The year 2020 is a watershed one for the director Gina Prince-Bythewood, even if it doesn’t look exactly like she thought it would.
A few months ago, as Prince-Bythewood began to put the finishing touches on her new Charlize Theron action film, “The Old Guard,” she was eager to share her moment with directors like Cathy Yan (“Birds of Prey”), Niki Caro (“Mulan”) and Patty Jenkins (“Wonder Woman 1984”), a rare group of female filmmakers whose big-studio blockbusters would be released in close succession.
But then the pandemic hit, the theatrical release of Yan’s film was shortened, and “Mulan” and “Wonder Woman 1984” have both been delayed until a substantial number of theaters can open. That means “The Old Guard,” which is based on a comic book written by Greg Rucka and illustrated by Leandro Fernandez and streaming Friday on Netflix, has now become one of the few action movies with any sort of guaranteed release this summer.
“To have that all suddenly pulled back, I have so much empathy for the filmmakers,” Prince-Bythewood said. “It’s a very strange feeling to be the only one.”
Still, it’s a feeling Prince-Bythewood knows all too well. Best known for her intimate dramas “Love & Basketball” (2000) and “Beyond the Lights” (2014), she has now become the first Black woman to direct a big-budget comic-book film. That’s an achievement that’s been in the works for years: Prince-Bythewood was set to make the “Spider-Man” spinoff “Silver & Black” in 2017, but when that film failed to come together creatively, “The Old Guard” offered another chance to shoot her shot.
Starring Theron and KiKi Layne (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) as immortal mercenaries, “The Old Guard” offers weary antiheroes who aren’t sure what they’re doing is enough to truly save the world. “The themes were there before, but they hit harder now,” Prince-Bythewood said when I spoke to her by phone in June. “We are broken, and sometimes it feels like we’re in a freefall. Who’s going to step up and help fix us? Who are the heroes who are going to help us figure it out?”
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
When you were shopping “The Old Guard” to studios and streamers, how much did you weigh playing it in a theater on the biggest screen possible, as opposed to playing on a streaming service for the biggest audience possible?
I’ve really struggled with this question, but props to Netflix: They gave us so much more money than any potential studio was going to. I did go back and forth, because I just love the collective experience of sitting in a theater where everyone is feeling the same things at the same time. So that’s a little tough, but I’m interested in the idea that this will drop in 150 countries on the same day, and the numbers of [viewers] are potentially tremendous. I’m very, very curious what its going to feel like.
Five years ago, when your movie “Beyond the Lights” was on Netflix, you complained that the streaming algorithm grouped it with other Black films instead of other romances.
I remember firing off some angry tweets. I was being honest and truthful, and then my agent called and said, “Ted Sarandos wants to talk to you.” Props to him for reaching out, because I didn’t understand why it wasn’t filed under love stories when I had always seen it as a love story first. It’s important that films with Black characters not just be called “Black films” — we should be in every genre. “12 Years a Slave” is not the same as “Beyond the Lights.” So we had a conversation where he explained the algorithm, although I still don’t quite understand it.
“Beyond the Lights” cost $7 million to make. What is it like to go from that austerity to a big-budget movie in the high eight figures like “The Old Guard”?
I do find it fascinating that in my career, “Love & Basketball” cost $14 million, then “Disappearing Acts” was 10, “The Secret Life of Bees” was 11 and “Beyond the Lights” was 7. In most careers, the movies get bigger each time, and my career was going in reverse. To then explode and do something 10 times that, of course I had the assumption I wouldn’t have to worry about money at all, but even on a film of this nature, you have to compromise. But being forced to do a film like “Beyond the Lights” for $7 million taught me a lot about figuring out those situations, and I want to keep that mentality.
As a Black female filmmaker in Hollywood, do you believe things are changing?
There’s absolutely been a sea change in the last three years, although when you look at the actual numbers, it’s still dismal. But “Wonder Woman” was a big deal, “Black Panther” was a big deal, and I think Hollywood did get shamed into having to change. Even five years ago, I would go see these movies and love what I was watching, but it never occurred to me that I would have the opportunity to direct a movie like that. Eventually, that attitude shifted to, “I would love to do that. Why can’t I do that?” And I started making deliberate moves to get to that point.
[The production company] Skydance was determined to have a female director for “Old Guard,” and that’s rare, for as much talk as there is about that in this industry. They said I was sitting there because of the character work I had done in my past films and my passion for the material. Most of the time when I get a meeting like that, the question that keeps coming up is, “Well, you’ve never done action, so how can we trust you with it?”
How do you keep your cool when you hear something like that, since so many of the men directing big action films right now were hired off some small Sundance indie?
It is maddening for me and a number of other female filmmakers, and we talk about that. We don’t get the assumption we can do it, so we have to prove we can. When you get into the pitch meeting, you honestly have to be 10 times better than anyone who walked in before you. You have to be so overly prepared with the bigger, more thought-out pitch that you make yourself undeniable.
After wanting a film like this for years, what did it feel like to finally get it?
The first thing we shot was on a huge soundstage with this full-size plane on hydraulics, and I was like, “Oh my God, I’m really here.” It was such a cool, slightly scary moment: “Damn, this is really big!” What kept me grounded was some great advice from Rian Johnson, who’s been such a supporter of mine. He invited me to set when he was shooting [“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”], and I asked him, “How do you not get overwhelmed with all this?” And he said, “Whether you have a couple million or a hundred million, it has to start with the story.”
What do you feel you were able to bring to this story that made it uniquely your own?
The opportunity to put a young Black female hero into the world. Sadly, you can count the number of Black female heroes on one hand, and most of them came from “Black Panther.” It’s so necessary to be able to look up onscreen and see ourselves reflected in a way that inspires us and that we can aspire to. This is what we’ve been fighting for so long, for the world to see our humanity.
Another unusual thing about this film is that it’s an action movie where two of the heroes, played by Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli, are in a gay relationship. They even share a passionate kiss.
I don’t think I’ve seen a relationship like that in this genre, and I was excited to put that on the screen. That scene alone is why Marwan and Luca wanted to do the film — there was no question that it wouldn’t be in there. We didn’t know what the reaction would be when we put it in front of that core action audience, but in the first preview people started applauding in the theater. That was a really beautiful moment.
What do you think the next several months of filmmaking are going to look like, given the uncertainty of this pandemic?
Filmmaking is an intimate process. How do you do that safely? Certainly, it’s going to get more expensive, and what scares me about that is what happens to the independent films that don’t have a lot of money. If it’s going to cost big-studio films a couple million more to do all the safety protocols they’re talking about, are independent films going to be able to afford to be made? That’s pretty troubling.
I think CG is going to come back in a big way, especially with crowd work where you’d normally have a lot of extras. But for me, I don’t want a world where we can’t do love scenes or fight scenes because people can’t be in close contact. Personally, I’d prefer to put the film off longer so that it can be what it needs to be. I don’t want to have to CG two people kissing!