Sony Pictures

Interview: Fight Choreographer Jénel Stevens Talks Collaborating With Gina Prince-Bythewood for ‘The Woman King’

The Woman King is amazing. There have been a lot of really great theatrical experiences this year, and Gina Prince-Bythewood‘s historical action epic ranks high amongst the ten best of the year so far, especially when its grandiose action set pieces hit the IMAX screen. And it’s part of why the movie is so spectacular to watch on the big screen – the fight scenes are incredible.

We recently spoke to fight choreographer Jénel Stevens, who has an incredible resumé, having worked in projects such as Black Panther, Avengers: Endgame, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Free Guy, Ms. Marvel, and, most recently, The Gray Man. On Zoom, Stevens explained that working on all of these projects helped her for The Woman King in their own way:

“They’re all very different projects, but in terms of the knowledge gained, how to communicate with the actors, how to collaborate with the coordinators, how to train the actors, etc. Whatever job I do, I learn a little bit more regardless of the fighting style. It’s always a learning process.”

On the difference between the role of a fight choreographer and stunt coordinator, Stevens talked about how everyone had their specific jobs to make the movie as great as it can be:

“We all have our own specific jobs. Stunt coordinators are the ones that head up everything. They’re also responsible for budgeting and ensuring everything’s running smoothly with the fights. They’re also the ones who have direct contact with the production. The fight coordinators are the ones who are on the ground more, putting together the fight sequences and making sure that the production has what they want in terms of what the fight scenes should look like.

They are also the ones who video the pre-visualizations that we submit to production to show them what our concept of the fight should be. Under that is the fight choreographer. They’re responsible for training the actors going through the drills, ensuring everybody knows how to wield a weapon, can punch and kick, and then helping with putting pieces together that go into the final product.

Stevens also explained the extensive process the lead actors (Viola Davis, Lashana Lynch, Thuso Mbedu, Sheila Atim) went through to prepare for the movie:

“Gabby [Maclain], the fitness trainer, put them through the wringer and got them in tip-top shape, physically. After that, or before they would come in, we would train with weapons. So we would go through drills about how they can wield the weapons and basic strikes with the machetes, knives, and staffs because everybody had their own expertise as a warrior in the movie. And then we went through punches and kicks and basic drills for that.

We would then put pieces of those together into small snippets of choreography. Because a lot of times, choreography changes until the day of shooting. But putting small vignettes together, so they weren’t completely married to the choreography that was made, would help the actors get into the groove of putting those basic strikes together into a fight sequence and do it against other people.”

On collaborating with director Gina Prince-Bythewood for The Woman King, Stevens explained that she had joined the training process with the actors and had her own input on how she wanted the fighting style to look for the movie:

“She was there watching a lot of the training. She had input on how she wanted it to look through her vision. She would look to me to make sure that everything looked authentic. And everybody was doing the right movements and looking like a badass warrior, and what made the process special was that Gina was not looking for good. She was looking for great. We would do the same take again until it was right on all aspects and through all our inputs on the take.”

Stevens also doubled for Viola Davis’ Nanisca, stating that the actor was willing to do anything stunt-wise:

“She was down for everything and making all the fight scenes look as badass as possible. We would come up with options for her. And we would come to terms with if she was comfortable doing certain stunts. She did about 90 to 95% of her own stunts. All the fights you see other than falling on her face, which was me, was Viola. She did her fights. And we changed her to the point where she was very comfortable.

I showed her the choreo pieces, and she watched me and reviewed them with my choreo in mind. It’s not just about throwing a weapon around. She really was interested in the footwork and making it look as close to how I did it as possible and close to how it should be done and how it should look if she were to be a warrior for her entire life. Training with her was amazing because she just didn’t want to leave. She was very committed to making this character look the way it did on screen. And I think it shows how much work she put into the film.”

On choreographing fight sequences that are not only historically accurate, but also spectacular to watch on screen, Stevens also explained the amount of research that was done for the movie:

“A lot of research is done. It definitely helps to come in with a martial arts base. Me and Danny Hernandez, a stunt coordinator, were like-minded in the fact that we’re in the same lineage of martial arts. Johnny Gao also came in with his fight background as well. He’s trained in multiple martial arts and in wushu.

We then look back at the times and see what they were doing, what weapons they were wielding, but we also have a history of our own with our martial arts. And it’s a seamless way to put things together. After knowing our own martial arts history, and then looking back into what style the Agojie use, and what weapons they use we look at how we could emulate that and make it real.

It’s not that difficult. You have to do the research and see which weapons were used back then. With that, we know how to use it. So then all we have to do is implement it, by teaching the actors how to use it in the film.”

The Woman King is now playing in theatres everywhere.


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Written by Maxance Vincent

Maxance Vincent is a freelance film and TV critic, and a recent graduate of a BFA in Film Studies at the Université de Montréal. He is currently finishing a specialization in Video Game Studies, focusing on the psychological effects regarding the critical discourse on violent video games.

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