'Black Panther' Editor Debbie Berman Talks Making Marvel's Oscar Contender
The King of Wakanda is more than ready for awards season.
Black Panther broke new ground for superhero movies earlier this month as the very first comic book movie to ever be nominated for Best Drama at the Golden Globes — and that’s probably just the beginning.*
Official Oscar nominations won’t be announced until Tuesday, January 22, 2019, but if ever there was a superhero movie that might be a contender for the bigger awards, it’s Black Panther.
Inverse recently caught up with Debbie Berman, a film editor with Marvel Studios who’s worked on Spider-Man: Homecoming, Black Panther, and the upcoming Captain Marvel. Along with her co-editor Michael Shawver, Berman worked closely with director Ryan Coogler to bring the story of T’Challa and his home nation of Wakanda to life.
In addition to taking point on the iconic chase sequence that happens early in Black Panther, Berman is responsible for a significant change to the film’s final battle scene that better represents the spirit of what the story tries to achieve.
How does someone edit more than 500 hours of footage down to a 135-minute movie that makes $1.35 billion globally and elevates the Marvel Cinematic Universe into a serious Oscar contender? The answer to that question and more is below.
Congratulations on Black Panther getting nominated for a Golden Globe. From an editing standpoint, what do you think made the film so strong and successful?
One of the challenges we had as editors was that were so many characters and so much story. We had around 500 hours of footage. What we tried to do is give enough time to all of the characters so that you could really care about them. If you spend too much time in any one section, you’d kill all momentum.
It’s about trying to find that balance of spending enough time with a lot of amazing characters and integrating that into the full narrative so that the pace kept going.
We poured a lot of heart and love into that movie, and I think you can feel it. A lot of this is that Ryan [Coogler] brings so much to the table. We tried to integrate a lot of the emotion, heart, humor, complexity into the story, and I think you can sense all of that.
One thing I always found interesting about Black Panther from a storytelling standpoint is that even in the soundtrack, the duality of T’Challa and Killmonger as reflections of one another is really prevalent. Is that something that made its way into the editing process as well?
Oh very much so! In fact, even the way we introduce the characters: We introduce them both on their back. Some of that was an editorial decision. We meet T’Challa pushing in as he’s sitting in the chair, watching the news about his father. That was all stuff we picked up in additional photography. And Killmonger you meet him on his back in the museum. So it was something we were very aware of.
You’ve worked on several Marvel films. We all hear through the grapevine that a lot of these Marvel movies are “found in the edit.” Are there any instances where the final edit changed from the script?
One example of something discovered in the editorial process was that the original scene in Oakland used to be the full scene. But in the final version of the film, you only have half the scene upfront and the other half plays in the middle of the film as a reveal.
To me, at least, it’s the most powerful moment in the film, learning exactly what happened in Oakland. The audience isn’t ahead of T’Challa waiting for him to find it out. We discover it with him and it makes it so much more impactful and powerful.
You’ve also talked previously about a scene towards the end involving the Dora Milaje being saved by female Jabari warriors. But they were originally saved by men. How did that change come about?
It was just during the process as I was watching the film. You know, I’m a female from South Africa, so I had those ladies’ backs. I referred them to my goddesses. And I would not let one frame go in that film unless it felt authentic and unless they looked spectacular. Luckily because they are phenomenal that wasn’t very difficult.
My goal in that film was to protect those ladies. That was my thing. One day when I was watching through, I realized that at the end when the Dora Milaje get saved by the male Jabari warriors, we took a lot away from them by letting that be their final moment.
I didn’t actually know what the answer was. I think sometimes as an editor, my job is to just nudge the director. I don’t know even know where they’re going to go, but there’s something wrong and I don’t know what the answer is. I’m going to just keep tapping you on the shoulder until you figure it out!
And Ryan, he’s such a deep listener. He takes what people say to heart and insists on honesty. He doesn’t care where the idea comes from. There’s no ego involved. Best idea wins. He just wants to hear if you have any issues with the film because he just wants to make the film better. There’d be times when we were watching the film and he’d just feel my body language shift or hear me sigh, and he’d ask, “What’s the problem?”
So with that scene, as soon as I mentioned it to him, he really took it to heart. But I didn’t know how to fix it because it was this massive action scene that had already been shot. And then he came up with the idea to have some of the Jabari warriors as female. And it was a huge deal because it was new costumes and you shoot with a lot of characters, but he fought pretty hard for it and made it happen. I think it makes such a difference.
He even sent me a Twitter or Reddit feed of people being excited for that exact moment where the female female Jabari warriors burst thru the force field.
Sometimes in the moment you start fighting for something in a film and you wonder if you’re going crazy. This thing feels like the end of the world to me but is anybody else even going to notice? Because there are so many layers in a film. But not only did people notice, but they cared as much as I did. Seeing that gave them a real human emotion and a feeling. It was pretty amazing to see that response.
Is there a specific process for balancing the consistency of Marvel movies with the individual needs of the specific movie?
I think the things that i care about the most are putting heart and humor into a film. I always try to find that. I’ve been very, very lucky to work with directors who prioritized that also. So it’s there in the footage. I just have to focus on that and bring it out.
For me, I love watching movies. If you’re laughing, it kind of opens the door for you to cry. I think both are equally important. If I made a movie and you’re not laughing or crying at some point, then I need to keep working on it so I can get both out of you. That’s why I go to the movies: I want both.
You definitely feel that in both Black Panther and Spider-Man: Homecoming, your two previous Marvel films. There’s that great blend of the heart and the laughs in both.
And it’s interesting because sometimes you have to take the laughs out.
There were a few really funny scenes in Black Panther that we felt stepped on the emotional moments. And even though we’d always get really big laughs at that moments, we’d be like, “This is really funny, this moment, but you’re hurting my movie. You’ve go to go.” Those are the tougher decisions to make. When something is working in the small picture but hurting the big picture. Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile that.
Is there a specific example you can share?
There was one where [Everett] Ross was waiting for Nakia, when Killmonger had just taken over the throne. While he’s waiting, he knocks something over, and it always got a really big laugh because it felt like he was being clumsy. For some reason, it played really humorously.
But, you know, Killmonger had just taken over the throne, so we wanted to feel the intensity of that. Sometimes it’s good to have a laugh or some comic relief, but we felt like it was stepping on that. And it also made his character feel a little goofy, which we didn’t want to do. It was one of the biggest laughs but it was hurting the movie so it had to go.
In October, The Hollywood Reporter reported that Ryan Coogler had officially closed a deal for Black Panther 2. Do you know yet if you’ll be returning for the sequel?
No comment on any of that. … Marvel has snipers planted outside!
That’s what everybody always says!
Sometimes I have to read the trades to know what I know. You know?
I will say that Ryan Coogler is the greatest human being and filmmaker in the world, so I would pretty much do anything for him.
He’s such a kind-hearted, humble filmmaker and kind and empathetic. When you have a conversation with him, he makes you feel like you’re the only person in the room. He has this ability to make you feel like it’s just you and him making the movie. I think you can feel that in the film where there’s so much attention to detail.
A lot of that is Ryan but a lot of that is Ryan allowing people to work to their absolute full potential because you’re inspired and encouraged and excited every day and honored to be working with him. He brings out the best in people and it shows in the film.
Yeah I’ve heard nothing but glowing things from people that’ve worked with him.
It is ridiculous! On the second day on the film, I said to him, “I don’t want this to sound weird, but you’re the greatest person I’ve ever met.” And then I went through the whole film where you get exhausted working six- or seven-day weeks under extreme pressure and that thought never changed for me. Still the greatest! He’s really special.
You’re currently working on Captain Marvel. Is there anything you can tease in terms of how the ‘90s setting might inform the editorial approach to the film?
Not specifically. It is set in the ‘90s and we’re having some fun with that. We’re not editing it stylistically like the ‘90s. The entire film won’t necessarily feel edited like the ‘90s but there may be some sequences that feel like you’re watching a ‘90s movie.
Have you been having fun integrating ‘90s music?
Yeah, we’re having fun with that. It’s such a joyous decade for a lot of things, so we’re leaning into that where we can.
You’ve been with Marvel Studios for a few years now. Has the overall editing approach changed at all in recent years, especially now that we’re on this side of Avengers: Infinity War?
I think it really is different with every filmmaker. I don’t think it’s necessarily an editing style that Marvel decides as they get further along in the process. Every director brings their own perspective and energy and you have a different relationship with them. That, for me, decides stylistically what is brought to the film. They are hiring directors who speak to what they want for a film, and then editors like me kind of adjust to that.
What were some of the key differences working on Black Panther versus Spider-Man: Homecoming?
Spidey was kind of my big break. Everything was exciting and crazy and overwhelming and magnificent for me. I felt like in Homecoming, it was about him trying to prove himself, and that was the journey I was on. It was my first love, you know?
Everything about that experience was special. I’d go on set and see Tom Holland and be like, “Oh my god! I’m on set and he’s Spider-Man and then I’m going to get these dailies tomorrow!” It was a surreal thing. I was kind of just awestruck.
Then Panther was so personal to me because I am South African and I’ve been a fan of Ryan’s work. I was at Sundance and saw Fruitvale [Station] there, and I watched him win the award for it. Coming from South Africa knowing what that kind of representation would mean to the people from my country, it would just give me chills.
And I felt like both of those films felt like life or death to me. If the moment wasn’t the best it could possibly be, I had to keep going. Both of them were so personal, but the dynamic was different with both directors. They’re both amazing and brilliant and fun.
Ryan’s really hands-on. He kind of feels like family from the second you meet him. They were both extremely positive experiences.
So if Black Panther and Spider-Man were to get into a fight, who do you think would win? And what would it be like editing that sequence?
Listen: You can’t Sophie’s Choice me over here! These are my children! I love them both. No one is going to win. They’re gonna hang out and I’d say get a beer, but Spidey is a little young. So they’ll probably go get a burrito together and just tell stories to each other.
But that would actually be fun to cut because they have such different sort of … energies. You can probably play off that quite a bit.
I’d also read that the car chase scene was your main action sequence in Black Panther. What were some of the unique challenges there?
There was a lot of footage with that, a lot of car chasing going on. I wanted to make sure I used the most exciting parts of the footage but that the story still made sense.
I really enjoy cutting action, but it needs to look cool and it needs to be exciting. But if that’s all you’re accomplishing, then you’re failing the sequence as a whole. We wanted to further the character development. So you see Shuri and her brother and you get to feel their energy together. We also wanted to bring humor to it, to bring in some funny moments. The challenge of it was interweaving all of those things and still understanding what’s going on.
There used to be another throughline in there with a helicopter. But it just became too much. We had to streamline it and focus on the fun, funny, and character-driven moments. But I love that sequence. It turned out incredibly well.
Yeah that scene is excellent, especially in how it communicates his awesome new power.
Yeah! Saving up that story was one of the things. How do we explain that his suit is absorbing the energy? And how do you then tell the story of what the suit can do and how he learns how that works.
Anything else you want people to know about your experiences on Black Panther?
It was a joyful experience and I feel very honored to have been a part of it.
Meet the warriors of Wakanda in this behind-the-scenes video.