Gina Prince-Bythewood On The Fights Fought To Bring ‘The Woman King’ To The Big Screen

The breathtaking and action-packed historical epic The Woman King is one of 2022’s best films.

Based on a true story, director Gina Prince-Bythewood throws a spotlight on the Agojie. They were the all-female warrior unit that protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey during the 17th to 19th centuries. With Viola Davis in the lead role and an ensemble supporting cast that includes Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, and John Boyega, the jaw-dropping vision serves up powerhouse performance after powerhouse performance.

I caught up with Prince-Bythewood to discuss getting her opus over the finish line, the fights fought to make it, and how her first meeting with the film’s lead several years ago influenced the finished film.

Simon Thompson: I’ve been looking forward to seeing this for a while, but it far exceeded my expectations. Is that a reaction that you’ve had from a few people?

Gina Prince-Bythewood: Yeah. It’s been a pretty incredible response. Honestly, I think it started with the studio not realizing the bigness of this film, the epic nature of it, not only in the scope of it but also in the emotion. We felt it on set, but you never know until you start to put it together, but the reaction has been pretty incredible.

Thompson: This is a movie that is sold on the fantastic story and the action scenes, but it is not a movie where it is action and spectacle at the expense of anything and everything else. Was it challenging to get people behind that?

Prince-Bythewood: There is that temptation, given what is in the marketplace. When I came onto this, I said from the outset that this is a historical epic action drama, and we’re never going to forget the drama part of it. For me, the quiet moments, the emotional moments, should feel as big and epic and important as the set pieces, and I never wavered from that.

Thompson: The detail for me in this is absolutely incredible, from the costuming to the hairstyles to how the cast is lit and shot. That seemed to be important across the board, top to bottom.

Prince-Bythewood: It was vitally important because we’re telling a true story and were world-building. Authenticity was the word I used with everyone involved in every craft you’re talking about. It started with Akin McKenzie, our production designer. He came on early, and we did the deepest dive into the research, finding which sources were accurate about this time and place, the kingdom, and the women. Some were very offensive in the way they were written because of the lens they were looking through. That said, we found these incredible journals written by these two men who went to the kingdom and their descriptions of the palace, the costume, the people, and the environment, and that’s what I wanted to put up on the screen. It kind of goes against what people’s perception of Africa is. Of course, Africa is a continent with many different countries, but certainly, this kingdom and what it was, they say the talent is in the details, and we wanted to be truthful.

Thompson: And there is a lot of detail.

Prince-Bythewood: We wanted to get the etchings on the palace walls correct, what was on the doors; that’s the fun part of connecting dots, whether it be sketches we found or what they were wearing. The weaponry is all authentic, and they would oil their skin with palm oil so people couldn’t get a grip. You have to be able to fight, but they only had these little things, these shorts, on underneath. They’re fighters, so they couldn’t just run around in cool skirts. Those details were vital to me, the actors, and the department heads who took the authenticity seriously.

Thompson: When did you finish the film? I understand that it was something of a race to get it ready for the Toronto Film Festival. At what point were you like, ‘I’ve got to leave this alone now.’?

Prince-Bythewood: (Laughs) I believe it was technically locked about three weeks ago, but I actually finished the film the Friday before the festival. Visual effects were still coming in that late, and then I got to see it in IMAX that Friday, and that was it.

Thompson: Who watched that with you? Was it a small invited audience?

Prince-Bythewood: I didn’t want the cast to see it until it was completely done. It’s a thing that I have. As much as people say, ‘Oh, I can watch it, and it’s not finished,’ I don’t like it. This is what the film is, so they all saw it that week. That was incredible but was the scariest moment, certainly for me. I know the incredible work that they put in and the trust that they had in the vision, and I did not want to disappoint them, but they all loved it. With the IMAX screening, it was just me, our DP Polly Morgan, and editor Terilyn Shropshire. It was an incredible experience.

Thompson: Even with The Old Guard, this is the biggest film that you’ve done. What can you tell me about the trepidation of taking this on? Did it hit you the night before you started shooting exactly how big this was?

Prince-Bythewood: Honestly, it hit me before that. When you go up for films like this, whether it be The Old Guard or The Woman King, you need to walk in that room with swagger and confidence and make them believe that they can trust you with millions of dollars. You go in there, talk s**t, and say all the right things; obviously, everyone, including myself, believed it. I got the gig in the room, and then I had to walk to my car. I sat in my car, and it was like, ‘Damn, now I’ve actually got to come through.’ That’s where the fear sets in, but that fear is good because it drives me and pushes me to put in the work I need to prove that everything I said in that room I could deliver on. The bigness of movies like this can sometimes get overwhelming because there are so many moving parts and so much to do. I had a conversation with Rian Johnson, and I’ve never forgotten it because I went and visited him when he was making The Last Jedi. I asked him, ‘How do you not get overwhelmed by Star Wars? He said it doesn’t matter how much money you have or all the toys you have; you must tell a good story first. Keeping that in my head absolutely grounded me when it started to get a little big.

Thompson: With any movie, you have to fight many battles. What were the battles that you had to fight with this? I’m guessing one of the major ones was the old idea that movies with strong female casts, and predominantly black casts, don’t make money.

Prince-Bythewood: It started with precisely what you said, making people see the value in this story, in this cast, in these characters, and it’s a tough thing to have to fight and prove that people that look like you have value. But, honestly, that’s been the case throughout my whole career. Once we got past that hurdle, we got the funding, and Sony believed in the vision; it’s still a fight. What is this film? What is going to attract an audience? A full-on action film, on paper, will attract more people, but for me, it was never going to be that. Shooting during Omicron was tough and scary because we were good, and then we weren’t. It hit that quickly. There was an absolute fear of whether or not we were even going to come back but also come back in the right way to keep our cast safe. That changed how I had to shoot because suddenly, I couldn’t have 400 background actors in the scene. It just wasn’t safe. I had to cut that by half and be more creative with the camera work. I had actors doing all their own fighting, all their own stunts, face to face and spitting and grappling and sweating; you can’t wear masks in that situation. How do we keep them safe? We’d bubbled everybody and tested daily, but that kind of thing was tough given our schedule. This was a 63-day shoot. The plane fight I shot for The Old Guard was two people in the tube, five days of shooting. The big battle in The Woman King took 11 days, and now I’m doing an epic battle with hundreds of background actors and all these specific vignettes. That was intimidating. I was like, ‘How are we going to get that done?’ You figure it out, and you do it.

Thompson: People have compared this to Gladiator, The Last of the Mohicans, and Braveheart. I also got a sense of some of the movies of the 70s with strong black women front and center, like Foxy Brown. The setting and context are obviously very different, but were those influences at all?

Prince-Bythewood: I’ve never heard or thought that, but that’s actually kind of incredible. It did start with the movies that I love: Braveheart, Gladiator, and those historical epics I wanted to see myself in.

Thompson: The relationship between Viola Davis’ Nanisca and Thuso Mbedu’s Nawi, both remarkable in this, reminded me of something I read about the first time you met Viola many years ago. The story goes that she was a little rough on you because she thought you didn’t like her. Did that first meeting influence the relationship between those two in this movie?

Prince-Bythewood: (Laughs) That makes me laugh. Yeah, that relationship between Nanisca and Nawi, that the butting of heads, them trying to settle in and interacting with each other was a great conversation, is certainly based on truth and trying to feed that to make it feel real when we pop it up on screen.

The Woman King lands in theaters on Friday, September 16, 2022.