[Editor’s note: The following article contains spoilers for The Old Guard.]
From director Gina Prince-Bythewood and screenwriter Greg Rucka, and based on his graphic novel of the same name, the Netflix original movie The Old Guard follows an immortal warrior named Andy (Charlize Theron) who, along with her secret team of mercenaries, has a mysterious inability to die that has allowed them to protect the mortal world for centuries. When they discover a new immortal soldier named Nile (KiKi Layne), they risk exposure, which also draws the attention of individuals who are willing to go to any lengths to replicate their immortality.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood talked about why The Old Guard was a story that appealed to her, the frustration of waiting for Hollywood to catch up with the movies you want to get made, what a beautiful thing it is to get projects into development without the fight and where you can focus on the creative aspect of it, why she’s only directed five films in her 20-year career, what made her want to dive into the comic book/superhero genre, the aesthetic look she wanted to bring to this, the film’s ending, and whether this story could continue with more films.
Collider: When this came your way, what was it that made you want to tell this story?
GINA PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Foremost, I absolutely wanted to be in this space. I love the action genre. I just love the inherent good versus evil heroics. Doing Cloak and Dagger was absolutely intentional, in wanting to move into this space and prove myself in this space. The desire was there. I was just waiting for Hollywood. But I got the script, and I was not familiar with The Old Guard graphic novel, but I was familiar with Greg Rucka’s work, most notably Lazarus. I just loved the way he wrote women – not hyper-sexualized, very complex, and always having a warrior element to them. And so, I started reading the script and was just in it. I kept being surprised, and I was moved by these characters and their plight. That’s what I loved about it. It felt like an action drama to me, and that was everything that I wanted to do in this genre. And it was two women at the heart of this, with one being a young black female, which I wanted to put into the world.
Is the frustration of being a filmmaker that you’re always waiting for Hollywood to catch up with what it is that you want to do?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Yeah, absolutely. I feel like I’ve been in a sustained fight for 20 years, just fighting to tell the stories that I wanna tell, and fighting for my vision when I do have the opportunity. But given that I grew up an athlete, I’m up for the fight. My hope is that it won’t always be a fight. I have to say that my next two projects that I have are focused on black women and both that are big projects, and they weren’t a fight, for the first time in my career.
How different does that feel, when you don’t have that fight and you can just focus on what you want to do?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: It’s a beautiful thing because when you’re fighting, constantly, as you just said, you’re not always focused on the creative, you’re fighting on protecting the creative. And now, I can be one hundred percent focused on the creative, and I’m excited about that. That’s not to say that, once I’m in it, some fear won’t creep back up. That could absolutely happen. Will there be points where I have to fight for my vision? Absolutely. But the fact that. in getting these two things set up and that they’ve been embraced, is a beautiful thing.
What do you think it is that has allowed for the fight not to be there? Is it because attitudes have changed now?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: For these two projects, it was Black Panther. Black Panther changed the culture, one hundred percent.
You’ve had a 20-year career as a director, but you’ve only directed five films. Have you just been really picky, or is that about not being able to get the stories made that you wanted to tell?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: It’s really three things. Foremost, I have to be passionate about the story that I’m telling. Directing is all-encompassing. It’s a year or two years of your life. So, for me, to inspire me to stay with something that long, it has to be a story, not that I want to tell, but I need to tell, so I am incredibly particular. And given the fact that I write most of what I direct, I’m very slow at writing. Love & Basketball was a year and a half. Beyond the Lights was two years of writing. Two, I have two boys and a husband, so if I’m gonna be away, it has to mean something because it’s tough. The beauty of what I do is, when I’m writing, I’m here, 24/7 and I’m at every single event. But when I’m directing, I’m away, that’s absolutely tough. And then, thirdly, there are projects that I developed for a year or two years, that looked like they would have the scan to go and then didn’t go. That’s a tough thing because you look up and it’s like, “Damn, two years went by and I’ve got ‘nothing’ to show for it.” But as I reflect on it, everything that I’ve done has prepared me for the next thing, even those things that didn’t go, like Silver and Black. That was a year and a half of my life, but what I learned on that, because we got pretty deep into it, I was able to bring to The Old Guard.
When you work on a project like that and you spend that time in development, and then it doesn’t get made, do you put all of those projects in a drawer and that’s it and you move on from them, or are there any of those projects that didn’t quite get into production that you still would like to circle back around on, at some point?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: There are a couple that I’m excited about, given the position that I’m in now, where I have access. That door is wide open for me, in terms of where I can go and put a passion project in front of someone who can say yes. So, I’m excited about a couple of projects that I get to dust off. And when I say dust off, it doesn’t mean that they’re old fashioned. They’re still relevant today. It’s just that Hollywood wasn’t ready. I’m excited about this time, right now. I just wish I had more time to do everything that I wanna do.
You’ve been walking deeper and deeper into this comic book and superhero world, from Cloak and Dagger to The Old Guard. What was it that got you interested in that genre, and why is it a genre that you like playing in?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: It really starts with what I wanna see him. I love these films. I love the bigness of them. I love the aspect of good versus evil, and good wins out. I love how they’ve gotten more complicated, over the last couple years, like Logan and Black Panther, where you have all of the conceit of a big spectacle, and yet I cried in both of those. They went there with those characters. And I love that new directors have been given this opportunity to bring their aesthetics to the genre. I felt like it need that jolt. It was missing that jolt. It’s an exciting thing to see, as an audience member, but then there’s that thing of, I wanna be in the big sandbox. I wanna play and create heroes that the world can be inspired by, that we don’t often get to see, like Nile and like Joe and Nicky. It was exciting to me, and I didn’t want it to continue to just be a dream. I wanted to actively go after it and have the opportunity.
Were there also things that you wanted to do with this film and ways that you wanted to approach the actual filmmaking of it and the way that you shot it, that you hadn’t gotten the chance to do before?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Honestly, I wanted to bring my aesthetic to this. One of the things that I talked about, in terms of creating the look with Tami Reiker, we used two phrases, which were intimately epic and crazy gritty. We wanted to be able to tell this big story, but it starts with the personal and the details. I wanted to bring handheld to this and a natural look to it, yet just slightly heightened, given the fantastical conceit of it and given that I wanted to give some homages to the graphic novel, and that was really my use of silhouette. We definitely tried a couple of things that hadn’t been done in the genre before. The first was using 65mm cameras, which are really big. That’s why people don’t use them for handheld, for an entire film, but we really loved what the camera could do and the range that it had. Props to our camera guys, who had massages every week, seriously. And then, we also used a different lighting technique with it, which hadn’t been done either, in the genre. It was something that Tami Reiker had done, early in her career, and then Matthew Libatique used it in A Star is Born and brought it back. We said, “Let’s try it for this film.” It’s called flashing the film. Bringing those kinds of things to this felt different, but felt true to who I am, as a filmmaker. What I’ve really gravitated towards is that realistic, grounded feel. It feels like that allows you to truly connect with the characters because they feel more real, as opposed to these untouchable superheroes. These heroes, I felt were going through such real emotion and real things that I knew, as me personally, I was connecting with them, and I wanted to give that experience to an audience, as well.
I also think it helps that you show the tragedy that can come with living forever. It’s not just this dream of people getting to go on living forever because they’re immortal. These people are in pain because of it.
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Yeah. I loved that about the graphic novel, that it was about the tragedy of immortality. Me, personally, I know, at some point, I’ve said that I’d love to live forever, with the courage to know that you couldn’t die and all the things that you would do, but not really understanding what it actually means. I loved to be able to deal with the gift of it for Nicky and Joe, who both found the person that they could spend eternity with, as opposed to Andy and Booker, who are absolutely suffering under the weight of it.
This is a film that ends in a way that makes it feel like there’s a lot more story to tell. Was the ending that we see always the ending in the script, or did that change and evolve, as you figured out where you should leave the story?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: It was part of the graphic novel, and I always loved it because I felt there would have been a hole, if it didn’t end the way it did. There’s always a fear because you don’t want to annoy an audience. I know how I feel when things are left open, but for me, we told the story. It does have a beginning, middle, and end. And then, there is a hint and a possibility of more, but that’s absolutely up to the audience. Greg has always envisioned this as a trilogy. I know where the story is going and it’s pretty dope. So, if the audience wants more, there’s certainly more story to tell.
Is that something that you would want to do yourself, or would you be interested in seeing what another director might do to continue the story?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: I would really have to think about that. It’s been two years, and just coming out of it now, I’m eager for a rest. I would probably feel two ways about it. If it continues on, I was the first that established it, but it would probably also bug me and I’d be like, “Nile doesn’t do that!” So, I just don’t know.
What do you think it is that makes Charlize Theron such a great action star?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Honestly, it’s a very simple thing, and it’s what I told her, when we first met. I believe her. That’s it. It’s not enough to learn the choreography and train. We, as an audience, have to believe that you can really fight and believe that you really have that warrior mentality. She has that. And KiKi [Layne], who has never done this before, has it, and I saw it in her audition. With Charlize, I already had that trust that she would put in the work because she’s done it before. With KiKi, it was a leap of faith that she would put in the work, not knowing what that really meant, which two-a-days, five days a week, for months. But she embraced it, wholeheartedly, and it shows up on screen.
What did you most enjoy about watching Andy and Nile, and what those two actresses brought to those characters?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Reading it, what really came to mind was that I thought it was the most unique veteran-rookie relationship that I had seen. I felt like that was something fun to bring to that dynamic, given that the veteran is six thousand years old and the rookie is this baby immortal. And so, that really started to develop during training. I told KiKi that training was gonna be a big part of her rehearsal. When you train like that, and you build up your body and learn how to fight, it changes the way you walk and the way that interact. You’ve got that swagger. And in them training together, they were building that veteran-rookie relationship. We had to build the trust. When you do a fight scene like the plane fight, you are throwing punches that are inches from someone’s face, and that takes a lot of trust. That’s what the training built between them.
When you made Love & Basketball, what did you envision for your filmmaking career? Was this always the kind of movie that you wanted to get to, at some point, or was this something that evolved for you, as you thought about the kind of films that you wanted to make?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Wow. I wish I could go back and ask younger Gina. I just wanted to be able to make movies, and it was so hard to get that first one done. There were moments where I was like, “Is this ever gonna happen?” After I did Love & Basketball, my next film was Disappearing Acts. That was my favorite book, and prior to Love & Basketball, I tried to get a meeting and couldn’t get in the door. But then, I did Love & Basketball and they came to me. Even though I needed a break, it was my favorite book, so the fact that I’d get to make it, I jumped it. At that time, I really just wanted to be able to tell stories. I was probably focusing more on love stories because I felt there was such a lack of those, at that time, and I had always loved love stories. My evolution of falling in love with action films, really happened in the Marvel era.
The Old Guard is available to stream at Netflix.