How Gina Prince-Bythewood Made Netflix's 'The Old Guard' Kick So Much Ass

The 'Love & Basketball' director is making her foray into action films with this comic book adaptation.

the old guard netflix, charlize theron

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood is known for romance. Her movies like Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights are some of the most heart-tugging films in the history of cinema. Both are delicate love stories between Black men and women, featuring some of the most honest sex scenes ever put on screen. But for years, Prince-Bythewood has wanted to pivot to action; the industry just wasn't making it easy. "I had been actively pushing my career in this direction because I love action films and I wanted the opportunity to do one myself," she tells me. "Hollywood did not seem as eager to have that happen for women until Patty Jenkins, and all praise to Patty who just killed it with Wonder Woman and absolutely cracked the door open." 

Now there's The Old Guard, which marks Prince-Bythewood's entry into the genre, a comic book adaptation about a group of immortal warriors led by the cynical Andy, aka Andromache, played with fearsome intensity by Charlize Theron. But as the rave reviews have already noted, this Netflix film challenges the conventions of its genre, as much a soulful meditation about the challenges of eternal life as it is in big fights and set pieces. (It's big fights and set pieces also rule though.) 

In the film, The Old Guard -- which counts among them veterans of the Crusades and the Napoleonic wars -- are being hunted by a pharma executive (Harry Melling) who wants to keep them as lab rats in a hunt to find cures for the world's diseases. At the same time, a new member of their strange coterie is awakening: Nile (KiKi Layne), a soldier in Afghanistan who miraculously survives having her throat slashed. Prince-Bythewood and I got on the phone for a conversation about how she pulled this all off in her foray into action films.

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KiKi Layne with Prince-Bythewood on set. | Aimee Spinks/Netflix

Thrillist: How did you come to The Old Guard?
Gina Prince-Bythewood:
Skydance sent me the script and they were very intentional on wanting a female director for this project, yet the beautiful thing was that they loved Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights and wanted that type of depth of character in this film and in this project. So the fact that they came to me, not because of action, initially -- though of course Love & Basketball does have an action element to it -- it was really my dramatic work which inspired them. I love that. That's honestly what has been missing in the narrative and dialogue with female directors in this space. Foremost, the narrative that we don't want to do these films, but the thing is, get us in the room. Once we're in the room, then we have that equal opportunity to go after it and get it and prove ourselves. But you've got to let us in the room.

You had been working on the Silver Sable and Black Cat movie before this came along, correct? Was there a frustration with how that stalled?
Yeah, absolutely. I was on it for a year and a half, and I really loved the characters. I still love the characters, and I really loved the script that we had. It just didn't feel like it was moving forward. Then this script came that was ready to go, and was everything that I wanted to do in terms of two female leads, one being a young, Black female. It was edgy and R-rated. But it had something to say and I loved the characters and they moved me. It felt like everything happened for a reason. I was able to take all those things I learned in a year and a half in that Marvel-Sony universe -- because we were deep into it -- and bring all of that knowledge to, honestly, my pitch and then to the film. It was absolutely helpful that I had that experience. I'm sorry the film didn't go, but I'm not sorry for the experience.

What drew you to The Old Guard? The comic is written by a man, Greg Rucka, who also wrote the screenplay. How do you think the material changes when a woman takes it on?
Foremost, I really do have to praise Greg because when the script was sent to me, I didn't know about The Old Guard graphic novel, but I was familiar with his work Lazarus, which is a really great piece. I'm enthralled by his brain and the way that he creates and writes female characters in the graphic book space. They're not hypersexualized, they always have a warrior element to them. There's always a strength and complexity to them. So I was excited to read. In addition, it was Skydance, which does the Mission: Impossibles and Star Trek and Terminator. There's a bit of intimidation there, but also excitement. When I walked in there was a life-sized Terminator and a life-sized Tom Cruise in the helicopter from M:I 6. Like, "Oh my gosh, this is the world I got to step into," but it also then makes me step up. "Okay. I've got to up my game here."

I loved the story and how it kept surprising me. I think it was good that I wasn't familiar with the comic because I read it and I hit the kill floor scene and like, "Oh my god." And then they come back to life, "Oh my god." It kept being so interesting to me. There was also the fact that the story was about the tragedy and the mortality. I felt that that was so interesting because I know myself and I think most people at some time have said, "Oh, I wish I could live forever," not really understanding that. Just thinking about the gift of that, and the courage that would give you, the things that you would do if you knew you couldn't die, but what does that really mean not to die? I loved that about it. Also that these characters, especially Andy and Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), have lost their sense of purpose and want it to all end because they don't see that they're having any impact on the world. That felt like a very human real thing to me in a way that an audience could connect with them, despite the fantastical conceit. Then the action sequences on the page were just dope. As an audience, I wanted to see those. Of course you get the gig, and then I'm like, "Oh my god, how am I going to shoot this?" But it was fun that initial reading it as an audience and starting to see it in my head.

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Can you talk a little bit about casting Charlize and KiKi and how you wanted to tease out this relationship between Andy and Nile?
On the page, I really did love Andy and Nile. The first thought that came to my head was, this is kind of the most unique veteran-rookie relationship that we've seen, given the veteran is 6,000 years old and the rookie is a baby immortal. I thought that was very cool. That was a dynamic that I really wanted to foster. I knew that I wanted it so grounded and real, and that needed to permeate everything, certainly the performances. I knew I wanted to go after great actors for these roles, but also action and knowing that's what I wanted for the action scenes, to have a story to them and be character-driven and emotional. I needed the actors really to be doing the stunts and the fighting.

Given that Charlize has done it before we've seen in a couple of movies, I had the trust that she knew the work that would have to go into that and she could do it. KiKi had never done anything action or stunt-related in her life. Her audition was so good. I knew within five seconds I had Nile. She had that innate vulnerability, which allows an audience to be able to connect with her, but also the innate strength. I believed her as a warrior. Then it was talking with her about, look, it's one thing to say, "yes, I want to be in an action film," it's another to understand the level of work that has to go into this. She understood and wanted it and had a desire to be great. That's what I needed to see as a director. I needed to trust that she would put in the work and she really did it. It was two-a-day -- morning training, afternoon training -- five days a week for months. That's what it takes but then you're grateful for that when you're in the scene and in the moment, and you're in take 15 or 16, that you have the stamina and you have the desire. "I need to keep going because I have to look good because if it's not there on the stage, it's not going to be there in the edit room."

People mostly associate your work with romance. How were you thinking about pausing for these emotional beats in the context of this movie, especially the love story between The Old Guard's Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli)?
Going in, part of my pitch was that the quiet moments in this film are as important as the action set pieces, because if we don't care about the characters, the action doesn't matter. The action has to push the story and it has to tell us something about the characters. It really did start there. With Joe and Nicky, I loved when I read it. I was just like, "Wow, we have never seen this in an action film before. We've never seen these characters." That excited me to be able to have these characters in here and the two actors. My conversation with Marwan Kenzari who plays Joe was one of the best conversations with an actor that I've ever had prior to casting. He was supposed to read and after that conversation, I was like, "You don't need to read. You are Joe." He was so passionate about the character and the story. Also, he really wanted to give that speech [about his love for Nicky] and I loved that. I had seen Luca Marinelli who plays Nicky on tape, but in the same way I would do a love story, any love story, I needed the two of them to do a chemistry read. I needed to make sure that there was a crackle there that I could build on. It was so inspired. I just had them improv and they'd never met each other before, but they've just clicked. It was so beautiful in that room. I was just excited about what they were building organically, but also how much they loved the characters and what they were going to be putting into the world. It was a really great thing and shooting that scene in the armored car. We did 13 takes because I, of course, but also Marwan, wanted to make sure he really got it right. I think he did. I love that scene so much.

The relationship that we see in flashbacks between Andy and Quynh (Veronica Ngo) is also so deep even in these short scenes. How were you thinking about weaving that in? 
I loved the character Quynh in the graphic novel. Her name is Noriko in the graphic novel, but when we changed it when we cast Veronica because I wanted everyone to stay true to their nationality. I just wanted to explore an incredibly deep friendship and what that would mean if somebody were together with somebody for thousands of years. The fact that Joe and Nicky are soulmates in one way, but also women can have soulmates, it doesn't need to be sexual, but it can have that depth of emotion. Honestly, I loved the fact that this film has a great ensemble to it, but there's a femininity at the top that I just found refreshing.

Can you elaborate on what you mean by the femininity at the top? 
For me, it's that we have these two women at the center who are warriors. There is a feeling for me as an artist and a female artist, I want to make that normal. I want the fact that women can be warriors, that courage has no gender and badass has no gender. It is innately in us. We just don't have the permission to act on it or see that in ourselves. The more we see that up on the screen, the more we can embrace it and see it for ourselves. The fact that these are female fighters and warriors, there was no sexuality to that. I didn't want you to look at the plane fight and say, "Oh, this is a sexy catfight." No. I want you to see two warriors fighting, two women, marvel at their athleticism and their fighting ability, not that they're wearing heels and doing these incredible feats in heels. It was like, no, these characters don't wear heels. Let's be true to who they are.

the old guard netflix, kiki layne

As you said, this is the first chance you've had to do these big fight sequences. What was it like choreographing and shooting them? 
Once you get the job, you go from exhilaration to, "Oh my god, I've got to shoot this," because you look at these panels in the graphic novel and they're so fun, but now how do I pick that off the page? But then the fun begins. I approached each action sequence as, "What is the story?" Each one had to have a different story, which allows the action to feel different so that a monotony does not settle in. The two that were the most challenging, but also the most exhilarating was the kill floor, which set the tone because it's four people against 16. How can we believably see four people with archaic weapons defeat 16 mercenaries with modern weaponry? I get to dig deep with our incredible stunt team about how The Old Guard has spent thousands of years fighting up close, hand-to-hand, killing up close, whereas modern soldiers, modern mercenaries were raised on the gun and learning to shoot targets 40, 50 yards away, very impersonal. I felt like that is what gave The Old Guard the advantage, that if you are faced off, it's that hesitation that the modern mercenary would give because they're not used to killing up close that The Old Guard used. That really allowed them to defeat them. Also, then the symmetry. We wanted to be able to see The Old Guard, how they worked together, how they finish each other's sentences, so to speak, when they're fighting. I knew ultimately that Andy was going to have the final say, giving her a hero moment, given it's Andy and this is the first time we're seeing her with that incredible ax that is sitting in my office now.

That's awesome.
I keep telling my boys to leave it alone, but how the hell can you not pick it up? I should get a covering on it, but that wouldn't look as cool. [Then] the plane fight, which the very first thing that we shot...

Oh, really?
Oh, yeah. First when I talked with my first day meetings and we were scheduling, I was like, "No, of course not. Let's start with two people at a table." I guess I can do that. We thought about it and the actors, KiKi and Charlize, had been training for months on the choreography and the fighting of that scene. Once you get into the shooting, you're supposed to continue to train every day, but sometimes when you're shooting 12 hours, that thing falls by the wayside. It's like, "Let's attack it while it's fresh." Also, I felt like this is a good way to set up the tone, it's a good way to connect KiKi and Charlize because an incredible amount of trust goes into shooting a scene like that. You really are throwing punches and kicks and you're mere inches away from somebody's face. It absolutely did bond them. It set the tone for the crew and proving, hey, this chick does know what she's doing. It got people hyped, including me and proving to myself that, wow, what was in my head is actually showing up on screen.

It was just the 20th anniversary of Love & Basketball. I know you've spoken a lot about it so I don't want to overburden you with questions. 
I never get tired. Honestly. I really love it. 

Looking at your career, what do you think about the path from Love & Basketball to The Old Guard?
I see it more as an interesting character evolution in that you have a character Monica, there was a lot of biographical stuff in there, in growing up loving sports, in loving to be athletic and being made to feel that something was wrong with me and having to fight for just my space to be who I wanted to be. That's Monica. If we do Nile, who is a Marine, and she's a badass and all of that is celebrated. This time, how important it is for this young woman to be celebrated for who she is and her strength and her  empathy. I love that trajectory and things that an audience that loves Nile for are the thing that Monica fought for to be accepted. That is honestly my connective tissue with those two. 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.