Editing Marvel's Black Panther: Debbie Berman ACE
COW Library : Art of the Edit : Kylee Peña : Editing Marvel's Black Panther: Debbie Berman ACE
Debbie Berman, ACE, took a path to Hollywood blockbusters that wound through three countries over two decades and included South Africa's first reality TV breakthrough Big Brother: South Africa, indie hit The Final Girls, 2017's biggest grossing superhero film Spider-Man: Homecoming, and now the box-office-record-breaking Black Panther, co-edited by Michael P. Shawver.
Debbie Berman, ACE
Growing up as a movie-obsessed South African kid, Debbie used to make short films with friends (and pets!) on weekends, and had her first exposure to editing through her high school video club’s linear edit suite. While she always loved all aspects of filmmaking, she felt she had a natural tendency toward editing -- a job that combined her technical mindset (including time spent as a dial-up internet support tech!) with her creative side.
Spanning reality, television, indies and major feature films, anyone in the post production world should find inspiration in Debbie’s drive and career trajectory – a trajectory that most recently culminated in the collaboration of a female immigrant editor, African-American director, and female cinematographer on an action film that has grossed over a billion dollars so far. In Debbie’s own words, “Sometimes a movie is more than just a movie, and this is definitely one of those times.”
The cast of Marvel Studios' "Black Panther"
Creative COW: What was the process like getting involved with Black Panther? Were you involved early?
Debbie Berman: I actually have a serendipitous backstory to my involvement. I won the “Sally Menke Editing Fellowship” through the Sundance Institute in 2012, and as a part of that I got invited to the festival award ceremony. And it just so happened to be the year that Fruitvale [later titled Fruitvale Station] won. I remember seeing this young filmmaker run up to the stage, and when he was half way there he suddenly stopped and turned back to give Michelle Satter (Founding Director of the Sundance Institute's Feature Film Program) a big hug before continuing on to receive his award. And that told me everything I needed to know about Ryan Coogler.
Here was this new filmmaker at the biggest breakthrough moment of his career, about to receive a huge award...and he stopped to thank the people who helped get him there. I knew then that he was someone I would love to work with one day (and the fact that I ugly cried through most of Creed solidified that.)
I started the film the day they delivered the director's cut, so about half way through the process, and I was on it for around seven months. I had been off Spider-man: Homecoming for two weeks when I first got the call, so I was pretty burned out. But then I met Ryan and Michael Shawver (my co-editor) and instantly felt a strong kinship with them. I was exhausted but I couldn't say no, and the adventure began.
I think Marvel thought of me for the film because the whole way through Spider-man: Homecoming I kept talking about how excited I was for Black Panther. Firstly, because of my long held admiration for Mr. Coogler. Secondly, because when I went to watch Captain America: Civil War to meet Spidey, I ended up falling in love with Black Panther; and thirdly, because as a South African, this film was exceptionally important to me. I still get chills when I think of the people from my home country seeing this movie. Sometimes a movie is more than just a movie, and this is definitely one of those times.
What was your edit room dynamic with director Ryan Coogler?
On my second day of the film I told Ryan “I hope this isn't too weird to hear, but you're the greatest person I've ever met.” And I meant it. And I stand by that today. He is a phenomenal human being and filmmaker, and we had an immediately intense collaboration and friendship. He insists on honesty, which is good because I have strong opinions, and the film gets better if I can freely express my evaluations without dancing around delicate egos.
It was an intense, intimate and wonderful experience. I think Ryan has seen me laugh and cry more than most people in my entire life. We really just enjoyed each other's company, and respected each other as filmmakers. My partnership with my co-editor Mike was also particularly strong; and the three of us spent this magical moment in time in several dark rooms making a movie that we loved while laughing together, going to war together, and everything in between.
Can you tell me about a scene or sequence that was especially challenging, or that you’re particularly proud of? Why does this stand out to you?
This isn't a sequence, but it is something I am really proud of, and I think sometimes people don't realize how editors can contribute in non-obvious ways. At the end of the film (SPOILER ALERT) the Dora Milaje are surrounded by the Border Tribe, and the Jabari Warriors come to rescue them.
Initially this was filmed that Jabari Warriors who saved them were all men. And I turned to Ryan and I said “Please don't tell me we go through this entire film with these kick-ass women being absolutely spectacular, and then right at the end of the movie, the men save them. We just can’t do that!” So he thought about it and suggested, “What if some of the Jabari Warriors are women?” I was elated as I thought it was a brilliant solution.
Of course the reality was that they had already shot this massive complicated sequence, and a few miracles needed to be worked out by a several departments to make this happen. But happen it did, and in additional photography, Ryan got this fantastic shot of a Jabari woman warrior breaking through the force field shield, the first person to come to their rescue.
"Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER, Photo Credit: Film Frame, ©2018 MARVEL
On top of this amazing moment, there are also Jabari women warriors in the background of many other shots in this section. So now our glorious Dora Milaje are not only NOT saved by the men, but we get to have EVEN MORE kick ass female characters in this film! It's definitely one of my favorite parts of the movie.
So... not something you would think had anything to do with an editor; but it's something I love, am proud we fought for, and that I believe makes a huge difference to the film. Ryan actually sent me – I think it was a Twitter chain – where people were elatedly pointing out this exact moment in the film. And this is why it is good to have a female perspective on the team!
You’ve cut two big Marvel films, each with different kinds of characters capable of different types of action. What do you think is most important when cutting a lot of fast-paced, high action scenes?
For me the keyword is CLARITY. I really like to know what is going on and how the action drives the story and the emotion. For Spidey, I actually cut most of the action, that was my way in the door. For Panther, the car chase was my main action sequence.
I love cutting action because it requires a combination of driving story and emotion forward WHILE making everything look really cool and feel exciting. It's a huge challenge as an editor, especially when there are a lot of CG elements. There were some scenes in Spidey where I literally typed the word “vulture” and made the title fly around the screen, and then the next day that shot would exist. It was thrilling fun, but then also immense pressure.
What kinds of discoveries or lessons as an editor did you learn in going from Spider-Man: Homecoming to Black Panther that you hadn’t experienced before?
I hadn't been on a project that lasted that long before and was that physically demanding. I learned from my many Marvel Editing Mentors that this was a marathon and not a race. There was no point going full speed right from the beginning: you physically can't maintain that, and it hurts the film. So it was interesting learning to try pace myself. In the indie world, I used to go full out for the entire duration of the film...but that was usually only about four months so one could maintain that.
Another difference was the sheer amount of people on the project, and realizing that changing a scene (especially towards the end of the production) has a huge domino effect on several departments. Not to say you shouldn't do it – the service of the film and the story should always come first. But you TRY to do bigger changes early so that it has time to filter through all the departments it needs to. On an indie film I could do edit changes right at the end, and the bump on effect was almost non-existent.
You’ve cut reality, television, pilots, and tent poles. Many like to talk about how different editing all these things are — and require different experiences as a prerequisite to get on the project — but in what ways were they similar?
You're ultimately still just trying to tell an emotionally engaging story, and dealing with a lot of strong personalities to do so.
Nina Dobrev and Alia Shawkat in "The Final Girls" ©Stage Six Films/Vertical Entertainment
Black Panther has been breaking box office records and exceeding expectations, with many celebrating it as a victory for representation in film at the highest level. What does representation at this level mean to you? And what is it like to see such an emotional reaction to something you helped create?
There is this weird thing that happens when you start to have success...people come out of the woodwork en masse, and it mostly made me uncomfortable when it happened on Spidey. There was an insincerity and a feeling of ulterior motive to it.
But on Panther, friends and acquaintances from South Africa who I hadn't heard from since high school were reaching out non-stop with stories about their experiences watching the film. And I loved it because it was so real, and it was about how the movie affected them, and it had nothing to do with them reconnecting with me to try get ahead in the biz. They connected with me because our movie meant something to them, and that's the whole reason I got into the biz in the first place!
I was told tales about how the entire theatre gasped when the characters started speaking in Xhosa (a South African language), and how it gave them chills to be a part of that. I was frantically messaged to live stream a local South African radio station. I tuned in, and in less than 30 minutes I listened to over a million Rand being raised to take more than 8000 underprivileged kids to see our movie.
The timing was also quite magical as it coincided within days of the resignation of an unpopular South African President. Seeing Black Panther for South Africans became an outlet for jubilation, celebration, and hope for a new beginning of African pride and identity. This wasn't just a movie, it inspired people and changed lives.
South African actress Connie Chiume, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira and South African actor/director John Kani (who played T'Challa's father King T’Chaka) arrive at the South African premiere of Marvel Studios' "Black Panther" on Friday 16 Februry, 2018 at Montecasino, Johannesburg, via outrightgeekery
It truly was an incredible and humbling experience. Going online and seeing the audience singing, dancing, drumming, and dressing up for our film – and then going to the theater myself and observing every single showing was reserved for Black Panther was unbelievable. I know I'll never experience that again, but I am honored to have experienced it for a film that truly sang to my African Soul.
And I am proud of the representation in the film. There was one day on set where Ryan and the DP [Rachel Morrison] and I were all standing together discussing a shot. And there was a moment where time froze for me, and I looked at the snapshot of what was happening. There was an African American male, with a female DP on his one shoulder, a female Editor on his other, and we were making a 200 million dollar film together. And this has never happened before. And it was incredible. We showed the world what a diverse cast and crew can do. Who runs the world? The people who were always told that they couldn't.
Cinematographer Rachel Morrison, Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, and director Ryan Coogler on the set of Marvel Studios' "Black Panther"
Can you tell me about your journey to US citizenship? Why did you choose to move to the US, and how long did it take to become a citizen once you decided to pursue that path? How did it affect your career?
I wanted to come to the States quite simply because that is where the industry is. I think because there are so many immigrants, people don't realize how insanely difficult it is to do so. Apart from some lucky exceptions, most immigrants you meet have been through hell and back to make that happen, and it's probably taken them decades. I couldn't apply for a Green Card from South Africa, I simply didn't have a case to do so. Thus I initially immigrated to Canada – three-and-a-half years of bureaucracy and paperwork before I got my papers and could move there.
I then spent five years building up my credits there until I had enough ammunition to apply for a Green Card. Then I took most of a year off work to work on my application – it was well over a hundred pages. By the time I applied I was broke and literally couldn't pay my rent, but I had a kick ass application. I saw it as an investment in my future and was happy to “pay the tax”, but it was tough.
A year and a half later, I received my Green Card and I moved to the states. Five years later I was eligible for citizenship. So it took me 15 years, ten of those years really hard: leaving my loved ones, constantly living in transition, extremely stressful, expensive, lots of medical tests, police clearances, doubt, fear... it was brutal.
The film business is also an industry of “who you know,” so I had to build up a network and reputation from scratch three times. It felt like every time I got to a solid point in my career, I switched countries and had to start from the beginning. So it was difficult. I also had to learn how to drive on the right side of the road, and say “ketchup” instead of “tomato sauce.” But it was ultimately worth it.
What role did mentorship play for you in your career? Why is sharing experiences and opportunities important?
Mentorship has played a huge role in my career, and it's been through the kindness of fellow editors that my career exists at all. From my first break in South Africa to working on Big Brother: South Africa 2, to working on Spider-man: Homecoming, the conduit to those opportunities were fellow editors who believed in me and fought for me. And then having mentors to call when you get stuck in in a political situation you aren't certain how to navigate, or with a simple workflow inquiry is invaluable.
In fact, I see half of my job of being an editor is to make movies, the other half is to push people forward and try be a mentor myself.
Debbie with Michelle Satter, founding director and "Mentor-in-Residence" of the Sundance Institute's Feature Film Program
What advice do you have for people who want to edit movies and are nearer to the beginning of their careers than the middle?
Find your champions, avoid negative people, and keep fighting!
Also, don't be afraid to say "no" to projects. Saying "no" has steered my career more than saying "yes" ever has.
And things can flip suddenly, so keep the faith. It's important not to carry desperate energy in tough times. People can smell that a mile away, and will run from it. Turn your desperation into passion and incentive to fight harder. From my experience, people will be more drawn to help you then.