By Rebekah Clark

What Really Makes A Woman, King?

Speaking to Academy Award winning producer Cathy Schulman, GRAZIA explores what it took to bring the female-fuelled historical epic, The Woman King, to life
Still image of the woman king on the big screen
Nanisca (Viola Davis) in TriStar Pictures’ THE WOMAN KING. Photo: Courtesy of Supplied

‘Of course, there’s nothing we can’t do.’ That was the response of cinematographer Polly Morgan when questioned on setting up a crane in a river on set in the northern cape of South Africa. Cathy Schulman, an Academy Award winning producer on the film, recalls fighting the terrain and blistering heat to film the Sony Pictures historical epic, The Woman King. 

Thousands of miles from Hollywood, a female-fuelled cast and crew brought to life the remarkable tale of the Agojie, an all-female unit of warriors who protected the African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 19th century. Sitting at the helm of Welle Entertainment, a production company dedicated to telling diverse stories, Schulman was captivated by the true story of this all-female army. Inspired by productions such as Black Panther, she felt compelled to share another rare film about the African continent.

still from the woman king
Photo: Courtesy of Supplied

With the same fierceness seen on the silver screen, a collective of passionate female creatives (including producer and lead actress on the film Viola Davis) fought for the film from development, to financing – a battle of its own – and finally to release. A process Schulman says took seven years.

Also starring Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, Hero Fiennes Tiffin, and John Boyega, The Woman King finds incredible duality in frenetic battle scenes and a familiar sense of womanhood. Before the film’s long-awaited debut into Australian cinemas on October 27, GRAZIA spoke with Schulman on what really makes a woman, king.

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GRAZIA: You were given a book written in French that detailed the history behind the Agojie. At what point during those seven months of reading did you feel that it could form a film?

Cathy Schulman: “I actually felt it could be a film even before reading the book because I heard stories, the actual mere existence, of an all-female army in itself seemed like the perfect place to anchor a story. The more that I became educated about the Agojie and the unique nature of this kingdom known as Dahomey, it just became really an intoxicating idea and it felt very self-distinguishing and that we could make a movie that would look and feel like nothing that no one had ever seen”

Thuso Mbedu, Viola Davis and Shelia Atim star in The Woman King
(L to R) Thuso Mbedu, Viola Davis and Shelia Atim star in The Woman King. Photo: Courtesy of Supplied
And what did you find most fascinating about the history?

CS: “In this culture every position in government was held by both a man and a woman together. There was this belief culturally that decisions should be made with both a male and female perspective. I thought, ‘My God, where have we been all this time. Why is this such a hard notion for the rest of the world?’. That’s the origin of the notion “The Woman King” came from, the mere idea that we could make a movie about a king and a king, not a king and a queen was where it all began. Then we started to search for a place and a time within their history to set it and ultimately came to this decision to set it on and around 1823 when the nation was in a very transitional time.”

In the production notes you recalled how hard it is for women to receive financing for films. Can you paint a picture of what occurred in that very first pitch meeting?

CS: “What normally happens is that you get rejected. Honestly for me I started on this a really long time ago when I was still an executive at a studio and the first time I pitched it I was told, ‘Well it sounds like a cool idea if you can make it for five million dollars’. That didn’t go very well knowing [the film] was wall-to-wall epic battle scenes. It continued like that for a while but we were really lucky that when we went TriStar, they could see our vision. Not only that but they were willing to take a chance on a theatrical film at a time when everyone was moving towards streaming. That was an enormous vote of confidence. By the time that Nicole Brown became the president of that division, and Nicole is also a Black woman, this became a real cause for her to get a movie like this in Hollywood, the first of its type. It was an enormous breakthrough, and we were happy to have the support.”

You’re no stranger to television production. Why not make The Woman King into a limited series?

CS: “That was a big discussion actually and the reason to make it a film is that we felt that the best way to introduce audiences to a new culture would be to design a film around a rather traditional format. Which is really a hero’s journey format… You were in a place that you’ve never seen, a culture you didn’t know, you’re with an army that you’ve never experienced. We really wanted to tell a story that could be told in three acts and that could have a grandiosity that could have a movie structure rather than an episodic structure that you would have done in television.”

Viola Davis also served as a producer on the film. What did she want to highlight from this history that we now see in the film?

CS: “Truth. She’s a great truth-seeker. She really wanted to tell the truth about these great African women and to make sure that the women look and feel real. To be every type and every size. To be actually strong, to be of the time and place. Not to be overly made up and dressed in ways that were not traditional to the actual culture. A lot of it had to do with celebrating authenticity and that was crucially important to her as we developed the ideas and the style and the look of the movie.”

Viola Davis and director Gina Prince-Bythewood on the set of The Woman King
Viola Davis and director Gina Prince-Bythewood on the set of The Woman King. Photo: Courtesy of Supplied
One of my favourite aspects of the film was this duality between intense heart-pounding action scenes and beautiful moments that highlight everyday life for the kingdom. Why was it important to strike that balance?

CS: “First and foremost you have women making an action movie. What is so great about a process like this is that we wanted to show women in all of their complexities and all of their humanity.”

For women to know that you can be a fighter, and a mother, and a lover and a friend all at the same time and that we don’t need to limit ourselves in any of these ways.

“It was our driving force to make sure that we were building characters first and then taking them into action as characters. If you look at the action sequences in the film, none of the characters do anything that isn’t in trajectory to the arch of their character. They don’t just randomly kill somebody, or randomly stab some. It’s always part of the storytelling.”

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The Woman King was filmed in South Africa. What were the challenges of filming on location in such a unique environment?

CS: “The really hard part was the work that we did in the northern cape of South Africa and that was real work in the jungle. We were working in the elements, without roads, without phones, without internet, often times without lights, with lots of delays, with lots of bugs and animals. It was really really hard. However, it put us in the right mindset. It became a real live environment. It’s a timeless place and we were telling a timeless story, you didn’t feel the pressures of modern civilisation, but you didn’t get any of the benefits… The most fascinating part of it was watching so many women do it.”

a still image from the movie
Photo: Courtesy of Supplied
In your opinion what could be learned from a culture like the Dahomey for the modern world?

CS: “Like I said, the importance of both male and female decision making. That every decision-making table from the top down should have gender parity because when that happens you get decision making that’s reflective of the actual community. If we could embrace that kind of notion as a system to run our government and to run our companies, we would have a much fairer and pleasant world.”

And what do you hope the audience take from this viewing experience?

CS: “I hope that it’s enough of a door-opening experience that it prepares both filmmakers to make more movies about people and places that we might not have formally understood. The same for audiences. To open our minds and hearts to people that live in ways that a different to our own. I believe that if we learned about people that were different to ourself that we have a chance of understanding one another.

With that understanding we could make the world a better place.

I understand that sounds slightly grandiose, but I’ll tell you a funny story. I once had the pleasure of having dinner with Al Gore and I was telling him what I did and I said, ‘I’m kind of embarrassed talking about my gender politics and you’re trying to save the world from environmental failure’. He said to me at the time, ‘I might be working to save the world but there is no reason to be in the world if we can’t understand each other’. I can say, without feeling foolish, that we need this kind of storytelling because we have to be a part of the process of making this a better place for all.”

The Woman King is in Australian cinemas from October 27.

This article originally appeared on Grazia Australia.

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