Editor Michael Sale Interview: Black Adam

Warning: SPOILERS for Black Adam.

With Black Adam crossing the $100M mark over Halloween weekend, it’s evident that fans are liking what they see in Dwayne Johnson’s antihero-turned-superhero. Aside from introducing Teth-Adam himself, it also set up the Justice Society of America as a major player moving forward and brought Henry Cavil’s Superman back into the fold.

The hierarchy of power has indeed shifted in the DC Universe, and one of the people who quite literally set the tone for the shift is editor Michael L. Sale, who worked on the latest Warner Bros. superhero blockbuster. From the emotional beats of Black Adam to the sizzling fight sequences, every moment of the film was locked into place with his help. It may surprise audiences to learn that he was previously best known for comedies such as Bridesmaids and Central Intelligence, but perhaps that’s where the film gets its wry sense of humor.

Screen Rant spoke with Sale about capturing the brutality of the anti-hero Black Adam while still making this film for all audiences, and shared how the tone of the JSA shifted from the original script. Sale also revealed how late in the game Superman’s post-credit scene came in and the different versions that were shot for the film.

Michael L. Sale on Editing Black Adam

Screen Rant: I remember walking out of the theater and noticing how well-paced Black Adam is. There were great moments towards the third act too, where you were able to catch your breath. Can you talk to me about the pacing and how much changed throughout the process of editing? How long were you working on the film?

Michael L. Sale: I started last September, right from Red Notice. I had one day off, and then I went directly into Black Adam because New Line and Seven Bucks’ Beau Flynn called me up and asked me to do it. I have to say I’m an unconventional choice for a comic book movie. John Lee makes a lot of sense, but when they talked to me about why they wanted me to do it, they said they had a lot of character development. And they did. I couldn’t wait. I’m a kid who grew up loving movies. I used to clean the movie theaters as a job during 1978 Superman and, by the way, there’s nothing more fun than sweeping up popcorn during that end-credit music.

I’ve been a DC guy for a long time. Of course, I love Dwayne Johnson, and I love antiheroes. So, I should have taken three or four months off, as I normally do, but I was like, « I’m in. » I went the very next day, last September. We worked like crazy right up until late September. So, a year. Yeah, a whole year.

Wow. That’s incredible. From the script to the editing room, how many changes are made from the initial run-through of the film to what we got to the final product?

Michael L. Sale: In different movies, there are different things. In this movie, there was quite a bit. Oftentimes, you lay them out based on the shooting script, and you get an assembly together. Out of the 25 or so movies I’ve worked on, it’s only really a couple of times where you’re just like, « Oh, this doesn’t need any help at all. This is perfect. »

In these big visual effects movies, they almost planned—not for reshoots, but to do additional photography because they know that they’re going to want to work on the end. It was quite a bit different in some aspects. The fight scenes and a lot of the heavy visual effects stuff were already crushing at the pre-visual stage.

This was a very tricky narrative, in that there were so many characters. It’s about an antihero, so we’re playing with good and bad; who’s good and who’s bad, and what’s good and what’s bad. That’s also very tricky, right? Some people watch this movie, and they’re like, « Wow. I don’t know who the villain is. I don’t know who the hero is. Nobody makes a statement about what’s good and bad. » I understand why some people say, « This doesn’t seem like the normal pattern. » But if you know 5% of what Black Adam is, you go, « That’s what this whole thing’s about. »

Can you talk to me about how you set the tone for the character beats in the editing room? Black Adam knows that he’s a brutal character, which I think you guys captured brilliantly throughout the film. It was more about the morality of Black Adam than anything else.

Michael L. Sale: There are a couple of things we’re doing. We make sure, first of all, that the people he’s killing are not too fleshed out as human characters. That helps because you don’t want to feel bad, right? Also, you have to make sure they’re somewhat bad guys. He’s not just going around killing all the Kahndaqi for sport. He’s defending people.

There were little things that were already built in the movie. When he wakes up at the Rock of Eternity, he automatically knows who’s good and who’s bad because he saves Adriana. Another great thing is that Dwayne has a lot of empathy built into him. He’s a huge guy, but he’s a puppy. You look at his eyes and smile, right? He’s perfectly cast. He said, « I’m born to play this part, » and he was. Having that in our back pocket helped out a lot.

But another part of it that was important was to try to get a little humor in at the beginning of the movie, because the beginning of the movie’s pretty intense. We have the whole backstory in Kahndaq that’s just straight from a drama. So, it’s going up that mountain and letting Kareem get a little giggle here and a chuckle here. It tells the audience, « Hey, we’re going to have a little fun with this. Come on this ride with us, » without being too silly. You have to know that this is going to be fun. A lot of my comedy experience helped with that, because we do it in a different way in some of those R-rated comedies I worked on. We’re like, « Here you go. The guy’s got his pants down. Start laughing. » This one was very delicate. How do you get it in there?

You warm up to who Black Adam is after he emerges and has that first battle with the army. Then he wakes up in the apartment, and you understand that there’s going to be some humor because we laid a little of that pipe in the first reel.

One of the early criticisms of the DCEU was the tone being too dark. Did you have any specific notes to either lighten the tone or move it in a different direction? Because we are in a new era of DC films.

Michael L. Sale: In terms of the overall DC world, if there were conversations like that, I wasn’t involved in it. But what I was getting from the producers was that we wanted to ensure [it wasn’t too heavy]. It would’ve been easy to make an R-rated version of Black Adam, right? Personally, I would’ve loved it. I would’ve been like, « Oh, let him punch his hand through people. Go nuts, » right? I’m an old dude, and I’m a horror guy. I like all kinds of stuff. I would’ve been happy.

There was a thing coming from the director and the producers that, « Hey, we want to make this movie for everybody. Dwayne’s got a huge fan base, and he has a family fan base. » For us, it wasn’t about keeping with any tone of DC, past or present. It was about establishing our tone and our brand and the Black Adam brand. Our tone is like, « Hey, we’re going to be edgy. But it’s also a movie you can take your kids with dad and mom, and you can watch. And it’s not going to be so horrifying that you feel bad, » right?

I think the proof is in the pudding because this week, you saw families go and enjoy Black Adam in large numbers. I was really happy that we went in that direction. I think that’s what these movies are for. I think what it does is open up a whole path where DC has options now to do a lot of different things.

How tricky is it to infuse the JSA, the oldest superhero team in DC Comics, with Black Adam? How did they shift the tone of the movie, if at all?

Michael L. Sale: Yeah, that was tough. Originally they were funnier, especially in their introduction, which on paper was good. It read well. But the problem is Jaume did such an amazing job with Black Adam coming out of that cave. It was so intense. It was really hard to meet them and have them cracking jokes. That was just a difficult tone shift. That was one of the things that we worked on.

Again, we had to start at the beginning with them tonally, and then let them become more fun as the movie went on. It’s a tough one when you have all those characters because—look, there is some world where there could have been a JSA movie, and then a Black Adam movie, and then a movie where Black Adam fights the JSA. But that was not our assignment. We were doing it all in one movie, so we had to pick a path.

We had a little bit more character development with them. Not a crazy amount. Not the thing where it was like, « Hey, Smasher’s trying on the suit for the first time. » We didn’t have that stuff because you could never have enough time to do that in this movie. It would be four hours long. We chose a path, and our path was that we couldn’t possibly tell the intricate backstories of all these characters in this movie properly. We introduce them in a way that makes you like them and want to know more. Our goal was that, by the end of the movie, you want a Hawkman movie. I want you to want a whole movie about Dr. Fate. I want you to be Googling online, « What is that helmet? »

That’s a tough one because I think a lot of people would want it to be more and more and more. But if you saw that movie version, you’d be like, « I’m just confused. » There’s 40, 50 years of mythology, and it’s intricate, and it’s cool. I could do a whole day-long interview with you about Hawkman and his world and his story and how Dr. Faith ties into that. And it’s beautiful. I hope DC does explore all that stuff eventually.

Was that initial stuff in any of the cuts in the film that have been since removed?

Michael L. Sales: No. We added a little for Hawkman as we went along. Stuff wasn’t really removed, but we replaced some stuff early, where they were standing and talking more. We put it in the ship, so they’re on the way. There weren’t a lot of things cut out of the movie. Things were shuffled around, and things were moved into different settings.

Amanda Waller is the only DC character from previous films in this universe. Is it harder or easier to establish a tone with a character that’s already been established?

Michael L. Sale: It’s easier. Look, she’s amazing. Viola Davis is incredible. People love her. We love her. So, having her in the movie was fantastic. The first time we went to a screening, and she came on screen, the place went crazy.

It was important. because Black Adam is a new thing, it’s not like the big IP-type character that everybody knows about. We did want it to be unique and a new thing, but it was also important to make sure it felt connected to Shazam. It felt connected to DC. She brings so much credibility. She brings a lot of credibility to the JSA because when it’s her telling them to go, even though you don’t know everything about them, you’re like, « Okay, these people must be legit. »

I noticed a lot of fans have been pulling out small Easter eggs from the film. There was a scene of Dr. Fate using his magic that was very similar to a scene in the Injustice game. A lot of fans geeked out about that. Are there other Easter eggs for those eagle-eyed DC fans to catch?

Michael L. Sale: I’ve got to tell you, there’s a bunch of them, really. Jaume Collet-Serra is super smart, and he put bunches of things in there. I’m not going to say what they are, but the more you watch this movie… And they’re not only just from video games or the DC world. Even going back into comic books. Jaume studied for six months for this movie. He read every comic book, and he has some crazy, amazing memory. He remembers everything.

One of my favorite parts of working on this movie is he would come into my room, and I would go, « Why is he wearing a cloak when he wakes up out on the Rock of Eternity? Jaume would go tell me a 45-minute story about what really happened after he battled the king, and why he’s now wearing a cloak.

You can’t tell all of that stuff in the movie. Some of it, because of him telling me, we got in the movie. When he told me how the wizards entombed him, which could be a whole movie, we got that little four-second thing in our movie that we were able to put in. When he told me that, I was like, « Dude, we’ve got to get that in the movie for the fans. » He was like, « I don’t know. Where would it go? » And we would find places.

It made it really, really fun. I have to say, Dwayne and Hiram Garcia and the producers are all way into these comic books and the characters. They were really excited by these little Easter eggs and pushing for them and making sure that they didn’t get lost along the way—because those things could go. That shot, we could have taken out and saved a bunch of money.

I know that we get Hawkman’s reference to Nth metal, and you said that you expanded a little bit on his story. Were there any other characters that you fleshed out in the editing room?

Michael L. Sale: Yeah. The thing we probably fleshed out a lot in the editorial was the backstory with Hurut. In some of the incarnations of the movie, those stories were told by other characters like Hawkman or Dr. Fate. As we went along, we realized that we like this father-son dynamic of Hurut and Iman, with Black Adam in the middle of it. We thought that added a lot of depth to his character. We tried to make the movie more intimate by putting those stories with him so that it’s Adriana talking to him alone, or it’s him telling it to Hawkman.

The Hawkman-Black Adam bromance thing was something we discovered as we went along. And we leaned into that a lot. And we realized that was the storyline that we wanted to complete.

When did you guys lock the cut of the film?

Michael L. Sale: It was so late. I went Friday night to Burbank, sold-out theater, seven o’clock. I always go to see how the movie plays with real people. When I watch the movie, I’m still like, « Oh, that shot’s in. » I’m like, « Oh, we got it done. » We were going until late into September.

It was as late as I’ve ever been. We were having visual effects shots dropped in. It was super intense. The summer was very intense.

You said the magic word right there: super. Did our famous Superman have anything to do with the tardiness of getting everything together?

Michael L. Sale: That did come in very late, in terms of getting the shot. We didn’t really want it to exist early on, even though I think it was going to be in the movie the whole time. I’ve got to tell you, one day I was in the cutting room, and the footage came in, and I’m like, « What the hell is this? » That was a very, very secret thing. I’m really bummed that people leaked it, but you can’t control it. It’s just going to happen.

As a kid who was cleaning that theater 40-something years ago and watching Superman, when that footage came in, I was just like, « Oh my God, I’m working on a movie that has Superman in it. » It was a personal moment where I was like, « Is this going to really be in the movie? » We had many, many versions of it. Some of them showed everything. Some of them were just shadows. There were many versions. Really, right until the last minute, we didn’t know exactly what it was going to be. That was one of the things we worked on up until the end.

One thing I noticed during that initial screening was the John Williams theme play in that scene. Was I correct?

Michael L. Sales: Yeah. We had a lot of different music too. I don’t know how that got decided on. I liked it. I was in the mix, and that was the music that came up. We worked on it for a long time. Music editor Ron Webb wanted to get it timed out and just perfect, and Jaume worked with Ron a lot on that particular music cue. The fun part is, at least right now, a lot of people don’t hear it because they’re going crazy. It was so fun to go to the theater and see everybody go crazy.

I’m telling you, I’ve been spending all weekend on Twitter, just that hashtag Black Adam, and watching people post their audience reactions and stuff, which is a pretty nerdy thing to do. I love to get real audience feedback because I use that. I carry it with me from movie to movie. I want to see how things translate from what we were testing. Because testing with the test audience is very different than what a real audience reacts to.

I can’t go to too many screenings, just for time reasons. But I always go. I have the theater that I go to because I know the crowd. I always go. I’m like, « All right, I’m going to see how this plays in Burbank. » I know that theater. I tested Superbad there. I’ve tested movies that tanked there. I know it’s a great crowd because if you’re good, they’ll love it. If you’re not good, they’ll hammer you. I go right on, and I read those tweets of people coming out of the theaters in the New York matinees. I can tell in 10 minutes if we’re good or bad, you know?

That experience that we all had coming out of that theater was amazing. You go on such a ride with Black Adam and the JSA, and it’s the perfect cherry on top to get Henry Cavill coming right out of the smoke.

Michael L. Sale: Yeah, personally, I love him. I love him as Superman, and I loved those movies. My only thing is I wish there were three movies of Batman and three movies of Superman before they fought. I wish there was more. I want more.

I’m hoping that we’re good enough that this can lead to some more cool things. I’m sure it will. It seems like, basically reading the results this morning, I’m like, « I think we have a mission accomplished. And hopefully, in the future, we get to see a lot of cool stuff. »

You’ve edited this movie for over a year now, and you’ve seen all these other DC characters come in. Who do you think would warrant the best spinoff? What DC character or property would you like to work on next?

Michael L. Sale: Yes. Obviously, I’m going to put Black Adam aside because I think he will definitely be in other movies. I love the JSA. I would like to see just a full JSA movie. In my mind, it would be great to do a movie that involves all their backstories and tells the story of the JSA, and also lets them battle something. I think that would be the coolest thing. I think you could find a way to bring Dr. Fate back. I think you could even maybe do time periods, like what they did in Watchmen, really well. I think you could do time periods, so you could bring people back and do stuff.

I think that one of the tragedies of the movie is that because there were so many characters, Smasher and Cyclone, who were new characters, were a little bit underserved. We had a little bit more stuff with them, but it was just hard to develop them that much in the movie. I think, first of all, they’re both amazing. I love Cyclone. Those shots that Jaume and Bill, the visual effects supervisor, created are just beautiful. I love them. Quintessa is amazing. The character is so strong and powerful, and such a great thing to have in a movie like this. I think there’s a great audience for that. I would like to see them do a lot.

The same thing with Smasher. I think Noah’s an amazing kid. He’s got a ton of charisma. I think the plans for Smasher are also going to be very interesting. I think if you really watch the movie and see what he’s saying all the way through, there are some little Easter eggs in there too.

About Black Adam

Nearly 5,000 years after he was bestowed with the almighty powers of the Egyptian gods — and imprisoned just as quickly — Black Adam is freed from his earthly tomb, ready to unleash his unique form of justice on the modern world.

Check out our other Black Adam interviews here:

Cast at SDCC Justice Society Dwayne Johnson Pierce Brosnan & Aldis Hodge Sarah Shahi & Mo Amer Noah Centineo & Quintessa Swindell

Black Adam is currently playing in theaters.