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Black Panther editor explains why Marvel reshoots are a good thing

With Black Panther up for three Golden Globes, editor Debbie Berman explains how additional photography helps hone a movie's story right to the last minute.

Marvel Studios

When you hear a movie production has had to go back and reshoot parts of the story, you might think that movie's in trouble. But for Marvel, additional photography is an essential part of the moviemaking process -- and it certainly paid off for critical and commercial smash Black Panther, which is up for three awards at Sunday's 2019 Golden Globes: best motion picture in the drama category, best original score and best original song. 

Ryan Coogler and star Chadwick Boseman on the set of Marvel's Black Panther.

Matt Kennedy/Marvel Studios 2018

"Additional photography used to be viewed as, 'oh no, there's something wrong with the film,'" says Debbie Berman, who edited Black Panther with Michael P. Shawver. "But Marvel literally schedules additional photography from Day One, because they realize that once it's translated from script into images, you're still discovering the story."

I caught up with Berman, who previously edited Spider-Man: Homecoming and is currently working on Captain Marvel, to discuss the balancing act of the editing process, working with director Ryan Coogler, and what changed in reshoots for Black Panther, which also made four 91st Oscars shortlists -- music (original score); music (original song); visual effects; and makeup and hairstyling. Shortlists narrow the contenders in nine categories. 

Black Panther was such a huge cultural moment. What was it like to work on the movie? 
It was a pretty phenomenal experience. We poured so much love into the movie, and to see that reciprocated has been unbelievable. With me, especially, I'm from South Africa, so I poured my heart and soul into it to make it the best film it could be.

As one of the people responsible for ruthlessly cutting the film, do you spend time on set or do you prefer to keep your distance?
I like to go on set to feel out the vibe and get a sense for what's important to the director. But I don't like to hang around too much, because you can lose your objectivity. Sometimes something is hilarious on set, and you're influenced by hearing everyone laugh, but when you're watching it on a screen it's not funny. 

Marvel always does additional photography later in the film. At that point, I go on set quite a lot. They'll shoot the shot and I'll literally edit it in that second and we'll feel it out. That's when it's imperative, I think, to be on set.

Can you give an example of something that was developed in reshoots? 
One of the things we picked up in additional photography was the battle at the end of the film where the Dora Milaje, the female warriors, are surrounded, and right at the last minute they get saved by the male Jabari warriors. I said to Ryan, I really feel we've built up the most spectacular female empowerment figures and they've been kicking ass this entire movie and then right at the end, to have the men come in and save them undercuts what we built up throughout the film. Ryan thought and thought about it, and said what if some of the Jabari warriors were female? I was elated.

They had already shot this massive battle sequence with all the Jabari warriors being men, so in additional photography they went and they created some female Jabari warriors. Just to drive the point home, the very first warrior who breaks through the force field and saves the Dora Milaje is a female warrior. And that's one of the examples how additional photography just took something and made it better. 

Elite Wakandan warriors the Dora Milaje in action.

Marvel Studios

When people hear reshoots they often assume the film is in trouble. Is that not the case?
It's not necessarily that it's broken, it's more like how can we make this character's motives clearer? What is the audience finding confusing? Is there something we need to set up a little stronger, is there something we can make funnier, is there something that we can make more emotional? It's kind of like putting on another coat of polish now that the movie is more of a living, breathing thing and you can see it clearer.

What are the smallest things you change in additional photography?
Sometimes it's just a line here or there. We did little pickups to strengthen W'Kabi's motives, adding in a line here or there understanding why he supported Killmonger.

W'Kabi. played by Daniel Kaluuya, comes between Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman).

Matt Kennedy/Marvel Studios

Was there a longer version of the movie? 
The amount of footage we got for Panther was incredible. We had almost 500 hours of footage, which is a lot. We had to find the best story in those many stories. We wanted to spend enough time with each character so that they had depth, but not spend too much time that you go off on a tangent and lose all momentum or take all the focus away from the main character. It's this constant juggling act of how much time spent on what, how to streamline things, and get enough information across that you understand and that you care. And how to make the film political without being preachy, because it could have veered in either direction. Killmonger, we worked on that character so much. It was such a delicate balancing act because we wanted to empathize with the antagonist and understand where he's coming from but ultimately realize he's going about it in the wrong way. It was a monster job. 

What sort of thing did you have to take out?
Little things everywhere. Every scene had to come down to half its length. Ryan's such a deep thinker that there are so many layers to everything, but sometimes you just have to keep moving the train forward. 

What was the thing you were most sad to see go?
There was a scene early on in the film with Zuri and T'Challa where you got to see Zuri as his mentor, and they're talking about T'Challa's father. It was such a beautiful character moment, and it just killed the momentum of the film. We were really concerned if you don't see Zuri as the mentor, and you don't see them bond, are you gonna care when he gets killed later? But ultimately what happens is, when he does get killed, T'challa's reaction is so strong and so powerful and Chadwick's performance is so emotional that even though I might not have necessarily cared about Zuri because I didn't get to know him that well, I cared about T'Challa, so when I see him that devastated, it devastated me. So ultimately we're like this is a beautiful thing -- bye! (laughs). You gotta kill your babies just for the good of the film.

Forest Whitaker as Zuri, mentor to Wakandan king T'Challa.

Matt Kennedy/Marvel Studios

What emerged in the editing process that hadn't necessarily been there in the script?
Possibly the most powerful scene in the movie wasn't scripted that way. The opening scene in Oakland used to be the entire scene just played straight. Then editorially, and this was more Mike and Ryan, they discovered inter-cutting that scene later as a reveal when he confronted Zuri to find out what actually happened, it's so powerful to learn that information later in the film.

Obviously the movie has lots of effects to be added in as well, so how down to the wire can you get?
We keep going. I'm sure it drives everyone crazy. We just keep trying to make the film better well into the [audio] mix. We were approving one of the DCPs [Digital Content Package, the collection of files that's delivered to a movie theater] and Ryan and I had a bunch of sound notes. They were like, we could maybe put the sound notes in the IMAX version? We literally just kept going and they're like, okay, it's coming out in theaters now. 

So how do you know when it's done?
It's not done. I still have some work to do. (Laughs.) 

First published Dec. 17, 2018.  
Update, Jan. 4 at 1:22 p.m. PT: Adds information about the 2019 Golden Globes. 

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