One of the films that seem to be heading towards a Best Picture nomination is “Black Panther,” a huge achievement by Ryan Coogler. Coogler has become the director of the moment because of his incredible direction and vision for the popular hero. The highest grossing film of the year doesn’t all rely on just Coogler though. Enter Michael P. Shawver, the editor of each of Coogler’s films to this point. After meeting in film school, the two have built a long collaboration with each other. Michael sat down with me to discuss his role in helping to craft Coogler’s vision, building the world of Wakanda, and the importance of identity in the film.
Alan French/Awards Circuit: How did you first discover you wanted to be an editor?
Michael P. Shawver: So going way-way back, when I was 13 or 14, my parents used to have a camcorder. My friends and I would go out and make whatever, we could. We’d make James Bond spoofs, goofy little movies here and there. I thought we had to shoot everything in order because I thought that was how movies were put together. I couldn’t always get the right friends together to shoot in order. So what I figured out I could do was to put the camcorder on the TV, record the TV and play the clips I needed in the order I needed them. I would hit stop, record, stop, record, and I was basically editing back then not even knowing I was doing it. Later in high school, I saw someone editing on Final Cut and my whole world changed.
AF: Did you go to film school?
MS: Yeah, I went to film school not knowing that all these other roles existed. I could ultimately get the same joy and create emotion. So I was at USC in directing class my second year with this guy whose work just spoke to me and it had a message. Eventually, I just went up to him and told him I wanted to work with him and that I could edit a bit. It turned out to be Ryan Coogler. He hired me as an editor and we had a lot of things in common. We don’t come from the same walk of life but I got that self-fulfillment in helping him tell his stories. He’s on another level.
AF: You’ve worked with Ryan on all of his projects since film school, so how has his style evolved over that time?
MS: His style really evolves for what the story needs to be on that film. Really his movies aren’t too big, but they feel big. “Fruitvale Station” was more personal, and we shot it like it was a documentary style. Like Rachel Morrison was hanging on a subway pole trying to grab a shot to get that authenticity. But then you need a couple hundred extras, and we’ve needed that time and time again. We didn’t really need to have that scale because it will feel big in how the audience relates. You could set up the world through the relationships of the people. Ryan studies other filmmakers and he learns.
AF: How does Ryan push you as an editor?
MS: Before “Fruitvale” and “Creed,” Ryan gave me assignments as a filmmaker. He handed me the script and told me to take all the fight scenes, and find similar or exact moments in real life fights to cut together. That way, we can see how it feels. That way, the fight coordinator can say “we can do this,” or Michael B. Jordan can see what he’ll need to learn. It was hard to do because I was editing something without having any shots, but it really helped.
AF: Was taking on “Black Panther” different for you two in how you approached it?
MS: Not really. One of the things I admire about Ryan is how he approaches each film from a personal side. I remember the first time he told me he was going to do “Black Panther,” he told me it was going to be his most personal movie to date. I thought he was crazy. But to him, the movie is about identity and searching through his own history and past. He never faltered from those themes, and even with the hype and pressure building around it. He was able to really dive in and keep that consistent.
AF: How do you go about building a world like the one “Black Panther” inhabits?
MS: On “Black Panther,” Ryan was building a world, and the story of the three Black Panthers, a place, and what that mantle means. You don’t need to have seen a Marvel movie to understand what this film means or what’s at stake. We looked at every film that has successfully built a world. I obviously watch “The Lord of the Rings,” but I also watched “Blade Runner,” “Willow,” it was all these great movies that built history and relationships without words. Yet we know the history, and they’re accessible to the world. At the same time, people did not necessarily come to “Black Panther” for a message and they just want to see cool stuff on the screen. But the best kind of movie is a blend between a big studio like Marvel and the kinds of filmmakers like Ryan.
AF: One of the things I find so amazing is how you build Wakanda itself. It feels like a living, breathing place. Tell me about how you assemble footage to literally build a culture?
MS: Well it all starts with Ryan, then through the hair, makeup, visual effects, and costumes. They’d been working for a year before I came on, but I know how Ryan works. I remember in that scene, there was a lot more footage than most other scenes of that nature.
In addition to the cameras on the characters with dialogue, we had cameras floating around on the streets. Two cameras would just check in two people talking, or eating the meat, or people doing other things. It had to feel tangible so that you could reach out and touch it. But that all starts from the research, and the history and culture. One thing that Chadwick Boseman said that I really feel is true about the film, is not “what if Wakanda was influenced by Africa, but what if Wakanda influenced the rest of Africa?” It was the only place that wasn’t colonized. It helps to create an authenticity for the film.
There are hours and hours of footage, and I knew we had to show the vibrancy of the culture so we can show the mix between tech and culture. Anything that makes me laugh, cry, or feel something, I would write it down and keep it. Storywise, we also need to show Wakanda as a peaceful place early in the movie so that when the civil war occurs later in the movie, you ask what happened to these people. It was trusting my taste to see what felt real and combine all the amazing elements to let the other people who worked on this film shine.
AF: Unlike some of your other films, you collaborated with Debbie Berman as an editor on this film. How did that process work?
MS: It was wonderful, and while I know Ryan and we know how each other work, we had not ever done a movie this size. We’d never worked with Marvel, and we like to have a diverse editing room, both male and female. Especially in a film like this, where the women are so strong in front of the camera, we should have that weight behind the camera too. Debbie had done “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and she told us how she worked her way up to that part. We were blown away by her work ethic and her passion.
The way we work, we never want to get in the way of someone else’s passion. If Debbie had a particular ownership over a scene, we let them go. There were no, my scenes and your scenes. If we had something to give, they jump in. Sometimes we would bring in other people from the film, production assistants and other talent, to take a look with us. Allowing everyone to have this ownership is what helped the movie feel so universal and reach so many people. It’s something in this movie that helps them represent how they feel. It was always movie first, best idea always wins, and we’re here to be vessels for this thing.
AF: Now you mentioned the movie is about identity, and you can see that motif play all the way until the very last lines. How did you ensure that the identity question remained the focus of the film?
MS: Our identity can come from our relationships and conflict. So when looking at our own identity, who are we to those we look up to, who are we to the rest of the world, who are we to everybody, that’s a huge part of the film. For example, that first scene when he returns home, we set up who is in the family. He’s got a little sister that can still tease him, and his mother can offer him consolation because his Dad just died. Those are the things that any member of the audience can relate to. Who can actually relate to being the smartest, strongest, richest person in the world, or be a king? It’s because he’s got a sister, a mother, and his relationship with his father. On his journey, he learns its all a lie, and when that conflict rises up, he has to deal with it.
The “who are you,” that’s a great observation about it being the last line of the movie. It’s not just there, but it’s also ritualistically how they greet themselves to show they’re from Wakanda. The thing is, Ryan wrote it in as a routine thing so that when the final piece comes together, it’s this existential theme that he hasn’t beat over your head with the dialogue.
AF: So there are a lot of great performances in this film that get limited screen time. Just two that instantly feel relevant are Sterling K. Brown and Michael B. Jordan. How do you make actors of that caliber really work as efficiently as they need to, while still telling a larger story?
MS: Well you have to keep your eye on the big picture. Something I’ve found as an editor is the more unique you make something, the more universal it becomes. Always remembering what the scene is about should come first. For most of the movie, it is focused on Chadwick. But on a scene with Killmonger going back to see his father, you need to know what will come out of the scene that will affect the rest of the movie. The scene is based on their relationship, and what does Killmonger need from his father in that moment. What does his father feel about who his son has become? Making sure those things are there, we want to feel that tangible emotion so the audience can feel it. I cut for emotion, and that’s how I know it’s enough.
AF: Did you have to cut anything to service the larger story?
MS: Well my favorite scene we had to cut was a discussion between Danai Gurira and Daniel Kaluuya after Chad has been thrown over the waterfall. They have a discussion about their future, and what they’re going to do now. We loved the scene, but sometimes you have to kill your babies. In the grand scheme of the movie, it was after our main character had died. Audiences are smart, and they know in the back of their head that T’Challa will be coming back. They’d probably be upset if he didn’t. So we have to balance our time away from him so that when he does return, it’s a hell yeah moment. With the scene in, it was too long, especially because we already had the scene with Danai and Lupita Nyong’o. There were similar beats, so for the service of the pacing and flow, that had to go, unfortunately.
AF: I really love the Warrior Falls fights, but the one that I found extremely emotional was the one between Killmonger and T’Challa. You clearly know how edit fight sequences because of “Creed,” so how did you put this one together?
MS: You know, both Warrior Falls sequences are really similar. The first had a few more similarities to “Creed.” We loved putting those scenes together for that film, but even when the fights were excellent, there was something missing. It wasn’t until we put in the reaction shots from the crowd and the experience who loved the people who were fighting did it truly become emotional. I took that with me, and learning from Sly [Stallone] how a fight scene should be cut, you can infuse the emotion into the story. Also, you balance the ups and downs, peaks and valleys in the fight. Any good fight has stakes, with the hero winning a little, then losing a little, and then you’re living and dying with every moment.
The second fight is interesting because T’Challa is not giving everything he has. In the first fight he does, but in the 2nd fight, he’s so conflicted. He’s not himself. We don’t call attention to it, and we don’t want to push it on you, but if you watch the fight, you can feel it. Then you have all the reactions. We call it “taking your medicine” because sometimes you have had to slow it down and explain so that you can feel the reaction later. When he gets stabbed, you can see his mom and girlfriend are sick, but you also see his generals fighting back tears. They aren’t supposed to show emotion. Then you see W’Kabi, his friend, stoic. This is his way into the future. In that moment, right before Killmonger throws him from the waterfall, all the emotions come together.
AF: One of the more interesting aspects to the movie is that you had to incorporate in the Kendrick Lamar “Black Panther” soundtrack. How do you go about incorporating something big like that into the film?
MS: Well originally Kendrick was originally only going to do a couple of songs. Then he watched some scenes and he really liked, but he went away to do his thing. I remember one day Ryan and I were working on some stuff and he got a call from Kendrick to come over to the studio and check out the tracks. So he goes over and I get a call a few hours later from Ryan saying we’re in trouble. I’m a little shocked, and I ask why, and Ryan says the music is better than the movie right now. He was half joking obviously, but it lit a fire under us. In a weird way, Kendrick’s albums had always come out just before or during Ryan’s movies being made. They’ve basically all been the soundtrack to our lives at the time we’re making these movies anyway.
I think what it is is that we didn’t go too crazy. We also had Ludwig [Göransson] recording all this music, and traveling all throughout Africa to find the authenticity. He would find these people with weird instruments and flutes. He would tell them the story of the characters and have them play individual instruments for these characters. They had this guy playing a crazy flute just screaming Killmonger into the flute, and it became the Killmonger theme. Plus, Ludwig is Childish Gambino’s producer, so he’s used to the hip hop world.
During the car chase scene, it was a perfect way to combine score and Kendrick. There were other times we were wondering if we should use a song at all. Sometimes it was no. The lyrics of the song, especially with Kendrick, would break you out of a movie state if you’re watching it. We might need you to spend time with these characters instead, so sometimes you have to make those choices.
AF: The entire South Korean sequence is one of the coolest action set pieces since “Mad Max,” so I have to ask how you guys brought all those elements together?
MS: So Marvel knows that a lot of their films have similar qualities to them, but they want you to branch into other genres. In the case of South Korea, it feels like a scene out of James Bond. It starts when Shurri shows him all the gadgets, and it sets up the hopes and fears of what the mission can be. It was also important to always tie this to T’Challa, and check in on him over the scene. Even small things, like choosing when to show all the henchmen, moved around.
The conflict is not just between Klaw and T’Challa, but also within the team. Nakia is telling the team they have to go get him now, and Okoye is telling her to wait. Chad’s like stand down, and then Okoye gets caught. Of course, Ryan is a fan of oners if you’ve seen “Creed” you know. Well here, there’s 100 extras, squibs, gunfire, and special effects. It would have been impossible. So when they shot that, I was on set.
We had to build in cuts to hide like they did in “Birdman,” and in between each cut, we’d run down where everyone was at emotionally before picking up the next shot. That’s how we try to make it seamless. Ultimately, the scene is about the team working together and we wanted to make it fluid to help that. I realized there was a whole minute where we didn’t see T’Challa, so I realized that we had to build in something in the middle of the fight, even if just for a minute. That day was such a collaboration between stunts, the camera team, post-production. Everyone.
AF: What about the car chase?
MS: So we filmed the car chase in South Korea. One of the things about the car chase, in addition to keeping up with all the characters and their geography in the chase, is that it’s still about relationships. I’ve never seen a car chase where the guy is on top of the car and his sister is driving from another continent. But the fact that they’re trusting each other, and have that chemistry shows that they’re in it together. There’s stuff we had to leave on the floor, but ultimately you have to have fun.
AF: Thank you so much for your time today Michael, this one is already a big rewatchable movie for me.
MS: Thank you so much!