Gina Prince-Bythewood is a director known for authenticity and intimacy. In Beyond the Lights, Love & Basketball, and Disappearing Acts, audiences feel how close she is to her characters, their dreams, and their conflicts. That’s a part of what makes her new Netflix movie, The Old Guard, stand far apart from the typical action movie.
Prince-Bythewood, who’s the first black woman to direct a comic book movie, tells an ensemble story with The Old Guard in which the characters are as fully-realized as the propulsive fight scenes. The Old Guard is what you get when a director knows her characters inside and out. What may very well be the only big action movie we see all summer is a movie driven by character, not setpieces.
Recently, we spoke to Prince-Bythewood about crafting the setpieces, the pains of writing, and how her experiences as an athlete drive her as a filmmaker.
I know you wanted to shake up the genre in a way, and you do, but in what ways did you want to change the formula?
I think foremost, it was in Greg Rucka‘s graphic novel, and then the script that he adapted from his work. I just fell in love with how different it felt. The story kept surprising me. I love the conceit of mostly immortals, which I felt was a really cool twist on that. I love the fact that you had this group of warriors from different cultures and backgrounds and sexual orientations and genders that have come together to protect humanity. I knew in picturing the film while I was reading it, that it would look like the world that I know as opposed to the same world that sometimes happens in this genre. I knew what I wanted a really grounded real feel despite the fantastical conceit.
I think foremost, certainly to remain at the heart of this, two warriors – one being a young, black female – I just love the dynamic and what we got to say to the world about women being warriors and fighters and courageous and badass and the normalcy of that, that Greg really brought to the project.
You’ve only directed movies you’ve written, so what else was really personal to you about The Old Guard?
This is one of the few things I’ve directed that I haven’t written. There were so many things inherently in it that knowing I wanted to be in this genre, to be able to do an action-drama film, it had all the elements that I would produce if I could sit down and actually write. Writing is just so hard for me and so painful, but it was really the characters’ search, especially Andy and Nile, their search for purpose, was something so personal to me and something that I went through. It’s what I connected to with them, even despite again, the fact that they’re immortal. They were so human to me.
As a filmmaker, when I decide to do something, I always have to have a guttural connection. It has to be a need as opposed to a want. And that was certainly that, that emotional connection for me. As a black woman, the opportunity to put a young, black female hero into the world where that is so rare in this genre meant a great deal to me.
It’s nice knowing that’ll mean a lot to kids.
Yeah, I know what it would mean to me. I love what I do and the impact to have, and we had an early audience screening, and this young black woman in her early twenties, she said, “I wish I had this movie when I was 12. And I had a Nile look up to.” That’s pretty amazing to me.
That’s great. Why is writing painful for you?
I think for me, writing is great therapy and everything I’ve written had to do with something that was going on in my personal life that I needed to overcome or deal with. So that constant fight of how deep do you dig into your psyche and pull it out, it’s a painful process. Also, writing is really hard, and writing is rewriting and it’s a thing where it’s so great in your head and then you write it down on paper, and it seems to lose all of that, and it’s really rewriting is a process of trying to get words on a paper as good as it is in your head.
It’s lonely, you’re here by yourself as opposed to directing, which I love because it’s so collaborative, it’s so immediate and urgent and I’m on set and collaborating and chasing that perfect take. It’s just all adrenaline. But writing is just self-loathing and me forgetting that I know how to write and convincing myself. It’s just a constant battle with myself.
Do you come out of writing about certain experiences feeling better about them or learning more about them?
Absolutely. I mean, Love & Basketball, in writing that film, my early drafts were so angry at the mother character. In the process of making the film and starting to, as a writer, as you should be, put yourself in the mind of every character, I started to see things from her point of view. I stopped thinking that my relationship with my mom was so fraught because she didn’t support me the way my dad did, as opposed to looking at all the things she actually gave up, and that she was there. So, that’s just one example of coming through something a better person and having a better understanding of really what was bothering me for so many years.
Usually when athletes go into another career, whether creative or business, they just have an extra level of dedication and drive. How has your background in basketball helped you as a filmmaker?
It is everything. Sports has absolutely allowed my longevity in this industry. First of all, I played everything. I lettered in sports in high school, but basketball and track were my two main ones. Everything you learn about leaving it all out on the floor, trying to beat that person, the swagger that you have to have, the belief that you are the best person on the court or on the track, it’s just outwork everybody, those are the things that were ingrained into me since I was five years old, just year after year of competition and wanting to do the best and knowing the work you have to put into even achieve that, to go for greatness; those are things that are not often taught to girls, most definitely.
Yes, that was my life, and the women around me, we celebrate our athleticism. But again, so much of Love & Basketball was dealing with who I was growing up, and made to feel that there was something wrong with me because of the way I was, whereas now, all those lessons that the sport taught me have made me who I am and certainly in this industry, given me the fight telling the stories I want to tell. Moving into this arena where very few women have the opportunity, that comes from fight and stamina and belief in myself, even when others hadn’t believed in me.
You’ve also kickboxed, so unlike a lot of directors behind action movies, you’ve thrown punches.
Taken them, too.
[Laughs] So, knowing how a punch or kick feels and sounds, how’d that influence the action in The Old Guard?
I think that that experience did give me an advantage, no doubt in terms of my collaboration with my incredible stunt team and the respect they had for me because I knew what I was talking about, but also the knowledge of four women in action. The biggest tell, there are two tells of whether they’re truly athletic or not, punches and running. And so, those are the two things I am hypersensitive about.
So with Kiki [Layne, who plays Nile], who had never done a film like this before but had the incredible desire and work ethic to work as hard as she could, I got her a running coach. We worked on her athleticism and just weight training to build up her body. And then the stunt guys, the first thing I said is, “She has got to look good throwing a punch,” and thank God, Kiki did. I believe Kiki, I believe Charlize when they’re doing these things.
So that’s the thing – you have to believe. It’s not just learning choreography or certain moves. There has to be an intent behind them and that’s where you get that jolt. So in the plane fight scene, I knew I wanted to tell a story with that scene, I knew I wanted it to be character-driven and emotional. In the end, it allows me to tell the story of what was going on in there.
How about the kill floor sequence? What did you want to communicate about Andy (Charlize Theron) in that first action scene?
The kill floor, the scene I knew was going to set the tone for the film and the action. It also is telling a story and it was also a key in that, could I believably show The Old Guard – who is working with archaic weapons – defeat 16 mercenaries with modern weaponry? And being able to tell that story, being able to show the seamlessness of the Old Guard, the fact that they finish each other’s sentences on the battlefield and showcase everyone’s talent. This is our first true introduction to Andy and who the hell she really is. It was about initially giving each character a moment, then seeing them as a collective working together and then boom, I wanted to focus on, let Andy close it out and do what Andy does so that we know what we’re in for, for the rest of the film.
The action is fast but not fastly cut. How’d you, your DP, and editor want to get the pace and clarity just right?
We had a lot of great conversations, both [DP] Tami Reiker and [DP] Barry Ackroyd and I and with our stunt team. And that was it, I wanted to make sure that audience could see what was happening. Given the fact that we’re talking about warriors who are really good at what they do, I wanted to have fun with it. You have to understand what’s going on in the scene, you have to be able to see it, so I knew I didn’t want a lot of quick cutting. I knew I wanted the actors to do most of the stunt work so I can keep the camera on them and not have to cut away.
It was really some of the films that we saw that I used as inspiration, like The Raid, which I love so much. There’s a movie, Ong Bak II, it was the second one that I really loved. Zero Dark Thirty for the grounded feel of it and the way that Kathryn [Bigelow] stayed with the action. Shooting it in handheld with 65-millimeter cameras, which hadn’t been done until now, because they’re so heavy. The clarity that they give, I just wanted to try it and props to our camera folks for doing that for 63 days. They did get massages every week. But also being able to really tell that story by being able to see the action, feel the action, and you certainly do that with what am I going to do with the handheld, being up in there.
The other thing is I shot all the action with long lenses, which doesn’t often happen. Usually, you go wide-angle because holding the focus is much easier, but there was an aesthetic I wanted to bring to the film and I wanted that to continue into the action so that it always, I hope felt grounded and real, despite the fact that they could not die.
Sports scenes have always looked similar to action scenes to me, in that there’s a lot of action and movement to track. With your experiences on Love & Basketball, did shooting action come very naturally?
I wish Hollywood thought the way you did because it has taken me a very long time—I mean, Love & Basketball was 20 years ago—to finally get the opportunity to be here. I think certainly being an athlete, that’s how I see the world and how I think my characters move throughout the world, but the thing is I love the genre, I watch everything and I take in everything. And it’s inspiring to me. And as a competitor, you want to take in the things that inspire you, but then you also, how can I do it a little differently? How can I make something that someone then is watching for inspiration? And certainly the bathroom fight in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, that was our North star. I think that is a perfect action scene.
I agree, and it’s the most contained action scene in the movie.
You got a Frank Ocean song for this movie.
I was so excited about that. I love that song so much.
Was that a quick phone call for your music supervisor or are his songs tougher to get?
It really depends. There are times where we need to show the artists the film in the moment, like “Drunk in Love,” we had to get the blessing of Beyonce for Beyond the Lights, which was amazing. I thought we were going to have to do more of that for the film, but the artists that we got in here, it wasn’t hard at all.
You’ve said you’ve started to get a lot cooler offers these past few years. When did they start finally coming in? Was it after Beyond the Lights?
Well, there’s a bunch of different factors. I mean, foremost, I only do stuff that I’m passionate about, given how hard this job is. I love it, but it’s very hard and The Old Guard has been two years of my life. So I’m super picky. I usually write what I direct, and that takes forever. I have two boys and a husband. For me to make a decision to be away has got to mean something, most certainly. And then there’s the reality that there’ve been things that I’ve developed that have taken me a year, year and a half, and then they don’t go. That’s the hardest thing because then you look up, it’s like, oh my God, it’s been eight years.
But certainly, as I’ve gone through and made more movies, I get offered a lot of stuff. It’s just stuff that I’m not passionate about doing. But certainly, after Beyond the Lights, there was a shift in the things that I’m being offered are pretty great and have put me into a different echelon, so to speak, which is very cool because people responded to that so much.
When you’re dealing with the painful writing process or face discrimination against your creative choices, what else helps keep you inspired and going forward?
It is actually the project that I’m working on. That’s why I said I have to be passionate because under the phase where the script has been rejected again, or I’m trying to get the story out burning inside of me. Music is a huge thing. I just create a playlist for every script that I’ve written, and not only are they songs that just open me up to what I’m writing. It’s like a soundtrack where I’m actually getting to see the movie, and that gets me excited and that makes this fun in those times when I’m struggling. Music, it makes it real to me.
What were the two projects you developed between 2000-2008 that didn’t happen?
I Know This Much is True was such a big flop in my life and now I… I have no regrets except for that one. That was so personal to me, I loved it so much. And all props to Mark Ruffalo. I think he is great for it. I wish I had the opportunity to do that story. But I couldn’t get it made at that time. I feel like now I would be able to, but at the time I just wasn’t able to get a cast. And obviously, the fact that it’s hurtful and people seeing me as, “Oh she’s not big enough yet for me to even meet with her,” yeah.
That’s bullshit. I’m sorry. So after The Old Guard, does it feel better after… making a mic drop, if you will?
[Laughs] I like that. I mean, the response that I got after Beyond the Lights, that was a great validation. When Skydance reached out to me for The Old Guard, the beautiful thing is they said, “What you bring and what you did in both Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights and the character work and the depth that you brought, that’s why you’re here. That’s what we want for this movie, that we want it to feel like an action-drama as opposed to an action movie, and can you bring that same aesthetic to this?”
I mean, that was great. It started there. And then obviously, I pitched my idea of how I would shoot the action, because I hadn’t done it before, but the fact that that got me in the room, and that’s honestly all we want. Get me in the room and then I will do the rest. And so the fact that those movies got me in the room for this big action joint is very cool.
The Old Guard is streaming on Netflix right now.
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