Editor Michael Shawver has edited all of director Ryan Coogler’s films, starting with Fruitvale Station and Creed. He’s edited numerous other projects and also worked as an additional editor on Godzilla: King of the Monsters and is currently editing Honest Thief.
For this interview, we discussed his work on Black Panther, which he co-edited with Debbie Berman, ACE. Berman is currently working on Captain Marvel and was unavailable for the interview.
HULLFISH: What were some of the basics of the schedule?
SHAWVER: I flew out to Atlanta about a month before production started. I wanted to be out there as early as possible because I didn’t know what to expect and I knew there was a lot to learn even before getting the first footage. There’s a lot of preparation and planning that go into these things. They had been in pre-production for a year or so, I think, so I wanted to get up to speed, asap. There’s a lot of pre-vis to cut, a lot of rehearsals and creative meetings to be involved in, and it was great to work with the team. It’s sort of where the cut, or at least the roadmap to the cut, starts.
Jumping back – Ryan and I have had a collaborative relationship for about 9 or 10 years now, back to film school at the University of Southern California — before his projects, he’ll ask me to cut together sequences that we can learn from. For Creed it was cutting together real fight footage to match the script for us to see if it’s working, but also to send to the fight choreographers to have discussions about how the fights were going to go or to find compelling real-life moments in boxing matches that could inspire moments in the movie. On Black Panther it was about researching and cutting together examples of every movie that I could think of that successfully established a world, like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars…
SHAWVER: Yup. Threw that in there. Blade Runner. It was an excuse for me to watch Willow again! So I cut that together and sent it off to Ryan, because we knew we needed to make Wakanda feel as real and tangible as possible, and what better way then to see how the masters of the craft have achieved it. Then when I got out to the set I got to talk to Rachel (Morrison, the D.P.) about things, Hannah (Beachler, Production Designer) about things and all the different departments to kind of get caught up and understand how all of these things are going to be working together. And at that point I was cutting pre-vis, I was in meetings with producers and VFX people. A good part of it was a bunch of grown people playing with action figures and miniature sets, talking about “Should Black Panther run this way? Should he jump that way? What cool thing can he do?” while always keeping it grounded in the story.
One of the biggest things I had to learn on this project was to use my imagination. At Marvel, they want their editors to be storytellers. So throughout the course of the movie, I was in discussions about production, reshoots, coming up with ADR lines we could add to help tell the story better or cool VFX shots. Ryan is the writer-director, so he’s always pulled in a hundred thousand directions. Ryan’s trust for his team that he’s built let’s him focus on his job knowing the other departments are in good hands.
After about 5 months in Atlanta, we moved to the Disney lot in Burbank and showed Ryan the first cut. Then we did the director’s cut and we showed the studio and then it was just kind of a whirlwind — test screenings and more cutting, reshoots, and screenings.
We see our team as a family and everybody has a place, everybody has a voice and an important role to play. Because everyone brought their A-game, the movie worked and, of course, we’ve got Ryan Coogler at the helm — and if you ever get a chance to meet him, he’s one of the greatest human beings that you’ll ever meet. He’s a great director, but he’s an even better human being and that makes a huge difference in the final product. Anyway, that takes us to January of 2018. So it was it was 12 or 13 months on this whole process.
HULLFISH: Let’s talk about that relationship that goes back to film school.
SHAWVER: I went to film school — like most people do — to become a director. What’s great about USC is that you can study any filmmaking discipline that calls to you. If you choose to go in as a director, you don’t have to stay a director if you realize directing isn’t for you. They want you to find your voice and find your storytelling abilities. For example, if Ryan didn’t become a director, he probably would have become a sound editor or mixer. He’s loves sound and its storytelling ability, which is great to have in the editing room because it’s just another level of story that we can use.
So many student films are about death or break-ups or the hero wakes up from a dream at the end, but with Ryan’s films, they were socially relevant and said something. Sometimes it would be a five minute short with no dialogue and you’d just be crying at the end of it. It was different and unique. And the whole reason I wanted to make movies was because I felt movies could do something and they could inspire you. I remember being in high school and seeing the movie City of God and thinking, “Oh my God, I just walked in another human’s shoes!” and it widened my worldview a bit. And when I saw Ryan’s films I felt that. I’m not the kind of person that does this, but I went up to him after class and — we were just two kids in a directing class at that point — and I said, “Hey man, I can edit a little bit and I’d love to work with you, blah blah blah.”
He was selected to do a short film in one of the marquee classes in which you simulate the filming process from writing and pitching, to shooting, cutting and screening. A big thing in that class was just learning to take notes and give notes, which is extremely important for editors. There’s an art to giving critique and a learned skill in not being defensive when someone gives it to you. They made the editors and directors sit in front of the entire class of 50 people while they told you how they felt about your work. It really toughens your skin and it’s a place where trying and failing is ok for educational purposes.
It’s funny that when we have screenings with the studio or whatever, we do the same thing. We sit right in front of them. We don’t shy away from the notes.
To get back to the school story, Ryan was having to pick his editor at that point. Two nights before, he asked me if I could production design something for him. I had never production designed anything. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I said, “Yeah” because I saw an opportunity to work with somebody I really wanted to work with.
I didn’t sleep a wink that night. I panicked. I didn’t know what to do. But I figured it out. That day I production designed. I did assistant camera work. I gaffed. I did everything I could do. And honestly, I think that was the job that actually convinced him that I had the work ethic to work on his projects.
So a production designer job sort of got me the editing gig and started me on that path. Working diligently, passionately for someone else’s vision and finding a way to tell your own story in that is really what I think he saw.
A few years later he was in the Sundance labs with Fruitvale Station. I was working as a teaching assistant at USC and he called me and said he was doing a feature and he asked if I wanted to cut it. I was like, “Why are you even asking me? 100 percent! Absolutely!” And he said, well, it’s called Fruitvale Station and it’s about this guy named Oscar Grant. Do you know anything about it?” and I had actually been in San Francisco the year before and had seen a news report and was absolutely floored that something like that could happen.
My biggest concern was not “yes or no” but whether whoever was producing it would be OK with me working on it. I was still in film school. I don’t know all the details, but Ryan fought really hard for our entire team. Ryan is on another level, he understands how important trust is in this world and to have people you can be completely honest with, that will be honest with you and no one takes things personally. And that will be there every late night that you’re there and make this thing happen.
So he fought and there was some resistance but ultimately he got his team on and that’s what the project was: Fruitvale Station. I lived in Oakland, worked 7 days a week, I slept in a closet. We cut the movie in 3 months. Then I lived with Ryan for a month or so during the color timing and sound mix and we did a lot of 23 hour days. I’ll never do it again, but I like that I was there at one point in my life. I feel like I was paying my dues a little bit. Especially having to be your own assistant editor and learning those skills. We had the privilege of starting our work relationship with Skywalker Sound on that movie as well so we had to push ourselves to be on their level because they’re the best in the game.
So I’m assistant editing, VFX coordinating, I’m carrying my iMac under my arm around San Francisco on the train. It was indie, man! But it was an amazing education. Even just the process of locking a movie and not reopening it because people need to do their job (but sometimes doing it anyway and facing the consequences for the sake of the movie). So it was an amazing experience and we will be the first ones to admit that we had no idea what we were doing, but in a way, it was cool because there weren’t producers or a studio involved in the cutting.
So we did it and it worked and the next thing was Creed and that was a battle for Ryan too because a lot of his team had never done a studio movie before. But Ryan is amazing with every aspect of directing including the political stuff and was able to convince them that he needed his team. He felt the most comfortable and safest in our hands and ultimately they said “yes” and then it was “how the hell do we do this?” But I think our career has been based on being put in situations we’ve never been in and learning how to live up to them. Thankfully, my parents taught my sister and me how to work well under pressure.
Kevin Feige (head of Marvel and producer on Black Panther) said that, halfway through their interview with Ryan, they realized they weren’t interviewing him, but rather he was interviewing them. They understood that this was Ryan’s movie he needed to tell his story, including bringing his team on.
HULLFISH: I think this story about you starting to work with Ryan in film school has a valuable lesson for anyone coming up in the business. He didn’t choose you — back when you were still a film student — because you were the best editor he could find. He chose you because you showed him a great work ethic and that you were easy to work with. It’s all about “Is this guy going to give me his all? And, will it be an enjoyable experience?”
SHAWVER: Right. And we got to grow together. It was amazing. The other day, Oprah hosted an event for us.
HULLFISH: I cut for Oprah for ten years.
SHAWVER: No way!
HULLFISH: Yeah, I’m a Chicago guy, so she was here for a long time before moving out to LA.
SHAWVER: I saw Ryan at the event and I hadn’t talked to him in a while and we started talking. We just stood there thinking that we couldn’t believe it. We were talking about what an emotional experience the whole movie was. I remember we did this big change in the movie and we’re looking at the wall of scenes thinking, “is anybody going to like this?” “are we doing this movie justice?” But you trust yourselves and each other and figure it out. We’re human beings and we’re built to adapt. One of the most important things that I learned on this project was that I can do it.
So you’re 100 percent right. When people ask me for advice, I tell them to find people who are doing now what they want to be doing at some point in the future and write them letters, because people in this industry don’t often get letters from people who are looking to break in. And I guarantee at least one of them will accept your coffee invitation and let you pick their brain. Another thing is to find people on your level that you want to work with. The cameras and editing software are all accessible now. Find someone who has a script and someone who is a director and another with a camera and you have an editing program and work together. If it works, great. and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t, but you got in and you learned and you grew. The last thing is: just be a good person. That will get you so far in this life: if you have a reputation of being good to work with, if you have a problem that comes your way — and this happens a hundred times a day — focus on the solution, don’t focus on the problem. Be that person. Be that positive thing.
I’ll be honest. At the point on Creed where we had a screening coming up, I think it was for Sly for the first time or something crazy like that. And I kind of freaked out about it because I was attaching my self-worth to my work. Ryan was telling me not to worry, it was cool, but I couldn’t shake it and he finally said, “Look, Mike, there’s a lot of stuff we have to deal with, but I need you to be a source of positive energy.” And I was like, “Oh shit! I do!” Ryan has it a hundred times harder than I do. He needed editorial to be a positive space, a safe space. We can listen to music. We can talk sports – so I can tell him the Celtics are better than the Warriors. Talk Batman. Whatever. And it allows us to do good work.
HULLFISH: I love that idea of just be a good person; be the person that somebody wants in the cutting room. Even if things are going wrong — that happened to me today. Things got a little tense in the cutting room, prepping a screening. I made a mistake, but the producer and director and I have had a long collaboration and the director gave me some grace and we got through it and I tried to keep the energy positive and, even though I’d made a mistake, to let him know that it would be fixed and we’d be back on track soon and that he was safe. It’s so much about attitude.
Let’s talk a little bit about the editing side. You mentioned the big storyboard wall. How much did that help you? Was there some restructuring?
SHAWVER: Yes there was. I think in general that storyboard wall helps a lot. We have this wall that’s either magnetized or you just use tape or pushpins so we can move scenes around and visualize things. We really started that process on Fruitvale. In Panther, there are certain moments of the movie that gave us some issues and needed more attention. The biggest one was just the opening. There were a lot of things at play there and a lot that we were asking the audience to remember and be an active viewer. We called it “having to take your medicine,” so that later on you’re emotionally invested, you have a relationship with the story. However, when you have all these new characters, this whole new world, all this new technology, this natural resource called Vibranium we need to explain, and you’ve got all these names that are not easy to remember, that’s a lot to set up
The original scene at the beginning in Oakland was scripted as a full scene and his dad showing up and killing his brother and then it went into the Marvel logo. We loved the idea of that because who the hell starts a Marvel movie in Oakland in 1992 with Too Short playing? That’s our first sign that maybe this is not the movie that you thought you were going to go see… or maybe it was.
We were watching the movie at one point and we realized a few things. First, the opening was too long and there was way too much information. Debbie (co-editor, Debbie Berman) was amazing at cutting that scene to the emotional bone to give the audience just enough information to stay interested and invested. The other thing was realizing the negative effect it was having on a scene later on and the movie as a whole. With the full scene at the beginning in Oakland, the audience knows a huge plot point for over an hour that our main character doesn’t. So as an audience member — and as an editor, we’re the first audience — you’re sitting there saying, “Yeah. I already know this stuff. Let’s get on with it” Since Debbie had worked on that first part to make it more clear she decided where best to cut it off and then I took the rest and fit it into a later scene as flashbacks. It’s the scene where T’Challa is talking to Zuri (Forest Whitaker’s character) and he finds out about what really happened between his father and his uncle.
And what was really cool about that change was: 1) the audience got to experience the story with our main character so we were closer to where he is emotionally on his journey, and 2) as an editor it’s always fun to find this existential, creative, symbolic way, beyond the words that are said, beyond just the energy between people, to build a scene. And so what I was able to do is actually cut it so that T’Challa seemed as if he was almost physically between his father and his uncle because that’s where he was emotionally. I showed Ryan the scene and he was really affected by it. It was all the themes of the movie. It was everything that he intended.
Then he said, “Besides for a few tweaks, the only thing that I think we could add is, a slow-mo shot of young Killmonger looking up at the sky as the ship is flying away with his father to emphasize the character being abandoned?” So at the very end, when T’Challa asks what happened to the kid, and Zuri says, “We left him.” Then we just cut to the kid standing in the street by himself. I basically just fell over. Then the happy accident is that the next scene — the next shot after the reaction from Chad is Killmonger pulling Klaue’s dead body through the field. and you’re thinking, “Oh! Here we go! But wait, should I be rooting for this guy?” And that’s the thought process of the audience, like “Whose side am I on?” and you realize Killmonger has a point to feel that way he does.
On a side note, one of the coolest things for me and Ryan was that he got to screen the movie for Francis Ford Coppola. When the movie was over he said, “Ryan, can you wind it back to the scene where the whole movie come together?” So, he took it back to that scene with the flashbacks and Francis went on with his notes. To me, that was the greatest compliment I could have ever received, and that was something which came out of post, which I think is cool and it shows how Ryan’s open-idea policy works. No matter who you are on the project — we’ve asked PAs, we’ve asked VFX guys to come in and watch a scene because everybody has a valuable opinion. We know that opinions will be filtered through Ryan and the department heads and the movie should be accessible to as many as possible.
HULLFISH: It’s fascinating to me that the development process on a film like this is so long and you’ve got incredibly talented people — like Ryan and Kevin Feige — poring over it and making sure it’s perfect before it goes into production, and yet, something this big happens in post… the movie changes after it’s shot. It becomes a different animal. What do you think it is that allows you to realize that something needs to change in post from a script that is great?
SHAWVER: That’s a really interesting question. I think it’s a lot of things. It’s execution. Ryan is a very thoughtful, very careful, specific filmmaker. But he also goes in knowing that a lot of stuff may change. Ryan may change lines or the way a scene is written if he doesn’t feel like it real enough or honest enough, while he’s shooting it. Ryan puts people around him that he collaborates well with but who will tell their own stories and have a sense of ownership where everybody’s putting everything they have into these scenes. On another level, no one sees all these pieces and the way the collaborations work until the editor puts it together in the cutting room. You’re trying to re-create life and life is messy. Life is weird. Life has accidents. An actor could deliver a line in a way that Ryan had never thought of, but if it works and it’s better, we’re totally open to it. A lot of it is a mystery, too and you have to trust your taste. We believe that the people who make movies are more important than the movies themselves. Everybody should have ownership over it. We have a living relationship with the movies we make based on our own lives, based on what’s going on in the world.
I think the whole thing is that you just really have to be open to it. One thing I’ve learned throughout my career is that anytime you assume something, chances are it’s never going to be what you intended. Just like life is. So being open and being actively involved in an emotional dialogue and energy between the characters — and even in the energy between the characters and the audience. We’ve got to believe that what we do will resonate with other people because we share human traits with others. Basically trusting our taste and the taste of our team.
HULLFISH: I want to talk about that re-structured section of the flashback and Killmonger’s story. I’m interested in the process. I’m interested that things happen over time when you’re editing. You didn’t figure out that solution on the first day you cut that scene together. It took iterations and it took thought and realization that something could be better. It is a PROCESS that you have to be open to the evolution of the cut.
SHAWVER: Right. Absolutely. I think every creative field does this, but you cut something together for the first time and after you get over the shock of “What did I just watch?” it’s about going one step at a time and looking at the whole picture while focusing on the details. The movie is a living thing. And one of the things I had to learn was not to expect things to be a certain way. Filmmaking is a kaleidoscope. Especially in the edit. If you change one little thing, it can change how everything else looks and feels. When we made that big change in the opening change, we hadn’t shown the studio the movie yet. That was during the director’s cut, so it was something that we asked about: if it was OK to change the movie that much before the studio saw it? Luckily Marvel is incredible.
Marvel wanted to see the movie that Ryan wanted to make. On some big movies or with other studios, you may not get that chance to let the movie evolve. You try ideas that — for some reason — keep sticking with you, even though they’re not working right now you give them a chance. Take a day, take a night and go back and watch it again. There are tricks that I’ve used to get a fresh perspective. Like I’ve thrown the movie in black and white. I’ve put a flop effect over the entire movie and watched it with every shot mirrored backward, just to get that little bit different experience watching it. When we cut that scene in the middle with the flashbacks, it changed how we saw everything after it because the revelation of that happening and the emotion you felt shocked you as an audience member, because the entire world that you knew and that T’Challa knew was suddenly different. So once that happened and we started feeling that in the editing room, we started to look at every other scene very differently because it was informed differently now. We looked at how we could alter the scenes before to get the most out of that scene itself, whether it was losing lines, taking out scenes, putting them back in, honing a performance to balance it all, etc. The good news is there’s an undo button and no idea is a bad idea until you picture lock.
One of the things that Mr. Coppola told us was that relationships mean more to people than their names do, and it’s such a brilliant note, so what we did in the opening scene and in other scenes throughout the movie, is during times where we not on someone’s face or we could slip the word in their mouth, instead of having them say someone’s name, we ADR’d them saying the relationship instead, so instead of T’Challa saying “N’Jobu,” he’d say “my uncle” or if his father referred to N’Jobu, he’d say “my brother.”
It wasn’t a favorite when I was cutting it or even revising it, but now, one of my favorite scenes in the movie is when he first lands in Wakanda. It’s great to see the city and the tech and history but we also get to meet his family. It’s so great because as an American guy from the Northeast how am I supposed to relate to an African-king-hero-richest-man-in-the-world-world so-on-and-so-forth? For me, it’s that he has a little sister that’s teasing for getting nervous around his ex-girlfriend. It’s that he needs his mom to tell him that everything is going to be OK because he just lost his father. That is the stuff that makes us care when everything goes wrong. When he’s getting punched in the face by people. That’s the stuff that informs everything else, so as far as evolution — it would be great to start at the beginning and go til the end and be finished, but there’s always a circling back because there’s a circular nature to stories and everything informs everything else. (Including the repeat-viewing easter egg of the child’s voice at the beginning actually being Killmonger.)
HULLFISH: That was a killer tip that Coppola gave you about using the relationships between people instead of their names. Massively huge. How did you use previs in the edit as you were editing? What challenges does it pose to have to deal with so much VFX?
SHAWVER: Marvel put us in touch with their other editors so we could pick their brains on how they dealt with things. I also asked Marvel for examples and I actually got to see how other Marvel movies looked before a frame was shot. It was great to see that some shots were recreated exactly in production, while others changed drastically or were removed. I got to see a bit of the process through that. There was a pre-vis team hard at work when I got there. They gave me all the shots and sequences they had been working on and got to work on that. It was like a warm-up lap for me, to get the juices flowing. There were probably a couple dozen pre-vis artists who would create these moments and if I wanted to try something, I didn’t have to get it approved by anyone or get permission, I’d just go to one of our amazing supervisors or VFX editors to see if something could work. They would turn that stuff around quickly and I would cut it together. The hardest thing about this is coming up with an idea out of nowhere, and there was a level of fear with that. At one point that had a meeting with me and God bless them for knowing that I’d have a learning curve, but they said: “look, when Ryan is busy, we lean on our editors to help come up with lines, come up with sequences, ideas.” They put a lot of responsibility on their editors and value them greatly. That’s all I needed to hear and I went for it.
Then they started shooting and they were going to shoot the big battle sequence at the end and then said, “We’re going to scrap half of it and now we’re doing this other thing.” So now, as we’re cutting the movie, we’re getting footage from not only main unit and second units, but we’re also trying to cut the previs too. That’s when you have to rely on your team. These things are massive and you’ll get buried if you try to do everything yourself. Our assistants: Adam Kimmerlin, Dylan Quirt, Steve Pristin, Kale Whorton and Joe Binford as well as out post-supervisor Nancy Valle and the incredible VFX team were the ones who had our backs and helped guide us through everything and support us. I’m sure I drove them all nuts countless times but I have a hard time picturing going on that journey without them or making it out fully intact
The other thing I was involved in early on was the casino sequence. Originally, Ryan wanted to do the whole thing as a oner which, as an editor, is the most terrifying thing ever. Luckily I was first terrified about the 4 and a half minute fight scene oner that he did in Creed. On that scene, he got no coverage of anything else. But it worked and it’s a masterful storytelling moment. Those oners make everybody step it up. This is Marvel and they want coverage which I totally understand because I do too. When the time came to shoot it I worked on set. They broke the scene into a series of hidden cuts, wipes, and whip pans or with some VFX. The casino set was built on a stage and we were just outside one of the casino doorways. As soon as they had a couple of takes that they thought were decent, we’d import the footage from the videotap. I would cut that together and if Ryan liked the take, he’d just need my approval to move on, which is a lot of responsibility.
HULLFISH: Holy cow! Oh yeah!
SHAWVER: The terrifying part about being on set, especially on a movie like this, was: we’re not going to get all these extras every day. We’re not going to get all these actors another day. So you zone in and you focus. Sink or swim. A couple of interesting things happened: The best take they had of one moment didn’t end the way they had planned it. So the next part of the stitched scene had to be changed, which is not easy because this elaborate scene has been planned out in great detail. And you know this, as an editor, arguably the hardest part of doing any sort of collaborative creative work is there’s no way to actually read someone’s mind. There’s no way to put your vision into someone else’s head, and that’s the director’s burden and it’s our burden, too. But I was sitting there describing to Ryan and Rachel (Morrison, the DP) at the AVID how the camera move for the next shot and the timing of Lupita stepping had to be changed for the stitch to work.
We’re under the gun and I’m trying to explain it and Ryan, in his infinite trust, says, “Shawv, why don’t you go and tell the camera operator and stunt guys what you need them to do?” Then it’s up to me to go describe to the camera-person, who is a legendary camera guy and explain that everything that they had planned for weeks isn’t what they need to do, while Ryan is off to talk to the actors. So now this camera guy has someone he’s maybe seen once in his life telling him what to do and I’m standing there with all these extras and actors and crew watching and waiting, but everyone stepped up and worked together for the shot. We listened to each other and trusted each other. At another point, Chadwick Boseman, who plays T’Challa, came over to watch something at my Avid so he can see the way he ended the previous stitch, and I needed to talk to him, but he was in character — the full-on T’Challa character! He was talking to me in the character’s voice and mannerisms, so I acted like he was King T’Challa at my editing station. It was wild. Later on, I mentioned it to him that “I wasn’t sure if I should call you Chad or King or what.” And he said, “You did the right thing” and laughed.
The idea behind the Korea action sequence was to show them working as a team. They’re family in certain aspects and they’re an extension of T’Challa. They’re not side-kicks, they’re not less-than. I talked about T’Challa’s relationship with his sister that gets set-up earlier in the movie, and the reason those relationships are so important is because — even though the situation with the sister driving the car from another continent while T’Challa’s on the car is amazing and exciting — it works because of the set-up that happens earlier in the movie.
There are directors who spend a lot of time getting the pre-vis just right and then they go out and shoot exactly what’s in the pre-vis. That’s not Ryan. Ryan is the kind of director who is always, always searching for truth. Whether that’s on set or in the editing room. He’s always looking for the most honest thing, whether it’s the position of actors or the line itself or the delivery of the line or the way the camera moves.
When he’s shooting I don’t talk to Ryan a whole lot, partly because he’s got more than enough going on with production. He also wants his editors to tell their stories. He wants us to find our own truth in the material. He knows he’ll have his chance to speak into the material, but to get others’ perspectives just provides him with more ideas he can use — or not. For example, the opening of Fruitvale Station with the real YouTube footage of him being assaulted by police was not scripted. That was not ever intended. That came out in post. And it didn’t come until maybe three weeks before we locked. When we put that in, we were like, “Oh my God, this is our opening to the movie. This changes everything.”
HULLFISH: It’s crazy that you didn’t do that until the end of the movie.
SHAWVER: Right. The discussion was that we weren’t sure we wanted to use real footage of Oscar out of respect for him and his family. I was in San Francisco shortly after the time this happened and I was pissed off when I found out. I was so naive at the time. I had no idea that people were getting killed like that. I wanted to slap people in the face with the truth. It ultimately gave the entire movie a sense of dramatic irony, because originally we didn’t know that anything bad happened to the guy at the end. But with that stuff at the beginning, it basically was like finding out Romeo and Juliette took their own lives before you meet them.
That colors the whole movie as you’re watching it. You’re hoping against hope that he’s going to survive this tragedy as you’re watching the nice moments with his mom and daughter, etc.
Another thing I think is really cool is that when Ryan works with Ludwig Göransson, our composer, he sends Ludwig the script before we start shooting. He doesn’t wait until the movie is shot. He doesn’t wait until we have a locked cut like a lot of shows. He reads the script and talks to Ryan about themes and immediately he said that he was going to Africa to find the right instruments to tell the best, most authentic story. He traveled all around Africa, found the musicians, found the instruments. Killmonger’s theme is a type of flute. He found this talented musician and told him the story about Killmonger and the guy took that and started playing a tune. Then he started yelling “Killmonger! Killmonger! HA! HA!” in this really schizophrenic way while playing the flute. I don’t know if it actually made the soundtrack, but Ludwig sends us that stuff. We hear Ludwig’s version of the story and that version of the story informs how we see it, because of how Ryan’s conversation with Ludwig affects him or how Ludwig wants to tell the story, he is going to tell a slightly different story than what we are telling. So that music influences us just as much as the costumes and the production design and acting. Just layers and layers and layers of storytelling that all come together.
So with pre-vis, once the movie is shot, we’ll leave pre-vis in the movie. Like we had the casino shot, but we didn’t have the car chase yet, so we left that section as pre-vis and our assistants built the temp sound design because you want to see how the movie is shaping up as a whole. And I think that was really very helpful to us.
But once the previs team finishes, the post-vis team starts. A lot of them are the same guys and some of them have to leave because they’ve got another movie and then a different sort of dynamic happens. So I’ll go through 40 hours of footage of Africa and pull five minutes of shots that tell the story I’m trying to tell. Then I’ll ask, “Hey can you show the royal fighter coming up here and the cloaking here. And then in this location can you have this fly by these guys with the horses like this? And can you make it look the POV from inside the ship? Can you comp this in and put the tech in?” Just so we can start to see it.
When I walked onto this project, I’d be the first person to say that VFX is just bells and whistles. That story and emotion are everything and VFX are secondary. Now, I’ll be the first person to tell you that VFX is storytelling. It’s such an amazing tool to have to elevate any and everything.
One of the big things that came through post and re-shoots was that we needed to make it more clear where the stabilizers in the final fight on the train track where things that could deactivate the panther suit — that’s a function that we needed to make clear because it comes back later when we won’t necessarily have time to explain it. So the question is: how do you explain this in a fast and clear way without sounding like we’re explaining it? The way it was shot it wasn’t as clear as was possible. So we looked for ways to incorporate that technology and it being able to destabilize Vibranium in the scene halfway through the movie where Shuri is explaining to Everett Ross what those things do. That’s another example of how something that came later needed to be explained by something that we needed to add earlier.
All these things had to be decided, like do the stabilizers go up or down? What color are they? Do they look like electricity or sound waves? What does it do to the suit? Does it eat away at the suit? We’re involved in every one of these discussions. The way it was originally shot, it looked like the suit just disappeared. Now — the way it is in the movie — we have the suits kind of go nuts and “fritzing” to show how the technology affects them. It was actually a re-shoot that T’Challa looks at the stabilizers and tells Shuri to turn on them on. So we see that it’s his idea, which makes him a better, smarter character. Originally, in the script, the trains just run automatically. But we changed it so that he tells his sister to do it, and she says, “But your suit will go crazy!” and he says, “Yeah, but so will his.” Then you get it.
Originally, his father, in the opening scene, had a mask that looked a lot like the current Black Panther mask and in test screenings, people thought that the dad and Black Panther were the same person. There were other reasons for the confusion. Both scenes were pretty dark. Both of them were about the same age, and it wasn’t super-clear that there was a jump in time.
So with VFX, we changed the helmet. They made it gold trim, then put grey in his dad’s beard to give them the separation they needed.
HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about those screenings. Did you sit in on any of those screenings personally?
SHAWVER: Oh, absolutely. Every one of them. One of the reasons why I love screenings is when you sit there, you can feel the way that the audiences are experiencing the emotions. You can feel the chills. Obviously, you can hear the laughs. But when a moment hits? Like, when T’Challa finds out what his father did and we cut to the young Killmonger, you can feel the air in the room drop. You can literally feel people’s energy. You can feel when they’re leaning forward. You can feel when they’re shifting in their seats. You can feel when you’re taking too long to get to the point of a scene or a sequence. But we do love the critical notes too, and it messes with your mind, because sometimes things that you LOVE the audience doesn’t. You have to take things with a grain of salt but also find the truth in the audiences critiques.
So, when it comes to test screenings, they’re very hard to go through because we put so much of ourselves into the movie but in a way, it’s simple math. If you get one note one time, and you collectively don’t agree with it, it’s probably not hurting the movie. If a note comes up a hundred times, we need to look at it.
HULLFISH: Tell me a little bit about your collaboration with Debbie Berman, the other editor on the film.
SHAWVER: Debbie!. We were a great team. Have you ever co-edited?
HULLFISH: Yup. Doing it now.
SHAWVER: So you know. It’s tough and if you don’t know the person, it’s a bit like dating, except you don’t get to go on a second date. You go out on the first date and then you’re married.
We met with Debbie. She had just come off of Spider-Man: Homecoming which Ryan and I really enjoyed. It was a Spider-Man movie that I hadn’t seen before. Uncle Ben doesn’t die, no spider bites and waiting for the fun stuff. It’s a John Hughes movie in the Marvel universe. There were great moments in there like when the Vulture finds out Peter Parker is really Spiderman and they’re on the way to the prom in that car, all that tension came from the editing. It’s clearly also writing and directing, but the editing really sold it. So obviously her work is great. Hearing her journey and how she worked so hard to get the meetings and the jobs she’s gotten was inspiring. Also, she’s from South Africa, so she has a very personal connection to the movie. She had a great passion for movies, and what she talked about as far as what she focuses on lined up with ours.
Each of us had our roles and responsibilities, but we work in a very organic way. So when deciding who’s going to work on what, we kind of feel it out. For example, if there’s a scene that one of us really wants to explore or we’re really loving from the script, we don’t want to get in anybody’s way. We don’t want to get in the way of the creative inspiration, because who knows where that stuff comes from or if it’ll ever some back. There were some scenes that went back and forth between us. Debbie has the female perspective. Ryan and I can take those female characters 90 percent there but nobody can say, “That is from a woman’s perspective” besides a woman.
One example is a scene between Nakia and Okoye after T’Challa dies. We hadn’t touched it from the outset because it was good and it worked, but I wanted to go into it and explore. I found an ad-lib in that scene that is now one of my favorite lines in the movie. It actually ends the scene and it’s a “hell yeah” moment.
They’re talking about loyalty and Nakia says “I love my country” and Okoye says, “Then you serve your country.” Then Nakia says, “No I SAVE my country.” So I showed it to Ryan and he loved it and thought it made the scene stronger, then we brought Debbie in and her take on it was that there were places in the scene where Okoye was not as strong as she was in the original version. Ryan and I hadn’t felt that because we were so caught up in the emotion of it and the newness of it. We showed it to a bunch of people in the editorial department and there were definitely split opinions. The scene evolved and got better from there, mainly through our system of checks and balances
Plus, these things — these massive movies — are so hard, and having someone I could bounce things off of who had been there before was priceless. She’d done it before. Other times, Ryan and Debbie and I would just sit and talk for an hour about personal stuff or what was in the news and that would inform our cutting when we got back to it.
HULLFISH: I love the idea of all those different voices, whether it’s you and Ryan — a white guy and a black guy — or you and Debbie, all those different voices are bound to make a movie better. I really loved that this interview was so much about relationships and the social aspect of editing. Thanks for all your time.
SHAWVER: Cool. Thank you so much! It was so great talking with you. I’ve read a lot of your interviews. I see other editors posting them on social media all the time. I really love what you do and appreciate it.
HULLFISH: Thank you. That’s nice to hear.
The first 50 interviews in the series provided the material for the book, “Art of the Cut: Conversations with Film and TV Editors.” This is a unique book that breaks down interviews with many of the world’s best editors and organizes it into a virtual roundtable discussion centering on the topics editors care about. It is a powerful tool for experienced and aspiring editors alike. Cinemontage and CinemaEditor magazine both gave it rave reviews. No other book provides the breadth of opinion and experience. Combined, the editors featured in the book have edited for over 1,000 years on many of the most iconic, critically acclaimed and biggest box office hits in the history of cinema.
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