Marvel Studios’ Black Panther grossed more than $1.3 billion and picked up seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture — but many of the people who get to decide whether Black Panther can make Academy Award history in February still haven’t seen the movie.
According to Black Panther editor Michael Shawver, who also worked with director Ryan Coogler on Creed and Fruitvale Station, the perception that his latest film is just a superhero flick is one of the biggest hurdles it has to overcome at the 2019 Oscars.
“Believe it or not, there are a lot people out there that haven’t seen the movie!” Shawver tells Inverse. “I’ve been to some Oscar events promoting the movie, and I find that a lot of the older crowd, the Academy voters, hadn’t seen it for whatever reason: It’s ‘not for them’ or it’s ‘just a Marvel movie’ or whatever reason.”
Millions of people worldwide saw the film, but for an Academy more interested in promoting powerful stories and art, Black Panther’s Marvel branding feels like an immediate disqualification. What’s become clear to Shawver, however, is that the movie’s best advocate is simply seeing it for yourself.
“When they do see it, they’re like, ‘Wow! That really has a message and has something to say. There’s actually substance there!’” he says.
It seems abundantly clear that the film industry is on the cusp of major change when it comes to superhero films, and it’s all because of Black Panther. Here’s what Shawver has to say about the movie’s Oscar chances, working with Ryan Coogler, and more.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
"Our goal with Black Panther was to make a movie that was accessible to everyone. You don’t have to see a Marvel movie before to get it.
Why do you think some people, especially in the Academy, often ignore superhero movies?
Superhero movies in their current form are still a very new thing. I mean, the past 25 years or so we got Blade, and obviously Superman and Batman. But besides that, it wasn’t until the Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man that it really starts to move toward what it’s become. So for people like us who grew up with those things, there’s a special place for these stories.
There’s also visual effects. If you grew up watching movies with practical effects your whole life, and then you see these visual effects, you may feel they’re not as real or you may just chalk it up to, “This is just a money grab!”
Marvel knows that their movies have a have a certain formula, and it works for the movies they’re making. They’re exciting, they’re cool, they’re fun, but Marvel also wants to expand themselves and push the envelope. That’s why you see them having these marriages with filmmakers like Ryan [Coogler], Taika Waititi, and all these new directors that they’re bringing out. They’re thinking outside the box with those things
Our goal with Black Panther was to make a movie that was accessible to everyone. You don’t have to see a Marvel movie before to get it, but we wanted to also provide for fans looking for just that.
You mentioned how Marvel has a formula. As an editor, how do balance the needs of Marvel Studios with the needs of the individual film?
I’ve heard stories before I started working with them that were like, “Oh they do this that way” or “they put cameras and microphones in the editing room” and “they’re gonna tell you what to do so it’s a tough experience.”
But none of that has been true. I had the most amazing experience. Don’t get me wrong, it was the hardest work experience in my life—
I heard it was about 16 months for you, right?
Yeah, it was almost that length, And there was around 500 hours of footage for this movie.
That’s just how Ryan works. He finds the truth in everything. So sometimes there’s just way more footage of his exploration. But he gets it. Once he finds it, he finds it for real.
But the Marvel executives were there in the trenches with us, in the editing room. When they didn’t know the answer and we didn’t know, we’d work together to figure it out. The best idea won with no egos involved.
They were always there to say things like, “We need a hero moment here, we need a big cheering moment,” or some other thing. They would help but they never made us do hard and fast things.
It was more so guidance and strong suggestions with the experience that comes from them. And you know, Ryan, myself, Debbie, and everybody else on the team, we’re all fans of those movies. You have to be because you watch it hundreds of times.
We want to have fun with the film, and for it to have a message. But we also want to go sit down in the movie and see the dope car chase with a brother and sister working together where one’s driving it from a different continent. You’ve got to have those cool things.
"The great part about the marriage between a filmmaker like Ryan Coogler, his team, and a studio like Marvel is that when everyone is open to collaboration and sharing ideas, you lift each other up and push each other in different directions.
The great part about the marriage between a filmmaker like Ryan Coogler, his team, and a studio like Marvel is that when everyone is open to collaboration and sharing ideas, you lift each other up and push each other in different directions.
"But with Black Panther, we kept calling it “taking your medicine."
Think about the opening of the movie: Most Marvel movies open with a big action sequence. That’s what kicks the movie off. Then you bring in the dialogue and begin to tell the story, but by then, you’re already sucked in.
But with Black Panther, we kept calling it “taking your medicine.”
The audience needs to take their medicine because there are all these relationships, these conflicts, the history, the culture, and a lot of complex ideas that need to be established early on so that when shit does hit the fan and things go crazy and Killmonger takes over, you’re just living and dying by every moment.
Part of the debate: Do I want T’Challa to be Black Panther or do I want Killmonger to be Black Panther? Because he’s got a point. They understood that’s part of why Ryan’s movies work so much. The setup is so real with the emotional stakes that you’re just completely lost in it.
I think it has to do with that sort of humility and that willingness to try new things, but also knowing that you want to you want people to have the experience that they expect, you want them to get their money’s worth for choosing our movie.
I’ve read that Ryan likes to have a male and a female editor in the editing room. What impact does that dynamic have on the editing process?
It’s amazing. There’s a learning curve to it. As a man, I might assume something when cutting a scene. Here’s an example:
There’s a scene in the movie right after T’Challa is thrown off a waterfall. It’s between Nakia and Okoye, and they’re discussing loyalty. “What are you doing?”
“We’ve got to save the family and we gotta get out of here! We can’t let this guy be the king. He’s going to start a war.”
That scene had been in place for a while, and it was great. But then once we elevated every other scene around it, that was one that kind of stood out to me.
"It’s not like she did the female scenes and I did all the male. We did it as human beings.
I know Ryan likes to do ad-libs so I thought, let me just explore and see what’s in this footage. I just watched every bit of footage, and I found some ad-libs that we weren’t using. My favorite one was when they’re talking about loyalty and Nakia says, “I’m loyal to our country.” Okoye says, “Then you serve your country.” Then Lupita ad-libbed, “No I save my country.” That’s the end of the scene.
I thought, “That was it. Hell yeah!” Now that’s a moment. They’re raring to go like they’re going to save the country now.
Ryan and I watched it and we’re loving it. Okay, we have to bring Debbie in here and get her thoughts. She said: “I really like a lot of changes, but I feel like in this moment, the characters don’t feel as strong as they used to, that maybe they let their emotions get the best of them as opposed to fighting back the emotions.”
There’s only so far Ryan and I can go with female characters not having lived that life. That’s just how it is. Being open to that sort of feedback is important. To be clear: It’s not like she did the female scenes and I did all the male. We did it as human beings, but we always had this process of checks and balances to make sure we stayed honest.
We also bring in our entire team, whether it was our assistant editors or production assistants or VFX people or the VFX production assistant that just got people lunch. We would bring those people in to show them new cuts of scenes to get their opinion.
We knew that at the end of the day that it was going to be filtered through us and ultimately through Ryan. The story he wants to tell is his own personal story. So having people from all different walks of life, different ages, from all over the world, give their thoughts and how seeing it made them feel allows the movie to be for everyone.
Ryan Coogler uses a lot of the same team when making his films, and you two met in film school. What’s that experience been like?
Admitting that we’re great at what we do yet but being willing to work for it has sort of been our journey. With Fruitvale, I had never cut a feature before. Ryan had never directed a feature before. The producers gave him a list of editors and said, “We’ll give you a bunch of money. You pick from these editors.”
He said, “No. I want my team.”
To include editors and even our composer, who we worked with in school, was something else. Then with Creed, they didn’t want his team on it either. Because we have never done a studio feature before. He fought and fought and got us on. And we did that. Against odds, we stayed humble and worked hard, and then Panther was the same way.
During production, he wants us to tell our story in the bigger story. He wants us to find what we think is the best, how we think a scene should unfold, knowing that he’s going to come in, to sit with us, and we are all going to talk and discuss everything and find a completely different version based off of those discussions that we have.
It’s why you see a lot of names that are the same on his project. Because he understands that it’s so important. At times, other people will come into the fold, like Debbie. She has a similar work ethic, humility, and world viewpoint. She was able to fit in in in a seamless way.
We also drew from her experiences on Spider-Man: Homecoming, because being on a big Marvel movie that we had never done before. What to expect, what to look for, and how to work with the effects team a little bit better, how to do things like that.
Having that core and those sort of ideals and ideology as we as we make these movies, that has stayed the same. The projects evolve, they get bigger, you have more responsibility, and that sort of thing. It’s a balance of the old and the new and of the evolution of where we’d like to go.
How do you think Black Panther’s overwhelming success might help reshape the film industry at large in the next decade?
There’s what I think a lot of us hope, and there are expectations that have to be tempered. Real change only comes through time and proof. I would love for Black Panther to come out and then all of a sudden, everybody’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, what’s not be racist anymore.’ But that’s not reality. A lot of what Hollywood does, at least on the studio side and the money side, they act on fear. ‘Let’s just do a movie that we think is just going to make money and not push things.”
I’m not talking about every studio. Marvel, Disney, Legendary — who I did some work with on the new Godzilla movie — these are excellent companies I legit want to work with again.
As an artist on our team, we believe that we have to push things and if you make things that push things and they’re of great quality that will make the money? With all that said, I think Black Panther was a great step. The Fast & Furious movies have great diversity in their cast and obviously movies like Straight Outta Compton with a predominantly black cast. These are all steps in the major journey we’re on towards change.
We’re starting to see more women and more people of color getting in these positions, to be signing these deals to create new shows and movies.
What is the world at the current time? What is normal? The biggest waste of resource in the world is human potential. If these things just exist and a kid can go see one movie about a white dude doing this, and you can do or no move on Asian do doing this or, and tell human stories that don’t, don’t need to be specific to whatever it is.
Just the fact that it exists means so much. My son is two-and-a-half. As he grows up and he sees more movies like Black Panther, that become part of the zeitgeist as the paradigm starts to shift — because it becomes the new normal. Discrimination and racism are both learned behavior. Babies aren’t born hating other babies because they look different.
In that way, we talked about how we can ingrain certain stories and histories into characters to make them feel real without actually ever explaining.
As an editor, we’re the first audience and the gatekeepers for every other department. Most people don’t know what editors do. They just cut out the bad stuff, right? Whatever! Who cares?
We are the first audience and when when you laugh, you cry, you walk out of a movie, feeling like you went through something that’s us. That’s what we do. We make you feel excited, happy, sad, all those things. Because if it weren’t for us, it would just be a series of images.
What sort of projects are you working on now?
Right now I’m on a movie called Honest Thief.
It’s a movie starring Liam Neeson directed by a guy named Mark Williams. It’s a smaller movie, compared to Black Panther, obviously. It’s about a bank robber looking for redemption but it’s also about relationships, life, interpersonal conflict. That’s how I cut my teeth with Fruitvale, so it’s nice to get back to that kind of thing.
What’s really cool is that after going through something insanely amazing as Black Panther, going back to these kinds of movies, I’m finding out what I learned as an editor and how I’ve grown. How to fix certain issues, what to focus on, lines we could cut, or how to reorganize scenes.
There’s something pretty amazing about giving everything you have and the sacrifices, the sweat, and the tears that you put into these things. And knowing that I put my voice in that in a movie that people want to see and are going to go see.
So there’s the pressure of making it good. I would love to do more movies on a bigger scale. You know, obviously, there’s Black Panther two, which isn’t for years. I don’t even know when it’s happening. It’s all on Ryan’s shoulders now. But hopefully, that’s going to happen. So I kind of see it as my job to just get better so that I can help make that movie even better.
Do you know for sure whether or not you’ll be involved in Black Panther 2?
I hope so. I can’t say for sure. I haven’t signed a contract. I haven’t seen anything official. I mean, anything could happen. If it goes then Ryan would want me on there. I would have no reason to think otherwise. Our relationship has only gotten get stronger.
There were times on the first one, we would be joking and Ryan would say, “Man, if they ever let me make let us make a sequel to this, you know, we could do this!” That kind of thing.
And it was all speculation because this was also way before we were even staring at the scenes on the wall and thinking, “Is anybody going to even like this movie?”
So I can’t I can’t say for sure because I don’t know for sure. But if it goes, I’m hoping we’ll get the same team because you know, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.
Do you have any more thoughts about your experiences on Black Panther?
It was really a conversation.
I just want to say working with Debbie was amazing. It doesn’t always work out when you’re working with someone, especially for the first time. As an editor, you have to find ownership over the movie to be able to do those late nights, early mornings, and see this thing through for a year and a half. We really balanced each other out and lifted each other up. She’s my partner in crime. It really was a team effort. We’re a filmmaking family.