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Editing Duo Worked Together to Raise ‘Black Panther’ to Blockbuster Status

Debbie Berman and Michael Shawver followed different paths but united to fashion the final cut of what is perhaps last year’s most influential film

Debbie Berman brought Marvel superhero experience to the table. Michael Shawver contributed his longstanding relationship with director Ryan Coogler. Together, the duo edited “Black Panther,” a cultural phenomenon, critical success and, oh, one of the most successful films of all time, which has grossed over $1.3 billion internationally and is now a major Oscar contender.


Prior to “Panther,” Berman had cut Marvel’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” Shawver had worked with Coogler on “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed.” They joined forces for “Panther,” a monumental undertaking that began with over 500 hours of footage and yielded a two-and-a half-hour blockbuster that people are still talking about even though it was released nearly one year ago.


Working with director Coogler, Berman and Shawver expertly balanced the film’s various strands – superhero action, world-building visuals, political context, an Afro-centric message – into an audience favorite that will be remembered not only for its storytelling prowess but also for its social relevance and uplifting vision of diversity in an imperfect world.


Variety: How did the two of you meet? Did you know each other before you worked together on “Black Panther?”


Shawver: We first met on “Black Panther.” Ryan (Coogler) had asked Marvel to recommend editors they had worked with. Because the movie has many strong female characters we preferred a female perspective. They gave us names, including Debbie, and about five minutes into the meeting, just hearing her story of how she got to be on “Spider-Man” and how she got to be sitting in front of us – we could tell that she could give this movie what it needed, and that she could gel with our team.


Berman: Yes, there was an instant of kinship as soon as we met each other. I had been passionate about movies my whole life and I recognized the same passion in Michael and Ryan. Sharing a job with someone is a complex thing, and if someone doesn’t care about every frame as much as you do, it’s not going to work out. I could tell that Mike was equally passionate about not just filmmaking in general but about this film in particular.


Debbie, you edited a visual effects movie before, but, Michael, you had less experience in that area. Was there a learning curve?


Shawver: Yes, and Debbie understood that and helped Ryan and me learn the ins and outs of working with so many effects. The process starts right away. You want to be able to know what takes to start working on.


Berman: The great thing about visual effects is that everything you can imagine can become true. One day it’s just text on the screen and the next day it’s a shot. It’s so exciting: Wait a minute, those were just words that came out of my mouth. It’s so much fun to be able to originate as opposed to react, because as an editor you’re reacting to existing footage and in this film you’re imagining and collaborate with the vfx team.


How did you divide the tasks of editing? Did you work on separate parts of the film?


Berman: Yes, we worked on separate sections. On such an effects-heavy film it can be useful to have ownership of a section. But we always collaborated and commented on each other’s scenes and gave each other suggestions.


Shawver: We were in separate suites on the Disney lot, but there wasn’t a day that we didn’t pull each other in and talk about everything from things in the movie to the current state of the world. And we noticed that those conversations and discussions about diversity brought a lot to the movie.


Were there parts of the movie either of you wanted to take ownership of?


Berman: I cared a lot about the women in the film. They were my ladies and I had their backs


How often was Ryan in the suites with you?


Shawver: Ryan was there when he could be, and he’d always come back for discussions. He’s the kind of filmmaker who wants to be involved with everything, and for him everything has to have authenticity and honesty. That’s one of the reasons there was so much footage. Ryan can get halfway done shooting a scene, then something dawns on him to make it better, so he would switch it up and bring that to it.


In addition to working in the suite, how often were you guys on the set?


Shawver: I was on set a few times during production. Debbie was there for the reshoots.


What systems did you edit on?


Berman: We use Avid, because it can handle big projects of this kind.


While on set, what kind of input did you have?


Shawver: I was there for the casino sequence. Ryan originally conceived it as a single shot, which is absolutely terrifying for an editor to hear because you want to have options. But with all the logistics, explosions, gunshots, stunts and camera moves, it had it had to have cuts to make it work, and I was just outside the set on a laptop making sure it all worked.


Berman: When I was on the set for additional photography, I suddenly had this flash. Ryan and Rachel [Morrison, the DP] and I were standing together discussing a shot, and I suddenly saw there was an African American director, a female DP, a female editor, and we were making a $200 million film together.


And not to mention production designer Hannah Beachler and costume designer Ruth Carter, who are both African-American women.


Berman: Right. That’s never happened before. I started getting chills. I think that’s one of the reasons why this film has been so special to a lot of people.


What’s next for the two of you?


Berman: I’m still editing “Captain Marvel.”


Shawver: I’m working on a film about a bank robber, “Honest Thief,” starring Liam Neeson.


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