Polly Morgan interview: ‘The Woman King’ cinematographer
[WARNING: The article and above interview contain spoilers about “The Woman King.” Read and watch at your own risk.]
When cinematographer Polly Morgan was in the process of conceiving the overall look for Gina Prince-Bythewood‘s new film “The Woman King,” she used English broadcaster, writer and naturalist David Attenborough‘s documentaries as a jumping-off point.
“I sort of grew up watching the amazing BBC documentaries that David Attenborough has done in his career, and I just always felt the color palette was so evocative,” Morgan tells Gold Derby in a recent webchat (watch the exclusive video interview above). “It really excited me to sort of be thrown into the worlds in which he was investigating. So, I kind of wanted the audience of this movie to feel the same way. I wanted to do justice to the environment, I wanted it to be rich and beautiful, and I wanted to honor the legacy of these characters.”
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.
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.
With respect to this scene, which in fact launched production, Morgan highlights that she wanted it to kick off the movie with a bang.
“I think when I read the script, and I read [the description of] Viola Davis kind of rising out of the grasses, it was such an arresting image in my mind that I really wanted the viewer to feel the same way,” recalls the DP, for whom it was important that the sequence wasn’t overlit. “I wanted to find a very delicate balance between seeing these dark-skinned actors in the middle of Africa at night in the 19th century. So, we really tried hard to make sure that the lighting wasn’t overwhelming and we could supplement the ambient moonlight with the real interactive warmth of the firelight. What you don’t see or don’t realize — behind the scenes, as we were moving the camera around with the action, we were sort of using a dimmer system to bring lights up and down, sort of choreographed with the movement, so that, as we swung around, the backlight would fade down and another backlight would fade up, so that the actors weren’t ever frontlit or anything felt too forced, basically.”
One of Morgan’s favorite scenes to shoot was the moment in which 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.
Given the emotional heft of the material with which Davis and Mbedu had to work in this scene, Morgan wanted to ensure that the camerawork first and foremost complemented their performances.
“We bring Nawi in with all this motion and this sort of fluid camera, but ultimately, it’s all about the close-ups — these still close-ups that are kind of breathing with the characters and just really let the drama of their performances sing,” she explains. “[We wanted to] have a quiet camera and try to sort of enhance their performance with the tone of the light and make sure that everything is kind of working together in order to enhance the drama of the scene and help the viewer evoke the same emotion that the characters are feeling.”
“The Woman King” is playing in theaters and available to purchase digitally, as well as on DVD and Blu-ray.