Michael Shawver has collaborated with Ryan Coogler since Fruitvale Station. The bond between editor and director is important and Coolger and Shawver have a relationship based on trust and loyalty. Coogler trusts Shawver to use his imagination in the cutting room, and he did just that for Disney’s Black Panther. It was that trust that allowed Shawver to come up with turning the opening scene of the movie into a flashback through edits so by the time T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) learns the truth about who is father really was and what he did, the audience is finding out at the same time.
It’s a key moment in the film, but it’s a key moment for Shawver too. Because when Coogler screened the film for one of the greatest directors of our time, Francis Ford Coppola asked to watch that scene again.
Shawver and I talked recently about the art of cutting the biggest film of 2018 — potential Best Picture contender, Black Panther.
Black Panther came out in February and we’re still talking about its impact. It’s one of the biggest films of the year and groundbreaking in so many ways. How has all this been for you?
It’s been really really great. To be a part of something like that and to be a part of something that brought so much joy and happiness to so many people and brought people together, it means so much to me.
I can’t wrap my head around the whole thing. Slowly, but surely I’m finding how the movie affected me. I have a two-and-a half-year-old son, and a big theme of the movie was how the sins of the parents affect the children and family loyalty. In a lot of ways, the movie has affected me, not just the response to it, but also in spending so much time with it.
The Entrance to Wakanda:
It’s visually stunning and you’re getting a glimpse of this world that you’ve never seen before. Hannah our production designer and our VFX artists mix the history and the culture with futurism. It was just eye-popping.
What I love about this scene is you see him kicking a bunch of guy’s butts. He’s taking his former girlfriend back home for his coronation ceremony.
He’s going through a tough time. He’s one of the richest people in the world and he’s a superhero.
But that’s the moment that no matter where you are from or what you look like, you start to relate to the character. No matter what he’s just done, he still has a little sister who makes fun of him. He still has a mom that he leans on because he just lost his dad. He has a general who makes fun of him. No matter how big or strong he is, he still has a family who lifts him up and pulls him down or pushes him in all sorts of different directions to get him to be the best king he can be.
Anyone who has a sibling or friends who are like family, or have a big or small family, they can relate to that guy. I think seeing the human side, it’s so much fun seeing them fight and the cool action stuff, but it’s really the relationships that make this movie come together and is the glue that holds the entire thing. For me, it kicks that off in the right direction.
The Art of The Cut:
I started working with Ryan when we met at USC film school in 2010. I’m so grateful to him and I’m the luckiest guy in the world. He fought for me the entire time to be on his team from Fruitvale Station to Creed. I didn’t have the credits to do that. He believes in loyalty and trust. When we work together he might not say a word at all. He just wants me to tell my story and to tell my version of it so when he comes in he can see what I’ve done that he never would have thought of. That’s when the collaboration starts.
There’s a lot of VFX there. Some of those shots were completely VFX and some were blue screen or parts they were going to replace later.
One of the interesting things about working on this movie was to use my imagination from a blank slate and that’s something that I had never done before. We usually get a pile of footage or a pile of clay to sculpt something out of it. With this and the resources that Marvel gave us if we had an idea, they’d be willing to try it. That included everything in the background and it included how long that shot was going into Wakanda. There was a discussion about that shot and if it was too long or if people would get bored.
Our mantra on this was “is this unique?” No one has seen a city like this before. To sit in that shot and let people take everything in. We talked about the detail. We talked about if there should be people sitting on the roof having breakfast and waving to the ship. We talked about whether to go inside the ship. We had so many discussions and we realized we just need to sit and take in the beauty of culture in Africa that has never been touched by colonialism. The resources were never taken from them. What could that be? Even though it’s this fantastical world that doesn’t exist, Ryan was always searching for the truth in every moment.
Even if we were coming up with things from the deepest part of our imagination, it always had to be based on the truth and based on some history or reality.
As far as meeting his mother and sister for the first time. You want to give them screen time, it’s Angela Bassett and Letitia Wright who plays his little sister and is a breath of fresh air. It’s about giving them screentime and setting up those relationships and how T’Challa interacts with each of them comes into play later.
With little sister, there’s that playful attitude that comes in the car chase scene. It’s a unique scene because you never see a brother and sister working together in a big action cut piece. It was really refreshing. We see how he relies on his mom for emotional support but then his mom finds out he wasn’t being honest with her so that relationship starts to crumble when the truth comes out.
It’s really those relationships that make you care.
On The Warrior Falls Scene:
That was my baby because I saw a lot of similarities between that and that Creed fight. Learning on Creed that fights are cool until you don’t see the reactions of the people who love the people who are fighting. There are a lot of things I used.
The Movie’s Most Important Scene:
The scene that brought the entire movie together came together in post.
In the script phase, everything that happened between his father and his uncle originally happened in the first scene of the movie. Everything from him coming to N’Jobu being killed. In the middle of the movie when T’Challa finds out what happened and Zuri is telling him all that happened. The performances were great, but there were things wrong with it.
The opening was way too long before getting things going before meeting all the main characters. Also, in the middle of the scene, there’s a big revelation, but the audience already knows. We’re not experiencing it with him. We went through a through iterations and Ryan left me alone for a few hours and I cut the second half of the first scene out and I started putting flashbacks in.
That way, we were finding out the truth of who his father really was and what he did with T’Challa. At that point, the movie just takes off and flies and you’re seeing his father as a noble leader and everything comes out. We test screened for Francis Ford Coppola, at the very end he asked Ryan to go back to the scene “where the whole movie comes together.” Ryan knew exactly what Francis was talking about and Francis just wanted to watch it again. That’s the greatest compliment I’ve ever received.
For me, it was my favorite. It’s the most emotional for me because it’s about fathers and sons and betrayal and loyalty and lack of. But knowing that everyone who watches it feels the same thing at that moment, that’s our job. If we can create emotion, then that’s a great accomplishment.