Super Cat: Ryan Coogler and Chadwick Boseman put 'Black Panther' in the Marvel spotlight

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As much as Black Panther deals with the ascension of T’Challa to the throne of Wakanda, the comic-book adaptation marks the quick ascent of Ryan Coogler, who with his third film is making a significant contribution to the blockbuster juggernaut known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

“I was excited to hear about what Marvel Studios wanted to do with the character of Black Panther,” he says. “More than anything, it was great to meet them as people. It’s a consolidated studio of a few folks who love telling stories well and making movies. I pitched them something very personal and what in many ways could be seen as risky. They were all for it.”

Personal storytelling is a guiding principle for Coogler, who mined his relationship with his own father when he made Creed. “It’s the only way I know how to make movies. It’s a difficult art form and not an exact science. You’re following your instinct and trying your best until you’re out of time. What gives me the gas to finish a project is that it has be something I find to be incredibly personal and I can obsess over a certain amount of time.”

Black Panther, which Disney opens on Feb. 16, has been described as The Godfather meets James Bond. “Our film has an international political thriller vibe to it, and also deals with ascension and a family dynamic that is in a position of power. The Godfather at the end of the day is a story about a patriarch passing his power onto his son. Our film deals with those themes as well, as Wakanda is a secretive place. We looked at films that dealt with those ideas as a motivation but also wanted to make our own thing at the same time.”

Moving from project to project, Coogler has a creative inner circle that was established on his independent feature debut Fruitvale Station, which includes picture editors Michael Shawver and Claudia Castello, cinematographer Rachel Morrison, production designer Hannah Beachler, composer Ludwig Göransson and actor Michael B. Jordan. “My frequent collaborators are also some of the most talented people I have ever met. It’s more than just knowing them. I try to work with the best folks that I can who are right for the job.”

Black Panther was also a great opportunity to reunite with a sibling. “I worked with my brother Keenan on Creed and he was my right-hand man on that film. It was fun having another chance to work with him on this.”

The film also provided the chance to be creative with new collaborators. “Victoria Alonso, who oversees the whole production and postproduction process at Marvel, is amazing. We had an incredible visual-effects team headed up by Geoffrey Baumann. It was an amazing process that I had to learn on the fly. I had worked with pre-vis and visual effects a little bit on Creed, specifically around that last fight sequence. But on this film almost every shot was a visual-effects shot.”

Accommodating the digital augmentation did not alter the day-to-day shooting process dramatically. “In certain ways it did, but in other ways we still did things the same,” Coogler notes. “This is my third film that I’m finishing up and each time the production process has been different. Fruitvale Station was shot over 20 days. During some of those days we had four hours to get in and out of the location. We had green effects on the train, but that was the extent of it. With Creed we were doing fight sequences and shooting in inclement weather. It was my first time shooting outside of California. I had to do pre-vis for a big visual-effects fight scene; that calls for a different style of shooting. We were doing stunts with our actors and real boxers. I took everything I learned on those films and built off of it. Black Panther was definitely like those films but on steroids!”

Visualizing the fictional high-tech African nation of Wakanda was pivotal to the world-building. “It was incredibly exciting and one of the coolest parts of the film,” Coogler recalls. “Marvel has a whole department that you and your designers work with called Visual Development and it’s headed up by an artist known as Ryan Meinerding. They help you develop some of the superhero looks and key frames. I also worked with an incredible artist named Hannah Beachler who headed up the production design, and all of the developments and looks for the entire country. One of the first things that I did before writing the script was spending some time in Africa traveling around different countries to get some visual inspiration. I also did a lot of research and reading about ancient African civilizations, such as the types of structures that they built and their lifestyles. When Hannah came onboard, she piggybacked on that stuff and took it to a whole new level. Between us and the folks at Marvel, we developed the look for Wakanda. We also had the benefit of having all the work that has been put in over the decades in the comic-book character’s existence.”

Tribal motifs carry through all of the costumes designed by Ruth Carter. “One of the big themes is, ‘What does it mean to be African?’” Coogler explains. “We explored that through all of our decision-making for the costumes, makeup, production design, movements and fight choreography. It’s an ensemble piece with lots of characters and history. We wanted it to feel old and lived in.”

A lot of work went into assembling a cast that features Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman. “Some of the heavy lifting had been done before us with Chadwick Boseman [T’Challa/Black Panther], John Kani [King T’Chaka] and Florence Kasumba [Ayo] being cast in Captain America: Civil War. I was able to write the script with a few actors in mind such as Michael B. Jordon for Erik Kilmonger, Lupita Nyong'o for Nakia, Danai Gurira for Okoye and Daniel Kaluuya as W’Kabi. Our casting process yielded some incredible faces. One of our biggest challenges was in finding our Dora Milaje, [Black Panther's all-female bodyguard squad]. We worked with our stunt coordinators Andy Gill and Jonathan Eusebio to find women who had the look we were going for and could do the required stunts. These characters are also important to Marvel because there’s a chance that they will carry over into other projects.”

No major changes in the narrative structure took place in the edit suite. “No more than it always has for me, even back to my short films,” Coogler reveals. “It’s not all the same. There’s the movie that you write, shoot, and finish within the edit. The narrative structure, themes, through-lines stayed similar to what I co-wrote with Joe Robert Cole. Through the development process of the script, we were constantly shooting holes in it, tearing it apart, looking at it with [producer] Kevin Feige, Victoria Alonso and [executive producer] Nate Moore. We have talented picture editors who had notes and ideas.”

The sound design was influenced by the technology of Wakanda being sonically based. “We saw that as a cool opportunity to do some awesome stuff with the sound of the weapons. As for the music, I had a chance to work with Ludwig Göransson, who is an incredible composer and music producer. He went to Africa with his fiancée, got together with local musicians and started working on finding the sounds for the film. I’m excited to see how people will respond to the score.”

“The biggest challenge for me on this film was keeping my feet on the ground,” Coogler confides. “I wanted to make sure that the reality of my dreams was coming through on this project. Having a chance to make a comic-book film about a character who is important to so many people and to work with a studio like Marvel Studios is a big deal. It’s such a big deal that it could be paralyzing and distracting if I thought about it too much. Every day I had to focus on the work that was at hand and not get overwhelmed by it. I counted to ten every day before I started work, before I showed up on set or walked to the office so that I could do my work efficiently. I’m so excited about all of these scenes. I hope that audiences show up to the film on time to watch the first scene, which is something that I’m excited and proud of.”