“The Woman King” Stunts Making Of: Every character a warrior
Viola Davis double Jénel Stevens discusses the collaboration between the stunt team and the cast to make the film’s Agojie as badass as her story.
Gina Prince-Blythewood’s West African epic The Woman King opens with a battle sequence that shows us through action who the characters are as individuals and as a squad of elite warriors. We see how Izogie (Lashana Lynch), Amenza (Sheila Atim) and Nanisca (Viola Davis) – leaders of the Agojie, the all-female bodyguard of King Ghezo of Dahomey (John Boyega) in the early 19th century – all have different emphasis on movement – and weapon styles and still fight intuitively together. They are totally in sync as they carve through a village allied with their enemy, the Oyo, who have captured Dahomey to sell into slavery. The Agojie are not characterized by impressive formations, mechanical efficiency, or physics-defying exploits. They are defined by corresponding abilities that fit like puzzle pieces into the overall strength of the unit; This collective trust makes every single Agojie feel like a hero.
Not that The Woman King doesn’t orchestrate large-scale action scenes or create immersive environments for its heroes to run, chase, and battle their way deeper into the runtime, but the opening sequence feels like a thesis – one that’s off-screen required as much group training as on screen. “We trained throughout the film. So if [the actors] were not in front of the camera, they were in the rehearsal room and still training, learning [fight choreography], and are still honing their skills with the weapons. So it took months,” Jénel Stevens, stunt performer and double for Viola Davis, told IndieWire. “No matter what weapon they were carrying, they also learned the other weapons in case there was a fight scene in the film where they had to pick up someone else’s.”
For the basics of how the Agojie move and handle their weapons, Stevens, along with stunt coordinator Daniel Hernandez and the rest of the team, drew on Kali, a combat system native to the Philippines and a variety of both impact as well as emphasizing edged weapons and dramatic joint locks and grappling. It’s a system that allows Izogie and Nawi (Thuso Mbedu) to physically attack their opponents or turn them sideways, even as Nanisca carves more vigorously with a machete that almost seems like an extension of her indomitable will. “Where I come from in my martial arts, it starts from the ground up. If you don’t have your footwork, it won’t really matter if you’re good with your upper body because the two don’t connect,” Stevens said.
Stevens and the rest of the stunt team worked to give the actors versatility that they could use not only with their own guns, but with the fights themselves. “We put together little vignettes of fights, maybe 10 beats, where we could just get their mind used to getting the basic steps into the choreo, but not necessarily wed them to it [since] The fights would change over time,” Stevens said.
Stevens was struck by a thoroughness working with Davis that was also reflected in who Nanisca is in the film, how she moves and assesses the challenges ahead, and can’t bring herself to stop until the job is done. “[Davis] was really willing to do anything and everything, even some of the falls. And I thought, ‘You don’t have to do this. That’s going to be me.” But she went through the entire choreo piece from top to bottom and wouldn’t stop until it was right,” Stevens said. “I really liked the night scene with Oba (Jimmy Odukoya). That was [Nanisca’s] moment of revenge. That was her [going], ‘Okay. I know I acted out of anger before, but now I’m calculated and I’m going to kick your butt.’”
Whether or not she or Davis actually performed the moves, Stevens strives to embody Nanisca with an innate sense of control and power. “As I get to know her, I can think a little bit more about what feels better for her and what makes her feel more secure,” Stevens said. “So if there’s already a choreo, it’s like, ‘Okay. How about we make this move instead of that move and it’ll still give the same results, but I think she’s more comfortable throwing a hook here than a cross, or she’d rather throw it back than an upper Cut.’ And then in terms of weapon moves: “Is her forehand hit better than her backhand hit? If it is, we change how the person comes in from that angle. So [the process involves] Really getting to know your actress and what she wants to do and what she can do with confidence and then tweak the choreo when it comes down to it.
All fight choreography has to take into account what the actors are confidently capable of, but The Woman King instills a special virtue in each character that has a martial identity, that irrepressible sense of how they move and fight that even after Izogies Pauses holds an arm or Nanisca takes a blade wound. The power and authority with which Nanisca moves in this final nightly showdown is as much a victory as killing Oba is at the end. “I’m proud of what all the actors have accomplished in their martial arts training and what I call their badassery,” Stevens said. “In the beginning there is sometimes a big fear of being able to do these movements and making it look bad [you’re helping to give] give them the confidence and time to get to that point.”
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https://www.indiewire.com/2022/11/the-woman-king-stunts-making-of-1234784286/ “The Woman King” Stunts Making Of: Every character a warrior