowadays is the inability to fully exist as independent entities compared to others within the same cinematic universe. I’d argue that Black Panther is a wonderful standalone, even as it sits between huge Avengers set pieces, and can stand the test of time in that way.

MS: One of my favorite things about comics as a kid was how they interconnected, and it’s one of my favorite things about the MCU as a whole. We knew coming in that [connectivity] comes with the territory and ultimately can improve the audience’s relationship to the characters the worlds they inhabit.

During the editing process, we worked to connect things like the Border Tribe’s sonic shields and tell the story behind that tech, because they’d be using the same thing to fight Thanos in Infinity War. It wasn’t an obligation, but it worked for our movie first and foremost and had the added bonus of informing a future movie and the biggest battle this shared universe had ever seen.

DB: There were enough nods to the MCU for true Marvel fans to enjoy the film, too, but yes, ultimately we wanted people to be able to enjoy Black Panther even if they had not been exposed to the Marvel Universe in any way before. The characters and story are so powerful that we felt this was a movie that even people who weren’t drawn to the genre could love.

Often chugging tea and thinking about horror movies. Curator of daily stuff and things here at Film School Rejects.