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

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

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

She tells Polygon just two days before the film's release that it's wonderful to have to fight for your vision as hard as one has to.

With the 2000 comedy Love & Basketball, Prince-Bythewood moved from television to dramatic feature roles, all while attempting to break some on-screen secrets. The Old Guard, a 2020s full-bore action drama, drew the attention of Netflix viewers everywhere and Viola Davis.

Davis plays Nanisca, a defender of the Dahomey Kingdom led by King Ghezo (John Boyega) of a Spartan-style army. Nanisca prepares her soldiers for battle, especially the deadly Izogie (Lashana Lynch), loyal Amenza (Sheila Atim), and hungry trainee Nawi (Thuso Mbedu).

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

Did you begin with historical context as a base of setpieces, or did you start with the action, then fact-check your choices?

When I go see a historical epic, for me as a filmmaker and as me as the audience, I look at the screen and accept it as fact. And I probably shouldnt do that as much, knowing what people do. But Braveheart is in my top 10 of all time. Ive seen it 100 times. That was really the template. But I knew that we had a really good script, written by Dana [Stevens], and then my job as the director was to translate it. More truth, more authenticity

What is your favorite way history bolstered your ideas?

One of the wonderful things about these women is that they could legit beat men, so how did they do that? And I learned about their training, the fact that they were taught to not show pain, and how intimidating it can be when you fight someone. So thats where our spear-challenge scene came from. Lashana, I think youll want to give her more and more and more.

And then the music and the dancing, discovering that that 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 king, and honor each other was exciting. I didnt know going in that I would get to play with that.

Was enough modern dance in the films? Some moves seem to be stepping into the future.

It's a fascinating story, and much of what they did has been passed down for generations. We found this video that was shot in the 1960s of descendants of these women doing the traditional dances. All of the aggression, the knife-slashing, the stabbing, it was all 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 in the beginning of the conversation with Terence Blanchard, your composer? The sound is overwhelming, and it speaks volumes in quiet scenes.

As soon as I got the job, I knew I wanted to work with Terence. He is absolutely brilliant. And we got Lebo M, who is well-known for The Lion King. And the conversations about what we wanted it to be, were incredible. I love voice, it gives such emotion if used in the appropriate way.

Everything was so rushed. The score was only like 75% completed, thats how rushed it was. But Terence has stated that the orchestra was the finest he ever worked with in his career. That was the energy that he would spend four days working with.

The songs convey so much without being translated into English. What prompted the decision not to disclose the actual lyrics?

I made that decision fairly early on. I knew we'd use accented English [for the dialogue in the film], but I still wanted an element of the real language within it? I thought in the chanting and the songs, we could do it, but the actors had to learn all that!

She is saying, Fear not. Face it head on. Relentlessly we will fight. In the tribute to the king, the words are about praising King Ghezo. When we are here to give her life, for our kingdom, and for each other. I thought about translating it on screen, and then I decided that I didnt want to take you out of it.

The cast youve assembled fulfils every demand for this film, but I was especially blown away by your young lead, Thuso Mbedu. What clues did you know she might carry the film?

As soon as I saw her, I thought she was 16 years old. I knew that she was a key figure in Underground Railroad, but it hadn't arrived yet. Obviously Barry [Jenkins] is excellent at his portrayals. So I was intrigued.

I knew that I wanted our cast to be a cross section of people from all walks of life: African-Americans, South Africans, West Africans, and Londoners. So [casting Thuso, a South African actor], was an opportunity to give me that sense of belonging. She was doing things that nobody else was doing, subtle things. Everything felt real in the moment.

Viola Davis had a very clear picture of her character Nanisca, and the character The Woman King should take her on. When you started working on the material together, how did it all begin?

Viola left me a notebook of backstory. And while something like that should be for the actor, she did share it with me, and I had the other actors share their backstories. I like to keep this information private and infuse 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 preparing to shoot, we were in rehearsal, and she asked, Why are we concealing the fact that Im 56 years old? She is an aging warrior. She is at a point in her life when you question everything, especially when she is feeling her shoulder. Of course she would ache after battle.

How do you encourage actors who otherwise would not be able to perform action work to exert such a force on the camera?

It was fantastic training. It started with me telling Viola and all the other actors, You'll be doing your own fighting and stunts. It's just better action.

Did you see that on The Old Guard?

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

This was different because [only] Lashana had ever done this before. So how do I get a group of women who havent done anything on this level near to the 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 met 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 talked about how we couldnt fit them in our box months before, six days a week, twice a day. It was the hardest thing they ever did. It was also part of the rehearsal process, to build character. It changed the way you walk, changed your outlook on yourself. They became athletes. They became warriors. They were totally united, because they were going through this hell together.

Was it possible to rethink action due to the cultural significance of the Dahomey, compared to the more modern setting of The Old Guard?

Slumdog Millionaire was also a model when I wrote about it. The cultural specificity took me into a world I had no clue about. It drew me in, and that gave me confidence, because I wanted an audience to feel the same about this story and these women.

Before the shooting, I went to the Fowler Museum [at UCLA] and there's a lot of material from the actual kingdom of Dahomey. So the action was all about exposing the power of women to the world. [So we included] the fact that they 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.

The Agojie's hardships to train. How did you film the obstacle-course training sequence where the women tear through a trench of razor-sharp brambles? It was a rough experience.

In real life, [The Agojie] had to go through that three times! We didnt have that much screen time.

I found it difficult to compose this film because I knew you had to believe it as an audience. And I couldnt send my actors through it, even though some might 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 the brambles, which intrigues the audience.

The Woman King plays as a candid portrait of African slavery. Were there difficulties in achieving this level of perfection?

I knew it was something we needed to disclose. In many cases, almost every society engaged in slavery in some way, and the difference here was, prior to Europeans coming, as in any other type of society, it 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 forced to decide [whether or not to capture other Africans and sell them to European slavers].

Because roughly half of the kingdom wanted to stop participating in it, while the other half wanted to keep it because it boosted their wealth. So the Agojie and Nanisca represented the group that wanted to stop participating, and Ghezo had to make that decision. In America, certainly, [Black people] are taught that our existence in America starts with enslavement, but were not taught that we came from a galaxy so far beyond that. This knowledge can absolutely transform your perspective.

Izogie braids Nawis hair, referencing a heart-to-heart connection with you in your first film, Love & Basketball. Was that intentional, or does it reflect a larger intent in your research on Black women?

I wished I could have connected the two women as soon as you mentioned that Izogie gave her a bracelet. I felt like that was a more interesting way to do the scene, so I changed it to that. Theres just a beauty in the quietness what they're talking about is women who desire to be great and be the best. I hope that a throughline in my work will redefine female and feminine.

In the last ten years, a significant debate about correct, artistic lighting for Black skin, especially dark skin, was sparked by Polly Morgan. Was this a conversation you discussed with your DP?

This was a big deal. The first conversation I had with Polly was that we need to light our women better than they have ever looked before. Because there was a history of Black actors being lit horribly before we made this film. It was so offensive to me. I told Polly, This can never happen in this film. Its idiotic. And so, every day, How do we portray these women?

Have 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 had not caught up to me yet. Particularly in the action space for women, the doors had been closed for a long time. It wasnt until Wonder Woman and the accomplishments Patty [Jenkins] had with that first one that absolutely opened the door. [Pitching those kinds of films earlier in my career] was no longer an option.

Before I did the Marvel Cloak and Dagger pilot [in 2017], I decided to think about it: how do I get in the door in this industry? Because it was Marvel that led me to [Sony and Marvels Silver Sable and Black Cat film] Silver and Black. And I knew exactly how to fix that script. But there was a reticence as we continue to pursue projects.

It's a big deal to walk away from something like that. And there's a part of me that was like, You shouldn't walk away from something like that. And then there was Patty, who was at an event, and we just got to talking about how she walked away from an opportunity to direct Thor: The Dark World. And then just around the corner came Wonder Woman. So, when The Woman King came up, there was a trust there.

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

It's been four years nonstop since The Old Guard merged right into The Woman King. But I have two projects, and I have to choose between the two. There's one really big one that's already in place, I'll just say it's in space.

We love space.

My objective is to encompass everybody in the world. Disrupt the genre. It's an incredible story based on an incredible short story. The other is, after these two big films, I've wanted to recreate a story that's been in my head for four years now, a more personal story returning to where it started.

The Woman King is a well-known movie studio, according to a lot of discussion. Was it enjoyable to watch? Is it the film everyone wants to see?

The pressure on this one was unbelievably great because the actors trusted the vision implicitly and trusted me and gave me everything, so I couldn't disappoint them. And doing something that hasn't previously been done is exciting. But it's also terrifying. People are both attracted to it and are aware of its significance.