'The Old Guard' Director Gina Prince-Bythewood And Star KiKi Layne On Filming Hard-Hitting Action And Planning A Trilogy [Interview]

Not all comic book properties are created entirely equal. First published in 2017, the highly popular Image comic series The Old Guard concerns a small group of immortal warriors who live in secret, only surfacing for missions that promise large sums of money—and usually they have to be able to morally justify the mission (which typically involves killing, although they aren't strictly assassins). Although they have lived off the radar for hundreds—perhaps thousands—of years with no explanation given as to why they are immortal, in the 21st century, it's pretty much impossible to disappear and stay hidden. So their existence, abilities and purpose are catching the attention of those who not only wish to hire them but also those who want to exploit them.The series comes courtesy of writer Greg Rucka (who also adapted the screenplay), and the story pits ancient weaponry and fighting styles against armies of potential captors armed to the teeth with the most lethal and high-tech weapons on the planet. But these warriors can't die, even after getting caught in a hailstorm of bullets—their bodies heal remarkably fast, pushing the bullets right out through their wounds (which doesn't mean they don't feel the pain of every injury they suffer).But in the hands of seasoned, skillful filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball, Beyond the Lights), The Old Guard is something more than just a fantastical action movie; it's a serious meditation on loneliness and how once you realize you're going to live forever, you immediately start distancing yourself from family and friends, for fear that you'll eventually watch them grow old and die while you stay young and alive. Charlize Theron plays leader Andromache of Scythia (or "Andy"), the oldest of the four, although she won't say, or doesn't know, exactly how old. The film begins to get interesting right away, with them on a mission for Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), whom they suspect is working for the CIA.As this mission is being carried out, we also meet an American marine named Nile (KiKi Layne, If Beale Street Could Talk), who is carrying out her own mission, looking for terrorists when she is surprised by an attacker and has her throat slit. And although it was clear to her fellow soldiers that she is dead, she wakes up in a military hospital without a scratch on her, revealing her as another immortal and a potential target of the same faction out to get Andy and her small army. What follows is a story that is both spectacular and horrific, because who says you can't be both? And the best news is that The Old Guard sets up what could be a helluva sequel./Film sat down with Prince-Bythewood and Layne recently to discuss making the transition from more based-in-reality works to hardcore action; what makes The Old Guard different from other comic book-based stories; combining modern and ancient fighting styles and weaponry; and balancing a story of the ultimate loneliness with pure physical brutality. The film is currently streaming on Netflix.Gina, most of the films you've done before this have been grounded in the real world. What made you want to take this jump into full-bore action, with these fantasy/sci-fi elements?Gina: It's a genre that I've always loved, and honestly, I've always wanted to do. It's just that Hollywood didn't have that desire at the same time I did. It was laying in wait and taking steps to get my foot wet and start to learn the genre, so that when I had the opportunity, I'd be prepared. This script came to me from Skydance, a company that I respect so much in the action space, and it was exciting to get a script from them and even more exciting that the reason I was in that room was because of my previous work with Love and Basketball and Beyond the Lights. They wanted to bring that aesthetic to this genre, so that The Old Guard felt more like an action-drama than a straight action film, so that absolutely gave me confidence. That's the kind of action film I always wanted to make.Kiki, when you're jumping into this—and I don't know if you read a script first or read the graphic novel—what was it about Nile and her unique place in this story that you remember latching onto?Kiki: A big part of it was seeing a character with this physicality and this opportunity whoop some ass [laughs], but still be so grounded. I think sometimes we've seen the superhero action films, and it's all about the action, but the characters aren't really that interesting in terms of their own personal humanity. So when I had the director's session with Gina and being able to talk to her about her goal of really not letting the heart and depth of these characters get lost in all of the action. I knew that was something I wanted to be a part of.There are a lot of conversations in the film about how being an immortal is a very lonely thing, and you really emphasize that. Why did you think that was important? This is one of the most melancholy action films I've ever seen, and for Nile, she's just beginning to realize what she has to give up in her own life, while these other characters have been dealing with these feelings for hundreds or thousands of years.Kiki: It's relatable. You see these characters with these extraordinary gifts, but they're still struggling with these very human things: loneliness, pain, grief, and loss. For Nile, I really tapped into, what does it mean—life throws us these curveballs sometimes, and what do you do know? How do you move forward if you lose someone, and what is life like now if you don't have that person? I was tapping into all of that. I've known some loneliness, so it's not like it was this far-off thing. That's one of the things that's special about this film. Yeah, we get to blow up and shoot all of this stuff, but at the same time, the audience can still feel like "I know that feeling."Gina: What excited me about this film is that I saw so early on my vision, which was to make this feel very grounded and real. So that meant playing the truth of the situation, despite the fantastical conceit. And prior to this film, absolutely, prior to this film, I thought immortality would be something really dope and cool. But as you get to know these characters and as I read the script and graphic novel, you start to understand the tragedy of immortality, and that felt so real to me and authentic to the story and exciting for me to put up on screen, knowing that's that what I really wanted to lean into. What I love so much about Nile's character is that she is the audience, she's taking us into this world, and for me and Kiki, it was always about staying truthful to the situation despite the fact of the fantastical conceit. Nile gets shot in the head, so be real with that. What would be the real reaction? Being immortal was not an aspirational thing at the outset; it would take time for her character to connect with that and accept it, to even decide if she wants it or not. It was fun for the two of us to play the truth of it.Not to make people think this isn't also a kick-ass action film as well. I want to talk about the fighting styles too. You have an interesting choice: with Nile, her fighting style is largely pulled from her military training, but the other immortals, they have some modern weaponry, but Charlize also has a battle axe. There are these great combinations of fighting styles and weapons. Did you want it to look like everyone had their own unique style, or did you want it to all look somewhat coordinated? And how did you get there?Gina: I was really excited about the action in this. The Kill Floor, which is the very first action scene, I knew that had to set the tone for the film, and what was so interesting about figuring that scene out is that I have four characters with archaic weapons going against 16 mercenaries with modern weaponry, and how could I make that believable, that the Old Guard can defeat them. And it really came down to, what was the truth of that situation and the fact that the Old Guard have spent thousands of years knowing how to kill up close, hand to hand, with an axe or saber, as opposed to modern soldiers who learned to kill by shooting targets 30, 40, 50 yards away. So there isn't that personal thing, and I felt like that's what gave the Old Guard an advantage, when there was that one moment of hesitation, the Old Guard would use that. So really getting that deep into it to tell the truth really helped us design the choreography of the fights. I really wanted these four who have been fighting together for thousands of years, it should feel like they're finishing each other's sentences because they know where each person is going to be. It was fun to do that and give each character their shine with their weapons that they are most comfortable with.I feel like we're only scratching the surface of these relationships, there are so many backstories that we could look into, and you clearly set this up at the end that more could happen. Do you have some ideas that you're excited to explore if you get to do this again?Gina: Well it starts with Greg Rucka. He always envisioned this as a trilogy. I know where the story is going, and it's pretty great, but at the end of the day, it starts with an audience and what they want, and if they want more, there's absolutely more story to tell.