This interview contains mild spoilers for The Old Guard, streaming on Netflix July 10.
“I’ve been here before, over and over again. And each time the same question: Is this it? Will this time be the one? And each time the same answer. I’m just so tired of it.”
Those words are the first we hear from immortal warrior Andy (Charlize Theron, in full Furiosa mode) in The Old Guard, directed by Gina Prince Bythewood. On the surface, she’s referring to the infinite nature of her existence. Based on the eponymous graphic novel by Greg Rucka, The Old Guard centers around a group of fighters, led by Andy (real-name Andromache the Scythian), who have spent thousands of years keeping humanity in check: turning the tides of war, planning covert missions, often having to sacrifice one to save the many. That’s a long time to spend clearing up the messes of others, and it’s taken a toll. Just as Andy and her crew are thinking about what comes next, relief comes their way in the form of Nile (If Beale Street Could Talk breakout KiKi Layne), a former Marine and newly-formed immortal who makes them reexamine their role in the world.
But Andy’s words also reflect a more urgent message that’s rippling through our current reality: Without a group of immortals to save our asses, how do we keep history from constantly repeating itself?
“The theme of [The Old Guard] ultimately is that we have a limited time here, so what are you going to do with the time that you have?” Prince-Bythewood told Refinery29 over the phone ahead of the movie’s July 10 release on Netflix. “The hope is that you decide to do good with that time. It’s literally as simple as that: If we all chose to do the right thing, [imagine] how different the world would be.”
Prince-Bythewood speaks from experience. Though a celebrated director, with impressive credits like Love & Basketball, Beyond the Lights, and The Secret Life of Bees under her belt, she wasn’t at all confident she’d ever get to work on an action film, despite wanting to take on that challenge.
“I love the genre, I love the direction it was moving into, but I didn’t know that I was going to get the opportunity given the way Hollywood loves to work,” she said. Translation: it seemed unlikely that a studio would take a chance on a Black woman director to helm a big budget film, despite her obvious qualifications.
Her chance finally came when Skydance Media, the studio behind franchises like Mission Impossible, Star Trek, and Terminator, sent her the script for The Old Guard.
“They were very intentional in wanting a female director, which is incredibly rare,” she said.
In other words, they chose to do the right thing. And the result is a fresh and inspired take on the genre, which re-imagines what superheroes look and sound like. In Prince-Bythewood’s world, we are all fierce warriors, and this is our time to break the cycle.
Refinery29: It’s thrilling to see women and people of color taking center stage in an action film without constantly needing to hammer home how exceptional that is. In so many films, it feels forced, like it was an afterthought thrown in at the last minute, rather than an intentional component of the story.
Gina Prince Bythewood: “I give props to Greg Rucka, who created these characters, and really did make their backgrounds integral to who they are. For me, it was about really wanting the cast to feel like what I see when I look out into the world, which we don’t always get to see in these types of films. I really wanted the audience to feel as though these characters are so real they could be sitting next to you at a Starbucks and they are somehow protecting us.”
How did you cast KiKi Layne as Nile? What were you looking for, and how did she convince you she was right for the part?
“Nile is the audience’s foray into this world, and really reacts in the way most of us would react if we were thrown into this and found out that we’re suddenly immortal. I needed someone who had the innate strength, where we could believe that she had that toughness to be a Marine, and be a hero and a warrior, but also an innate vulnerability that made us care about her. Literally five seconds into KiKi’s audition, I was like, That’s Nile. She had the acting chops and she had the traits I needed, but it was a conversation I had with her after that [that convinced me]. I explained: ‘Look, for this film, despite this fantastical conceit, I want it to feel grounded and real, which means I need you to really be doing the action, as opposed to stunt doubles. I want to feel the emotion in these fights, I want to tell a story in the sequences. That is going to take a tremendous amount of work and commitment.’
“She had never done a film like this before, or television — anything of an action nature. But she was game, and I believed her when she said she would do anything she had to do to be great.”
"What is finally going to allow the world to make a turn and understand how connected we are globally?"
How was directing action different from previous films that you’ve directed?
“I approached it the way I would approach a love scene. You have to tell a story. It can’t just be two people simulating sex — that’s boring. It’s the same thing with a fight. If it doesn’t have a story to it, if it’s not character-driven, there’s no stakes and it’s just two people hitting each other over and over. I approached each action sequence as, What is the story that I’m telling? How is it furthering the story? What is it saying about the character? And then in having that, it’s working with my incredible stunt team, in designing the fights and being able to tell that story. Like, the kill floor — the story of that was really the story of their fighting styles; their archaic weapons against modern weaponry. How can we believably show the Old Guard defeating 16 mercenaries with machine guns, when they’ve [only] got axes and swords? It was going back to the truth that the Old Guard, in fighting for so long, used to fight face-to-face, hand-to-hand, and can kill face-to-face or hand-to-hand, whereas modern soldiers learn on the gun; they’re shooting and killing from far away. So, it was that moment of hesitancy that allowed the Old Guard to defeat them.
“Shooting action is meticulous, it’s 14, 15, 16, 17 takes to make sure that the punches look real, that the kick looked real, that the reaction looked real. If you’re just one inch off with the camera, suddenly you can see that the punch didn’t connect.”
You were talking before about wanting the story to feel grounded. This is a story that’s really deeply rooted in history. What were you trying to say about it?
“It’s really what Andy is struggling with when we open this film — this is a woman who’s lived 6,000 years, through countless wars and conflicts, and the world has just not learned. We do not learn from history, and we keep inflicting pain on each other, on a loop. What is finally going to allow the world to make a turn and understand how connected we are globally? If we work together, how much better the world could be.
“The hope is that this pandemic has at least opened up many people’s eyes about how connected we are. But we’re still dealing with some of the same things over and over. That is what the world is, but I would love to change. It’s a global reckoning that working together is a thousand times more beneficial to all of us than being the dominant force in the world.”
Was there anything that appeared in the script that you decided to represent differently on screen?
“There were two main things: I wanted to expand the role of Nile, give her more agency in the plot, create more backstory, give her a full arc in terms of her family and what she was giving up. The other was I wanted to bring the reality of killing into this piece. It’s something I felt we hadn’t seen that often in this genre. In doing my research to direct this, I read this great book called On Killing, which is considered the definitive book for soldiers, and what it talks about is that the act of taking a life is as damaging to your psyche as your fear of losing your life on the battlefield. That was fascinating to me, it really felt true for both Andy and Nile. Andy is a woman who is compelled to have to kill, she doesn’t know why yet, but it is there because of their credo: Take a life to save many. But what is that toll? What would that take to kill over and over again for 6,000 years, even though you know it’s for a greater good? I wanted to make sure it doesn’t feel easy to take a life. It’s not a funny quip at the end of blasting somebody.”
"I wanted to make sure it doesn’t feel easy to take a life. It’s not a funny quip at the end of blasting somebody.”
What do you hope audiences, and specifically young women, take away from this movie?
“I want them to see how normal it is that we are warriors. I was an athlete ever since I was five. Sports were such a big part of my life all the way through college, when I ran track at UCLA. All the women around me growing up were like that. We were athletic, and we were taught that ambition is good, and to go after that person, believe that you can beat anybody. Leave everything out on the floor. The act of working out and building up your body and your strength was a joyous thing as opposed to something to be looked down upon. I want to normalize that for other women, that we are warriors, we have it in us. There doesn’t need to be a traumatic event to force you to find your inner strength. We have it in us.”