“There is a Misconception that Cutting Action is not an Intellectual Endeavor”: Debbie Berman on Editing Black Panther
Of the 250 top-grossing films in 2017, women comprised only 16% of all editors. That makes Debbie Berman, co-editor of Black Panther, a glowing exception. And not only has Berman had a successful career spanning work in her homeland of South Africa, Canada and now LA, she’s made a name for herself in the Marvel sphere. Last year, she co-edited Spider-Man: Homecoming, this year, the ground-breaking Black Panther alongside Michael Shawver (Fruitvale Station) and has the Brie Larson-led Captain Marvel out this year.
Filmmaker had a chance to ask Berman some questions about her impressive career and her knack for interlacing narrative and emotion into each sequence, action scenes included. “I think there is a misconception that cutting action is not an intellectual endeavor, but done right, action editing is one of the most rewarding and challenging things you can do,” she tells us. Black Panther has proven a cultural phenomenon for just that — illustrating characters like T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and Shuri (Letita Wright) as multi-dimensional and complex, with each carefully constructed scene.
Berman also opens up about her journey as a storyteller, from the mentors who introduced her to Marvel, to all of the people that told her “no” along the way, to her relationship with Black Panther director Ryan Coogler. If there’s anything clear about Berman’s drive, it’s that it embodies tenacity, collaboration and the ability to put story first on moving pictures of any scale.
Filmmaker: First off, I want to say how incredible the editing is in both Spider-Man: Homecoming and Black Panther. Both films display your ability to pack story into even the most crazy action-sequence. Where did you first develop your storytelling abilities?
Berman: Thank you! I’ve always been in love with telling and listening to stories. I was always an avid reader, and as a kid I would make story picture books by taking photographs and adding comic word bubbles to them. I probably started making films when I was about 11 years old with friends on weekends. It just always called to me. When I was 13 years old instead of getting my first make up kit, I got my first tripod. There was a linear editing suite at my high school, and I basically just skipped all my classes and lived in that room. I feel like I was born to tell stories and make movies, and that is all I ever really wanted to do.
Filmmaker: What was your first editing job, and what do you wish you had known then?
Berman: Big Brother South Africa! It was the first reality TV show in South Africa, and it was an insane time. Technically, I wish I had known how to use an Avid then! I lied in my interview and told them I knew how to use one, and we had this crazy turnaround time because they would live stream two cameras 24 hours a day and then once a day they would have a 30-minute show of what happened the day before. Usually you get about a month to edit a 30 minute show, here we had 24 hours, and it was my first job ever, and I literally had no idea how to use the software! I remember after my first two hours on the job I suddenly looked down at the keyboard and realized that there were a whole bunch of buttons there instead of just the ones I could see on the screen. It was a revelatory moment! And you would be sitting in a room full of executives so you had to figure out how to do things quickly. But I’ve always been a technical person…. I used to be a dial-up internet support technician while I was in film school, so I assumed I would figure it out. If I got really stuck, I would excuse myself to the bathroom and run and frantically call a friend to help me know which buttons to use. They probably thought I had some kind of serious bladder issue. “Can you add a title to that?” “Um yeah sure… just going to the restroom quick.” “Do we need a dissolve there?” “Absolutely… wow did I drink a lot of coffee today… be right back!”
Filmmaker: You worked for years to move from South Africa to Vancouver and then to get a green card. It’s interesting when I see other people, not just women, succeeding in an impossible industry, there’s a commonality in their background that is evident of determination and hard work. Tell me about those years. Did the hardship teach you perseverance?
Berman: It was definitely a long and grueling journey for me. I started my career in South Africa, and around about the time I stopped chasing people looking for work and they started calling me, I moved to Canada and had to start all over. It’s an industry of “who you know,” and because I didn’t know a soul in the country, it was unbelievably challenging. Around the time my career started solidifying in Canada, I moved again to Los Angeles. The hardship definitely tested me and my passion. But as difficult as it was constantly being unemployed and fighting to become a filmmaker, nothing felt harder than not being able to do the thing I feel I was born to do, so I kept going. I was quite simply going to make movies, or die trying. Those were my two options. I definitely developed a thick skin. The word “no” does not deter me at all. I remember when I was fighting to get on Spider-Man, and everyone kept saying “no” to me. I didn’t feel sad that I was being rejected. My brain interpreted that as “This is so great! We’re having a conversation about me working on Spider-Man!” The word “no” was just an annoying part of the conversation that I had to work through. I don’t think I would have been so at ease with rejection if 90% of my career hadn’t been filled with absolutely everything being a seemingly insurmountable uphill battle.
Filmmaker: Who were your mentors coming up in the industry, and who were the people who told you “no”? I’m always curious to hear about the champions and also those that you had to evolve past.
Berman: I have been extraordinarily blessed to have quite a few mentors. My first main mentor has been Kevin Tent, who is Alexander Payne’s editor. I have a joke with him that says “All Roads Lead to Kevin Tent,” because every successful pathway in my life somehow goes back to him. I met him when I was in Vancouver editing on Space Chimps, and he was Barry Sonnenfeld’s editor and he consulted on that. I was so excited to meet a real editor from LA that I devoured up everything I could learn from him. He helped write a letter for my green card, he helped me get an agent, he entered me into the Sally Menke Editing Fellowship, and he introduced me to Dan Lebental, who is one of the reasons I work at Marvel. I always felt so lucky that Kevin had decided to mentor me, and then I started meeting more and more upcoming editors and realized that he was doing the same thing for about 50 other people! An incredible person. Kevin, Dan and I used to go out for “scotch nights” all the time, and we would talk about movies and it was a dream come true for me to sit with two of the greatest editors in the world and talk story. Dan took me under his wing, and I ended up editing for several weeks on a Paul Schraeder-written indie film with him. Dan was happy with my work and suggested me for Spider-man. It was a hell of a fight to get on it, and it took me several months and ignoring a lot of “no’s,” but it eventually happened and it all started with Dan supporting me.
Other mentors have included Jeff Ford, who is an absolute genius and who constantly wields calls from me at Marvel about process and story. When I got the Sally Menke Fellowship, I got to choose editing mentors, and I knew I wanted to work at Marvel, and he was the lead editor there, so I chose him. It’s pretty phenomenal working besides him all these years later, and I still go visit him on the lot all the time to learn from him and hear his thoughts on the films I am working on. The last editing mentor I want to mention is Wyatt Smith, who is a brilliant and sensitive story teller and who is always the first in line to watch and support my work. He made a point of watching The Final Girls, which meant so much to me… it’s always easier to support me the on my big movies, but it’s the people who supported me on my indie fare who I will alway be most grateful for. I’ve also been mentored by Mary Jo Markey, Paul Rubell, James Haygood and many more. I also feel extraordinary blessed that Victoria Alonso has taken me under her wing at Marvel and mentors me. She knew that I wanted to work on Black Panther and on Captain Marvel, and it is directly because of her that those two dreams have come true.
Filmmaker: The Sally Menke Editing Fellowship you won through the Sundance Institute in 2012 — is this around the time you met Ryan Coogler? What made you gravitate towards working with him, specifically as an editor and storyteller?
Berman: Yes and no! This just happened to be the year that [Fruitvale Station] won Sundance, so I was actually there the night Ryan’s career blew up. I remember hearing his name called, and then watching him run to the stage and then stop to turn around to give Michelle Satter [Director of the Feature Film Program] a big hug before continuing onwards to receive his award. And I remember thinking that there was this new filmmaker, at the biggest breakthrough moment of his career, and he stopped to thank the people who got him there. I knew that was the kind of person I would love to work with, especially because I found Fruitvale so powerful. For years I kept emailing Michelle Satter and my agent Robin Schreer about him… it’s almost weird when I look back now about how I kept following his career and felt a calling to him as a filmmaker. And when I was working at Marvel on Spider-Man, I kept taking about him and Black Panther, so they knew I wanted to be a part of it. When I met Ryan and Michael Shawver (my co-editor), there was an instant and intense connection. They felt like family to me, and it felt although we came from extremely different paths in life, we all looked at the world the same way and shared an intense passion for filmmaking. I got offered the job on my drive home from the lunch and I couldn’t believe it, but at the same time, I felt a huge sense of destiny.
Filmmaker: Michael P. Shawver has worked with Coogler on Fruitvale Station and Creed. What was the working relationship like, and why did it makes sense to have both of you?
Berman: I feel incredibly lucky because I had an absolutely phenomenal working relationship with Michael. Initially I felt intimidated because he and Ryan had been working together for so many years, but he let me know immediately that I was embraced as an equal collaborator in their team, and I felt his full support and respectful collaboration throughout the entire process. It’s difficult sharing a job title with someone, but Michael is an absolutely brilliant editor, and so I knew that if I couldn’t touch a scene, it was in good hands. You need two editors on a film this big. We had almost 500 hours of footage… there was a lot of movie to get through. Also, everything is going through editorial, so actually sitting at an editing machine is only really a third of the day. You’re also in VFX reviews, sound reviews, dealing with running a huge department. It’s a massive undertaking. Changes happen fast and furious and even with two people going full speed all the time, it’s beyond grueling. Mike and I were extremely supportive of each other, and we always had each other’s backs. I felt free to give commentary on his work because I know he would consider it deeply, and vice versa. We always put the film first, so if one of us had a feeling or an idea for a scene the other was working on, we would switch scenes and do whatever it took to make the movie the best it could be. It also helped having fresh perspective and another pair of eyes on my work. Michael is an incredible editor and person, and I couldn’t have asked for a better partner.
Filmmaker: What were some of your editing inspirations on the film?
Berman: One of the things I like to do to synch up to my directors in general is to watch their favorite films. It may not even translate style wise to the current project, but it lets me know what they love, and helps me get into their headspace a little and understand their references better. Because Ryan is such a wondrous, kind and gentle soul, I figured I’d be watching all these heart warming “triumph of the human spirit” stories. I was wrong. His favorite film is A Prophet (directed by Jacques Audiard) which is an intense and quite dark and violent journey; and then I followed that up with one of his other favorites, Fish Tank (directed by Andrea Arnold), which is also pretty disturbing. But ultimately they both examine character in quite a fascinating way, and I realized that discovering what makes people tick was important to Ryan, so that informed some of my editorial choices.
Filmmaker: I cried during two or three of the action sequences — as did a lot of people. They were so emotional! What makes a good action sequence to you and how did you apply that to Black Panther?
Berman: That’s amazing to hear! I think there is a misconception that cutting action is not an intellectual endeavor, but done right, action editing is one of the most rewarding and challenging things you can do. I always feel that it is important for a good action scene to have clarity, so that you can understand what is going on. If you are confused, you don’t emotionally connect to the material, so sometimes it is about slowing things down to understand the story points. Then looking for moments of humor or emotion, depending on what that action sequence is calling for. Humor is usually found in the unexpected; emotion, especially on this film — [it] is explored through people’s reaction to the action. T’Challa’s family and loved ones watching the fight are the ones who take us through that emotional journey, so it was important to spend time with them, and a lot of that came from Ryan and Mike’s experience on Creed and their exploration of creating fight scenes with high emotional stakes. If you can develop character during an action scene that’s an added bonus… like Shuri and T’Challa during the car chase scene, we get to see their relationship build. And then on top of that… lettings things be cool and fun and exciting! Interweaving all of those things is a huge challenge and one that I love.
Filmmaker: What’s a day in the life editing this film with Coogler and Shawver?
Berman: Interestingly enough, I spent more time on this film just talking than I ever have on another project. Ryan is brilliant and hilarious and exceptionally empathetic. The three of us would spend hours every day not just talking about the film, but about our lives and the world around us. At first this was unusual to me… there was so much work to do and I wanted to jump on the edit machine and plough through the footage! But you can’t fight it, this is how Ryan likes to work. And I realized that all our conversations and emotions and the personal connections we were making to each other eventually worked their way into the film and made it more layered textured grounded and personal. As for working with him… Ryan is the greatest person in the world. He knows what he wants, but is simultaneously exceptionally collaborative, insists on honesty, truly listens to your concerns and allows you to contribute with a heavy hand. Mike and I would work alone and then view our work together with Ryan as a group and then discuss next steps. Sometimes we would have directorial working sessions for more intricate notes. Ryan is also the most specific person I have ever worked with, and his notes can be exceptionally detail-oriented. But then at the same time he will be wide open to bold and drastic suggestions. If Mike and I felt one way, but he felt the other, he would usually honor the majority because he trusted us and our instincts. He is an exceptionally talented filmmaker who works from his heart and his gut, but also from a deep analytical understanding of film making. The movie was his whole life, and I’m not convinced he ever really left the office or slept.
Filmmaker: I look at Black Panther as such a success on so many levels — did you ever have a moment where you realized what an impact this might be, not only for the film industry, but the inclusivity and acceptance in our society?
Berman: I’m from South Africa so the representation was exceptionally important to me, and I knew it would mean a lot to people, and I always felt the weight of what it would mean to people, but we had absolutely no idea it would blow up the way it did. The only time I got a hint of it was when I was editing late one night with Ryan, and Ta-Nehisi Coates came to visit. And we were focusing on the end battle and really wrapped up in it, and then we played a small part for Ta-Nehisi. I remember turning around to get his feedback, and his face was full of emotion. And he just kinda shook his head and said, “You guys have no idea what’s coming… you have no idea what this is going to mean to people.” And at first I just thought maybe he was emotional because it was cool to see a character he had written on the screen and how much it had meant to him personally to see Black Panther represented. But there was something in his voice that basically took all the air out of room, and there was this moment where I could feel the intensity behind his words. And I remember getting chills, and I felt that something way bigger than any of us could imagine was going to happen. And Ryan and I looked at each other and I could tell he felt it too. It was an intense and magical moment. And then we realized it was crazy late at night, and we had so much to do that we just went right back to it! I feel incredibly lucky to have worked a film that was clearly so much more than just a movie to people. We poured our entire lives, hearts and souls into making the film, and to feel that love reciprocated is the greatest feeling in the world.
Filmmaker: How did Black Panther empower you? And how do you hope to empower others through your experience?
Berman: There’s another magical moment I will always remember on this film. I was on set and Ryan, Rachel Morrison and I were trying to figure out the opening shot of the film. And I suddenly got this frozen snapshot in time and I realized that here was an African-American director, with a female director of photography on his one shoulder and a female editor on his other, and we were making a $200 million together. And this is an unheard of situation! And I think part of what makes this movie so special, voices that aren’t usually heard were finally given a voice to speak, to roar! And in return I am trying to enable other voices to speak because there are powerful, fun, exciting, emotional stories about there that need to be told, and I want to be a part of telling them.