'Black Panther' Editor Michael Shawver On Working With Ryan Coogler And Being "Popular" At The Oscars [Interview]

Editor Michael Shawver first met Ryan Coogler nearly eight years ago. They were both film students at the University of Southern California and shared a passion for films about important issues, basketball, and Batman. Impressed by Coogler's short films that he had directed in class, Shawver suggested that they team up, and the pair have been basically inseparable ever since — working together on all of Coogler's major films, from Fruitvale Station, to Creed, and finally, to Black Panther. As Coogler's star has risen, the director's partnership with star and muse Michael B. Jordan has been feverishly written about, but less so has Coogler and Shawver's long and trusting partnership.

"We absolutely do [have a shorthand]," Shawver told me in an interview on Black Panther on the heels of the Marvel film's Critics' Choice Award nominations. "We can kind of tell just by knowing each other. So I'll do what I can to protect him and vice versa."

Shawver and Coogler have rapidly risen in the industry since they were making short student films eight years ago. Now their latest collaboration Black Panther, the critically acclaimed pop culture behemoth that Shawver co-edited with Debbie Berman, gathers more awards buzz by the minute. There's even talk about it getting a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars. But Shawver is trying not to think about that.

"Just the thought that I'd have this tiny, minute piece of my voice in this movie and at least be a vessel for how this movie gets out there, is honestly the reward," Shawver said. We talked about his and Coogler's long journey to Wakanda, and where they look to go from here. Plus Shawver reveals the hardest scene he had to edit in Black Panther, and how it beget one of the standout moments of the film (Hint: "Hi Auntie.")

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You've been working with Ryan Coogler as a team through Fruitvale Station and Creed, to Black Panther. How have things changed in the five years since then?

Well it's actually more like eight years, because we met in film school. We both went to the University of Southern California and we were in a directing class together. He was making short films that were just relevant and about important issues, and that's kind of the reason I wanted to get into making movies. So I went up to him one day and said, "Hey I want to work with you, and I edit a little bit." Fortunately there was a class in school that in every way is kind of a small version of a film set, and we became a team and learned how to work. We actually started collabing in school, which is great because you have a bit of a safety net. Nobody's putting millions of dollars on those movies. And I think [it helped us form] that mentality of "What's the best story that we could tell?"

And I think the big thing with Ryan and myself is that we'll both be the first people to admit we're not the smartest people in the room. We know that we have so much to learn. On Fruitvale, we screened the movie early on with some professionals we trusted and we did the same thing again with Creed and then Black Panther, so that hasn't changed. I think what's really changed is the size of the movies. We try to keep the same process but there's a huge difference for Ryan with directing a crew of only 50 people and directing a crew of hundreds of people. And Ryan's the kind of filmmaker that wants every single thread of the movie to be as real and authentic as possible, because we know the audience is smart and will call B.S. if they feel otherwise. So Ryan is out working with these other departments that we've never worked with before, so he puts more and more trust in his editors — you know, me — to tell my story with the movie and say, "Look we've been through this, we trust each other, we trust our process." And with Black Panther, I only spoke to Ryan a handful of times during production. We'd talk about cuts, he would call and say, "Hey what do you think about this?" And especially on Black Panther, every department is responsible for some part of the movie as a whole, and as an editor on those movies, I would be in meetings to talk how we can make this action scene better, what shots can we do, what lines can we add to the movie to make it better, to make it clearer, to make it a better experience for the audience. I think those tough days early on where we didn't really know what we were doing, and sort of trusting our gut and taste — because that's why we get into making movies, because you feel like you have good taste. And then you make something and look at it and wonder, "Why the heck was this terrible?" and you keep doing it more and more to close that gap from where you are. That process has evolved to the point where now we feel like we kind of have a handle on things, and we're always there for each other, but the trust has only grown stronger. 

Since you've developed such a strong partnership, do you have a shorthand for working with each other? How do you guys communicate?

It's an interesting thing because there are so many different people involved. We absolutely do [have a shorthand], you could say at the speed we say words to each other when we talk, sometimes people ask, "Wait, what did you guys say?" Half the time we're talking about Batman or basketball or something else, but in a lot of ways it helps because when Ryan's off doing something else, even if he doesn't say it, I can kind of read him in a room. We can kind of tell just by knowing each other. So I'll do what I can to protect him and vice versa. But at the same time, we look at our team as like a filmmaking family: everybody should feel ownership, everybody should feel value and respected. So at the same time as having this level of communication that is wonderful, we try to bring everyone else into the fold with us as well. Ryan fully believes that the people who make the movie are more important than the movie itself. So anytime there's anyone's having a tough time or a bad day, or even a national tragedy, Ryan will stop and call a meeting to make sure everyone's okay. We want everyone to buy into that because we believe that's what makes the best movies. Especially something like Black Panther, which brings people together. The only way to make it universal is to have everyone involved to tell a story.

Black Panther Trailer

Can you describe to me what your process is when editing a movie?

Well first, I sit at the computer and I stare at the screen and wonder why they hire me. But I realize that I have to trust my taste and trust my gut. The role of an editor to me is we're the first audience, we're sort of the gatekeepers for every other department. Everything from music, to sound, to hair and make-up, if there's a take that's a really great performance...But if something is off continuity-wise or it's really bland, I'll go to the VFX team and ask if there's any way to fix this so we can use this really great performance by this actor.

As for my process... I bought myself some really comfy slippers because I want to get in the zone of when I'm most comfortable watching movies, because I sort of need to get lost in the footage. So when I watch it, I feel like anything that makes me laugh or anything that makes me cry, anything that makes me feel something in any way — and movies evolve throughout the course, this process was about a year and a half. So things that I thought at the very beginning were going to make the movie didn't, and vice versa. For example, the scene where T'Challa meets Killmonger for the first time: That's a very difficult scene, it was one of the most difficult for Ryan to direct and for me to edit mainly because there's so many characters and the whole movie just changes at that point and everything gets thrown on its head. It's a pretty convoluted scene. And the first line that I felt when I watched the 8 to 10 hours of footage, was the take that we ended up using with Michael B. Jordan saying, "Hey Auntie." Which gets a laugh every time, and it made me laugh the first time I saw it. So I actually built that scene from the middle of the scene out, because I knew that was a very big emotional moment for all the characters. Killmonger's truth is finally out and everybody's shocked, and that was his whole plan, it's a very emotional thing. So I just take those things and I build and I keep in mind the experience of someone who's never seen this movie before, and what emotional ride they need to be on. I start to build it in my head a little bit, start to cut it a little bit, but I try to keep it as organic as possible.

To me, editing is really the flow of energy between the characters on the screen, not just the words, but also in relation to the audience and the movie itself. I think that is most important relationship, if you can get the audience to relate with the characters in an emotional way. Then when you get to those big fight scenes, they're going to live and die with every punch, with every breath. But at the same time, we sort of have to have a scope on the whole entire movie while we pay attention to every minor detail. I'm cutting a scene based on the themes we talked about, whether the conflicts that are happening or the overall themes, if I could put that in every thread and every frame and every cut — I like to believe that the overall movie will feel that way and when you leave the theater you feel like you experienced something as opposed to just being entertained for a little.

You described your process as very organic, but did you find that under a big corporation like Disney and Marvel, you had to change that process for Black Panther, being the biggest movie you had edited with Ryan to date?

Absolutely. 100%. For me, it was really interesting because usually as an editor we get a pile of footage and basically the idea is "Here you go, this is what we spent our money on, this is what it is, this is what we think is the best. You put it together the best you can. But you're going to make this work, we don't have the resources to do whatever we want." But for Marvel and Disney because there are so many great resources available to us, and because there's a VFX nature to these movies, I honestly had to learn how to use my imagination. Usually we just take this molded clay and make something of it, but I started about a month before they started shooting and I was involved with rehearsals, but I was also in the creative meetings. At first I was like, "Oh they don't want to know my ideas," but over there, they truly embrace the team aspect of it.

But at the same time we always had to make sure it stayed in the realm of authenticity because I think what works so well about the movie, and what Ryan and every department tries to do is find the truth in the science-fiction based ideas. And there's other stuff too, learning how to be a leader, learning how to lead a team — keep the machine going. There's a whole level of hype, especially with this movie, it's impossible to cut yourself off from it completely. So we sort of used that hype to feed us; when we got tired from long nights, we would be able to push ourselves to do it. The other thing too, is I was talking about T'Challa and Killmonger meeting for the first time — it was about 10 hours of footage — I got a call from a producer at 10 a.m. in the morning asking if I could cut the scene by the next morning. Which is terrifying. So I just had to go in and say screw it, and just trust my gut.

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What was your reaction to the Critics' Choice nominations and awards buzz that Black Panther has received, and the possibility that Black Panther could get an Oscar nomination?

I mean, I just got chills when you said that. The moment I think back to is probably a month before we locked the movie. Ryan and I were just sitting in my office and staring at the walls. We put the scenes on the wall and kind of moved them around and said, hey would this work better here? And we kind of looked at each other and said, "Is anybody going to like this movie?" Like are we doing it justice, are we doing our jobs? And this is just after Ryan had first heard Kendrick [Lamar]'s album and kind of freaked out a bit, saying "We need to step it up a bit because that album's really good, it can't be better than the movie." But for us — it's going to sound cliché — it's seeing people dress up and going to the theater, seeing people renting out buses, seeing kids dancing on tables. I'll never forget those images. Ever. And just the thought that I'd have this tiny, minute piece of my voice in this movie and at least be a vessel for how this movie gets out there, is honestly the reward.

For me, the award stuff is awesome and it would be the greatest honor and just my wildest dreams. But I'm super excited for the other departments: Hannah [Beachler]'s production design, and Ruth [E. Carter]'s costume design, and Camille [Friend]'s hair and make-up — everything. I was in awe just working on this movie, and I had to pinch myself just seeing everybody else's work. And I worked with my co-editor Debbie Berman, who I had never worked with before, and finding someone who comes from a different place — the diversity honestly brought out the best product. But at the end of the day, especially with this award things happening, I'm finding that a lot of people actually haven't seen the movie.

Really?

Yeah. There's a crowd — whether there's a certain age or whether they come from a certain place — they see a Marvel movie, they see another superhero movie. But we see it as a hero movie. Because the thing we realize is, is that across the board no matter what side of the aisle you stand on politically, people have found something they liked in this movie, and I think in a lot of ways it's because T'Challa is a noble politician. We kind of want leaders in our world who are like that. We search for people like that. But if someone who had never heard of Black Panther and only watched award-nominated movies, if they could watch it now and they get something from it, that's incredible.

So have you heard of the Academy considering the Popular Oscar category?

Yeah...

There was a lot of controversy around that category — some related to Black Panther — and they ended up walking back that decision. So what are your thoughts on the discussions around that category?

You know, it's very easy to be influenced by things I read and things I see, and I know there was a lot of speculation that [the category] was for us. And I can't really say, because I wasn't involved in that thought-making process. I guess my perspective is that, them wanting to give a pedestal to movies that they don't normally do — for whatever reason, I don't know if it was ratings — but I don't think the intention was a negative thing. I don't think they really did what a lot of the speculation was. Am I glad they took it away? Yeah, because I think change is needed but I think some people are more reactive than proactive. At the end of the day, if the speculation was true, if they wanted to make a new award so we got in, that's kind of cool. That shows the level of how many people we were able to affect with this movie. But I would love to see things more included, and I think time will change that. The generations of people that are going to be in the Academy, that are going to be voting, are the ones that have grown up with these movies and have a special place for it in their hearts.

On the other hand, the awards stuff is so exciting and I get to meet so many awesome people. I try not to get too caught up in it, because I feel if you got to live by it, you got to die in it. I'm so grateful to be able to do what I do, and I'm the luckiest guy in the world to have a working relationship with Ryan so early in my career. So I'm focused on what I'm doing now and what I'm doing next.

Speaking of what you're doing next, what can we expect for the Black Panther sequel? Can you tell us anything about that?

I hope so. I've only spoken to Ryan a few times, but he's very task-in-hand and he's thinking about Panther, and you know, he hasn't put pen to paper yet. We talked about ideas, but only during the first one saying like, "Oh if they let us make a sequel, what could we do?" But that's all speculation. And he's busy now on Space Jam 2, producing that. And what's cool is that after we work together, we're able to do our own things knowing that we will work together again barring some kind of weird situation. Knowing that as an editor, I just jump from movie to movie while Ryan does a movie every couple years, I just got to make sure I can be available for his next one.