The Woman Who Made the Best Action Movie of 2020

Gina Prince-Bythewood talks about her new superhero film, Netflix’s The Old Guard, and how women are changing the genre.

Getty / The Atlantic

Gina Prince-Bythewood has never been afraid of tackling new genres. The writer and director has made three excellent films set in very different spheres: the coming-of-age masterpiece Love & Basketball, the 1960s-set drama The Secret Life of Bees, and the glittery superstar romance Beyond the Lights. But for years she’s craved the scope of a blockbuster action film, the type that studios and audiences gravitate toward in this franchise-stuffed era. She was attached to a Sony/Marvel project called Silver & Black that took place in the Spider-Man universe, but after that fell apart, she moved on to another comic-book property, a grittier series created by Greg Rucka called The Old Guard.

The resulting film, which hits Netflix tomorrow, is the best action movie of the year so far—a crisply made, globe-trotting adventure about a group of immortals who recruit a new member to their team while doing battle with someone trying to steal their powers. The Old Guard focuses on Andy (played by Charlize Theron), a 6,000-year-old warrior, but it’s an ensemble piece that digs into the strange family dynamics of a team that’s been fighting together for centuries. The new recruit, Nile (KiKi Layne), is a U.S. marine who’s wounded in battle and discovers that she has fantastical healing abilities—in addition to being functionally unkillable (though there are a few exceptions to that rule).

Prince-Bythewood is known for her exceptional attention to detail, but her prior films were smaller-scale and focused on just a few characters in great depth. The Old Guard loses nothing by painting on a wider canvas. The director’s deep affection for every member of the ensemble helps the film stand out, as does the impressively intense and gory action, which delights in the magical healing powers of the group. I spoke with Prince-Bythewood about seeking out action projects, the dearth of female and Black filmmakers in the blockbuster space, and doing post-production at home. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

David Sims: How’s it going?

Gina Prince-Bythewood: Oh, you know, the combination of a global pandemic and a national reckoning takes an emotional toll! But I think important things are finally happening, both in the country and in Hollywood. I know a lot of artists are struggling with what to do in this moment. I had the benefit of having to finish this film, so that gave me something to focus on, creatively.

Sims: Have you been doing a lot of the post-production remotely?

Prince-Bythewood: We were ready to lock the film when [COVID-19] hit. We ended up having everyone put their equipment in their homes literally on a Monday, and by the end of the week we were in full shutdown. So it was figuring out looping, color-timing, and mixing; all of that is such an intimate process! Our score was going to have to be electronic, which was horrifying to me. But then [the composers] Dustin [O’Halloran] and Hauschka created a beautiful score—it just so happened [that team was] was in Iceland, [one of the only countries] in the world that had an orchestra that was allowed to play. So we were up at three in the morning to listen to it live.

Sims: Usually you write your films, but this is the first you aren’t a credited screenwriter on. Did you come to Greg Rucka’s comic book first, or the script?

Prince-Bythewood: I love action films. And I love the direction they’ve taken in the last few years—Black Panther, Logan, where they were more action-dramas, with all the elements you love in an action film, yet I cried at the end of both. They said something to the world, and I loved that we could do that with the genre. I thought [my next movie would be] Silver & Black with Marvel and Sony, but that didn’t work out. And as that wasn’t working out, I got sent this script by [the production company] Skydance.

I never thought I’d get the opportunity to make [action movies], given the way that Hollywood is. But all praise to Patty Jenkins, who killed Wonder Woman and opened the door a crack for some of us to squeak through. Skydance was intentional on wanting to find a female director. They loved Beyond the Lights and Love & Basketball. They wanted the feel of those, what I do with characters, so that The Old Guard could feel like an action-drama.

Sims: Did you read the book then?

Prince-Bythewood: I hadn’t been familiar with the graphic novel, so I was reading it completely fresh. I was moved by the characters’ search for purpose. And then it was two women at the head of it, one of them a young Black female hero, something that has been desperately needed.

Sims: Does it really feel like there’s been a sea change post–Wonder Woman? Some kind of atmospheric shift, producers realizing there’s an audience for more than just the same story?

Prince-Bythewood: It’s funny, I use the word sea change often and then I catch myself, because the bar was at zero. But I was so excited about this year because there were five other female-directed blockbusters. Obviously Patty [with Wonder Woman 1984], there’s Cate Shortland doing Black Widow, Mulan with Niki Caro, The Eternals with Chloé Zhao, and Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey. So in one year, all of us were getting this opportunity. And that is a sea change—that has never happened in the history of Hollywood. Now we have to wait on a number of those movies, but I hope we can destroy this narrative that women don’t love action, because we do. And also that women don’t want to shoot action, because some of us do.

Sims: The narrative was that female filmmakers don’t want to make these kinds of movies.

Prince-Bythewood: I think it’s absolutely time for new blood and new perspectives to disrupt the genre. Because there are so many of [these movies], and there’s been a bit of a sameness.

Sims: In terms of that sameness, coming to The Old Guard, what do you want to do to put your stamp on it?

Prince-Bythewood: There were a couple of things I wanted to bring to the script; I wanted to expand Nile [the character played by Layne], give her more agency in terms of the plot, give her more heroic moments and a backstory so she felt as full as the other characters, and Greg was all on board with that.

The other big thing I wanted to add came from a great book I read in my research for this, called On Killing. It’s a definitive book for soldiers that talks about how the act of taking a life is as emotionally and psychologically damaging as your fear of losing your life on the battlefield. It felt like we hadn’t seen that in an action film before, and it was so perfect for these characters, especially Andy [played by Theron], who has to take a life to save many. What would that toll be after 6,000 years? It is a violent film, and I’m unapologetic about that, but I never wanted it to feel like a celebration.

Sims: The characters are immortal, so they’re mostly invincible, but the violence is still painful, and you feel the toll it’s taking on them.

Prince-Bythewood: When I read the script, I knew immediately that I wanted the film to feel grounded and real despite the fantastical elements. That’s the most important thing for a film, regardless of size or budget: You’ve got to connect with the characters.

Sims: Was Charlize Theron already on board when you came to the project?

Prince-Bythewood: No. Skydance had developed it with Greg for about a year, then I came on and continued to develop. Thinking of who could embody Andy, Charlize is such a good actress, but also she’s done it before. Knowing what I wanted to do with the action, to see the actors doing it rather than their stunt doubles, she’s proven that she can do it.

Sims: She has that action-movie gravitas from films like Mad Max: Fury Road and Atomic Blonde. That kind of informs this character, who’s supposed to have so much experience.

KiKi Layne (left) and Charlize Theron (right) doing their own stunts in a fight scene from The Old Guard. (Aimee Spinks / Netflix)

Prince-Bythewood: Doing action is really hard! I love watching the training videos that every actor puts out, and they’re always cool and set to music and they look sexy, but the reality is, it is months of hard training. KiKi had never done a film like this before, and when I cast her, I trusted her because she had this desire to do it and be great. She did two-a-day training sessions, five days a week, for a couple months. I told her, “This training process is your rehearsal,” because she’s building the character, a marine, she’s getting that swagger, that posture. When you walk down the street and know you can kick someone’s ass, can protect yourself, that changes your gait, the way you stand. It’s a great tool.

Sims: Did everyone do that kind of training? Because the action feels very authentic.

Prince-Bythewood: Every actor I talked to, I made it clear: You are going to be doing your action. They were all in. KiKi and Charlize trained in L.A. before we got to the U.K.; the guys, who were in all different countries, came about two months prior to shooting and trained together. That was a great bonding experience. It was fun for them, and competitive, because nobody wanted to be the weak link.

Sims: Are there action films you’re looking at where you’re thinking, This is how I want my action to look? Or is it more, This is how I don’t want my action to look.

Prince-Bythewood: [Laughs] I knew I wanted each action sequence to feel different. I’m not going to name names, but there were a couple things where I was like, “I do not want it to be this. I hate the way the action is in this.” On the flip side, our templates were The Raid, Logan, Zero Dark Thirty, Man on Fire. I watched at least 20 Asian action films—there are so many great directors working in that genre. And the last thing was the bathroom fight in the last Mission: Impossible. That fight is perfect. I remember telling [the action choreographer Danny Hernandez] that I wanted that for the plane fight. I wanted that feeling. And he was like, “You know, they had about three weeks to shoot that and we have three days.” And I said, “I don’t care, let’s just go for it.”

Sims: In Mission: Impossible—Fallout, both Tom Cruise and Henry Cavill feel indestructible, which is the same sort of vibe here.

Prince-Bythewood: But I loved that in The Old Guard—that the characters could be hurt. That they’re immortal mostly. That allows you some jeopardy in the fights. In talking with Danny, it was, “How can we make it believable that the Old Guard can defeat 16 people with automatic weaponry?” We decided, since they’ve been around for centuries, they started fighting hand to hand, doing up-close killing, whereas modern soldiers are learning to kill from miles away sometimes. We realized that hesitation was what the Old Guard could use to their advantage.

Sims: As you mentioned, you were attached to Silver & Black in the Spider-Man universe, which didn’t come to fruition. Had you been casting around for an action movie for a while?

Prince-Bythewood: I was. Cloak & Dagger, the TV pilot that I did for Marvel, that was very intentional. I specifically wanted to start getting into that world, proving that I could do it. Obviously that was smaller-scale, but it was my first chance to work with visual effects and stunts. But the reason I was in the room for Skydance was because they loved Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights, two films that have no stunts.

Sims: You’ve been making movies for 20 years; they’ve all been well-received. Has your experience changed at all in terms of securing the next project? How much has Hollywood evolved?

Prince-Bythewood: I’m extremely particular about what I do. Most of the time, I direct what I’ve written, because it’s 100 percent my vision, and I have these stories gnawing at me. I take a long time to write, which I hate; I wish I could write quicker. But I do get offered a ton of stuff, and really could do a film a year if I wanted. But I have two boys, I have a husband; if I’m going to be away, it has to be something I’m passionate about. What I’m mostly passionate about as a filmmaker, as an artist, and as a Black woman are films that focus on Black women and become universal.

For me, growing up and not being able to see myself reflected on-screen, how invisible I felt, now I want the world to see our humanity and enjoy our films. And those are the hardest films to get made, 100 percent. When people look at the gaps in my filmography and ask why it took four or five years to get to the next one … Each project is a fight. I will say, the miraculous thing is that the next two projects I have lined up are both big, both focus on Black women, and were not a fight, for the first time in my career.

Sims: I just wanted to beg you for a Love & Basketball sequel. It’s been 20 years, it could be about the [central couple’s] daughter. But it sounds like you’re very particular, so it might be hard to fit that in.

Prince-Bythewood: [Laughs] I love that people want another one. It’s humbling. But I feel like everyone would be disappointed. I told the story I wanted to tell. But I will say, the Academy put on a 20-year-anniversary panel for that film and brought us back together. And sitting there with Alfre Woodard, and Sanaa Lathan, and Kyla Pratt … I loved working with those actors, and I’d want to do it again. So I just have to write something different that would bring us all back together.

Sims: My only complaint about The Old Guard is that I couldn’t see it with a big audience, to feel them reacting to the crucial moments. But it’ll be on Netflix; it’ll be widely accessible.

Prince-Bythewood: In 190 countries! All my films, it’s always a fight, and they never get foreign distribution, because you always hear, “Oh, Black characters don’t travel.” And you want to punch somebody. It’s because they don’t try. I’m so curious for what it’s going to feel like—is it going to be like that Friday where you sneak into a theater and see it with an audience? I have no idea. But 190 countries? It’s stunning.