Gina Prince-Bythewood, the director of The Woman King, discusses true stories, brutal battles, and what matters when creating a historical epic

Gina Prince-Bythewood, the director of The Woman King, discusses true stories, brutal battles, and w ...

Gina Prince-Bythewood describes her 25-year journey to producing The Woman King as a long-running struggle. But she believes that with this cast, led by the formidable Viola Davis, in this Braveheart-style historical action drama about female warriors in West Africa, the long-term sacrifice was worthwhile.

It's an incredible experience to fight for your vision as hard as one has to, according to Polygon two days before the film's release.

With the 2000 comedy Love & Basketball, Prince-Bythewood moved from TV to dramatic filmmaking, all while attempting to break some on-screen flaws. The Old Guard, a 2020s full-bore action drama starring and producing Viola Davis, was immediately apparent to the filmmaker.

Davis plays Nanisca, the defender of the Dahomey Kingdom headed by King Ghezo (John Boyega). Nanisca prepares her troops for war, including the deadly Izogie (Lashana Lynch), loyal Amenza (Sheila Atim), and hungry trainee Nawi (Thuso Mbedu).

Prince-Bythewood discusses the extensive fighting training required to build a solid screen army in a deep dive interview with Polygon, how the Agojies' real-life history energized the action, and what it meant to attract Black actors to screen this way, perhaps for the first time.

Did you begin with real-world history as a basis of setpieces, or did you start with the action, then fact-check your choices?

When I see a historical epic, for me as a filmmaker and as me as the audience, I look at the screen and take it as fact. And I probably shouldnt do that as much, knowing what people do. But Braveheart is in my top ten of all time. Ive seen it 100 times. That was really the template. But I knew we had this really good script, written by Dana [Stevens], and then my job as the director to do that deep dive into the research made me want to

What is your favorite way that history aided you in achieving your goals?

The other thing I learned about these women is that they legitimately beat men, so how did they do that? I learned about their training, the fact that they were trained 24/7, and how intimidating that can be. So thats where the spear-challenge scene came from. And when you work with Lashana, you want to give her more and more and more.

And then the music and the dancing, discovering that this was an integral part of the culture as well, where they would create these elaborate choreographed dances and songs to prepare for war, and to honor the queen and each other, was exciting. I didnt expect to learn as a kid that I would be able to play with that.

Is there a lot of modern dance involved in these scenes? At times the movements sound like contemporary stepping.

Very historical. Much of what they did has been passed on for generations. And we discovered this video that was shot in the 1960s of descendents of these women doing the traditional dances. All of the aggression, the knife-slashing, the stabbing, everything was part of the choreography. So we were able to pull a number of the actual moves and inject it with more dance to give it roundness.

What happened when Terence Blanchard spoke with him? The sound is incredible, and it speaks volumes in silence.

As soon as I got the job, I knew I wanted to use Terence. He is absolutely fantastic. We got Lebo M, who is well-known for The Lion King. And the discussions about what we wanted it to be, were fantastic. I love voice, it gives such emotion if used in the correct way.

The film was literally locked up a couple days before I needed to fly to Scotland, because that was the only country in the world that had an orchestra available for us. Everything was so rushed. The score was only about 75% finished, thats how rushed it was. But everything happened for a reason. He would hand music off to someone, run it to the orchestra, and then they start playing it. It was a four-day experience.

The songs are so powerful that they aren't translated into English. What was the motivation for the decision not to communicate the actual lyrics?

I made that decision pretty early on. I knew we would use accented English [for the dialogue in the film], but I still wanted an element of the real language within it? And I thought in the chanting and the songs, we could do it!

What she's saying is, Fear not. Face it head on. We'll fight endlessly. In the poem to the king, the words are about honoring King Ghezo. When we are here to give her life, for our kingdom, and for each other, I thought about translating it onto screen.

Your group has fulfilled every demand for this film, but I was particularly impressed by your young lead, Thuso Mbedu. How did you know she would carry the film?

As soon as I saw her, I knew she was the one, but my fear was that I assumed she was 16. I hadn't seen Thuso in anything. I knew that she was a lead in Underground Railroad, but it hadn't been released yet. Obviously Barry [Jenkins] is skilled at his portrayals. So I was interested.

So [casting Thuso, a South African actor], I knew I wanted the cast to be a complete blend of everybody from all over. But its chops first: Who is the best fit for the role? Because immediately she appeared on my screen because it was Zoom auditions, which was so difficult, she became interested in her. I could see her mind working in her actions, but not in the way an actor works. Everything felt real in the moment.

Viola Davis had a very clear idea of Nanisca's identity and the emotional journey The Woman King should take her on. How did you get to grips with the subject when you started working on it?

Viola wrote a whole notebook of backstory. And while something like that should be for the actor, she shared it with me, and I had the other actors share their backstories. I like to have that knowledge for myself, and infuse some of it into the script.

Viola brought something that was not in the script, and it was such an obvious thing two days before we were shooting, she said, Why are we concealing the fact that she is 56 years old? Why are we concealing the fact, and why not? She is at a point in her life where you question everything. Like a warrior, she always strives for perfection. [Shell do] what is best for the character.

How do you induce actors who normally would not perform action work to invoke such an intensity on film?

It was an amazing training. It started with me telling Viola and all the other actors, Youre going to be doing your own fighting and stunts. It's just better action.

Did you know that about The Old Guard?

Yes. My template for The Old Guard was the bathroom fight in M:I6, one of the finest fights ever. So knowing what it takes to have longer takes, to know that [the person doing the fighting] is really the actor, to get the performance in every moment, thats really taught me a lot.

Because [only] Lashana had ever done this before, how do I get a group of women who havent done anything at this level near to a point where I can trust them with the action and an audience can fully believe them? That was a leap of faith. Danny Hernandez, who I saw on Old Guard, he was my fight coordinator, because I saw the way he worked with actors. They trust him implicitly, he inspires them.

We discussed how we would not be able to fit them in our box until months before, six days a week, two times a day. It was the toughest thing theyve ever done. It was also part of the rehearsal process, to build up character. Doing that to your mind and body changes how you walk, changes how you think about yourself. They became athletes, they became warriors, and they became one. We created that kind of sisterhood on film.

Did the cultural significance of the Dahomey induce you to reconsider action, compared to the more contemporary setting of The Old Guard?

Braveheart was a model, but Slumdog Millionaire was also a model. It drew me into a world I had no clue about. It didnt push me away it drew me in. So that gave me confidence, because I wanted an audience to feel the same way about this story and these women.

Prior to the shooting, my father went to the Fowler Museum [at UCLA] and saw everything from the real world of Dahomey. Everything in the film was copied from the real world of fighting. [So we included] the fact that women would soak their nails in brine to harden them, that they would file them into points that was a weapon. Palm oil on the skin so their opponents could grab hold of them.

A layer of razor-sharp brambles is engulfed by the Agojie's training. What did you do in the obstacle-course training sequence that saw the women tear through a trench of razor-sharp brambles?

In real life, [The Agojie] had to go through it three times! We didn't have that much screen time.

I had to figure out how to shoot that was arduous, because I knew you had to believe it as an audience. And I couldnt send my actors through it, even though some would have been willing to. But everything on the outside, right in front of the camera, was real, and inside were manufactured brambles. They used 3D to create all that, and it tricks the audience's brain.

The Woman King plays a candid portrait of African slavery. Were there any difficulties in coordinating the Hollywood glamour with that blunt portrayal?

It was something I knew we needed to disclose. In many ways, almost every society was involved in slavery, and the difference here was, as in any other type of society, that was about prisoners of war. Never commerce, thats what Europeans brought to it. But we also set this film at a time when the kingdom was at a crossroads, and Ghezo was having to decide [whether or not to capture other Africans and sell them to European slavers].

Because in America, half the kingdom wanted to eliminate their involvement, while the other half wanted to keep it because it increased their wealth. Agojie and Nanisca were the ones who decided to abolish it, and Ghezo had to make that decision. Having that knowledge going up can absolutely be a game-changer.

There's a scene in the film where Izogie braids Nawis hair, as the two have a heart-to-heart about being Agojie. Was that intentional, or does it reflect a larger concern for Black women in your work?

I mean, until you said that did not connect them both! Because I felt like doing the scene like that was more interesting to Lashana. Because I like that. But I want to be the best in my work.

In the last ten years, you have had an important conversation in the cinematography industry about appropriate, artistic lighting for Black skin, particularly dark skin. It's been so mishandled over the last century. Was this a conversation you discussed with your DP, Polly Morgan?

This was a huge undertaking. Polly agreed that we needed to light our women better than theyve ever seen before. It was so offensive to me. I told Polly, This cannot happen in this film. Its idiotic. And so that was absolutely every day, How do we dress these women?

Had you considered directing a film like this in the past? Would it have been an option?

Yes. It was where I wanted to go early in my career. The industry hadnt caught up to me yet. The doors had been closed for a long time, certainly in the action space for women. And it wasn't until Wonder Woman and the success Patty [Jenkins] had with that first one that absolutely opened the door. [Pitching those kinds of movies earlier in my career] wasn't even an option.

I changed my mindset from I wish I could do that to I'll do that. And then it was okay, how do I get in the door in this industry? Because it was Marvel that led me to [Sony and Marvel's Silver Sable and Black Cat film] Silver and Black. And I knew exactly how to fix that script. And we continue to work on things where I've felt like, I'm not sure this is going to happen. But the moment I walked away, the project I wanted to see was

It's a big deal to walk away from something like that. And there's a part of me that was like, You can't walk away from something like that. But then I realized I wasnt happy, and I saw the writing on the wall. And right around the corner came Wonder Woman. So it's about having the courage to walk away if you're not seeing that you can't do your best work in an environment.

Youve evolved into a bit of a journeyman filmmaker who cant be defined by one type of film, which is less and less common today. So this question is even more exciting: What do you anticipate in the future? What do you anticipate?

The Old Guard goes right into The Woman King after four years, but I have two projects on my plate. One is huge, and I will only describe it as being in space.

We all want space.

My goal is to involve everyone in every genre. Disrupt genre. Its an incredible short story based on an incredible short story. The other is, after these two big films, Ive been wanting to compose a narrative that's been in my head for four years now, a more personal narrative that returns to where it began.

The Woman King is a popular film. Did it make you want to make? Is it the film everyone wants to make?

The pressure I felt on this one was immense, because the actors trusted the vision implicitly and trusted me and gave me everything, so I could not disappoint them. It's exciting, but also frightening, because to do something that hasn't been done before is everything you'd expect from an artist. People accept it and respond to it, and people are not only enjoying the film, but also understanding the significance of it.