Gina Prince-Bythewood: Action=Story+Emotion in THE OLD GUARD – Leslie Combemale interviews

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Gina Prince-Bythewood is one of the most respected female filmmakers in the industry. Her latest film, The Old Guard, is a superhero story based on the graphic novel and adapted into a screenplay by Greg Rucka. Prince-Bythewood, best known for romances such as Love and Basketball (2000) and Beyond the Lights (2014), tackled a new genre in this action-packed sci-fi flick.

The Old Guard centers on a group of immortals led by a thousands-year-old female warrior named Andy (Charlize Theron) who has to indoctrinate and train a the old team’s first new recruit since 1812, a young Marine named Nile (KiKi Layne) whose immortality is discovered when she bounces back to life after she’s fatally wounded while deployed in the Middle East.

While watching The Old Guard, one gets the sense that this Prince-Bythewood has brought a new level of diversity and representation to the genre, and a sense of authenticity that has not been seen before. The spectacular fight sequences between Theron and Layne are staged and filmed with a unique vision and style. There’s real joy in watching a movie that’s filled with thrilling action that’s so strongly based in character backstory and character motivation. I spoke with Prince-Bythewood about that, and about the importance of normalizing warrior women.

Leslie Combemale: You have very little stunt doubling in The Old Guard. That had to be an incredible amount of work. Why did you make that choice, and how did your commitment to using the actors instead of stunt people influence how the fights were organized and shot?

Gina Prince-Bythewood: When I met with Charlize in the first meeting, to see if she was right for Andy, and then with KiKi, who had never done this kind of character before, that was one of the first conversations I had. The best action for me is the action that is character-driven, that has a story to it, and that is emotional, and to do that, it really needs to be the actors. It’s one thing to say that, it’s another thing to acknowledge the amount of work that it takes for the actors to really learn and be good in these scenes. It started there. Then, with my incredible stunt team, Jeff Haberstad (2nd Unit Director) and Fight Coordinators Danny Hernandez and Brycen Counts, who designed the stunts, it was talking about the story of each set piece. I wanted absolutely each set piece to have a different feel, and they should, because they all have a unique story to tell, so starting with the story of it.

Prince-Bythewood with Theron and Layne on set

Combemale: Can you please give us an example?

Prince-Bythewood: The plane fight, which was the first thing we shot in the entire movie, what I talk about is, what is it? Nile is this young woman who has been kidnapped. She is completely freaked out. She is angry and she’s trying to break free. Then there’s this woman, Andy, who wants to test and see who this new immortal is, who is coming into their camp, and wants to determine what her skills are. With that being the dynamic of the fight, and knowing that Nile has learned to fight in the Marines — they have a very specific fighting program. I wanted that to be the basis for the way she fought, and Andy knows every single fighting style known to man. You see Nile’s frustration build, where she can’t even touch Andy. There’s going to be a point where she just throws out that training, and goes back to what she learned from the streets, building that story within it. Also the fact that Nile, even though she’s getting decimated, her arm broken, and thrown to the floor, she doesn’t give up. That says so much much about her character, both to the audience and to Andy.

Combemale: That fight has a particularly intimate feel. Is that based in story, as well?

Prince-Bythewood: Starting with that story, knowing it’s a fight in a confined space, an airplane, the DP Tami Reiker and I didn’t want to give ourselves the crutch of having the walls being able to fly so we could put the cameras anywhere. We wanted the same confinement that the characters have. That would put us more into the fight. It wouldn’t take us out of it because suddenly we’re aware, thinking, ‘How can the camera be there? How can we be seeing it from there?’ I wanted to just be focused on the fight and what was going on in the scene.

Combemale: I’ve heard you talk about the importance of normalizing ‘warrior women.’ What does that mean and how did you follow that directive in your filming of The Old Guard?

Prince-Bythewood: I cannot tell you how important it is for women to be able to see themselves reflected in this way. It is not something that we are taught. It is in us. It’s absolutely in every woman, but it’s not developed as little girls, unless you’re in sports, or unless your father was like the dude from Kickass, who taught his daughter everything about fighting when she was little. It’s just not ingrained in us. Even more so, as girls, we don’t get to grow up and see movies and see ourselves as heroes the way boys do.

Combemale: I take it that you see The Old Guard, with its two women warrior leads, as a shift in scenario and dynamic…

Prince-Bythewood: So, it’s absolutely important that this shift continues, where we’re getting to see more female heroes up on the screen. For me, in shooting it, one of the most important things was that I never wanted the women, when they’re fighting, to be sexualized. It was not ever what the fights were about. I wanted people to marvel at their athleticism and skill, so that you’re just seeing warriors. It’s not something that suddenly becomes a sexy catfight. They’re not punching each other, when suddenly her shirt rips, and now we’re seeing side boob. I didn’t want any of that. Just focus on these women fighting, because that is what is within them, but also, these are two women who not only have the strength of a warrior, but they have the empathy. That’s what makes them badass, that vulnerability and strength.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Old Guard is AWFJ’s Movie of the Week for July 10, 2020

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren on her own website,, and is a frequent contributor to MPA's, where she interviews filmmakers above and below the line, with a focus on women and diverse voices. She is the Senior Contributor at Leslie is in her 9th year as producer and moderator of the influential "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. She is a world-renowned expert on cinema art and her film art gallery, ArtInsights, located near DC, has celebrated cinema art and artists for 30 years.