The action genre is so pumped with straight white male testosterone that it’s always refreshing when a movie like The Old Guard bucks the trend. That’s why Gina Prince-Bythewood knew after reading five pages of Greg Rucka’s script – based on his own 2017 comic book – that she wanted to make the movie. The Los Angeles-based filmmaker had been itching to enter the action genre, especially after Sony cancelled her planned Marvel movie Silver and Black in 2018, and The Old Guard was the perfect opportunity to celebrate strong female-led narratives and explore the toll of killing in a deeper way than the genre usually affords.

The film centres on a team of immortal mercenaries, led by Charlize Theron, who have battled on Earth for centuries. As their existence comes under threat, they discover that a young female soldier (KiKi Layne) has joined their number. With Netflix backing the film and Shepperton Studios at her disposal, Prince-Bythewood was ready to make her mark.

Gina Prince-Bythwood watching rushes on the set of The Old Guard (2020)

These films require a lot of people working on them. How did your core team help you approach the specific aspects of action filmmaking?

Our fight coordinator Danny Hernandez was next level and the process began by sitting down with him, Jeff Habberstad [second unit director] and Brycen Counts [stunt coordinator] and talking about what I wanted this action to be. I wanted it to feel grounded and real and never gratuitous. I wanted our actresses to really be doing the fights. I didn’t want to only rely on doubles. I wanted to have a story with everything so they would create the fight choreography, then I would give notes and we would just go back and forth and keep building on ideas, and then we’d shoot.

It must have helped to have bona fide action movie star Charlize Theron as the lead?

Absolutely, the audience has to believe that toughness. KiKi had never done anything in that space at all, so for her to see Charlize’s work ethic, the level of training Charlize did from jump, was great. So much of The Old Guard is how they move together, that one starts a sentence and the other finishes it. Getting that down took a lot of work. She set the tone for both KiKi and the guys and it was really helpful.

Layne and Theron in The Old Guard

What influences helped you?

I watched Ong Bak 2 [Tony Jaa and Panna Rittikrai, 2008], 13 Assassins [Miike Takashi, 2010], Hero [Zhang Yimou, 2002] and The Grandmaster [Wong Kar Wai, 2013]. The Raid [Gareth Evans, 2011] too.

Over here [in the US], we are desensitised a bit to violence. We watch people like Rambo, who kills a bunch of people and then he’s pumping his fists and making a cool quip after it. In Asian cinema, you see the effect of it not only on the person that has been hurt or killed, but on the person that did the killing. That makes for more interesting storytelling.

My use of silhouette in the film was also a homage to the graphic novel. There are a couple of frames that I also took because, for me, when doing an adaptation it’s important to stay true to the source material.

You stayed true to the gay romance between Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli’s characters too. Scenes like that are rare in action films.

When Greg [Rucka] sold this project to [production company] Skydance, part of the deal was a promise never to cut [those scenes]. Props to him for doing that, because I think it’s what makes the film different, and most gratifying.

How did having Netflix in your corner compare to a studio?

We actually got more money than if we had gone the traditional studio route. They were not afraid of a female-led action film, and in fact, were actively seeking that out. They were excited about this project and certainly put the money behind it. It helped me give them an incredible cast.

Layne, Prince-Bythwood and Theron on set

The Old Guard was the first production to shoot at Shepperton Studios since Netflix set up a production base there. What was that like?

I love shooting in the UK and I loved shooting at Shepperton. We had the run of the place and got to build so many great sets there. There was an amazing place called Sherborne Estate [in Gloucestershire], and we were able to recreate 12 or 13 different environments there.

It was almost like our second studio, but it’s also nice to have a home base and Shepperton was certainly that. The crew was great too. Their work ethic and the talent in each department made it such a phenomenal experience, but it’s weird to think that for eight months I did not have a day off. I’m not complaining, but it is hard doing a movie of this size and shooting that many days.

I spoke with [Wonder Woman director] Patty Jenkins when I got it because I wanted to hear what it was gonna feel like – what great things could she impart to me. She was so incredibly helpful not only with the craft and the technical aspects but also the emotional toll that it can take.

Do you both look out for each other?

We both have the desire to see more women given this opportunity. I remember going to the premiere of Wonder Woman and just being so floored and full of pride. Patty stepped up and succeeded and opened the door for the couple of us that have now come after her.

But it is also a great luxury to be able to call [Knives Out and Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi director] Rian Johnson. He was somebody I could call any time to ask about how things are done. There’s not a lot of competitiveness in my circle, rather the support of all of us wanting the other to succeed.

Originally published: 8 July 2020