Akin McKenzie interview: ‘The Woman King’ production designer
What was most important to production designer Akin McKenzie when it came to his work on Gina Prince-Bythewood‘s new film “The Woman King” was that every single design he selected and crafted for the historical epic had a specific purpose.
“Every glyph that you see has a meaning; every fabric tells a story; every pattern has a ritual behind it,” underlines the production designer during his recent webchat with Gold Derby (watch the exclusive video interview above). “So, that was a fun exploration — how do we continue to make things visually interesting but do not, under any [circumstances], rely on decoration for decoration purposes? If we need more texture, let’s be patient enough to observe and understand the purpose behind it.”
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 drama 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.
When shedding light on his research process for the film, McKenzie highlights the challenges he and his team faced while trying to form an accurate picture of a time that in fact preceded the invention of photography. While they had illustrations of that exact period, all were from a Western perspective and had, he says, “varying agendas” that you could see in them. Per the production designer, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that actual photography of Dahomey surfaced, but at that point, the kingdom was already in complete ruins following the Franco-Dahomean wars, in which it suffered devastating losses at the hands of the French.
What ultimately helped McKenzie overcome the foregoing hurdles were patterns that he discovered in his research material, including even those illustrations that were, in his words, “comically inaccurate.” “If I can observe patterns in the illustration, if I can find written texts that also speak to the visuals of that — and some of these written texts are methodically almost anthropological texts, where they’re just describing every detail as if the world is seeing it for the first time — if I can see the written word, observe the same patterns that I’m seeing in the illustrations, and then, subsequently, I can observe those patterns, or a continuation of the patterns, and the human beings as they exist in that space today, then that begins to give us confidence that something is worthy of trusting,” he expounds. “And so, although an arduous process, [it was] a super exciting process of discovery.”
One of the specific designs McKenzie discusses in our chat is that of the majestic Dahomey palace, the set for which may have been smaller than the real-life construction but was still massive in actual size. For the production designer, who accentuates that visual effects were used only in very rare instances for the following purpose, it was of great importance that he give this place as much scope as possible.
“In order to create this feeling of endlessness and size, the design of the Agojie barracks was made so that you’re constantly seeing through colonnades into other colonnades which then bring you to another building, so I can shoot you this way and see five layers of depth, and then I can turn around the other way and see another five layers of depth,” he details. “Even when we go into the interiors, I would offset different entryways into different spaces… so that you’re feeling additional depth in every direction.”