Gina Prince-Bythewood talks about directing The Old Guard and the current state of inclusion in Hollywood

Scott Menzel: I am very excited to be talking with Gina Prince-Bythewood. Gina is the director of The Old Guard, which is now available to stream on Netflix. Gina, thank you so very much for talking to me today.

Gina Prince-Bythewood: Thanks for having me.

Scott Menzel: So, right before we started this actual interview, we talked a little bit about Jazz Tangcay and just wanted to give her a shout out because she helps run the Hollywood Critics Association with me and she loves you. And she loves this film and I will second her and say, I love this movie too.

Gina Prince-Bythewood: No, it’s great to hear.

Scott Menzel: So, I’ve been an admirer of your work. I know that you started off in television, then went on to direct a few smaller budget movies. Love & Basketball is wonderful. Beyond the Lights loved that film. So can you tell me a little bit about going into a big adaptation like this. Is it nerve wracking to take on a project of this scale?

Gina Prince-Bythewood: Absolutely, which is why it was important that when I made this jump to the big sandbox, that it was a story that I was excited and passionate about. This has been a two year journey. To maintain that focus, to shoulder the pressure that you have when there’s this much money involved, again you have to be passionate about the story. I loved Greg’s writing. I loved his graphic novel. I loved his adaptation. I love Skydance who are just the best and they love movies. They love film. They’re so respectful to filmmakers and directors.

It just felt like a very warm environment that I was brought into, the fact that they were very intentional on wanting a female director for this property that they had, which as we know is pretty rare in Hollywood. But the fact that what got me into the room and that’s all we want, we want the opportunity to get in a room and then let us show you that we could do what we do. The reason I got in the room is because of Love and Basketball and Beyond the Lights. They said that what I brought to those films and those characters, they wanted for The Old Guard. It was just a really perfect situation.

Having that kind of team behind you does give you confidence, but it’s a reality. I talked a lot of smack to get the gig and because we have to project confidence that you can do it. Of course, I did believe I could do it, but I did know there would be some learning curve. I remember walking out after they said I had it and sitting in my car and it was euphoria. Then suddenly like, “Oh my God, I got to do this and back it up.” But that kind of fear of failure and pressure fuels me because you need that. You can never get complacent in something like that. It’s too big. But you focus on telling the story first, no matter how much money you have. That thought really grounded me throughout the process.

Scott Menzel: I can’t say this enough but I think you did such a phenomenal job with this film, especially the action sequences, which I know a lot of people struggle with when they have not done this before, but you just nailed them. You didn’t even use too much of the slow-mo CGI tactics. You just went all in. And I appreciated the raw fight scenes, and I thought you just knocked it out of the park.

Gina Prince-Bythewood: Oh, thank you. I love action. I’ve been an athlete my whole life, I kick boxed for a couple years. I know what I like to see. I know what looks real to me and what doesn’t. I just had a couple of templates that I wanted to use. Also I put such an incredible team around me with Jeff Halberstam and Danny Hernandez and Brycen Counts. I wanted the best to help me realize my vision. The beautiful thing was because I have a background of a fighter, we were able to talk in that language and they were able to see early on, “Oh, she does know what she’s talking about.”

But you know, The Raid was one of my templates, absolutely. Zero Dark Thirty, wanting that grounded, real feel to the action. And the perfect fight that I’ve ever seen is a bathroom fight in MI6. That was my bar. I want that for the plane fight. They said, well they had four weeks to shoot that. And we had four days to shoot the fight, but like just go for it. Let’s try and reach for greatness. At least in trying, you’re going to give your all for it. I was excited about working with a great group of people.

Scott Menzel: I could talk to you all day about all the people you worked with at this film, but you know, there’s two main people that I do think we do need to touch upon. First of which is Charlize Theron, who I feel like has only in the last maybe, has really climbed the ropes to become a household name. It is crazy to think that even though she was making movies like The Devil’s Advocate and The Astronauts Wife back in the nineties, she’s just become a household name within this last decade. So what is it like working with her and having the opportunity to work with her. I know that actors usually learn something from filmmakers but is there something that you learned as a filmmaker from her?

Gina Prince-Bythewood: You know, it’s interesting. I guess what I’ve learned, even though I knew a little bit, but in casting her, one of the big things, one she’s a very good actress. And two, I knew as a director, I could trust that she knew the amount of work that had to go into being able to really be able to shoot her doing the fights. Be it really her in the action sequences because that allowed me to tell the story within each sequence and have them be character driven and emotional. It was really dope to see how hard she worked. Like she put everything, shut down everything to prepare herself for this. Once we get to set and we’re doing 14, 15, 16 takes, she wouldn’t quit. She wouldn’t say, “Oh, it’s good enough.” It can’t be good enough. That work ethic was something that certainly I have in my life. It was really great to see that from her. That was something that then the other actors like Kiki and Marwan and Luca and Matthias could look to and knowing that damn, we got to step up to that level as well.

Scott Menzel: Yeah. And of course, you just mentioned Kiki who is still relatively new to this scene. Man, does she just have an onscreen presence like no other. I remember seeing her in If Beale Street Could Talk and being blown away by her performance. Then I watch her in this, which is a totally different type of role for her, but she goes head to head with Charlize and their back and forth banter is almost like a character or a selling point for this movie on its own. What is it about her?

Gina Prince-Bythewood:  Kiki has that thing. It’s a thing that makes you want to watch her. It makes you care about her. It’s this innate vulnerability that she has that connects us as an audience to her. I mean, not to mention, obviously her face is luminous, but she also has this innate strength that not everybody has and I needed to believe her. That’s the thing. When you do an action film, it’s not enough to learn the choreography and do the moves. We have to believe the intention behind every punch and kick. We have to believe that you could really beat someone’s ass and not everybody has that, but she had that, which is so striking, given Beale Street where she’s so soft in that film. It was a great surprise in the audition to see Nile come alive after I’d been searching for a good amount of time. She just had that beautiful combination. Then for me to sit down and talk with her after and try to impart on her how hard she was going to have to work, Because she’s never… she didn’t play sports when she was younger and she’d never been in an action film, never done any training whatsoever, but I trusted her because she said, “I will do everything it takes to be able to embody Nile in the right way.” And she did.

Scott Menzel: Not to jump or switch topics too quickly, but something that I feel very passionately about and one of the reasons why I wanted to create the Hollywood Critics Association was to embrace inclusion and diverse voices. I remember a couple years ago, I had the opportunity to see a documentary called Half the Picture, which you were in. I want to know from your perspective, as a black filmmaker and storyteller in this industry, who’s been in this industry since the nineties, do you feel like change is honestly happening nowadays?

Gina Prince-Bythewood: It’s a weird thing because there are times when I do think that there’s a change happening, where you look at what Ryan Coogler did with Black Panther, I mean absolutely changed the game, changed culture. You see a number of filmmakers coming out and doing a diversity of content, which I’m excited about, that we’re not just getting one thing, but there’s just unique filmmakers coming out and doing different work. I get excited and then the numbers come out and you’re like, “Oh my God, we’re 3%, we’re 4% of all the movies that are being made.” It’s staggering and it’s disheartening, but I have to stay focused on for one when I have my opportunities, which I absolutely fight for. I give everything because we have to make good films because that affects those coming up behind us and me being in this position, having gotten through the door, it’s absolutely my responsibility to reach back and find those new voices.

That’s exciting. I love watching short films. I love going to film festivals because you can see, you really can see, “Oh, they’ve got something.” Like Channing Godfrey Peoples who did Miss Juneteenth. I saw her film early and I was moved by this. This woman is talented. It’s exciting to find those new voices. Then it’s about who can I introduce you to? How can I help your path be a little easier than mine has been? It’s absolutely, we have continue to do good work and help others. But Hollywood itself has got to figure this out. I feel like right now there is a change happening, absolutely. Given the conversations I’ve had with people in power, calling me up and legit asking, “What do we need to do?” And hearing me when I lay out the things that they’ve been doing wrong and not getting defensive for the first time ever. Because usually it’s like, “Yeah, we know we’re messing up.” But now it is, “Yes, we are messing up and we are going to fix it.” I’m encouraged by that. I hope that this energy sustains itself, because there are so many really good filmmakers out there with so many stories to tell that just haven’t been given the opportunity. I mean, I want to see those stories, absolutely. The world needs to see that as well.

Scott Menzel: One of the things that you’ve kind of just touched upon in that response was film festivals, which right now are just getting hit, left and right with COVID-19. I know that film festivals were a big part of your career and probably why we’re having this conversation today. Can you talk briefly about what  impact the film festivals had on your career? Do you feel like they are doing more than Hollywood to actually help filmmakers of color, black filmmakers and women filmmakers?

Gina Prince-Bythewood: Absolutely. It is an outlet. That is their Sundance. What Sundance has done in elevating female filmmakers, filmmakers of color, it’s so necessary. The studio system has, it doesn’t seem like it, but they do have a finite number of films they’re making at this time. It is absolutely tentpoles, tentpoles, tentpoles and one or two that fall right below that. There needs to be an outlet and film festivals are that.

I think about, god that first screening of Love & Basketball at Sundance. I will never forget what that felt like. Beyond the Lights at Toronto. honestly, I had to fight my studio to even submit to Toronto, them not thinking because seriously, because there were black characters in it, we’re just going to sell it this one way, the way I sold all my Tyler Perry films, which is exactly what they said to me. I was like, “Can we try something different? I want to do Toronto.” Having to literally fight to even submit it. Then it got accepted. When it got accepted that shamed them into having to let us go there, but it shouldn’t be that way, it should not be that hard.

Scott Menzel: I honestly will never be able to understand that, but I can help and be an ally and help fight the good fight with you. I support so many of these films. That’s why I go to film festivals. I love film festivals, honestly more than majority of studio movies, just for the simple fact that I know that’s where the real heart and soul of cinema comes from nowadays. That’s one of the reasons I fell in love with you and your work because I’ve seen your movies like Love & Basketball and Beyond the Lights, which I did actually see at Toronto so thank you for fighting for that film to play there.

Gina Prince-Bythewood: No, thank you. I have to say, it’s so important for you guys to elevate these voices that aren’t getting that big machine behind. It means a tremendous amount for a filmmaker. When a critic speaks about a film or talks about a film or champions of film. Again, when you’ve felt so invisible for so long, it’s a really necessary and very cool thing, so thank you.

Scott Menzel: Anytime, happy to help. Happy to be with you in the fight, let’s just put it that way. I want to ask you one last question and then I’ll let you go. From a filmmaking perspective, I know that you’ve directed films that you also wrote, and then you have also done a couple TV shows and The Old Guard where you actually just directed and didn’t write. Which one do you prefer and why?

Gina Prince-Bythewood: That is incredibly easy. Directing what I’ve written is the absolute best. It’s a hundred percent my vision. When I’m writing, I am directing, I’m seeing it. It becomes so real to me. I know the characters in the story better than anybody. That gives you an incredible confidence. The good thing about being a writer is that like, if I’m like Old Guard, Greg did a phenomenal job and I love his graphic novel and it was my Bible and he did the adaptation. But he was also open to me bringing my ideas to the script and me just being able to get my fingers in there and write some stuff, helps connect me to it. It was a very good collaboration, very good situation with the old guard. But at the end of the day, writing and director, I consider myself a writer director.

Scott Menzel: Well, thank you very much. I am looking forward to this movie coming out. I look forward to people talking about it all weekend and I don’t know if this is possible, but I’m hoping that you get the opportunity to make the sequel.

Gina Prince-Bythewood: Wow. Well, I appreciate that very much. We’ll see if the audience wants it.

Scott Menzel: What can’t you want in this movie? It’s got awesome kick ass women and you’re behind the camera. I mean, the cinematography, the editing. It’s a lot of fun.

Gina Prince-Bythewood: Well, thank you.

Scott Menzel: Well, thank you very much. I’ll see you soon. Keep fighting the good fight and if you need anything from me, feel free to reach out and I’ll help you as much as I can.

Gina Prince-Bythewood: No, I love that. Thank you so much.

Scott Menzel: All right, take care.

The Old Guard is now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.

Written by
Born in New Jersey, Scott D. Menzel has been a film fanatic since he was three years old. Growing up, he watched as many movies as he could and was highly influenced by Tim Burton, John Hughes, Robert Zemeckis, and Steven Spielberg. Scott has an Associates Degree in Marketing, a Bachelors in Mass Media, Communications and a Masters in Electronic Media. He has been writing film reviews under the alias of MovieManMenzel since 2003 and started his writing career as a contributing critic at IMDB.com and Joblo.com. In 2009, Scott launched MovieManMenzel.com where he posted several of his film reviews but in 2011 decided to shut down the site when he launched We Live Film.com, which he founded. In 2015, We Live Film became We Live Entertainment. The domain name changed occurred after months of debate but was done so that he and his fellow staff members could write about anything and everything in the world of entertainment.

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