Gina Prince-Bythewood is the director of The Old Guard, an action-adventure based on a graphic novel with super-heroes that don’t fit the normal spectrum. Gay, female, people of color and oh, yes, one straight white male, head up an all-star cast which includes Charlize Theron, Kiki Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Luca Marinelli, and Chiwetel Ejiofor – to name a partial list.
The diversity of the leads was one of the things that attracted the Independent Spirit Award-winner for Best First Screenplay to the project. Prince-Bythewood is the producer, and screenwriter of Love and Basketball and The Secret Life of Bees and now the first African American woman to helm an action blockbuster. We spoke to her about breaking stereotypes, the need to lean in, shooting action as a woman, and the importance of representation.
The Old Guard is inspired by a comic book, how challenging is it that the viewers have a visual image when coming to the film?
The source material, in this case, the graphic novel, was my bible. I wanted to stay true to it and honor it. I fell in love with the story, but those who are familiar with it will come with expectations; that doesn't say that I don't ultimately have my own vision that I put on top of it, as well as help to translate it from graphic novel to screen. I think the toughest thing is wanting Greg Rucka, the author, to love it because it all started from his brain, so that was the scariest screening when I first showed him the film.
When I spoke to Patty Jenkins about directing action she said it’s just another technical scene….
The best action scenes tell a story, are character-driven, and are emotional. The same way I approach a love scene, I approach an action scene. What is the story I'm trying to tell in the moment and what are the characters doing? And then, of course, there is the fight choreography. There’s knowing where to put the camera, so the punches look real and the reactions look real. How do you heighten the visceral feeling of a fight? Those are things that you learn, but me having kick boxed before and being an athlete, I know what looks good. Certainly, as a woman, it is so important that our women who have an opportunity to be in films like this look good. For me, it was protecting women. You marry what you know, and you also learn some new techniques that you put into the toolbox.
How do you guide big names into the action and how do you get what you want from them?
It started with the first conversation where I stated what I want from the film. That I want this film to look grounded and real; it needs to permeate everything, the performance, but also the action. Knowing that I needed her to put in the work so I don't have to cut away to stunt double. I can have her in there and we can see the action and their emotion, see the character in the fight, and given that she has done it before, in other movies, I had that trust that Charlize would put it to work. Someone like Kiki Layne who had never done this before – it was a conversation I had with her after the audition when I knew within five seconds, she is Nile Freeman, but does she understand what it takes to do a movie like this? Her passion for it and her desire to be great won me over and I trusted that she would put in the work that I needed to be done.
Can you talk about the importance of representation for the viewer and for young people, to be able to identify with the character they see on the screen?
The thing I love so much about this film and why I was so drawn to it, is that it is this group of warriors from different backgrounds and cultures and sexual orientations and genders, who come together to save humanity. Within that, they are heroes that we don't always get to see on screen. As a woman, as a black woman, I love action films, but do I get to see myself up on the screen? No. And I want that. I want that for my boys, who love these films and who asked me before Black Panther, “I like this movie mom, but when do I get to see myself?” That's really hard as a mother to hear, and also as a filmmaker. I look at myself and what am I not doing to allow my son to have representation. It is as simple as that. When you can see yourself being heroic, you can see it in yourself. We need every ethnic group, every sexual orientation, you need to be able to see yourself as a hero, and that is what I love so much about this film, that we do that.
As a woman and minority, it’s relatively new that you get to sit at the table in a discussion and have your vision seen and understood. When I spoke to Ava DuVernay, she spoke of the micro injustices that happen, and I was wondering when you’ve been at the table have you always been heard or have you had to fight to get your voice and vision recognized?
I have been in this business for 25 years and I honestly feel I have been in a sustained fight for 25 years, fighting for my vision and fighting to tell stories I want to tell. Focusing on the characters who have been absolutely invisible in Hollywood. My saving grace has been that I grew up an athlete so that fight and stamina has been ingrained in me, but it is hard, certainly. Films that have a Black woman at their center are absolutely the hardest films to get made in Hollywood. I know growing up as a little girl, and being adopted into a family of a Salvadorian mother and an Irish father, I didn't see myself reflected in my family and I didn't see myself reflected in television or movies. That really did a number on my self-esteem. It wasn't until I got the rare opportunity to see a black character on film that I felt seen. I wanted to give others who are struggling with the same thing, a chance to be seen as well Black characters, and women as well to be seen in heroic roles where we are center and not the side piece and that's important to see ourselves reflected in ways that we can be inspired by but also inspired to be.
Where did you get the courage to raise your voice and challenge the status quo?
I believe it was sports and I believe it was my parents. I can take it back to the soccer field, at five years of age there were no girls’ leagues at that time, so I had to play with boys and the boys hated that I was out there because I was also very good. And they started literally on the field, punching and kicking me, trying to get away with that. I was crying and wanted to leave the field, and my parents said, ‘Stay on the field, and stay in the fight.’ That has absolutely been my career of just staying in it. You are worthy. You have a voice. That drive and knowing I have a voice and something to say to the world has literally gotten me up off the floor during the times when the fight has gotten to be too much.
Love and Basketball that's a long time ago, but you were already telling stories about people who don’t often get the opportunity to carry you on a journey. How difficult was it to get that made, versus today when we seem to be much more in tune with imbalances?
Love and Basketball was in 2000 and it was very tough to get made. Every studio turned it down after spending a year and a half writing the script. It wasn't until the Sundance Lab, and I love them so much because they saw some value in the story and invited me to be part of it. They put on a reading, and that is when Spike Lee saw it and helped me make it. It was an incredible struggle. Each of my films has been an incredible struggle. I will say though, in the last couple of months I know what my next two projects are.” (One of which is the Viola Davis-led Woman King). Both feature Black women, both are very big, and they weren't fights for the first time in my career, and I hope that is indicative of where our industry is going.”
How did you segue into the industry?
When I was seven years old our television broke and our parents, much to the horror of my siblings and I, decided not to fix or replace it. For seven years we had no television, so all I did was read. I would read a book a day and (I) still have that muscle. Being in the story and being able to see it. Absolutely, I know where this focus has come from.
Once we finally got the television back when I was a teenager, I became obsessed with soap operas – that they could compel me to keep coming back. I read an article about soap opera writers and how much they made and it was the first time I realized, ‘Wow, someone gets paid to do that. I want to do that.’ My goal when going to UCLA film school was to be a writer. Once I was at film school and started to understand what directing was – that that was the main storyteller – I just felt like this was what I was supposed to do.
Do you have advice to women to have their vision created given that we are conditioned not to ask?
It's amazing how many young women I meet struggle with that; it's just a reminder that you have a voice and you are here for a reason – speak up. You have to speak up. If you do not speak up none of your dreams, none of the things you want for yourself will happen. If you speak up you might get no, but then it is overcoming no. Use your voice and speak up.
What were the biggest challenges for this movie?
I am grateful to Sky Dance. One, to even be able to be in the chair, we know how a few women get this opportunity, how even fewer Black women get this opportunity, but Skydance was determined to have a female director for this. That is so incredibly rare in Hollywood and I am so grateful to them. What was so great about it was they loved Love and Basketball and Beyond the Lights and they wanted me to bring that aesthetic to this big action genre. That was a great comfort because I love action films and I know what action feels and looks like, I also know how to tell this story. I had comfort in that, and then it has led me to learn what I needed to learn in terms of shooting action. Skydance helped take care of one of the biggest challenges which was having the opportunity itself and that is what most women in this industry want, just let us in the room and we will prove that one: we have the desire and two: we have the talent. The other is stamina. To shoot for 63 days, to be in prep for months, I was in the UK for 9 and a half months. I have two boys, I have a husband, it is surreal at times to be away, and of course, they came to visit a couple of times but it is not the same. I'm a mother, I love being a mother, so to be away from my family, is tough. The flip side is that if I didn't get to do what I love to do, I would not be a good mother. So it's always finding that balance. That was the toughest thing.
That seldom comes up for men.
I know (laughing) I don't understand.
Do you want to comment on this time?
What is happening in the nation at this moment is a national reckoning that has been a long time coming, it's so tied to Hollywood and Hollywood's complicity in what is happening. I'm grateful to those that I have talked to in power, who have reached out to ask me: how do we fix this? What have we been doing wrong? What do you suggest? And not being defensive when I am blunt about the fact that I've walked into way too many production companies and studios, and in my entire walk, all the way to the head office, I do not pass one person of color. Not one black person. That gets disheartening. But it's the images we put out as Hollywood and all the images that we do not put out. It is incredibly important that this is not a moment but a movement. We cannot go backward. We have recognized that the way the world sees Black people and the lack of humanity is absolutely tied to decades of what people have been fed through media that weaponized our Blackness. I am hopeful that the recognition of the complicity is a real thing and I hope it sustains itself.