‘The Woman King’ Director Gina Prince-Bythewood On Viola Davis And Why Its Important To See Ourselves As Heroic Or As Kings Or As Queens

For director Gina Prince-Bythewood, making the historical epic The Woman King was a dream come true. Despite dealing with a seven-year-long development process, Prince-Bythewood was determined to prove that Hollywood stories centering on powerful Black women deserve to be seen. Based on a real all-female faction of West African soldiers known as the Agojie, the film follows its leader Nanisca (Viola Davis), and her fierce tribe of warriors as they defend the kingdom of Dahomey from a violent neighboring empire and Europeans capitalizing on the slave trade. Here, Prince-Bythewood talks about creating a sisterhood of warriors, world-building, and the importance of seeing yourself on screen.

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DEADLINE: Between Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees and The Woman King, all your films have rich interpersonal narratives. What drives you to make these types of movies?

GINA PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: For me to say yes, it’s got to be a guttural connection to the material, whether I write it or come on board and then take it over. It’s got to be what connects me personally to it: the characters and the story. And within the genre, do I get to tell a love story? A love story can be a hundred different things. And it certainly is in The Woman King; it’s a mother-daughter story, and it’s about sisterhood. I feel like every one of my films is some sort of therapy, and by the end of it, I come out stronger and better when dealing with something specific. This was more about my truth in terms of what I found out about my birth and my ability to deal with the trauma of that.

DEADLINE: Initially, you were approached to write and direct The Woman King but instead told the studio to come back to you when they had prepared a script. So, when you received the finalized script years later, what made you sign onto this project?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: It was exhilarating to read. I knew immediately this was the film I had been dreaming about making since the beginning of my career. I’d also just promised that I would take a break [from filmmaking]. So, it was like, ‘Damn, this is my movie, but I’m going to have to say no.’ But I sent it to my husband and told him, “Just read this.”  And he read it immediately and texted me, “This is your next film.” So that was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I get to do this.’ Because the balance of being a mother and a filmmaker is real. But with everything I wanted, Viola Davis attached, equipped with my body of work, and certainly with coming off The Old Guard, I knew how to make this movie. I knew what the action could feel like and look like.

I had all the films that were my templates, like Gladiator and The Last of the Mohicans. I’ve studied those. I’ve seen them hundreds of times. And now I get to put my own stamp on this movie. So, the exhilaration never left.

DEADLINE: What kind of advice did your husband give you?

He gave me probably the best in terms of the script, which is that — and Dana Stevens wrote a really good script — the male characters were not fully developed, certainly not King Ghezo. And I needed John Boyega; I wanted him. As soon as I read the script, I wanted him. And so, Reggie [Rock Bythewood] was like, “You’ve got two boys. Make sure the male characters are as developed as the female characters.” Because he asked me, “What do you want people to feel when they watch this?” And it wasn’t only to be inspired by these women and to understand this history that has been erased, but also to see this kingdom, the men and women, at the end working together to save it. And so, to really focus on that made all the difference in elevating the material at the end of the day.

DEADLINE: Why do you think The Woman King needs to be told right now?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: I think it’s a story that needs to be told over and over and over again. I think there is, I would not say a dearth, but there are no films that tell us about our history beyond enslavement in this country. Everything we learn starts there. And there’s so much more history that we need to be in touch with that we’re not. And it’s just such a mystery to so many, and we need that. We need to be able to see ourselves as heroic or as kings or as queens and women kings; we’re missing that. And so those stories need to be told. Historical epics are great because they take you into a world and culture you may not be a part of, but you can connect with those characters. The world needs to do that with people that look like us. This took seven years to make, and I mean, Black Panther opened the door for this, which is beautiful. And I think these films should just keep building on each other, and the success of those will beget more stories that need to be told.

DEADLINE: Nanisca delivers a line in the film that I feel encapsulates your experience here, “We are Agojie. We do not act alone; we move together with one purpose. Alone, you are weak.” How did you build this world and family dynamic?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Building the Agojie women, that was a big one. And I knew specifically how I was going to do that when I knew I needed them to do their own fighting stunts. Because it’s the best way to shoot action, action should be story-driven and character-driven, and to do that, you need performance. And if you’re cutting around stunt doubles to do it, it’s very hard to get that. But also, being an athlete myself, I knew they needed to feel what it feels like to train at that level, fight and be in their body, and trust and respect their body. With Danny Hernandez, my incredible fight coordinator, I created a program for them, and we had a strength trainer Gabriela Mclain help build their bodies first so they could withstand the training. But it was also about building up their physical and mental stamina. And that started months before shooting. I was adamant about that with the budget; I needed the time to build these women. This is not training for a month. We’re going to look cool. I needed months. And I knew that’s what it was going to take. And it was never about anyone losing weight; it was just about making their bodies athletic because they’re warriors. I need you to feel that on a molecular level.

It was six days a week, two times a day, weight training in the morning, and then in the afternoon, you’d come back, and you do weapons training, martial arts training, fight choreography, running, learning how to throw a punch. So many women don’t know how to throw a punch, and that’ll take you out of the movie in a second if you can’t run and if you can’t throw a punch. It was so intense, but I knew it would help them build their characters. I knew it was the best part of the rehearsal process because you’re starting the physicality and understanding who these women are. And I knew it would build a sisterhood because when you train that hard, there’s a lot of tears and breakdowns. But then, in that breakdown, you build each other back up. And I knew that’s what was going to happen. I would pair different people together to train at different times to build that relationship, and I knew that organic friendship would show up on screen.

DEADLINE: How did you direct what others call a “career-defining” performance out of Viola Davis? How does one even direct Viola Davis?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: I’m not going to lie; that was my biggest intimidation. I literally said, “What am I going to possibly say to Viola Davis? How do I direct her?” And I think I went in with a whack assumption that probably everybody else does, that she steps on set, and she’s just great because she’s great. Viola is great, but she’s great because she works at it. And I got to have a front-row seat to the level of work she puts into these characters. That’s where the fun began with her and I, building Nanisca and me, sharing books and videos of different people that embody both Nanisca, the survivor, and Nanisca, the warrior. Muhammad Ali and Claressa Shields were really good templates; I was sending her clips of them. The way they fought, they showed no emotion. And that’s what I thought Nanisca would be, just brutal efficiency to her, and that was my way in, in terms of directing her. I’ve been in the ring. I used to kickbox, so I could talk to her about what she didn’t have knowledge of. And then, in building that comfort, I could start getting into character. And she’s the type that wants to be directed. She absolutely wants to be directed. She does not want to be left alone. And so that’s a great comfort as well. But it was like the first, I don’t know, couple of days, I finally went to her; I said, “I feel really stupid because every time I come up to you, I’m saying that was great.” Because it was. it was a really good collaborative relationship.

DEADLINE: The rest of this ensemble cast is also fierce, with Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Adrienne Warren and Sheila Atim.

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: This ensemble is insane, and they had an insane work ethic. But also, what I love about them is they were competitive in the best way. One of my favorite things in the film was the Oyo battle. You see a group of Agojie women leaping off their backs into the air with the machetes. So, I knew I wanted Lashana and Adrienne. Adrienne actually used to play ball back in the day, and Lashana played netball. So, when Adrienne came aboard first, she practiced and learned the [stunt] in about an hour. I told Lashana the night before, “I’d like you to do this thing, but I’m telling you the night before, so I understand if you say no. However, Adrienne learned how to do it in an hour.” And that was it. So, she was like, “Yeah, I’m in,” because I described it to her too, and she was like, “That sounds dope.” And to see them on set asking, “Who went higher that take?” was fun. It’s like a healthy competitiveness. But they were hysterically funny and just connected in different ways.

The chemistry with Lashana and Thuso was amazing. It was really about building those relationships and staying open to the things that you’re discovering on set. And to do those scenes, like Izogie’s death and Nawi discovering who she was, as a director, those are the hardest things to do because part of directing is to create a space safe enough for them to give me everything. Building trust and getting to know each other and knowing what they’re going to be pulling from to give me those emotions and having to go again and again, it’s so hard because you’re asking someone to rip their guts out in front of a crowd for us.

DEADLINE: What did you learn about yourself through this film?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: The strange thing is, I’ve always said, like always, that there’s no crying in directing. Just as a female director, you can’t ever show weakness. Being on this film and being with these women and the story of learning that vulnerability is a strength that absolutely shifted me now. Not like I cry all the time on set, but I can remember talking to Lashana the day we were going to shoot Izogie’s death. And I just went to her in the morning, I was like, “OK, how am I going to protect you throughout this day?” But we just started talking about the scene, and I started to tear up because she was so real at that point. It’s like this is really Izogie’s last day in captivity. Lashana’s understanding of that [scene] helped. We could connect on a visceral level. And that’s what you need to do as a director, to be able to connect with your actors in that way.

DEADLINE: A nomination would make you the first Black female directing nominee in Oscar history.

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: For The Woman King, we were doing a film that hadn’t been done before. It took seven years for someone to believe. And then, even with that belief, we were still questioned. If it failed, people would say, “Oh, you can’t make a movie starring Black women.” That’s just how our industry is. You can’t make an action film starring Black women. You can’t make a historical epic about anything other than what we’ve seen a hundred times before. So that’s where that self-imposed pressure comes in. And also, it was this ensemble of actors who trusted me implicitly. And in some ways, that’s scarier than having somebody not believing you. It’s like, ‘OK, I’m going to prove you wrong.’ I had to come through for them. And as for the conversation, it’s exciting because it means that people respect the film, that they’re moved by the film. You know, we put all this work into it, not for that. We put in all this work for it because we believed in the story, the characters, and the actors.

This is a big epic film with Black women at its core, which is a beautiful thing. So, to be in the conversation is a beautiful thing. It means we did what we set out to do. So, of course, when you hear this, it’s like, ‘How is that possible? In the entire history of the Oscars, a Black woman’s never been nominated?’ But then you know the industry, it’s also how rarely we get the opportunity to make films like this. This took seven years. So, it’s a beautiful thing to be in the conversation, but ultimately, it’s about the film.

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