Behind the Scenes of “Captain Marvel” with Editor Debbie Berman

If there were such a thing as a king or queen of the box office, it would undoubtedly be the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Captain Marvel, the 21st entry in the franchise, is the latest to add to the over $7 billion dollar haul the Avengers and their allies have pulled in. But while it follows in the footsteps of other Marvel films, it stands on its own in one notable regard: it’s the first female character-led entry in the MCU.

Making a Marvel film is no easy feat. These are big movies. And much like Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) spends much of Captain Marvel trying to piece together the life she can’t remember, the creative team behind the film expend a lot of effort piecing together her life for us to see on screen.

With that in mind, we spoke with veteran MCU editor Debbie Berman about her editorial approach to selects, finding the heart of Captain Marvel in one scene, and why Marvel executive producers sing “Let It Go” to her.

Editors and dailies assemble

Considering it takes a large team of heroes to regularly save the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s appropriate that it also takes a large team to create the MCU. For Captain Marvel, Berman worked with co-editor Elliot Graham, as well as a roster of first assistants (Jessica Baclesse, Kimberly Boritz), second assistants (Basuki Juwono, Christos Voutsinas), assistant editor (Joe Galdo), finishing editors, music editors, four visual effects editors, and more.

Berman appreciates having a large team supporting her because it frees her to narrow in on the creative, not technical, side of editing. “If those other things are taken off your plate, your focus can be where it needs to be, which is telling a story and finding the best version of the film,” she says.

Berman began looking for that best version of Captain Marvel early by diving into the dailies footage, which were shot on the Alexa 65 in 6.5k ARRIRAW open gate at 1.9:1 aspect ratio (for the IMAX scenes; per IMDb, additional scenes were at 2.39:1). They edited on Avid in DNxHD 115, 1920 x 1080, using Apple computers, Black Magic hardware, and Blue Sky boxes for 5.1 audio.

“I like to watch every second of the dailies,” Berman says.“If you’ve got the footage, you should watch every frame of it because you don’t know what gems are buried there and what information you can find to make it a better film,” she says.

She kept up with them regularly during production, too. “The bins were organized based on dailies, editors’ work bins, scenes cut, and then we would make reels bins. All of the master bins of the original material were organized by the assistants in its own master folder, which also applied to the sound rolls,” she says.

Staying on top of the footage is useful, if not essential, for a project like Captain Marvel. Not just because MCU films typically have hard release dates to hit, but because they’re (understandably) full of action scenes which produce days of non-chronological footage. Watching and assembling as footage comes in allows her to always be up on the footage and, eventually, the early cut.“They’ll shoot something one day, you’ll have that footage the next day, and then you can pretty much get it done by that day,” she says.

The film’s first audience

Berman is a strong believer in the importance of the editor during the transition from production to post-production. “You’re the first audience of the film,” she says. “You have the chance to give a completely different perspective to the scene as the only person who’s really seen all that footage without being there while it was being recorded.”

Berman likes to first orient her perspective around the director while making selects. “I usually watch the last take of every set up first, because that’s clearly something, directorially, they’ve been building toward. At some point they must have felt good enough about it to stop shooting,” she says. “It’s not necessarily the take I will use, but it’s the take that, blocking- and performance-wise, probably is in alignment with where we’re ultimately going.”

“I do want to be in tune with the filmmakers and what they’re going for. I might not agree with the intention and I might decide to go another way, but it’s helpful to understand what the intention was and then make a decision about whether to follow it or not,” she says.

With that reference point as an anchor, she goes through the remaining takes in reverse order, selecting “anything that speaks to me or feels like it could be a usable moment.” That can include actors’ facial expressions before “Action!” is yelled. Sometimes it may include a type of eavesdropping on the directors. “I’ll hear what they whisper to an actor like, ‘Oh, have a pause and consider this.’ Then I think, ‘Okay, that was important to them,’” she says. “In the take, I’ll then look out for that moment and think, ‘The actor did nail that note the director very specifically gave them, I think it works, and I should give it proper consideration.”

Once the selection process is done, she’ll put that material in her timeline to create a rough assembly with every clip she likes. “Then I slowly watch it over and over and do a reductive process where I see which take survives the pass. Watching it, removing things, refining things, and just slowly carving out what I feel is the best version of that scene.”

Alternates and collaboration

While Captain Marvel co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck would visit Berman during production once a week to check in, the movie’s 11-month post-production process didn’t properly begin until a week after the film wrapped.

Berman starts by showing Boden and Fleck what she’d been working on in the meantime. Then she likes to hear what they have to say. “When the directors come in, they can state what their intention was, but also consider, ‘Oh, there’s this other way it was done,’” she says. She facilitates that with a method of editing she uses to enhance the range of options. “I used to think, ‘Okay, I’m the editor. I have to choose which is the best way to go.’ I would force myself to just do the version I thought was best. Now that I have a little more experience, I’ll cut two or three versions, and go with the one that feels good, but still show the directors the other versions.”

Inevitably, the versions get discarded, but the work isn’t wasted. “You might realize several months later, ‘Now, with this version in the film, that one I did a long time ago actually fits better’ and revisit it and bring it back to life,” she says.

The nature of collaboration with Boden and Fleck varied. “Sometimes we’ll just have a discussion of what the ideas are for next pass and then I’ll work on it alone and show them. Sometimes we’ll have a working session and play with things together and say, ‘Alright, come back in two days. I’m going to try some stuff.’ Sometimes we’ll sit together,” she says. “It really just depends on what the scene calls for.”

The work distribution between Berman and co-editor Elliot Graham was slightly different. “Sometimes we’d all sit together and discuss big picture stuff. But, for the most part, we were dividing and conquering,” she says.

Graham, for example, handled many of the action sequences, but not because Berman, having edited previous Marvel projects, had a problem with cutting action.“On Spider-Man: Homecoming, I really wanted to prove that a woman could cut action sequences. So, in Spidey, I did most of the action,” she says. But with Captain Marvel, her priorities were different. “Because it was Marvel’s first female-led film, and I felt like I’d proven that a woman can cut action scenes, I felt it was more important for me to focus on the heart, and the humor, of this film,” she says.

The heart and breath of Captain Marvel

One sequence was especially important for Berman to focus on. “Louisiana really is the heart of the film,” Berman says of the section of Captain Marvel where Carol Danvers goes to visit her former best friend, Maria, who may be able to help her overcome her amnesia regarding her past. It’s a “slow” sequence, with a large emphasis on the chemistry and connection between Carol and Maria.

Berman knew it could be a risky sequence, especially because it comes after a lot of action. “You don’t want to lose all the momentum of a story. You’re in the middle-ish of the film, so you don’t want people to get bored,” she says. However, the sequence was vital in order for the audience to better immerse themselves in Danvers’ emotional journey, not as a superpowered being, but as a human being whose past has been taken from her. “You’ve got to spend the time building that so it’ll pay off later,” Berman says. “If you’re connecting emotionally, then I think it’s okay to slow down, and to feel the heart and the soul of the story.”

Louisiana was that to the filmmakers, as well. And Berman enhanced it with examples of how the impact of a scene can be substantially affected by the “little” things an editor does.

For example, there’s a moment where Maria’s daughter, Monica, shows Danvers old photos of them all together in order to jog Danvers’ amnesiac memory. “That was shot in a very linear fashion where she’d show a photo and explain the story behind the photo,” Berman explains. “I decided to try and make that more emotional by condensing all those moments and showing the photos one on top of the other. Instead of hearing every story separately, you hear the voices build, the stories build and echo over each other, to make it feel more emotionally overwhelming.”

Her intention was to immerse the audience in Danvers’ perspective so they felt it too. “You’re hearing all these voices echoing into each other and merging and feeling like, ‘Wow, this is my life, and I don’t even remember it. And there are all these stories that I don’t recall, ’” Berman says.

Another example is during an extended conversation between Danvers and Maria sitting across from each other at a kitchen table—which lives in the theatrical version almost entirely as it did in Berman’s first editorial pass.

However, in order to amplify it slightly, “I held one wide shot for a really long time,” she says. “It’s not something that you normally see in a film of this genre, but I thought, ‘I’m interested in just hanging out on this wide and watching both of these characters interact at the same time.’ It’s almost creating a small distance so we can build to more intimacy later in the scene.” She credits Marvel for letting her do it. “I always thought they would make me go into coverage quicker, but they didn’t. Everyone liked  being able to just rest and settle and watch.”

Letting go

The Louisiana sequence wasn’t the only moment that received some breathing room courtesy of Berman. An eleventh-hour change was made to the post-credit sequence where Goose the cat coughs up a “hairball” onto Nick Fury’s desk. “We had pretty much finished the film, and they were print mastering the film,” she explains. But then she had a creative epiphany.

Originally, the shot opened on Fury’s desk, and the cat jumped up immediately. “I realized if we just pause and sit on that empty desk for a while, it’s going to build a lot more anticipation and make that scene a lot funnier. I said, ‘We need a four-second pause there!’ Everyone gave me a look, because I have been accused in the past of not letting go of the films and of trying to make it better right up to the last second,” she says.

Nonetheless, everyone realized she was right. “I ran back to the edit suite, extended the shot, and quickly spoke to several departments to get special permission to change the film at that point. Everyone got mad for a second but then agreed,” she says. “But you know what? I think it’s better.”

It wasn’t an unusual situation for Berman. “I’m a big believer in trying to make the film better right up until they drag me away,” she says. Sometimes she’ll even be teased about it. “Executive producer Victoria Alonso always sings Let It Go from Frozen to me when we’re at the end of the process, and I still have a hundred more notes,” Berman laughs. “I respond, ‘Oh, that’s such a nice song. How sweet of you to sing it.’”

I’m a big believer in trying to make the film better right up until they drag me away.

Berman’s belief that a film can be improved up until the last minute is why, like many actors, she mostly can’t watch her films after she’s finished a project. “Even if I love the film, I don’t watch them again,” she says. “Part of it is probably that I just know I’m going to have notes.”

She does, however, make an exception for premieres or early screenings. “I love watching it with an audience because that’s what you do it for. You do it to feel people loving and enjoying that adventure you helped create,” she says. “There’s nothing greater than just sitting and watching a movie with an audience, and your edit evokes a strong emotional reaction in them that makes them cheer. For me, that’s why I love making movies.”

It’s also a reminder of what all the work is for. “Sometimes certain sections fall together naturally and there are other things that you had to really work hard at to transform into their final version, and you’ve really put a lot of, for lack of a better term, blood, sweat, and tears into it. Then to see that it works? That’s when you think, “Alright, I fought for that one, and we nailed it.’”

Alexander Huls

Alexander Huls is a freelance writer based in Toronto. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Esquire, and other fine publications.