The Making of ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever': How Grief, James Cameron and Rihanna Fueled the Sequel

Marvel Studios’ “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” opening in theaters this Friday, is many things. First and foremost, it’s the sequel to 2018’s “Black Panther,” which made over $1 billion and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture (so far the only Marvel movie to accomplish such a feat), ultimately winning three. It’s also the 30th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the capstone to its wobbly Phase 4.

And it’s also a miracle.

The production was complicated by on-set injuries, a global pandemic and an ever-evolving screenplay, and all of this was while the cast and filmmakers dealt with the tragic passing of the franchise’s lead actor Chadwick Boseman. “We didn’t take it lightly at all,” co-writer/director Ryan Coogler told TheWrap in a recent interview. “And when we decided that the best thing would be for us to move forward, I just thought, I’ve got to make this something that everybody can be involved in. And this is what we came up with.”

TheWrap spoke with several members of the cast and crew, to get a portrait of what pulling together “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” was really like.

Watch the Throne

On August 24, 2019, at the D23 Expo in Anaheim, California, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige was joined onstage by Coogler. Together, they introduced the sequel to the world. (A graphic behind them read, simply, “Black Panther II.”) They also revealed a release date: May 6, 2022. What’s remarkable, years later, is how close they came to making that date, even with everything that has happened.

A little more than a year later, on August 28, 2020, Boseman was dead. He was suffering from stage IV colon cancer but had kept his diagnosis secret. When he died, most hadn’t been aware that he was even sick, including Coogler. The filmmaker and his team, in the midst of pre-production, had to decide what they were going to do – and if the “Black Panther” sequel was going to happen at all.

“It was daunting from the conceit before we lost Chadwick. It became more daunting since, but it also focused us a bit and there was intentionality to what we were trying to do,” producer Nate Moore said. “It went from being a great form of entertainment to people to being that plus.”

Coogler said that his emotional state following Boseman’s passing was “complicated.” “More complicated than I could tell you. But we went through a lot of different thoughts leading up to it. And before settling on this as an option,” Coogler said.

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“There was a lot of just devastation around the loss and kind of not even comprehending it or knowing how to walk through that,” Danai Gurira, who plays warrior Okoye, recalled. “And so really thinking about the movie wasn’t even foremost in my mind. For quite a while I didn’t know [what would happen]. But the real thing was the reeling of facing that type of loss and just trying to comprehend what we were going through.”

Finally, though, the decision was made: “Black Panther” would return. And so would Gurira.

“I was surprised because I know Ryan, his heart is very pure and very grounded,” Gurira said. “I know when he comes to a place, it’s from a real place. But when he said, ‘No, I really feel this is what he would want us to do.’ That really clicked for me as exactly right. And so then of course we were all in because then it was all about honoring him through it.”

But what would this new installment in the franchise look like or, more importantly, feel like?

A Sequel Transformed

Initially, the plot of “Black Panther 2” primarily dealt with Boseman’s T’Challa, having returned to Wakanda following Thano’s Blip and his subsequent return in “Avengers: Endgame.” The Black Panther had come back but he’d be dealing with that loss of time and what it meant. Now, it was Wakanda that was being forced to deal with the loss of their leader. (The opening sequence of the film is Shuri frantically attempting to save T’Challa’s life. It is harrowing and quickly establishes the movie’s consistent lump-in-your-throat tone.)

“Dramatically [this version] was very close,” Coogler said. “The biggest thematic shift, I will say, is the motherhood element took a front seat once we made the transition from that film to the film that you just saw.”

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The women of Wakanda – characters like T’Challa’s technologically savvy sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), his love Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and member of the royal guard Okoye (Gurira), alongside new character Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), a technological whiz kid and Iron Man-in-training – would take center stage this time out, as they face a new threat in the form of Namor (Tenoch Huerta), an underwater zealot obsessed with destroying the surface world. By the end of the movie (and this shouldn’t be a spoiler to anybody who has seen a trailer), a new Black Panther is chosen.

For Gurira’s Okoye, this meant a very specific journey.

“The vision was very clear for [Coogler] about her and how she’s handling grief or not handling grief, and where that lands her and where she is in her grief process, and how she imagines how to take care of this nation as it is in a less powerful place in terms of the devastating loss and how she as a commander of the army has to hold it all together. But can she? And has she just dealt with her own issues in terms of losing her friend, her brother?” she said. “That journey really was very specific for him and very clear and vivid.”

During this time, Coogler also reached out to composer Ludwig Göransson, who has been one of Coogler’s longtime creative collaborators (Göransson rightfully won an Oscar for his work on the first film). For the sequel, Göransson would be tasked with creating the musical language for a new mythological race. “One of the first conversations we had was about the new world that he was creating that was inspired by Mayan culture with Namor and the Talokan,” Göransson said. “And I didn’t know a lot about the Mayan culture or any traditions. I mean, I knew it’s gone. It was forcibly erased 500-something years ago. And we don’t know what the music sounded like. We don’t know how the dances looked like, we don’t know what literature was.”

When thinking about the vibe of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” Coogler said he wanted this movie to “feel like a ‘90s movie” He studied the work of James Cameron, particularly “The Abyss” (which makes sense given the large underwater sections of “Wakanda Forever”), and Ridley Scott. And in our conversation he referenced movies like “Jurassic Park” and “The Fugitive,” which also makes sense given how the first “Black Panther” straddled mainstream success and critical acclaim in a similar way. (“The Fugitive” was nominated for Best Picture too.) “These very tactile movies that felt like fantastical, but at the same time, you believed it the whole time it was happening,” Coogler said.

Danai Gurira and Letitia Wright in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (Marvel Studios)
Danai Gurira and Letitia Wright in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (Marvel Studios)

“Terminator 2,” another Cameron favorite, had “a profound impact” on Coogler. “I remember seeing that when I was really young in the theaters and just having my mind blown by it,” Coogler explained. “Being a follow-up that wiped the table clean. And you catching up with Linda Hamilton’s character, and if you saw ‘Terminator’ and you turn that off and then you turn on ‘Terminator 2,’ it’s like she’s a different person. That was a big thing we would think about with the action scenes and with Shuri’s journey.”

Another unexpected touchstone: Robert Zemeckis’ 1997 feature “Contact,” which starred Jodie Foster as a driven young scientist who interprets a signal from another world. “That’s a big science fiction movie. But also felt like crazy intimate and that has a character who’s an ambitious scientist but has a fracture in her with the loss of someone who meant so much to her and it’s motivated her,” Coogler said. “But also opened her up to a lot of darkness.” For Coogler it was about chasing “these types of feelings” but also “a great time at the movies.” Not an easy feat.

“The thing all those movies have in common is they take themselves seriously,” Coogler said. He gave the example of the T-1000, a liquid-metal man played by Robert Patrick in “Terminator 2” that could have been goofy but “everybody’s going to be afraid of him.” “When you’re earnest with what you doing, the audience, I think, follow you,” Coogler said.

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A Nearly Endless Shoot

With a clear vision for what the film would be (and how the torch would be passed), filming on the sequel, now titled “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” would begin in June 2021 in Atlanta. And this new title wasn’t just clever, it was also strangely prophetic. This new “Black Panther” would shoot forever.

Moore said that he lived in Atlanta for “a full calendar year.” A monumentally complicated shoot, it was further tangled in shutdowns due to positive COVID tests and more. “Letitia suffered a pretty tough injury that sidelined her for a while,” Moore said. (Her injury also coincided with Wright publishing anti-vaccine content on her social channels and rumors that after returning home to England, couldn’t get back into the country because she was never vaccinated. This still hasn’t been cleared up entirely.)

“I will say again because everybody understood the intention and because a lot of our cast and crew had worked together on the first one there was also a really tight bond built,” Moore said. “Even though we shot for a heck of a long time, there wasn’t a lot of attrition. People wanted to stick it out and finish the movie. And I will say this too, and he would never say it about himself, but Ryan is such a compelling leader and such a compassionate person that people were also going to make sure that he succeeded in seeing his vision through.”

Like almost everything involved with the movie, Coogler explains the process of shooting “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” as “complicated.” There were multiple units being supervised in multiple languages (the underwater Talokans are inspired by Mesoamerican and indigenous cultures). There was also the water aspect, with the cast and crew working on what Coogler described as “amphibious sets.” Sometimes costumes or a set would look great but the second you got them wet, it would all go to hell. “It’s like, Oh, we got to pull that out, make it with different concrete now. It was around the clock work,” Coogler said.

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There were cultural consultants constantly pinged because, in Coogler’s words, “we didn’t want to ever misrepresent or be disrespectful.” There were also science consultants (“In many ways, it’s a science fiction film,” Coogler said) and political consultants. And all of that was on top of shooting during the pandemic – both the first wave and the Omicron surge, along with Wright’s injury and whatever else went on with that.

“It was a lot going on. But we had just the most resilient crew and the most resilient cast. And everybody had that thousand yards stare. Nothing was going to phase them and nothing was going to rock them,” Coogler said. “And I’m really, really proud of how everybody navigated, how everybody made it their priority. These are very successful working actors. And we would have delays and they would carve out their time, push off other projects.”

On something like “Mission: Impossible – Fallout,” when Tom Cruise was injured jumping across London rooftops, the production (led by writer/director Christopher McQuarrie) shut down and was given time to work on the script and take a look at the edited film up until that point. McQuarrie has talked about it being a blessing, of sorts. But Moore describes the reshuffling caused by Wright’s injury as less fortuitous.

Tenoch Huerta as Namor in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (Marvel Studios)
Tenoch Huerta as Namor in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (Marvel Studios)

“It was a difficult movie because just logistically when you’re dealing with water and some of the elements we had, that would’ve been hard in an open air scenario. It just gave us time to prep as we were going,” Moore said. “It was a little bit more like, Oh, we have a bit of a breath here to think about how we’re going to succeed in the next three months when we’re back up and running.”

Ultimately, the production of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” would stretch on until March 24, 2022. This would include location work in Boston and Puerto Rico. The production wrapped just a few months before the intended November 11 release, a feat for even a modestly proportioned feature but nearly impossible for a movie of this scale and complexity. They’d have to summon their superpowers to finish it in time.

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Crossing the Finish Line (With a Little Help from Rihanna)

Coogler acknowledges that the dedicated post-production time was a challenge, calling it a “very tight schedule.” Still, the dedication and commitment that the cast and crew showed during the shoot was carried over. “Our VFX team was just masterful, our post-production team was masterful. Editors? Masterful,” Coogler said. “I’m really proud of how everybody rose to the occasion.”

Göransson researched and recorded, creating a sonic landscape with the same emotional ebbs and flows as the visuals. It’s an exceptional score, incorporating more vocal elements alongside some of the glitchy electronic flourishes Göransson is known for.

“It’s a very big large area to cover but obviously the most important thing was to make it seem like it’s consistent,” Göransson explained. “That was something very important. And everyone we worked with, all the artists and all the musicians, even they were at four different continents and from different cultures, [they were aligned]. I’m just so excited to hear of it all came together and how it all feels like one thing created for Ryan’s vision.”

It was important, too, for that vision to not get lost, particularly when it came to the movie’s themes of grief and healing.

“It had to become part of the fabric of the storytelling because that was the truth these characters were experiencing. And I think now more in the world of Talukan also to some degree is dealing with themes of grief too. It was about this collective grieving process and how different people respond to that for better or worse,” Moore said. “And I think that is what holds the movie together. Even amidst car chases and jokes and water sequences, it’s still always about the same thing.”

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Shuri’s arc, in particular, had to take center stage. “It’s so compelling and she’s such the driver of this movie that it never feels we’ve shifted gears and we forgot what we were talking about and then we have to come back to it,” Moore said. “She’s feeling it through every stage of this. And again, a credit to Ryan and Joe Robert Cole, the co-writer, for figuring out how to make that feel cohesive and not feel two ideas at war with each other.”

In July, the first trailer for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” was shown as the finale of the Marvel Studios presentation at San Diego Comic-Con. The entire cast, among them Wright, Nyong’o, Gurira and Winston Duke, was there. So was Coogler. Together, the team watched the trailer from the darkened stage. Afterwards, as the house lights came up, they stayed huddled, clutching each other around the waist and sobbing. It was incredibly moving and powerful and proof that the movie could weather all of its storms. (Since it debuted online, that trailer has been viewed 41 million times.)

As the production entered its final phases, another unlikely hero emerged: pop superstar and businessowner Rihanna, whose last album was released back in 2016, leaving fans voracious for any new material from her.

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“It was just the timing, how the movie timed out and also where it’s been timing out with where she is in life, and the things that she’s standing for and the type of artist she is, and so she’s obviously such a huge inspiration for a lot of people in the world,” Göransson, who co-wrote (with Coogler) and produced the song, said.

“Also with her becoming a new mother and how motherhood is such a big part of the movie, it felt like the timing of it all just felt very magical. And to be able to go into studio, me and Ryan started writing the song. And we started out working with Tems in Nigeria and then after Nigeria I flew to back to LA and spent a couple weeks with Rihanna in the studio, meticulously finishing the song and working on all the small little details and crafting it together and just seeing how that final piece of the puzzle came together was magical.”

This is far from the end of the Black Panther’s saga. In fact, it will probably go on forever – a card at the end of the credits reads “Black Panther will return;” Coogler is overseeing a Wakanda-set Disney+ series; and another spin-off series, “Ironheart,” about the Riri Williams character, has already finished filming. But the filmmakers are currently laser focused on this movie and the response that it could generate. Considering how wholly the original film captured the zeitgeist, it’s enough to give anybody anxiety.

“There’s expectations in [that] the first movie was such a cultural milestone for some that you want to see if you can get anywhere close to that ballpark,” Moore said. “But we also know people love this world, so, there’s also a little bit less pressure in that. It’s not like, Hey, are people even into this? They’re into it. I just hope they like the way we expressed it this time. And that, I guess, is a good problem to have because there is an audience if you’ve done your job.”

“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” opens exclusively in theaters on Nov. 11.

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