‘Black Panther’ Editor Debbie Berman Talks Cutting A Cultural Icon
Debbie Berman is the editor who cut together “Spider-Man: Homecoming”, “Black Panther“, and is currently piercing together “Captain Marvel”. She talked to me about the creative process behind the superhero smash hit, the value of a filmmaking team that fully trusts one another, and the power of perseverance.
How did you get your start in Marvel?
Single-minded perseverance. I knew I wanted to work at Marvel, I spent years getting to know a bunch of editors there, and they started mentoring me. When “Spider-Man: Homecoming” came along, I just felt in my gut, that was supposed to be my movie. Both Sony and Marvel would say “no” to me, but I didn’t hear that, I just felt excited that we were having a conversation about me working on “Spider-Man“. The “no” was just an annoying part of that conversation.
But I kept selling myself to them, with passion and excitement. And at some point, I think they realized that it was easier to put me on the movie than to keep talking to me (laughs).
I heard that the editing room is where the film is truly made – how much truth is there to that?
As an editor, I’d say that’s true! “Black Panther” had about 500 hours of footage, which is a massive amount. But it’s not like we removed a lot of scenes, it’s that every scene that exists was probably 3 or 4 times longer, so it was all about streamlining those performances.
“Black Panther” has so many characters, and you can’t follow them all extensively – the movie would get lost. It was a case of keeping the depth of the characters without drifting off into tangents.
There were points that weren’t quite clear, and we had to find a way to clarify them. And some really funny things had to be cut out because it stepped on the emotional momentum of the moment.
We wanted to make a film that was political, without being preachy, and it could have gone in either direction. We could have pushed too far, or not enough. There was a lot of deliberation to get that just right. It’s a constant balancing act.
Was the worldbuilding of Wakanda a challenge?
Sometimes. The opening animated prologue where you learn about Wakanda and the Panther wasn’t in the film for quite a while. It jumped in and out of the movie. Even the narrator changed a few times.
We thought it was smart to set it up at the beginning, because, although it’s nice for the audience to discover things as the film progresses, when you’re too busy trying to figure it all out it can detract from the emotional experience. So we thought, let’s just do it right off the bat, and you can enjoy the ride.
Originally, for that first Warrior Falls scene, a couple of minutes before T’Challa arrived, Zuri was explaining things to the audience. But we decided to play the scene from T’Challa’s perspective, to arrive with him and see this epic view of all the tribes gathered together.
So we lost some information, but we realized you didn’t need to hear it – you could see it.
What was the hardest scene to cut?
The opening scene in Oakland. The first real scene of the film, so tonally, you want it to be on point. I feel it’s important to get a comedic moment in the first few minutes of the film, because it gives the audience permission to laugh. And once you’ve got that first laugh out, then people can relax and keep laughing.
But the main problem was the amount of information, an almost overwhelming amount of information. There’s a thing they talk about at Marvel, “giving the audience the medicine early.” Which is essentially saying you might have a rough few first minutes, but then you know the information you need to, and you can just enjoy the movie.
And that first scene used to play the whole way through, but the way we ended up cutting it was slicing it up into flashbacks that play throughout the film. It wasn’t scripted that way, but that’s how it worked.
What other films did you use for inspiration?
Stylistically, we talked about “James Bond” and “The Godfather”. I always like to ask my directors what films they enjoy, so I can get into their headspace, and Ryan Coogler told me his favorite film was “A Prophet”, another one was “Fishtank”.
They’re quite dark movies. But I figured out that understanding what makes a character tick was really important to Ryan. So that’s what my focus became.
Does the connection to Marvel’s cinematic universe create additional challenges?
Definitely. This character was already introduced in “Captain America: Civil War”, and in some ways, we had to pick it up where the character left off, but we also had to make it standalone. And the death of T’Challa’s father happened in that movie, which was so imperative to this story.
Initially, we had the characters discuss the death – the audience would learn through dialogue. But it wasn’t enough. There was too much to catch up with, and it was distracting.
So, we shot a scene that showed T’Challa watching a news broadcast that stated his father was killed – that was added in editorially, and it worked.
Did your South African background influence the film’s depiction of Africa?
It was definitely an asset, to have that perspective. South Africans feel particularly close to this film because the language that is spoken, Xhosa, is a South African language. My friends would tell me that they just couldn’t believe that their language was in a Marvel movie.
I wanted to help make sure it felt authentic. I believe it helped – if nothing else, it made me feel closer to the film. The thought of South Africa having real representation in such a massive movie added to the pressure, I really wanted to help make the film the best it could possibly be.
I’m lucky I’m the sort of person who loves pressure – I work better under those conditions.
Was there ever a worry that Killmonger was too likable?
Absolutely. That was something we had to be very conscious of. And there were versions of the film where you totally took Killmonger’s side! We had to ensure that his cause was right, but to make it clear that the way he was going about it was very wrong.
It was one of the greatest balancing acts we did in the film, to empathize with him, but acknowledge that he was going too far. You want the audience to understand that Killmonger got to T’Challa, but in the right way. It was a huge challenge.
Some of those things we actually picked up in additional photography to get that balance right. Marvel is very smart about that, they schedule additional photography right from the beginning, for little character moments and story points that you can clarify. Just to put another round of polish on things.
What other plot points were altered by additional photography?
The moment right at the end of the film, where the Dora Milaje are surrounded by the border tribe, and they get saved by the Jabari tribe. Initially, all those Jabari warriors were men. And I said to Ryan, this whole film we’ve built up these spectacular, ass-kicking female warriors, and right at the end, they get saved by men. I felt like it undercut so much of what we’d built up previously.
So, Ryan suggested adding some female warriors in there. And they reshot with some female warriors – the first one to break through the forcefield was a Jabari female warrior, very powerful shot.
It changed the entire tone. That’s the beauty of those reshoots.
Does it complicate your job when there’s a lot of CGI?
No, I think it creates opportunities. Anything you can imagine can be rendered on screen. But a large part of the editor’s job on a film like this is dealing with visual effects. You’re the guardian of the story, so you’re constantly in VFX reviews, making sure that they serve the story, character and emotion. That they don’t distract, but support what’s going on screen.
I love that part of the process – you can have an idea and just say it. Editing the beach fight in “Spider-Man: Homecoming”, for example, I would type the word “vulture” and have the text fly around the screen. The very next day, there’s Vulture flying around the screen. It’s a collaboration between us and the VFX artists, where we can coordinate Spidey and Vulture’s movements together.
I love it, it’s certainly not daunting.
The most intimidating scene in the MCU, I think, is the moment when Michael Keaton talks to Tom Holland in the car. Can you tell me about that scene?
I really love that scene, and it was a huge challenge, editorially. We had to figure out who knows what, and when? When exactly does he know Spidey’s secret? To balance the slow burn of tension and deliver the “oh, wait.” It comes across in a single eye movement.
There were versions of that scene where Vulture knew right at the beginning. We spent a lot of time perfectly balancing it. Figuring out how long you can play something to its maximum effect and maintaining the emotional journey. But the key to the tension was keeping the audience’s perspective in our hearts.
And, of course, phenomenal actors.
Which “Black Panther” scene are you most proud of?
The ending scene in Oakland. That wasn’t originally in the film – the film used to end with the speech in the United Nations [mid-credits scene]. And I said to Ryan, that I don’t think the film has the right ending. But I couldn’t really tell him why – it was just a gut feeling.
It was interesting because that United Nations scene actually tested really well, people loved it. But Ryan told me that I’d planted a seed in him. And he kind of disappeared for a day, locked himself in a room, and he realized that in the opening of the film, in Oakland, something is taken away. And that the most fitting ending would be to return to Oakland and give something back.
And he shot the final Oakland scene in additional photography. So, that’s the scene that means the most to me, because it is the right ending for the film. My gut was trying to tell me that we needed a more personal ending. And for a Marvel blockbuster, that’s a really small, intimate moment.
What do you attribute the film’s success to?
Ryan Coogler – he’s the real deal. He surrounds himself with collaborators, and he makes you feel like it’s just you and him making the movie. And he does that with everyone. He enables and empowers his crew, he trusts them. He was never threatened by other people’s ideas, he embraced them. He insisted that we tell him what was in our heart.
He asked everyone, even the production assistants what they thought, and we have some ideas from them in the film. Best idea in the room wins, and he absorbs everything – he doesn’t necessarily agree with what he’s hearing, but he wants to listen. And he has a great instinct on what to lean into.
There seems to be a thing in Hollywood where people don’t make statements, they ask questions. So if you think something isn’t working, you don’t come out and say it. You say, “do you think perhaps we should …?” and Ryan hates that. He demands honesty.
It meant that we didn’t ever have to worry about upsetting anyone, we all just put the film first. And I think it shows.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This article originally appeared in Forbes.