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Director Gina Prince-Bythewood wants The Old Guard to ‘normalize our thoughts about Black people’

She’s literally changing the face of action movies

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood talks to extras playing soldiers on the set of The Old Guard. Photo: Aimee Spinks / Netflix

With the release of Netflix’s action movie The Old Guard, director Gina Prince-Bythewood has claimed a surprising title: according to the New York Times, she’s the first Black woman to ever direct a big-budget comic-book movie. In an industry where it’s demonstrably difficult for either women or people of color to get directorial work, Prince-Bythewood has managed a celebrated career producing critically lauded movies — the 2000 romance Love & Basketball, the warm 2008 novel adaptation The Secret Life of Bees, the 2014 drama Beyond The Lights — while taking side jobs in television on shows like Cloak & Dagger and Everybody Hates Chris.

The Old Guard, a dark superhero story that writer Greg Rucka adapted from his own comics about a squad of immortal mercenaries, represents a new step in Prince-Bythewood’s career: it’s a big action movie, full of effects and combat sequences. But it still recognizably has her touch for drama and warm character work. Charlize Theron and Kiki Layne play women pushed into a life of combat that they’re perfectly capable of navigating. But they’re also both dealing with the fact that they didn’t choose immortality, or the battles it brings. Polygon recently spoke to Prince-Bythewood about choreographing the film’s bruising close-quarters combat, disrupting the movie industry’s stereotypes, and the importance of putting Black female heroes on screen.

[Ed. note: This interview has been edited for clarity and concision, and contains spoilers for the end of The Old Guard.]

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood and star Kiki Layne go over a script page on the set of The Old Guard. Photo: Aimee Spinks / NETFLIX

We have to lead off with the obvious question — The Old Guard ends with a big sequel tease. When’s the sequel coming out?

Wow. [Laughs] Honestly, it’s up to the audience. We’ll see how the audience responds to the film. Greg Rucka, who wrote the graphic novels and the screenplay, always envisioned the novels as a trilogy, and I know where the story goes, which is pretty great. So if the audience is up for them, there’s certainly more story to tell.

The comic is still in progress, as far as fans seeing what that story looks like. But would you want to direct a sequel?

You’re coming hard this morning! Wow. It really depends on where I am when it’s ready for a sequel. I love this story. I love the characters. I love the cast I put together. So I don’t know, I love that I created this thing, and I don’t know how I’d feel about someone else’s hands on it. On the flip side, I have my next film lined up, so it would probably be based on schedule more than desire. Because certainly, of course I would want to.

Skydance had the rights to the graphic novel, Greg Rucka wrote the script, and then the studio sent it to you. Do you have a sense for why they were courting you for this project specifically?

It’s funny, I didn’t ask until long after I had the gig. About a month ago, I asked “What was it that made you take this leap of faith?” I hadn’t done a movie of this size before, nor stunts and action of this size before. And they said it was my work on Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights, and what I’d proven I could do with characters and story. They wanted that specifically for this film, so it would be an action drama as opposed to a straight action film. I thought that was pretty phenomenal. They were very intentional about wanting a female director, and wanting someone who matched my prior work. It wasn’t stunts or action experience that got me in the room.

Are you a comics fan, or an action fan? Are you into the superhero genre?

I love these films! I’ve seen everything! I’d see them on my own, but I have two boys, and we see all these films together. I just love the direction that action films have gone in the last couple years. There have been some really beautiful action-dramas, like Black Panther and Logan, that have all the elements you want in an action film, yet I cried at the end of both of those, with Logan’s death and Killmonger, the villain, his death. It’s fantastic that I could be so connected with the characters, and that the storytelling could be so good that it could evoke that kind of emotion for me, and for a lot of people. It says a lot about where the genre can go. The fact that they’re hiring different directors for these films, that you don’t have to have a ton of action experience — they’re looking to make these films, as opposed to just events. I think that’s a beautiful thing.

Charlize Theron behind the scenes on The Old Guard. Photo: Aimee Spinks / Netflix

When we talked for Beyond the Lights, you brought up the ways studios pushed back against the film because it was a romance starring Black characters — they wanted you to cast Channing Tatum instead. When Skydance was looking for a studio to pick up this project, was there similar resistance to the gay romance, or the cast’s diversity? Was this a difficult sell?

Not in terms of any of that. The issue really was that it was two women at the head of an action film, and studios are still gun-shy about that. Whereas Netflix was actively looking for an action film with women at the head of it. That was the biggest difference. So the studio that we were looking to do this at, there was some hesitancy. And Netflix came in and offered us so much more money, we just couldn’t turn it down. To have somebody who actively wants you for what you are, as opposed to feeling like they’re taking this very big chance because there are women in the film? I’ll take the passion any day.

You’ve repeatedly mentioned that you wanted this film to disrupt the action genre, but I haven’t seen you explore that thought in detail yet. What did you want to be disruptive here?

There are several films that have done that at this point. Prior to Wonder Woman, prior to Black Panther, there was a sameness settling in on the action genre. I remember one particular spectacle film where the big climax came, and it was a giant action scene, and I found myself just slumped down in my chair, because I didn’t care. I felt no stakes. No one was gonna get hurt, no one was gonna die, I knew who was gonna win, and it just felt monotonous.

So I really wanted to look at what The Old Guard could be to make it different. One of the things I love so much about it is the organic diversity, the fact that there was this group of warriors from different cultures and backgrounds and sexual orientations and genders that came together to protect humanity. Given me, who I am as a filmmaker, and an artist, and a Black woman, I wanted to make sure that the cast of this film looked like the world, and not like just one thing, which I felt like we were getting a lot of in action.

So there’s a gay couple in here and a young, Black female warrior, and a Muslim warrior, all things we don’t normally get to see in films like this. And then there’s the fact that the leads are two women, and they’re both warriors, and there’s a normalcy to it. Andy’s been a warrior for 6,000 years, and Nile is a baby immortal, but she’s a Marine, she came from warriors. I wanted to normalize that there wasn’t some traumatic event that happened to force them to find their strength. It’s just innate in these women, in a way that I feel is innate in most women. We just haven’t always been given the permission to tap into that.

So I wanted both empathy and action. I was very, very specific with my team about this: “We have two women fighting, they’re both badass, and this has to look real. It’s never going to be sexualized. I don’t want anyone to ever say, ‘Oh my God, what a hot cat-fight!’” It wasn’t about sexualizing the women, or making this fight sexy. I wanted you to feel their strength and their skill, and talk about that, instead of talking about how they look when they’re fighting. So those elements were bringing something different and disruptive.

Charlize Theron leads her team down into a dark underground area in The Old Guard. Photo: Aimee Spinks / Netflix

Isn’t intense, close-up physical contact between highly attractive people always going to be at least a little sensual, though? In the plane combat in particular, you can see Andy taking such a visceral delight in somebody who’s a match for her not just physically, but in terms of will and focus. Did you just not want that element at all, if possible?

I didn’t want it to be there at all, to be honest. What I was excited about was having each action scene have a different feel, because each fight has a different story to it. For me, that scene was about Andy testing a new immortal and seeing what they’ve got, and Nile being a woman who’s completely lost, scared, and angry, and just wants to be free, and taking that out on Andy. I never once felt like it was sensual or sexual. I just wanted it raw.

Andy’s fight choreography in particular seems like it’s based around brutal efficiency, but it’s also flashy and exciting. How did you approach planning the action?

I love that you said “brutal efficiency,” because that was one of the tenets for The Old Guard. As soon as I read the script, I knew I wanted it to have this grounded, real feel, despite the fantastical conceit of immortality. And because I was moved by the characters and what they were struggling with, in terms of their search for purpose — why are they here? Those big questions that I think all of us ask ourselves at some time — it felt like a way an audience could connect to them, despite the fact that they’re mostly immortal.

So that search needed to permeate everything, especially the action. The vision of wanting the action to be real, to be unapologetic about the violence without feeling like a celebration of violence, to incorporate the fact that they are very efficient and very good at killing, but there’s a reason for it. They take lives to save lives, but there’s a toll on all of them, especially Andy, and now Nile, for the act of taking a life. And also, our characters use archaic weapons often, because that’s what they were raised on. And they were raised on needing to know how to kill face-to-face, as opposed to modern mercenaries, modern soldiers, who were raised on the gun, and taught how to shoot and kill by hitting targets 30, 40, 50 yards away, so it’s more impersonal.

I felt that difference was what gave the Old Guard the advantage, in a fight where you’re squaring off in close quarters. So it was about bringing all those ideas into each fight. Another thing about brutal efficiency — the Old Guard, when they do have guns, it’s one shot, one kill. They don’t spray randomly. That’s just a code within who they are. They take death seriously, and it’s never gratuitous or celebratory.

I had an incredible stunt team. Jeff Habberstad and Danny Hernandez, who designed the fights, and Brycen Counts. It was incredible working with them. I’d give them all my ideas and tell them what my vision was. We’d go through the script and the scene. I’d talk about the fighting style. Like in the plane scene — Nile is a Marine, so she learned from their martial-arts program, and that’s how she would start out fighting. But as her frustration grows, and she cannot even touch Andy, suddenly she just throws it out, goes back to the street, and just starts throwing ’bows at her.

Whereas Andy is the greatest warrior. She knows every single fighting style. And so she can pull out anything at any moment. So Nile can’t even touch her until that one moment where she gets in that cheap shot, and gets some of her swagger back. So every combat was about telling you a story with the choreography, and then figuring out how to shoot it and capture it.

Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne punch the crap out of each other in a plane in The Old Guard. Photo: Aimee Spinks / Netflix

Does any particular part of shooting the action stand out for you?

Mostly the plane fight. That was the very first thing we shot in the entire film. I was initially concerned about it, because so much of your relationship with a crew — knock on wood, I’ve always had great relationships with my crew, because I need everybody, and I bring them into the vision. But you also have to prove yourself early on to your crew, prove you know what the hell you’re doing. So it’s always good to just start with a two-person scene. With just two people at the table, you know you’re gonna make your day, and then everyone’s getting into a groove.

But part of me was also like, “You know what? Let’s just go for it. The actors have been training for months, doing the choreography of that scene. Why not hit it, as opposed to them forgetting all of it as we start to shoot?” And I felt like it would be a really good bonding thing for the two actors as well, Charlize and Kiki. A lot of trust goes into shooting a scene like that.

It was important to me that there was an emotional story in this film. I wanted it to feel character-driven. I needed the actors to really be in it, and not stunt doubles. I didn’t want to have to continually cut away and hide things. So they put in a tremendous amount of training to be able to do that. And shooting that first fight really set the tone, and proved whether everything I had in my head was going to translate on the screen.

It was scary at first, but as I started watching it happening, sitting at my monitor, seeing these women go toe to toe … For women, throwing a punch is absolutely the biggest tell on whether you’re going to believe the action or not. With Kiki, we had to work on throwing, but when they got in it, and they just started performing the scene, I saw everything I thought I was going to get from these two actors, and that was really exciting.

And then the other thing was that we were shooting on an actual plane, because I didn’t want to give myself and Tami Reiker, the DP, the crutch of being able to move walls. The scene took place in a confined space, the fight was confined, so I wanted us as storytellers to be confined as well. I hope it added to the scene, and to the feeling of being right in there, feeling those smashes and punches and kicks.

A lot of the expansion from the original comics focused on making Nile more three-dimensional, giving her more background and humanity. Did you work with Greg Rucka on developing the script past the original version Skydance showed you?

Yeah. Foremost, I love that he got to adapt his own material. That rarely happens in this space. So the beautiful thing is, all the things I loved about the graphic novel were in the screenplay, but Greg was not precious about anything in the story. Except a couple things that couldn’t change, but I was on board with all of that. As soon as I came aboard, I let Greg know that his graphic novel was my Bible. When you come aboard to do an adaptation, as I’ve done in the past, that’s my philosophy. I’m here because you created these characters and this story that I’m inspired to tell. And there’s a whole audience out there who loves what is on that page. So I am here to honor that work. In doing that, of course, I’m going to come up with my vision, and some changes will have to be made, but let’s start with the respect for what you’ve created.

Coming in like that, he and I clicked immediately, because I do respect him so much as a writer. For me, what was missing was Nile having a full arc, a full story, full agency in the plot and the climax. Greg himself acknowledged that that was a flaw in the graphic novel, so he was eager as we worked on Nile to give her a backstory and really make sure she had a beginning, middle, and end. So he and I worked on that together. The other big thing I wanted to add, I touched on this earlier, is that in preparation for this film, I read this great book called On Killing, which many soldiers say is the definitive book on war. It talks about how the act of taking a life is as damaging, psychologically, as your fear of losing your life on the battlefield. And I thought that was so important to show for Andy’s character, who has had to kill for so many years. She’s compelled to do that in hopes that she’s doing good. What is that toll on somebody? And then Nile in the film experiences her first kill, and can’t get over that. I wanted to show she couldn’t just kill and walk away. I wanted to tell the truth about that. And that was another thing that Greg embraced, and that we were able to weave into the story.

Kiki Layne sits amid weapons and ammo cases, glaring up at Charlize Theron in The Old Guard. Photo: Aimee Spinks / Netflix

It feels like we’re in a cultural moment where people are newly hungry to hear from Black creators, to see more Black perspectives, to see more diverse characters on screen. Are there ways The Old Guard feels particularly appropriate for you right now? Are there things you hope people will experience in it that they might not have seen even a few months ago?

There are many reasons I took this film. Foremost, I love the story and the characters. But absolutely one of my driving forces was the chance to put a Black female hero into the world. It’s something that’s so needed for us as a community. The world needs to see us in that light. There have been so many negative images of us put out by Hollywood, images that absolutely weaponize Blackness, and cause so many of the incidents we’re seeing, because our humanity is just not being shown onscreen. There’s also the damaging aspect of invisibility, certainly for Black women, who are rarely seen in film, and even more rarely seen in this type of heroic light. That visibility is absolutely damaging as well.

Given the usual narrative for Black women in society, I’m very proud to be to be putting this into the world. I’m glad it’s happening now, but it should be happening all the time. For me, what’s most striking in the film coming out of this moment is the fact that in this global pandemic, I think we are finally all realizing how connected we are globally, and this constant stream of war and conflict and separation absolutely is making this pandemic worse. If we all just did the right thing and worked together, it would absolutely be eradicated, if we put our energy into protecting all of us, as opposed to a couple of pockets.

When we talked last, you said a driving force for you was making your characters as universal and relatable as possible, so people could see themselves on screen, no matter what those characters are doing. Is that still a significant drive for you?

It is absolutely my driving focus. I know that may seem contradictory, while I’m also saying I specifically want people to see a Black female hero. But it isn’t. In putting these characters out into the world, I want to normalize our thoughts about Black people not being villains, not being the bad guys, not being dangerous. My hope is that we can actually shift perception in the culture. So I feel the two things absolutely come hand in hand. I do want anybody to be able to look up on screen and be enamored by the Old Guard, enamored by Niles, enamored by Joe, who’s certainly from a culture that has been demonized in the United States, to see him as a hero, to see Joe and Nicky, this gay couple, and see them as warriors first, and being gay as a part of them. So the more we have these images out here, the more we can normalize them, and accept people for who they are.

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