Gina Prince-Bythewood is very intentional about her projects, which explains why she’s only directed five films in a 20 year-career that began with her helming debut, 2000’s Love & Basketball. “I don’t ever want to put something out that is not good, so that’s my internal drive,” she told Deadline.
That intentionally is what led Prince-Bythewood to The Old Guard, and a comic book genre that she had been itching to tackle. “I wanted my shot. So I had been intentional in the things that I was looking at in taking and meeting on,” she said of the Charlize Theron-starring pic, which launched today on Netflix. “This script came from Skydance and I had been a fan of theirs because they do really good, big movies and so to get it from them was so intimidating, but also exhilarating.”
Starring Theron, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and If Beale Street Could Talk breakout KiKi Layne, The Old Guard is based on the comic book series by Greg Rucka, who also penned the screenplay. The story centers on a small, covert group of immortal mercenaries who must fight to keep their team together when they discover the existence of a new immortal and their extraordinary abilities are exposed. The graphic novel had all the right elements for Prince-Bythewood: It features an inclusive cast, reflective of the world today, and is grounded in authentic human emotions and interactions, all mixed in with high-octane action sequences.
“I love the fact that it was organically diverse in that it’s a group of warriors from different backgrounds and cultures and sexual orientations and genders that have come together to save the world,” said Prince-Bythewood. “That’s the world I want to live in. That’s the world that I want. So to be able to reflect that in a real way and make it feel grounded and real, which was my hopeful intent, it’s just like everything I wanted.”
With The Old Guard, Prince-Bythewood becomes the first Black woman to undertake a big-budget comic book film, and the weight of that is not lost on her.
“I cannot fail because there’s so few of us that any failures are so highlighted and spotlighted and I don’t want to hurt the next person that’s going to be coming behind me. I want to do what Patty Jenkins did and have them say, ‘Oh damn we were wrong. And actually, you know what? Black people, we can do anything. So give us more opportunities to make any film we want to make.’ ”
Prince-Bythewood also talks about the potential for The Old Guard sequel, how she hopes Hollywood will respond to the current conversations surrounding racial justice and gives an update of Sony’s Silver & Black project.
DEADLINE: This is a different type of comic book film that I feel like I’ve typically experienced in the past. How did this project come to you?
GINA PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: I have been eager to move into this space. I love these films. I’ve been watching them for years. I have two boys; it’s a thing we go and see these. I love the way that they’ve been moving in the last couple of years to become action dramas. The type that Logan and Black Panther had all those things that you love about the genre, yet I cried in both of those.
I love that they’re bringing different directors into the mix to kind of bring their vision and their aesthetic to a genre that I thought was getting a little stale, honestly. I wanted my shot. So I had been intentional in the things that I was looking at in taking and meeting on. This script came from Skydance and I had been a fan of theirs because they do really good, big movies and so to get it from them was so intimidating, but also exhilarating. I just started reading it and it was pretty immediate my love for it because it was everything I want it to be in the genre.
The fact that two women were at the head of it. The fact that one was a young black female. The characters moved me. I could connect to their plight of trying to find their purpose despite the fact that they’re immortal. It’s all very human and connected to me. I love the fact that it was organically diverse in that it’s a group of warriors from different backgrounds and cultures and sexual orientations and genders that have come together to save the world. That’s the world I want to live in. That’s the world that I want. So to be able to reflect that in a real way and make it feel grounded and real, which was my hopeful intent. It’s just everything I wanted.
DEADLINE: Were you familiar with Greg Rucka’s comic before this project?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: I was not familiar with The Old Guard, but I was familiar with his work because of Lazarus and I dig that dude. I dig the female characters he creates. They just hit different and so I’m excited to read it for that reason.
DEADLINE: I don’t know the budget of this film, but was this your biggest undertaking? It seems that with the scope of this film it had to have been a substantial budget.
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Yeah, so far. I marvel at the fact that my last film Beyond the Lights was $7M and this was 10 times that. I think in coming from that world, what trips me out is it doesn’t matter how much money you have there still comes a point where you’re told you don’t have enough money to do something and that blew me away.
But I feel that coming from the world I came from where you have to figure it out because you can’t throw money at it, I think was helpful because you have to be creative in figuring it out. I loved bringing that same energy of how I would shoot Beyond the Lights and I brought that same energy and aesthetic to The Old Guard. It was just I had more time and more toys.
DEADLINE: Were there any new challenges that you faced that you hadn’t experienced in your previous films?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: The biggest challenge is really the stamina. This shoot was 63 days. I was in prep for nine months and to keep that focus to carry that pressure because when you have that amount of money there’s absolutely pressure and you don’t want to fail. And especially being a woman, being a Black woman getting this opportunity, you don’t want anyone to say “Oh we knew she couldn’t do it.” I can’t take that, that’s my athlete mentality. So you’re carrying that for so long. It’s a constant fight for your vision.
There are more voices in the mix when you’re dealing with this level of film, but at the end of the day I’m the director and there needs to be a vision. So it’s a constant fight. To be able to be up for that fight for that length of time, and to be away from my family that is really, really hard. That’s why any time I take something, it has to mean something and I needed their support and their backing. I love that they were as excited about me taking this as anything else that I’ve done.
DEADLINE: This film obviously had a lot of action in it, which seems to require a lot of physically demanding work for the actors. What sort of training did they have to do to prepare for these roles?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: A lot. Going in, I wanted the film to feel grounded and real and so that had to permeate everything and most notably the stunt work. For me, the best action sequences, they’re character-driven, they have a story, they’re emotional. The best way to do that is having the actual actors in the scenes and doing the film so that I can tell that story as opposed to having to cut around stunt doubles. I spoke with all of them. Foremost, they were cast because they have incredible chops and then it was in talking with them having the trust that they would put in the amount of work that they need to.
For example, Kiki, who had never done this before at all, any type of training before, was doing two-a-days, five days a week for months. That’s what it takes and then it doesn’t stop once we start filming because you have to keep in shape, you’ve got to keep training, you’ve got to keep learning the choreography. … It was a lot but it’s so important and it’s so helpful as a director when I know I don’t have to cut around.
I wanted an audience to be able to marvel at the athleticism of these two females and to do that, I didn’t want a lot of quick cutting. I wanted to stay back and I wanted you to be able to see these women really fight, but that took training from all of them. But as I told Kiki, the training is a huge part of your rehearsal process and you’re going to be learning about Nile as you’re doing that. Nile is a Marine, in touch with your body, building up your strength, getting that swagger, which you get when you know that you can kick someone’s ass when you’re walking down the street. So all of that was really part of the rehearsal process for her, for Charlize, and for the guys as well.
DEADLINE: And speaking of kicking ass we’ve seen Charlize in these types of roles over the years. Was she just a pro at doing the stunt work?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: She knew what it would take and the amount of training that it would take and she dove into that. The thing is, it’s not just the training of it but once you’re on set it is 16, 17, 18 takes of something to get it right because with stunts it has to be perfect. The punches have to be perfect, the kicks, the tackles, the swing of the ax — it has to be perfect. So you have to keep going and going and the great thing was never once did any of the actors say “I’ve had enough” or “I’m too tired.” Thank God because if it’s not on set it’s not going to be in the editing room.
DEADLINE: It’s kind of annoying that we still talk about this today, but there are not that many Black women or women especially that get opportunities to direct these types of movies. But it seems like, especially now, that a lot of people are having these conversations about racial injustices that it’s reached a fervor. Hollywood has also committed to increasing diversity. Do you see the doors sort of opening more for women in this space?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: I do. I give all props to Patty Jenkins. The amount of pressure she was under and she came through in such a big way. I loved Wonder Woman and her success absolutely cracked the door open for a group of us. I was very excited about this year. This is the first time in Hollywood history that six women were at the helm of these big blockbuster films in the same year. And all of these films were focusing on female characters as well. I’m praying that their films get to have the theatrical release that has been promised. Obviously, we’re not in control of that, as we’re being made aware of more clearly every day.
But this did absolutely feel like a key change and the key is, as we know, success begets success. So it’s my hope that The Old Guard does well, it’s my hope that Mulan does well and Black Widow, so that we can just erase this narrative that Hollywood has that, one, women don’t like watching these movies, and two, that women don’t have a desire to make these movies, and the third one, that women can’t handle making these films. Filmmakers make films no matter what genre. You tell a good story first.
DEADLINE: You mentioned feeling the pressure with getting this film right. Do you feel that weighted pressure of having to make really good content to move the conversation in that direction?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Yeah, this felt a little different. In my past work, the pressure is more on who I am in that I want to make really good movies. I am always aspiring to greatness. I haven’t gotten there yet, but I’m going to work for that and be all in and be singularly focused, which is why it’s been, a year and a half, two years writing my script. I don’t ever want to put something out that is not good, so that’s my internal drive. With [The Old Guard], even the bigness of it and the visibility of it and the fact that in 2020 yet another first, I cannot fail because there’s so few of us that any failures are so highlighted and spotlighted and I don’t want to hurt the next person that’s going to be coming behind me. I want to do what Patty Jenkins did and have them say “Oh damn, we were wrong. And actually, you know what? Black people, we can do anything. So give us more opportunities to make any film we want to make.”
DEADLINE: You’ve done five films so far in your long career. Is that why you are so selective of the projects that you take on?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Absolutely. I love what I do. It’s also very hard. I have to be passionate about what I’m doing because that’s what it takes. Every film is a fight not only to get it made, but then to make it. If I’m going to be in the fight, I need to be fighting for something I’m passionate about. If I’m going to be away from kids and my husband it needs to be for a reason, so I am selective. Because also everything that you do and put in the world that becomes your legacy and that means something to me.
DEADLINE: Do you think about what you want your legacy to be?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: I’ve never written it out and I won’t hold myself to this, but I do know, for now, certainly, I want my legacy to be that I gave visibility to Black women in every genre.
DEADLINE: This is not the first moment that Hollywood has been put on notice in terms of its lack of diversity and inclusion. I don’t know about you, but it feels like as a nation and following the murder of George Floyd and the protests, it feels like there’s something different happening. I don’t know if that’s how you feel but are you optimistic about this next phase in Hollywood? Do you feel like it’s going to be a new type of Hollywood?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Yeah, it actually does feel different. We have been through those pockets where you felt something was going to happen and then it didn’t. Not just in Hollywood, but in every sector there is a reckoning of people finally understanding when we say systematic racism and what that means. And understanding that to be an ally is not just to say, “Oh that’s too bad” or “Oh my God that’s horrible,” but to actually understand your complicity in it and make real steps to change. So within Hollywood, certainly the people I have spoken to, who have reached out to me, have done actionable things to change. Whether it be when I called them out on the fact that when I go into offices nine times out of 10 I’m the only Black person in there and not even Black assistants. We all know that’s where you start. When you’re an assistant then you start to move up and then you become a creative exec and then you become a senior exec and then you become a VP. We’re not creating any sort of firm system for Black folks and so, of course, there are no Black folks that can greenlight because they haven’t been developed for decades.
So the fact that they’re understanding that in making definitive actions to make their changes in terms of how they’re going to cast their films and saying “Let’s stop having the same, we’ve got to put different images out in the world.” That hasn’t happened before, so I’m encouraged, but I also agree that some of this change is going to need to be regulated. Once your power starts to diminish, and that’s what it’s ultimately going to take to achieve equality, you’re going to have to give up a little bit that’s just how it works. But we’ve given up so much for so long. Once some people start to feel that, let’s see if they’re still all on board with the change.
DEADLINE: I have to ask you about another comic book-based film that you are attached to. Is there any update on the Silver & Black movie? Can you tell us?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: There really isn’t. Once I started The Old Guard, and this has been two years, the only thing I know is that they decided to split it and not do the two women together, but in two separate films. And then there’s talk of doing a limited series instead of film, but again I haven’t tapped back into it yet because I’ve just been all-in on The Old Guard. But I will once this is over.
DEADLINE: And then with The Old Guard, the ending left an opening for a sequel. I know nothing has been officially announced, but have there been conversations about doing a follow-up?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: It really will be up to the audience and what they want. Greg Rucka has always envisioned it as a trilogy and his second comic actually just came out a couple of weeks ago. So I know where the story is going and it’s pretty great.
DEADLINE: And just finally, just a general question, what would say you’re most looking forward to?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: I’m absolutely looking forward to Trump out of office. Biden’s Cabinet is going to reflect what it should be. It’s going to be really great people, really smart people. It’s going to be incredibly diverse, reflect the world as it should be, and it’s going to restore the respect and goodness that has been just decimated in our government.
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