When Netflix offered me the chance to talk to director Gina Prince-Bythewood about her new film, the action-thriller The Old Guard starring Charlize Theron, I jumped at it. There were in particular two scenes about which I wanted to know more.
Number one: Theron’s character, Andy, an ancient and immortal protector of humanity, finds herself in rare need of medical help, and visits a pharmacy to purchase supplies. She asks the woman behind the counter if there’s a bathroom she can use. The woman instead takes her to the storeroom and patches her up.
“You need help,” she says as she works. “What does it matter why? Today I put this on your wound. Tomorrow you help someone up when they fall. We’re not meant to be alone.”
It’s a beautiful, quiet moment and a distillation of the film’s underlying message, punctuated by a lovely performance by French actor Olivia Ross as the philosopher-pharmacist. And Prince-Bythewood tells me it wasn’t even in Greg Rucka’s graphic novel, which served as the source material for the movie.
I love that they are warriors, these two women. There’s no reason for it. They just are.
“Those quiet moments felt as important as the big action set pieces,” she says, explaining the addition. “I have to care about the characters and I have to be moved. Theron does her share of shooting and being shot at, but this was an important facet of her character. So much of who she is is about protecting humanity, protecting life.”
Number two: Two immortals, Joe and Nicky (played by Marwen Kenzari and Luca Marinelli), have been captured. One of the soldiers guarding them snickers and says to Joe: “What is he, your boyfriend?”
Joe replies: “He’s not my boyfriend. This man is more to me than you can dream. He’s the moon when I’m lost in darkness, and warmth when I shiver in cold, and his kiss still thrills me after a millennia.” This goes on for some time, a speech any couple would be proud to recite at their wedding.
“That scene, that beautiful speech is in the graphic novel,” says the director. “The one thing Greg made [the studio] promise was that that speech would be in the film, that it would never get cut. And for me, when I read the script, that relationship and that speech was one of the reasons I wanted to do it.”
There was of course much more that attracted Prince-Bythewood to The Old Guard, the story of a young U.S. Marine named Nile (Kiki Layne) who learns she is immortal, and joins Theron’s group just as they are exposed by an evil scientist (Harry Melling) who wants to learn their secrets.
Chief among her reasons was the chance to direct two main characters, both female, one Black, in a genre most often reserved for male actors and male directors.
“I love that they are warriors, these two women,” she says. “There’s no reason for it. They just are. We don’t often get to see ourselves as warriors, but more than ever it’s necessary for us as a community and for the world to see us like that.”
The Old Guard meant a real change of pace for Layne, whose breakout role was in the 2018 romantic drama If Beale Street Could Talk. Prince-Bythewood was actually invited to watch an early cut of that film by its director, Barry Jenkins, so she had a lot of time to consider Layne for a role in her movie.
“She’s too soft,” was her first thought, watching Beale Street. “But she came in and auditioned and I knew within five seconds that she was Nile. She had this innate strength to her and this innate vulnerability, which was a really beautiful combination, and I believed her, I believed that this young woman was a Marine.”
Prince-Bythewood also had to overcome any prejudices others may have formed from her own earlier work, which includes the romantic dramas Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights – but also, more recently, the creation of the 2017 crime series Shots Fired, and a lot of work on Silver & Black, a Marvel superhero film that was ultimately cancelled. She did end up directing the pilot episode of Marvel’s Cloak & Dagger TV series.
“For me this is an action drama, and the drama part I felt I was able to bring my aesthetic to,” she says of The Old Guard.
The action part meant a bigger budget, though ultimately that means little. “What more money gives you is more time and bigger toys, but none of that matters if you don’t care about the story and you don’t care about the characters.”
Prince-Bythewood says she’s a fan of action flicks. “I love these films, the good ones.” So I have to ask: What are the good ones?
“Logan, Black Panther, films that elevated the genre, that had all the elements that you love in terms of great action set pieces, but I cried in both of those. I cried at the end [of Logan] and I cried when Michael B. Jordan dies. The villain of a film, and I cried!”
She’s also a huge fan of a fellow female action-movie director. “I give so much credit to Patty Jenkins, the incredible pressure she was under to get Wonder Woman right and have it be a success and be as good as it was.”
Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984 was just one of several big films from female directors delayed by the pandemic. There’s also Mulan from Niki Caro, and Cate Shortland’s Black Widow. “This was a watershed year for female filmmakers, and I’m still hoping their films can come out at the end of the year.” Even The Old Guard was supposed to have a limited theatrical release alongside its Netflix debut.
“Honestly, no Black female has ever had this opportunity,” says Prince-Bythewood. But if audiences connect with this movie, she may do it again. The Old Guard is just one part of a graphic novel trilogy, the second of which was released in December. And the film ends on an exciting precipice that could easily lead into a part two. “If the audience is up for it, there’s absolutely more story to tell.”
The Old Guard is available July 10 on Netflix.