I was joined at today’s Contenders Film LA3C event by the key people behind the hit epic The Woman King, which was just named to the prestigious list of AFI’s Top 10 Movies of the Year. It also scored a rare A+ Cinemascore during its opening weekend in September, proving it has not only critical acclaim but also that from the audience. The funny thing is this story of a band of all-female African warriors defending their kingdom in the 1800s was turned down by every studio the filmmakers approached until they finally got a yes from Sony’s TriStar Pictures. It was a smart move for the studio as it clearly has an Oscar contender here.
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Stars Viola Davis and Thuso Mbedu, director Gina Prince-Bythewood and Crash Oscar winner Cathy Schulman, who produces along with Davis, all joined me to discuss the challenges and triumphs of bringing this film to the screen. Asked why it was difficult to get a green light, Davis didn’t mince words.
“I think in general, it’s difficult to make movies,” she told me. “I don’t want to feel like, you know, I’m cornering the market on the difficulties of movies making it to the screen, but you’re looking at a predominantly female-led movie that’s very action-packed, where sort of no one has a G-string and full makeup. And those women being predominantly dark-skinned Black women, I think that I think that no precedent has been set for it. So I think that’s what hinders its progress to the screen. … It’s big, it’s epic, … requires a lot of extras all of that. So I think that that factored in, but you know what? Let me tell you something: When you’re driven by such passion to sort of fulfill that first dream that you had when you fell in love with the work, you ride that horse into the ground is what you do. Even though it was seven years, it might as well been two hours.”
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Schulman concurred that epics like this in general aren’t in vogue in Hollywood. “Yeah, I mean, I think you know, we were dealing with a historical epic at a time when they haven’t been popular for a while, and although you reference the greatest ones of all time, it’s been a long time since those kind of movies got made and there’s sort of been more of a trend towards fantasy movies,” she said. “We were trying to introduce a part of history and a place in the world that nobody had really seen in our universe. And so that became its own obstacle. The bigger the budget, the harder the challenge. So we were always in a process of trying to figure out clever ways to do things that normally would be done on other movies with more time and more money but to be flexible and to be creative, and how to stretch every single dollar on the screen. And we were also committed to it. We were completely exhausted by the end, but it was an incredible experience.”
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Mbedu talked about the extensive prep and physical training the actors had to endure, and Prince-Bythewood expanded on the unique challenges she had in keeping the film afloat despite the unexpected four-month break brought on by the pandemic.
As for a sequel? Davis noted that she is pushing 60 and admits the only way she would agree to another round with The Woman King and its physical requirements is if her character gets killed off in the first five minutes and floats out to sea.
Check back Wednesday for the panel video.