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Netflix’s The Old Guard arrives like the punchline to an inside joke: Given that the superhero movie might never die, why not just make a movie about superheroes who live forever? But the easy gag – admittedly of my own making – doesn’t leave room for the unexpected director behind the project: Gina Prince-Bythewood, the first Black woman to helm a comic-book blockbuster.
The filmmaker is best-known for her breakthrough 2000 romance, Love & Basketball, and her similarly personal, intimate dramas The Secret Life of Bees and Beyond the Lights. At first naive blush, she might seem a curious choice for a graphic-novel adaptation packed with guns and guts and Charlize Theron playing an immortal warrior named Andromache of Scythia. But Prince-Bythewood has also spent the better part of the past few years working on the Marvel television series Cloak & Dagger, while also developing – and then learning to let go of – the un-produced Spider-Man spin-off Silver & Black. With The Old Guard “almost falling into my lap,” as she says, there was the opportunity to not only further sharpen her superhero skills, but use Netflix’s many millions of dollars to push her specific diversity-forward sensibilities.
Ahead of The Old Guard’s global release this Friday, Prince-Bythewood spoke with The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz about Hollywood’s three favourite obsessions: superheroes, money and representation.
You’ve said in previous interviews that you have never had the kind of freedom you had while filming Love & Basketball. Does this include The Old Guard?
[Laughs] You’re just throwing it at me, yeah? Well, Love & Basketball being the first film I made, I did have absolute freedom. As I’ve gone on in my career, there’s been more money involved, and the more money that’s in a project, the more voices that are in the mix. At the end of the day, it’s still my vision. But yes, you have to constantly fight for your vision. That’s the way it is at any level.
How do you balance the trade-off, then, of working on lower-budget movies where there might be fewer voices coming at you?
That’s a question that a lot of filmmakers ask ourselves. If I did an indie film for very little money, I wouldn’t have to answer to anyone. But will it see the light of day? A film like The Old Guard where, yes, there are more voices in the mix, at the end of the day I’m still the director and my vision is up on screen – and I know that it’s going to be seen in 190 countries. Filmmakers make movies for an audience. Having done this kind of movie at this level, I’m now eager to go back and do a small little love story. But I’m glad I got to prove myself in this space.
How long have you had a desire to work on a big action movie like this? I’m guessing a lot of it stems from working on Cloak & Dagger and Silver & Black …
I have two boys who love superhero movies, so it’s a family thing. But my son, a year before Black Panther came out, we were watching a Marvel film and he turned to me to say, “Why don’t we get to see a Black superhero?” As a filmmaker, and a mother, I have to say to myself, “Well, I make movies, so why am I not trying to do this for my child and my community and myself?” So I started being intentional about the choices I made and being vocal about wanting to be in this space. The reality is that very few women get the opportunity at all. All praise to Wonder Woman’s Patty Jenkins for opening the door – or really, cracking the door open – so that some of us were able to wiggle through.
How much of your work on Silver & Black ended up informing your vision here?
Despite the fact that Silver & Black didn’t end up going forward, I learned a tremendous amount on that – we were pretty far along, working on stunt sequences and story-boarding and visual effects. It’s all about putting a team together to realize that vision. It’s also fun to play in a big sandbox, I’m not going to lie. Beyond the Lights, that was made for several million dollars, but this is much more. And what that extra money gives you is more time and more toys. It’s just no limits on the creativity of what you can do with effects, with stunts. It’s going to be hard to go back.
Here’s the part where I ask everyone involved in a Netflix production how happy they are with their film being mostly seen at home … but now with the pandemic, that’s kind of a moot question. How do you feel, though, about this accidental way the film really now has a captive audience?
I’ll answer that first as if things were normal, in that I love the theatrical experience. I love it as an audience [member] and I love it as a filmmaker. The Old Guard was initially going to be a studio film, but then Netflix was actively looking for a big action film starring women, which is where most studios are afraid that there won’t be an audience. Netflix was giving us so much more money than a studio, and it was becoming difficult to justify saying no, but I was still hanging on because I’ve never done anything for Netflix before. But then we just started talking about the fact it was going to drop in 190 countries, and that crossed the threshold for me.
At this time of massive protest and of a surge in momentum on the question of defunding the police, have you been going back to thinking about your work on the series Shots Fired, which deals exactly with these kinds of questions?
My husband [Reggie Rock Bythewood] and I honestly talk about it a lot, and we’ve gotten so many calls from people asking whether we can put the show back on. The fact is, we were dealing with the same thing a couple years ago, and honestly, for decades. It was about trying to put something into the world that we hoped would allow white people to understand what we’ve been going through by flipping the narrative and hoping that they can empathize with what Black people have experienced for decades. Now, suddenly, things seem to be changing and people seem to be hearing from us for the first time. We’re proud of the work, absolutely. But I hate that it was necessary.
The Old Guard is available to stream on Netflix starting July 10
This interview has been condensed and edited