[WARNING: The article and above interview contain spoilers about “The Woman King.” Read and watch at your own risk.]
Terilyn A. Shropshire was in the editing room for the 2020 Netflix superhero film “The Old Guard” when Gina Prince-Bythewood, the movie’s director and the editor’s creative partner of 20-plus years, told her that she had found their next project. That was “The Woman King,” a historical epic that opened in U.S. theaters on September 16 and marks the fifth collaboration on a feature film between Prince-Bythewood and Shropshire, for whom one of the biggest advantages to have arisen out of her close relationship with the director is that the latter already brings her into the filmmaking process during the early stages of production.
“I have the benefit of being able to read the script early because [Prince-Bythewood] brings me into that process. And even at that point, we start discussing everything about it: I’ll give her my thoughts, often about characters and scripts, and questions. Then, as she starts to move through the journey of bringing out her other collaborators — her production designer, her costume [designer], her cinematographer [etc.] — and she starts to create her version of her lookbook… I get the benefit of helping her gather that material and often put it to a video type of presentation,” shares Shropshire in her recent webchat with Gold Derby (watch the exclusive video interview above). “So, it allows me as an editor to get a sense of how the film is starting to layer itself, how the script is taking on its cinematic, next layer, and it really helps inform the things that are important to her.”
Written by Dana Stevens and inspired by real events, “The Woman King” is about an elite military unit of all-female warriors called the Agojie that protected the West African kingdom of Dahomey, which was located within present-day Benin, in the 18th and 19th centuries. Set in 1823, the action film stars Oscar winner Viola Davis (“Fences”) as General Nanisca, a fictionalized leader of the Agojie who trains the next generation of warriors to combat their enemies, as well as Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim and John Boyega.
In the opening scene of the film, a commanding Nanisca emerges from tall grass, followed by the rest of her all-female group of warriors, before she leads an attack against a small encampment of men who are responsible for a recent mass kidnapping. Although the ensuing fight is a short one, as the Agojie skilfully take out their enemies within a matter of minutes, it is an effective introduction to some of the film’s central characters. For Shropshire, who underlines that any first scene is hard to pull off because it has to make actors believable in their roles, it was crucial to get the audience imprinted on these characters, especially Nanisca, straight away.
“From an editing standpoint, it was just really important that we could show who Nanisca was, and the fierceness of who she was as a warrior. She is a woman who has trained every single one of these warriors coming out of the grass. It was important that people knew that she was the leader and why she was the leader,” explains the editor, adding that she wanted to let the audience slowly discover who this group of women was and why they were fighting. “At the same time, it was really important to take each character that you were then going to take a journey with and show [not only] how they were all working as a team but [also] that they each had their individual kind of fierceness.”
One of the most pivotal scenes in the film is when Nawi (Mbedu) learns that Nanisca is her long-lost birth mother. After the new recruit proudly reports to the general that she heard of a looming attack by their enemy, the Oyo, the latter divulges that she got pregnant after being gang-raped in Oyo captivity and had embedded a shark tooth in her baby’s left shoulder before giving her away. While the 19-year-old initially refuses to believe that she was the baby, she is forced to confront this reality after Nanisca extracts the tooth from her skin.
Even though the movie carefully builds to this reveal, watching as Nanisca replays in her mind glimpses of her rape and has a visceral reaction to discovering the scar on the back of Nawi’s left shoulder, both Prince-Bythewood and Shropshire wanted this scene to have a sense of revelation.
“It was important to me, in looking at the two performances from these two powerhouse actors, that this was the time that Nawi needed to be able to slowly reveal and take in something that has been her deepest fear, which is that she’s unloved and that she’s unwanted. So, it was very important to balance her receipt of that information with how Nanisca and what Nanisca was giving her, and when, and what she was hearing versus what Nanisca was telling her,” describes Shropshire, who also highlights that this scene represents a moment of immense release for Nanisca. “Nanisca is finally releasing something that she has been holding [in] for 19 years. And that is equally important, which is why after Nawi leaves, you hold on Nanisca because she’s finally in this process of release — and you have to honor that as well.”
“The Woman King” is currently playing in theaters and available to purchase digitally.
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