‘There is a class of white people that is hearing us for the first time’
Gina Prince-Bythewood, director of the Netflix movie The Old Guard, on getting films made as a black woman in Hollywood
Gina Prince-Bythewood, centre, with KiKi Layne and Charlize Theron on the set of The Old Guard. Photograph: Aimee Spinks/Netflix
Hold everything: the summer blockbuster is back. The Old Guard, Netflix’s big-budget adaptation of the Image Comic about immortal mercenary soldiers, drops on the streaming service this week. An impressive line-up – Charlize Theron, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Matthias Schoenaerts, KiKi Layne – make for the season’s starriest action cast. Other stellar assets include Skydance Media, the imprint behind Terminator: Dark Fate, Mission: Impossible – Fallout and (the less bombastic) Annihilation.
And what’s this? The director is Gina Prince-Bythewood, the film-maker behind such defiantly women-oriented enchantments as The Secret Life of Bees and Beyond the Lights.
She happily concedes that hers is not the first name that springs to mind when reckoning with a high-octane, shoot-’em-up blockbuster. That, however, is about to change. She has completed two years of development on Marvel’s Silver & Black and has recently inked a top-secret deal on another “very cool action film that hasn’t been announced yet”.
“I love action films,” says Prince-Bythewood. “I have two boys. It’s a family thing that we go to the cinema every time an action film comes out. And I’ve always wanted to do one. But, you know, I’ve been doing this Hollywood thing for 20 years and I didn’t think I would ever get the opportunity because women were not given those opportunities. There is absolutely a narrative in Hollywood that women don’t like action films nor do they want to shoot them. The films that I have made before have been personal but I did know that I wanted to move into this space.
“And I was so incredibly fortunate that Skydance gave me a call and sent me a script that I fell in love with. And then you walk into their building and there is a life-size Terminator. It’s a totally different world. But my passion for the characters and my passion to work in that space overrode any fear I had.”
I will say there is nothing better than directing what you’ve written because it is 100 per cent your vision
In order to get to terms with the scale of the project, Prince-Bythewood – whose most recent feature, Beyond the Lights, had a production budget of $7 million – consulted with Rian Johnson, the director of lo-fi sci-fi Brick and the rather more extravagant Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
“What was incredibly helpful in moving into this much larger sandbox was talking with people who had done it before,” says Prince-Bythewood. “One of them was Rian Johnson. I just asked him straight: how do you not get overwhelmed by the bigness of it all? And he said that it doesn’t matter what budget you have, you have to start by telling a good story. And that I could wrap my head around. That was my North Star and mantra. Put the story first.
“But the money is nice. It gives you bigger toys to play with and more time – which is a beautiful thing – and I was able to surround myself with an incredible team to help me realise my vision. I knew how I wanted the action to look. And I knew how I wanted the movie to feel.”
The Old Guard is the first project Prince-Bythewood has directed without writing the screenplay. She was fortunate, she says, to have Greg Rucka as a collaborator. The former DC and Marvel veteran adapted his own 2017 comic book for the screen.
“I will say there is nothing better than directing what you’ve written because it is 100 per cent your vision,” says the director. “As I’m writing I’m already directing. I am so incredibly fortunate that Greg Rucka had that original vision. I love his brain. I love the way he writes female characters. Not just The Old Guard but all of his comic book work. He was also not precious about anything. So when we came together and started talking about the script, and I had some thoughts, he loved that I had some thoughts.
“So we added those intimate details that I think make the film more of an action drama as opposed to a straight action film. I wanted to put women warriors on screen. As a female who loves action movies, I want to see myself.”
Prince-Bythewood (51) was adopted as a baby by a computer programmer of Irish descent and a nurse of Salvadoran heritage. She was one of a handful of black kids at her school in Pacific Grove, California. She found a sense of belonging between the pages of books. Many, many books.
“I didn’t have any role models,” she recalls. “I didn’t understand where writing and directing came from. But there were two things in my childhood that absolutely contributed to me being a storyteller.
For most people in Hollywood, but especially for black women, no one is going to hand you a script. You have to create the opportunities for yourself
“Firstly, there was a film programme in my little town where I grew up. They would play movies and my parents would take me and my siblings every weekend. And I remember seeing Benji and that was the first time I cried in the theatre. The fact that it had that power to do that just blew me away.
“The other important thing was when I was seven years old, our TV broke and my parents decided just to not replace it. At first, this was horrifying for us. But over the seven years that we did not have a television, I became a voracious reader. I read a book a day. Learning how to picture a story in my head led me to wanting to tell stories on screen. I read The Outsiders at least 15 times. The Judy Blume books really affected me. I read Disappearing Acts 11 times. And the fact I got to make Disappearing Acts into a [TV] film years later  was a really big thing for me.”
As a student at UCLA’s film school, she ran track and received the Gene Reynolds Scholarship for Directing and the Ray Stark Memorial Scholarship for Outstanding Undergraduates. Her 1991 graduate film, Stitches, garnered attention but not the break she craved.
“I mentor a number of students from different schools in LA and I always tell them that it’s not enough to come out at film school with a great short film; you need to have a great screenplay. For most people in Hollywood, but especially for black women, no one is going to hand you a script. You have to create the opportunities for yourself.”
After graduation she got a job in the writers’ room of Cosby Show spin-off A Different World, where she met her husband, fellow writer-director Reggie Rock Bythewood.
“I was very fortunate to get hired,” she says. “It was my favourite show. And the writers’ room was run by black women – Susan Fales-Hill, Debbie Allen – so every day I went to work in my first job, there were black women in charge. That was my normal and that was so important.
“I was writing for television for five years. I kept saying, ‘I want to write a screenplay.’ But it was impossible to do both. TV means all-nighters; it’s all encompassing. So finally I said to myself: I’m going to take a year off and I’m going to write a script and I’m going to direct. And that year turned into a year and a half.”
It’s hard to believe it but Love & Basketball, Prince-Bythewood’s swooning debut feature, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. A sports romance featuring Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps as aspiring basketball players who fall in and out of love, it’s a comfort food film that nestles beside The Notebook on many shelves. She still gets asked about a possible sequel by studio executives, super-fans and, well, me. (And it’s still not happening.)
“Every single studio turned it down,” recalls Prince-Bythewood. “I was stuck. I didn’t know what else I was going to do. And then the Sundance Lab called and said: Hey, we heard about your screenplay. And that was everything. And they put on a reading of it, and Spike Lee was there and the rest is history.
“It’s funny you mention The Notebook. I’m a black woman and I love The Notebook. When I watch it I see a beautiful love story. I don’t sit there thinking, This is a white love story.”
Prince-Bythewood co-created the TV series Shots Fired with her husband in 2017. She produced his 2003 action film Biker Boyz, and wrote the screenplays for Before I Fall and Nappily Ever After. The Old Guard is only her fifth film as director.
“First and foremost, I have two boys and a husband, so if I’m going to do a film, that’s a year’s work; The Old Guard has been two years’ work. I love doing what I do but it has to be worth it for me to be away from my family. I have to be absolutely passionate about the material.
“I get asked a lot if I have been discriminated against as a black female director in this business. I could work every year if I wanted to. But what is discriminated against are the kind of stories that I want to tell, stories that focus on women. Those are very hard films to get made in Hollywood. There are two- and three-year fights to get each of my films made. But if I’m not fighting, those stories are not going to get made.”
There is a class of white people in this country that is finally recognising and hearing us for the first time
She says in the wake of George Floyd’s death she has had more conversations with Hollywood power players than she had throughout her two-decade-long career up to then.
“It has started to feel different. There has absolutely been a national reckoning of something that should’ve happened years ago. There has been such a complete lack of humanity towards black people in the United States and we’ve been screaming about it. But now after George Floyd something has changed. We have seen videos like that before and it didn’t affect change but for some reason, in this moment, things are changing.
“There is a class of white people in this country that is finally recognising and hearing us for the first time. They’re passionate about trying to change and no longer want to be complicit. I’ve had a lot of really great, deep conversations with people of power and privilege asking me what they can do. And they are actively making changes. That has never happened before.
“Hollywood is complicit in what is going on. The images that they put out and the images that they’ve kept hidden are important. Audiences need to see black heroes. They need to see black people in contemporary stories. I am hopeful this moment can sustain itself.”
The Old Guard is on Netflix from July 10th