by Erik Luers, Filmmaker Magazine
A summer action movie (based on a pre-existing comic book) starring Charlize Theron may feel like a familiar recipe for a blockbuster hit. But as envisioned by Gina Prince-Bythewood, The Old Guard is less cookie-cutter, multiplex fodder than a humanist portrait of independent contractors who just happen to be immortal beings keeping the peace.
From the Crusades through the Civil War and, as the film opens, America’s current War on Terror, the old guard consists of its leader, Andy (Theron) and three men (Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli) who have fought in every war the world has ever offered. Though not always successful, immorality has kept these societal outcasts active fighting the good fight and using their regenerative health to prevent crimes against humanity. A superhero cabal, it is posited, walks amongst us, Zelig-like, as the ultimate protector.
Simultaneously embracing and twisting genre convention, The Old Guard expands upon familiar tropes (Harry Melling plays an evil scientist intent on using our heroes’ DNA for unethical profit) and puts forth a progressive spin on the hero who finds greatness thrust upon them (as Nile, a military soldier with an unwanted gift not unlike her old guard comrades, KiKi Layne pathologizes the material and humanizes it). Although the scope of the film remains large, The Old Guard resists abundant CGI, cranked up sound effects, and incomprehensible action sequences, offering instead a superhero movie where characters, not the fate of the world, are in crisis.
A few days before The Old Guard was set to premiere globally on Netflix, I spoke with Prince-Bythewood and her longtime editor, Terilyn A. Shropshire, about their early collaborations, creating music playlists during pre-production, staging realistic hand-to-hand combat and why you have to allow your audience the opportunity to discover the story for themselves.
Filmmaker: Gina, the twentieth anniversary of your debut feature, Love & Basketball, also marks twenty years since the start of your collaboration with Terilyn. How did you both initially sync up?
Prince-Bythewood: Love & Basketball was our first time working together. When I was putting together a list of editors to interview, Spike Lee had suggested Teri (she had just edited Kasi Lemmons’s Eve’s Bayou, a film that I adored). Teri came in to meet with me and I loved what she had to say. She came with notes! Notes are important, because you don’t want an editor who’s just going to say “yes” to you. In a perfect world, sure, a “yes” can be good, but in the editing room, you need more than that. When you’re thinking about who you want to cut a film with, you have to remember that you’re going to be stuck in a box, often without any windows, for twelve to thirteen hours a day, and that process could last months. You need to choose someone who you’re willing to spend the time with, and Teri felt like somebody I could.
That being said, Love & Basketball was my first feature and I wanted to surround myself with people who had gone through the process before. I had lists of other editors who had more extensive resumes, but what Teri proved and what I’ll always remember for the rest of my career is, after our interview, she sent me a five-page letter about why she wanted to do the film, what it meant to her, and why she was so passionate about it. When I read her letter, I knew I had to work with this person. At the end of the day passion wins out and her shorter resume at the time was meaningless because it wasn’t about her talent. It was about opportunity. I’ve never regretted that decision in the twenty years we’ve been working together.
Shropshire: You know when you read a script and you suddenly realize that you’re reading something that’s reflecting elements of your own life? If you go back twenty years and think about the films being made at the time, that was really rare for me. I remember reading the Love & Basketball script and finding it to be a page-turner until the very end. I always say that I “watch the script” the first time around, and within a few pages, I envisioned people whom I grew up with. I saw mothers that I knew and fathers that I knew and brothers and sisters that I knew. It was so refreshing and energizing to read something that felt like there was somebody out there reflecting the way I grew up. And to wrap it in an amazing love story? I mean, how can you not love love stories, especially good ones?
Going into the interview, I was probably overly excited and trying to remain cool. Gina is one of those directors who doesn’t easily tell you what she’s thinking. You can’t really tell what’s in her mind when you’re talking with her. I honestly walked out of the interview thinking, “Did that even go well?” When I left the interview, I realized that there was so much more I wanted to say. That’s why I wrote the letter to Gina. I still had so many key questions and thoughts about how Gina was planning to film particular scenes, so I reached out again. I still feel lucky that I was able to get the gig. Working together over the past two decades has been an amazing evolution.
Filmmaker: Have you settled into a particular model of working together? Terilyn, are you involved with production even before filming begins?
Shropshire: As Gina and I continue to work together, I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved rather early, whether when Gina is writing the script or when she’s received something that she’s going to adapt or further work on. Gina brings me into the process quite early, which I love. I love reading scripts and I’m always excited when she says, “Oh, I have something I want you to read.” I’ve been very fortunate to be in that position, to read the script and give notes about what my perceptions are. With every film, as soon as Gina starts to go into pre-production, I usually find myself involved in one aspect or another. That could be helping to find the mood of the story or whatever she needs at the time to further reflect her intentions.
Filmmaker: And you edit using Avid?
Shropshire: I do, yes.
Filmmaker: I know the multi-cam option in Avid Media Composer is an invaluable tool in your process as well.
Shropshire: Yeah, it’s one of those things that I can really explore on the Avid, especially when I have such a vast amount of footage coming in, as I did on The Old Guard. The footage was pretty vast given that, at any given time, Gina would have multiple cameras filming the action at once. I’m an editor who can’t not look at everything, which, as you can imagine, could take endless hours to sort through. Having a multi-cam option to work with within Avid, where I can be looking at footage from multiple cameras at the same time (and begin selecting certain angles or specific moments) has been beneficial for me.
Prince-Bythewood: There are many reasons why I love Teri, and from Love and Basketball onward, I realized that she really does watch every take. I’m not speaking about just the circle takes either, but every…single…take. Not even just full takes, but takes that were aborted halfway through filming. It’s proven invaluable on the occasions where she pulls a moment that I may have abandoned or forgotten about, that she has this vast memory bank of footage to pull from because she’s seen everything the team ever shot. For me, personally, that’s been an incredible asset and gift.
Filmmaker: How did The Old Guard come your way? Were you looking for an action-based graphic novel project that could be developed as a feature? I imagine your work on the Marvel series Cloak & Dagger helped originate that interest.
Prince-Bythewood: I had been very eager to move into this world. I love comic-book/action movies and wanted the opportunity to bring my aesthetic to the genre and tell a big story like this. I was very fortunate that Skydance Media had the rights to this incredible graphic novel by Greg Rucka and chose to send me the feature script Greg had adapted. The exciting thing was that, as you said, I had already done the Cloak and Dagger pilot—which was absolutely intentional on my part, in terms of getting my feet wet with action and stunts and special effects. I then moved on to pre-production on Marvel’s Silver and Black [which was ultimately put on hold by the studio], and working on that pushed me to move further into this space.
Funny enough, it was actually my feature work, from Love & Basketball through Beyond the Lights, that intrigued the folks at Skydance. They said they wanted what I brought to those films in terms of depth of character and story. That’s what they were looking for on The Old Guard. They always envisioned it as action/drama as opposed to solely an action film. That sounded great to me, given most of the time the first thing people would ask me is, “Well, can you shoot action?” But now I was being asked, “Can you tell a good story and create good characters?”
Filmmaker: Having been an athlete yourself, do you find that you’re pretty involved in the fight choreography and in direct conversation with stunt coordinators on set?
Prince-Bythewood: Absolutely. Obviously, it starts with a vision for the film, right? I wanted The Old Guard to feel grounded, and that starts with the stunts and fight choreography. Given that I’ve kickboxed a lot, I know what a good fight is. I know what it looks like, I know what it feels like. I’ve been hit and I’ve hit. I made sure to incorporate that knowledge into my conversations with Danny Hernandez, our fight coordinator.
Take the “kill floor” scene, for example. How can we believably have our four old guards, with their archaic weaponry, believably defeat sixty mercenaries who possess modern weaponry? How are we going to envision that? Here’s how: the old guard has learned, for centuries, how to kill up close via hand-to-hand combat, whether that’s with a sword or with a saber. Their style has to be very much in your face, whereas modern mercenaries are trained on the gun, to shoot at a target who is yards and yards away. It’s a rather impersonal form of killing. So when the old guard is running up on you, that little hesitation you may give (if you’re not used to up close, hand-to-hand combat) is the advantage the old guard has. That’s all they need. We incorporated that into the film’s choreography, the fact that the old guard moves together as one. In terms of action, you could even say that they finish each other’s sentences.
It always begins with, “What is the scene about? What is the story? What kind of fighting do I want to see in plain sight?” For example, the character of Nile, who is a soldier, has a fighting style that incorporates what she would’ve learned in the Marine Corps, which is obviously a very specific style. That fighting style is in opposition to Andy’s, who, being an immortal, can summon every fighting style on demand whenever she wishes. So in the scene where Nile has to fight Andy one-on-one, what would that physical action feel like?
Filmmaker: I imagine it’s crucial to never lose sense of the physical space the fight is taking place in. Taking the aforementioned fight between Nile and Andy on the airplane, it’s a tight space containing these quick and sudden movements. But the viewer’s eye is always directed to the central impact: a punch, a kick, a snap, etc. When mapping that sequence out, are you thinking in terms of closeups for impact? Does the fight come together further in the editing room?
Prince-Bythewood: I’ll speak to the staging of the sequence and let Teri discuss the editing. Going into that aircraft fight, my DP, Tami Reiker, and I wanted to allow the audience to know what was happening at all times and to be able to understand the story elements of the fight. By this I mean that we needed to see Nile’s frustration grow when she can’t even touch this woman that she’s so furious at (while still trying her best to defeat her). And then, from Andy’s perspective, she’s doing battle with this young immortal and she has to see what the old guard really gets from having this young woman join the team. Andy needs to see what type of fighter Nile is.
I also wanted the audience to hopefully marvel at the athleticism on display between these two women and to also hopefully believe it. To do that, we didn’t want to have any quick cutting around stunt doubles to take away from our actresses. The actresses really had to learn their choreography and train as hard as they could to make it work. At the end of the day, it’s a fight with two people within a confined space! The audience has to feel that. Tammy and I decided that we weren’t going to give ourselves a crutch. We weren’t going to have the plane have “flying walls” where we could put the camera anywhere and move a wall to pull the camera further back, etc. We wanted to really be in the provided space and that’s really helpful, I think, in giving the audience the feeling that they’re in that tight space as well, that they can feel when a character gets thrown against a wall or thrown against the floor. Keep it visceral.
While we were building this life-sized plane, we decided on shooting the sequence using only natural light. The light that shines through the aircraft’s windows is natural light. This allowed us to shoot 360 degrees and never worry about avoiding something in frame. The camera could move with the action and thus we didn’t have to cut as much as some other action films do to hide things.
Shropshire: When these fights are in their early realization, whether it’s storyboards or previs or discussions between Tammy and Gina, there’s always a roadmap in which the intention is clear. The intention is the emotion. Sure, you can get into the physicality and threading of point A to point B and mapping out how point B goes to point C, etc. but my job is to have you travel through all that and understand what the characters are going through. While that’s not unique to action films, it sometimes gets completely overtaken by “oh, let’s just throw in this core action scene” without giving the viewer a sense of what the characters are experiencing due to everything moving so fast. There’s too much fast cutting, and that’s exactly the opposite of what we wanted to do. You’ve seen that before!
You could go and watch any number of movies and get that fast cutting stuff, but this particular scene was about these two characters. One of them (Andy) is trying to see what the other one’s made of, if this was somebody who’s going to be part of the old guard, and this other young person (Nile), who has only been on this Earth for twenty-some years and her fighting style is going to be completely military-based in terms of what she has been trained for thus far, etc. The fun in cutting a scene like that is being able to see how two characters begin to mesh and work with one another, so to speak. Both actresses committed fully to their training and Gina and Tammy were extremely well-prepared to capture it. My job was to find those emotional moments where you know that Andy’s having a bit of fun with all this and Nile is just trying to figure out what’s going on and literally just wants to take this woman down who has plucked her out from her normal life.
Filmmaker: It’s made clear at the film’s outset that our heroes are effectively immortal. Early on in the film, when they’re shot down dead in an ambush, the penetrating bullets recede out of our protagonists’ skin and restore them to perfect health. I imagine some CGI was involved here, but thanks to some clever camera work and editing, the “restoration” of our heroes appears unexpectedly realistic.
Prince-Bythewood: That all begins in pre-production and in coming up with a concept of what the “regen [regenerating]” feels like. I knew I wanted it to be somewhat biological. I also wanted it to be (and this feels weird to say given its implausibility) grounded. It had to feel like a body realistically healing itself, nothing magical. Since the healing happens at a thousand times faster than most, how do we show that onscreen? How long should it take? Is each character’s duration of rapid healing slightly different? And then, when we’re in the editing room without having finished VFX, how long do we anticipate we’d want to stay on each character? The regeneration aspect of the old guard had to have emotional substance, and Teri built that out by deciding who the camera would focus on first. She chose who and what we were seeing—for example, the bullet being pushed out of Booker’s cheek. I loved that effect. As opposed to beginning with that moment, we built to it, and the decisions Teri makes in her first edits are why I get so excited about working with her. I love to be surprised. I shot the film, yes, but she takes it to another level.
Shropshire: As an editor, I love discovery. Heck, even as a moviegoer, I don’t want to be led by the hand while watching a film. I want the filmmaker to allow me to take my own journey of discovery. Take your time and let the viewer discover their own journey, in their own way.
I cannot tell you how much time and specificity was involved in accurately depicting that regeneration, healing process in the film. It had to feel organic, the going from injury to various levels of healing and scabbing and scabs falling off, etc. There was even conversation about featuring more bodily fluid than we had anticipated! It was all in service of trying to keep these characters’ lives grounded, even within their special powers, so to speak. While they were people who got injured and rehealed, that regeneration process didn’t come without some level of discomfort and pain.
Filmmaker: The film also has some great music selections, and I was wondering if those songs are chosen before filming begins or if they’re decided upon in post. The scene where Nile is on her phone, plugged into her music right before Andy unexpectedly arrives at the military base, is one that certainly stands out.
Shropshire: When Gina is writing a screenplay (or in this case, when she’s preparing to direct a screenplay written by another writer), she creates a music playlist very early on. I’ll suddenly get a phone call or an email about a song she heard like, “did you ever hear this song?” The music selections in Gina’s films are, to a certain degree, a representation of what she might regularly be listening to at the time. I’ll also go into a musical headspace of my own, where I’ll listen to various scores and songs and load them up on my Spotify or Apple Music and start listening for the right type of tone.
It is often a “tone thing,” especially if I’m beginning to cut something that I might want to cut to music, and especially if, for example, it’s a montage that gravitates toward a certain mood. When I’m about to cut something, I might put on a particular type of score to get a similar energy for that day’s work. I sometimes surprise Gina with my choices and part of the fun of working with her involves how we incorporate music into the work.
Filmmaker: We’re chatting a few days before the film will premiere pretty worldwide on Netflix. Is this an atypical distribution experience for a film of yours? Rather than post-screening Q&As, you will have to keep your eyes and ears on the internet (or not!) to gauge the reaction. Is that exciting? Intimidating?
Prince-Bythewood: This is absolutely new terrain for Teri and I, it’s true. The reality is that we’ve been told that our previous films, which tend to focus pretty heavily on black characters, do not “travel well overseas.” As a result, we get very little press and very little release in foreign countries. It’s always way after the fact that I hear about one of our films connecting with audiences overseas. In my doing worldwide press for the release of The Old Guard, I was recently informed that Love & Basketball is apparently really big in Ireland. That’s amazing to me! But, we never get to hear about that.
This is the first time that we’re doing a release on a very wide, global scale. I believe The Old Guard will be available in 190 countries all on the same day. It’s hard to wrap my head around. I’ve often talked to Teri about having no idea what it’s going to feel like when this film is released that widely. We’re so used to the traditional theatrical release: eagerly awaiting the opening Friday, sneaking into theaters and sitting with the audience to observe the feedback, and looking at the weekend box office grosses to see how you did. That’s the system we’re used to. Is The Old Guard’s debut on Netflix going to have quick exposure? Or is it going to be a slow burn that people discover throughout the coming weeks? I have no idea, but I’m fascinated and excited by it. We make movies for an audience and the potential size of the audience for this film is pretty great.
Shropshire: I’m excited, I’m nervous, I’m all those things you feel when you’re delivering something you’ve been living with for over a year. And then you put it out in the world and hope that people see what you were intending to give them. I’m excited by that as well. Although we won’t be able to sneak into theaters or people’s houses to get a sense of their reactions.
Filmmaker: Well, maybe you can, but perhaps not legally.
Shropshire: Maybe that’s true [laughs]. I hope that people get to know the old guard and love them as much as I do.
Prince-Bythewood: I also want to note that at some point in the future we will have a theatrical release. Obviously, we don’t know what the world will be like when that happens, but when theaters eventually reopen, it will be exciting to have that experience as an option. After ten months of post-production on this film (and two years of living with it), I recently found myself sitting in a theater to watch the theatrical, Dolby Atmos cut and admiring the bigness and beauty of the soundmix. I’m all for those who discover the film on Netflix, of course, but if they wish to experience it in a different way, they will have the opportunity to see it in a theater somewhere down the line.