‘The Old Guard’ director Gina Prince-Bythewood on adapting a comic book story and keeping it ‘real’

July 9, 2020, 2:00 PM UTC

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Gina Prince-Bythewood isn’t known for making action movies, but that’s not for a lack of interest in the genre.

“I love action films, and I love the direction that they’ve been moving the last couple of years, where they’ve really been action-dramas, like Logan, like Black Panther,” the director of films including Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights tells Fortune. “I did not know that I was going to get the opportunity [to direct one], the way Hollywood likes to work.”

Prince-Bythewood’s latest film, The Old Guard, which arrives on Netflix Friday, is the type of action-drama she’s been drawn to in recent years. Based on the graphic novel by Greg Rucka, the movie focuses on a team of immortal mercenaries, led by Andy (Charlize Theron), that has been fighting to protect the world for centuries. The group is joined by U.S. Marine Nile (KiKi Layne) after she discovers her own immortality, while they battle a new foe who has stumbled across their secret.

“I got the script and fell in love immediately. I loved the story foremost. I loved that it kept surprising me,” says Prince-Bythewood, who also found the characters relatable in spite of their immortality. “I loved that it was two women at the heart of it, and one being a young Black female hero. I loved the organic diversity of it—the fact that it was this group of warriors from different backgrounds and cultures and sexual orientations and genders, and have come together to protect humanity.”

The Old Guard
Charlize Theron (left) as Andy and KiKi Layne (right) as Nile in “The Old Guard.” They were able to bring a “unique veteran-rookie relationship” to the screen, director Gina Prince-Bythewood says.
Aimee Spinks—Netflix

Prince-Bythewood worked closely with Rucka, who adapted his own work for the screenplay.

“Greg was on my hip. I love that dude so much,” says Prince-Bythewood, adding that the writer’s presence on set was helpful whenever she had questions about plot or character details. “He and I had an incredible collaboration. I respect him so much, and he had a mutual respect for me.”

While working on the script together, Rucka was open to some changes Prince-Bythewood wanted to make to Nile’s character, such as “giving her more agency in the plot” and “giving her more backstory and a fuller arc.”

“He was all into that,” says the director, who also looked to films like Man on Fire, The Raid, and Zero Dark Thirty as additional sources of inspiration. Even with its comic book origins and focus on immortal characters, Prince-Bythewood wanted The Old Guard to be grounded in reality—“unapologetic about the violence, but never being a celebration of violence.”

She did a lot of reading to prepare for the film, relying on one book—On Killing—which she calls “the definitive book for soldiers.”

“What it talks about is that the act of taking a life is as damaging to the psyche as your fear of losing your life for soldiers,” she says. “It absolutely matched who Andy was, a woman who was compelled to kill because to kill one saves many. Yet that’s got to take a toll after thousands of years, and I wanted to play into that realness.”

“I feel like in a lot of action films, death and killing just happen, and you move on,” Prince-Bythewood says. “But I wanted to play the realness of it, and Greg was really keen on bringing that element in as well.”

That philosophy also applied to the action sequences themselves—something that was particularly important to Prince-Bythewood, whose nephew is a Marine, and Layne.

“We wanted Marines to watch this and not be able to ever once say that looked wack, or that’s not real,” explains Prince-Bythewood, adding that two Marine advisers, as well as an additional military adviser, were involved in the production.

Gina Prince-Bythewood
Prince-Bythewood (right) on the set of “The Old Guard.” Military advisers helped keep some of the action in the film grounded in reality.
Mohammed Kamal—Netflix

The actors also collaborated with the stunt and fight coordinators to figure out their individual moves. Layne’s Nile fights like a Marine for the most part, while Theron’s Andy—having been alive 6,000 years—is aware of “every fighting style that’s ever been created,” as Prince-Bythewood points out.

Working with the two actresses ended up being something of a study in contrasts. Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk) came into The Old Guard without previous action experience, Prince-Bythewood says. Meanwhile, Theron—who has starred in films like Atomic Blonde, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Aeon Flux—is now a veteran of the genre.  

“The fact then that KiKi could train with Charlize, who has done this before, who does know how hard it is, and how much work you have to put in, that was really good as an example for her to see,” says Prince-Bythewood, adding that the women were ultimately able to build a chemistry that resulted in a “unique veteran-rookie relationship” on-screen.

The director herself picked up a few new tricks while directing the feature. “When you’re shooting action, start with the closeups, because you can hide more,” she says. “As the actors do it more and more, they get better and better. So by the time you go wide, they’ve got the choreography down.”

The film, which has all the usual elements of a summer blockbuster, is coming out at an unusual time for the film industry. The coronavirus pandemic, which has wreaked havoc on film production, has also resulted in the prolonged shuttering of most movie theaters and the delay of many major film releases. Because The Old Guard was attached to Netflix all along—a departure for Prince-Bythewood, who was previously accustomed to traditional studios and theatrical releases—this is one film that hasn’t had its release date or strategy change. It was all quite “unexpected,” the director says.

“I was really excited about this summer because for the first time in the history of Hollywood, there were five big blockbusters directed by women, and a number of them women of color, that were all coming out this year,” she says, emphasizing the “incredible empathy” she feels for directors like Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman 1984), Niki Caro (Mulan), and Cate Shortland (Black Widow). “And it felt like it was a sea change, and an important summer, and I was rooting for all of us to have success so that this could sustain itself.”

She feels that sea change has potential to stick around—though it’ll depend on whether the “movies are good” and if they attract an audience.

“There’s incredible pressure on all of us to do that, to make a good film, and for the audience to come. Given so few of these are made, there’s a much bigger spotlight. Obviously, others don’t have that same pressure,” Prince-Bythewood says. “We do, which I think hopefully makes us work harder in making sure that our films are good, but it’s as simple as that.”

Similar feelings apply to whether The Old Guard will get a movie sequel.

“I know Greg has always envisioned this as a trilogy,” Prince-Bythewood says. “I know where the story is going, which is pretty incredible. So if the audience wants more, there’s absolutely more story to tell.”

The Old Guard
Clockwise from top: Matthias Schoenaerts (Booker), Theron (Andy), and Luca Marinelli (Nicky).
Aimee Spinks—Netflix

But even with the strange circumstances surrounding the film’s release, Prince-Bythewood is excited. “The fact that this is going to drop in 190 countries on the same day is mind-boggling to me,” she says.

And she’s hopeful that her film can have a positive effect.

“I know women want to see themselves heroic, and the more that we can put these characters out there and normalize it—normalize women being warriors, and tough and courageous and badass, but also vulnerable, because that’s a strength too—the more we can see that and normalize it, the better the world is going to be,” she says.

The Old Guard is available to stream on Netflix starting July 10.