As we come down to the final grind, there’s one film that opened 11 months ago that we’re still talking about. Black Panther. The milestone importance of this film. Wakanda. The representation that this world conveys. The film has broken records and made history.
Behind the scenes, director Ryan Coogler trusted his creatives and his editors Debbie Berman and Michael Shawver to take 500 hours of footage and sculpt it into a 235-minute movie.
Editor Debbie Berman feels a well-justified sense of pride with the film. She talks with us about working on Black Panther and leaving her mark on the film.
You co-edited the film with Michael. At what stage did you come on board and what did Ryan say about the first cut of the film?
I had only done one Marvel film before that and that was Spider-Man, but throughout that, I kept talking about Black Panther. I’m South African and this was a film that really spoke to me. I thought it was such an important film in terms of representation. When I thought of people from South Africa watching Black Panther, I got chills at the thought of it. I made it clear to Marvel that this was a film that meant a lot to me.
Funnily enough, I’d been awarded the Sally Manke Editing fellowship through the Sundance Insititute and as part of that fellowship, I’d gone to the film festival for the first time. It happened to be the year that Fruitvale won Sundance. I happened to be in the audience, for the first time and I watched Ryan win Sundance with Fruitvale Station. I had this image that stuck with me of him running to the stage and he had this huge breakthrough moment and halfway to the stage, he stopped, turned and gave Michelle Satter — who is the founding director of the feature film program — a big hug and continued on to the stage.
It was such a profound moment. I realized here is this young filmmaker and he remembered to thank the people who got him there.
I thought the film was absolutely incredible so for several years after that I kept emailing my Sundance family about him . I also thought that ‘Creed’ was brilliant, so as soon as I saw that he was on board for Black Panther, I was excitedly contacting my agent about it. I always knew I wanted to be a part of ‘Black Panther’.
One of the things about working with Ryan is that he is exceptionally supportive of the voices of his creative team. He wants your input and insists on brutal honesty. Every time you’re honest with him, the film gets better.
There were over 500 hours of footage and the film could have gone in another direction. He really let Michael and I put our stamp on every scene and he would watch everything with us. The first pass was always about what resonated with us. He has this magical gift as if it’s just you and him making the movie and you feel the importance of that.
He’s so passionate. He didn’t sleep. He’d be there at 6 a.m. and leave at 2 a.m. The crew loved him, and we all felt like family.
One of the scenes you had a mark on was the scene with Dora and how that change happened. Knowing that could have been with a male POV, it would not have been that “yes” moment when watching it.
As an editor, what was important to me was crafting the arc of the ladies. I love them. They’re phenomenal and spectacular. I’d refer to them as my goddesses. I’d do passes on every scene on the film and protect those women, protect those characters, and protect the narratives of their storyline.
When I was doing a pass, I noticed we’d gone through this film with them being powerful and spectacular and they’re saved by men at the end. I didn’t know what the solution was because the film had already been shot. There was this big massive action sequence and I knew it wasn’t right for the film and I spoke to Ryan about it and being exceptionally supportive and if he feels something is important to you because he trusts his collaborators, it will be important to him. He may not necessarily agree with you, he’ll chat with you. In this instance, he did agree with me and came up with the idea of having female warriors. It sounded simple, but it was a big deal because Marvel supported us and we created this whole new characters. There were amazing costume designs. It was such an awesome moment also where the first person to break through the force field is a female warrior and sets the theme for female empowerment running to the end of the film.
What was it like seeing Wakanda for the first time?
South Africans actually feel a very close connection to the film. We have renowned South Africans in the film. The language is also Xhosa and that’s actually a South African language. I’d get messages from people back home of people watching a Marvel movie hearing Xhosa. There was an audible gasp throughout the theater. It was mindblowing to realize that moment and to feel embraced to hear that. It went way beyond just a movie. People felt inspired and moved.