'Everybody Deserves To Be Seen As A Hero,' Says 'Old Guard' Director

Aug 10, 2020

The Old Guard filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood always loved action movies — she just never thought she'd have a chance to make one.

"Those doors were not open at all to women," she says. "It's so hard for women to get into the room, because we don't have action on a resumé. But how do you get action on your resumé if you're not hired to do films with action?"

It wasn't until Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman was released that Prince-Bythewood felt a shift: "The success of the film ... absolutely cracked the door open."

With The Old Guard, Prince-Bythewood becomes the first Black woman to direct an adaptation of a comic book. "What I bring as a Black female to my craft and in being a director ... [is] recognizing how important it is that everybody deserves to be seen as a hero," she says.

The film, which premiered on Netflix, stars Charlize Theron as the leader of a diverse group of world-weary warriors who have lived for centuries and have been killed many times — only to have their wounds heal. Prince-Bythewood says the film shows "the opposite side of what we all envision immortality to be."

"Seeing the world hurt itself on a loop ... what would that feel like?" She says. "That just felt so interesting and real to me, and did make me kind of question: Maybe I don't want to live forever."


Interview highlights

On how women are often sexualized in action movies

I'm going to give a generalization. ... Female characters are not the center of the story. They're not integral to the plot or the climax. They are usually, if they do have superpowers, are sidekicks, or comic relief, or do not have full arcs or stories. And the fight scenes, the costume, it is about sexualizing the characters. ...

Whenever there's a cool fight between two women, it always has to turn into the sexy cat fight, as opposed to just these two women are warriors. Let them fight, let's marvel at their athleticism. That's what excites me. I know it's because I am an athlete and grew up an athlete, and those were the women that I grew up with around me.

And also there tends to be a thought that ... let's just design the coolest fights, as opposed to being true to what a fight with a woman would look like. A woman does not have the strength to pick somebody up and throw them up against a wall like a man could, but there are different ways that a woman would fight and look cool.

On choreographing the fight scenes in 'The Old Guard'

Nile (Kiki Layne) and Andy (Charlize Theron) fight in The Old Guard. Gina Prince-Bythewood says her experiences as a kickboxer helped her choreograph the movie's fight scenes: "I know what good fighting looks like."
Aimee Spinks / Netflix

I mean, I certainly had an advantage because I did kickbox for two years, and so I know what it feels like to hit and be hit, which is not fun. Oh, but also I just know what it looks like, and I know what good fighting looks like. So I wanted it to feel grounded and real. And so that certainly starts with the action, that things were going to be hand-held, they were going to be at eye-level. I wanted the audience to feel like they were in the fight. I never wanted to have the camera be a character. So for the most part, the camera was never up high or really down low or swinging around. ...

We would talk about the story of each fight, and that was incredibly important because, for me, that's what makes a great action scene: that it has a beginning, middle and end that is character-driven, that it's emotional. And so when talking about the story of each one, that helped design the fight and what should happen within the fight, it also helps the actors know what they were doing in the fight, so that it's not just two people punching each other or people just shooting each other. There's got to be stakes to it.

On the film's depiction of a gay couple who are also action heroes

That was in the graphic novel and then in the script. And it was one of those moments — I just so remember my first read of the script and the story. I knew nothing about it. I hadn't read the graphic novel prior, which I'm happy about because I was continually surprised. ... It was just something I hadn't seen before and I hadn't seen characters like that before. ... I just felt that [these characters] were so different and so distinct and so badass and their love just felt real and special. And I was excited, as I said, to put them into the world.

On the audience's reaction to the scene of the gay couple kissing

Before COVID shut everything down, we had two audience previews of the film. So I actually got to see it in the theater with 250 people per screening. And they target an audience of people they think will see the film for the previews. And I knew there would be nothing to get me to cut that scene. But we did not know what the audience reaction was going to be at all. And I remember sitting in the theater and as we're getting closer to the scene, ... and they kiss, and the audience erupted in applause, [at] both screenings.

It was such an amazing moment and surprising ... But it honestly was tied to this moment when we were shooting. After we'd finished shooting the scene, two different guys from the crew came up to me and said how much they loved the scene and that when they were watching, they didn't see two men, they just saw two people in love. I was like, wow, I think, maybe we did do our jobs here, because that's what they felt and that's what we wanted to feel. Love is love.

On how the movie's release coincided with the pandemic and during a time of national reckoning over racism

One of the beautiful things about the script when I first read it, and what I was excited to put into the world, was that it was this group of warriors and different cultures and backgrounds and sexual orientations and genders that have come together to protect humanity. - Gina Prince-Bythewood

There were two things that became highlighted for me having this film come out now, it was both a pandemic and this certainty of how connected globally we are. For me, one of the beautiful things about the script when I first read it, and what I was excited to put into the world, was that it was this group of warriors and different cultures and backgrounds and sexual orientations and genders that have come together to protect humanity. And it just feels even more relevant.

And then the other is this national reckoning that we're having in this moment, which I certainly believe is tied to the pandemic as well: How important it is to have [Black female] characters like Nile in the world, given how complicit Hollywood has been in the images of Black people that have been put out, that damage our humanity, as well as the invisibility, which does the same damage, certainly of Black women. And so, again, to have these images suddenly, not only here, but globally has been, I think a really beautiful thing. And, I hope, has given people some inspiration or aspiration.

Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Petra Mayer adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. One of the summer's big movie hits, a summer with movie theaters closed, is the Netflix film "The Old Guard," directed by my guest, Gina Prince-Bythewood. It reached nearly 72 million households in its first four weeks and is already among the top 10 most popular Netflix films ever. She is the first Black woman to direct an adaptation of a comic book. "The Old Guard" is kind of a superhero film. When the film opens, we see several people lying dead, shot up with bullets. But soon, these bodies start moving. They eject bullets from their bodies, rapidly heal their wounds and get back up.

These people, the heroes of the film, are immortals. They've lived for centuries, some dating back to the Crusades. Immortality may sound great. Who wouldn't want to live forever? But these immortals are warriors. And they've been killed over and over again through the centuries. They experienced physical pain and the emotional pain of watching friends and family die. And they know that their immortality will eventually wear out. But they never know when. The first voice we hear in the film is the immortal played by Charlize Theron after she's been killed yet again on a mission.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE OLD GUARD")

CHARLIZE THERON: (As Andy) I've been here before - over and over again - and each time, the same question. Is this it? Will this time be the one? And each time, the same answer. And I'm just tired of it.

GROSS: The plot of "The Old Guard" revolves around a young woman, a Marine, who's killed in Afghanistan but miraculously heals and doesn't understand why. The immortals find her and initiate her into the immortal world that she initially wants no part of. Meanwhile, the head of a pharmaceutical company is trying to capture and study the immortals and figure out how to duplicate their DNA so that they can market immortality. Gina Prince-Bythewood also directed the films "Love And Basketball," about a young woman trying to be good enough to become a professional basketball player, and "Beyond The Lights," about a singer who's pressured into creating her image around her sexuality.

Gina Prince-Bythewood, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on the new movie. You know, I've been thinking about having a movie about immortality and the pain of outliving loved ones, having that released during the pandemic - I mean, you couldn't have understood the context that this would be released in. Does it change or deepen the meaning for you of the film?

GINA PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: You know, it did. There were two things that, you know, became highlighted for me having this film come out now. It was, you know, both the pandemic and, you know, this certainty of how connected globally we are. You know, for me, one of the beautiful things about the script when I first read it and what I was excited to put into the world was that it was this group of warriors from different cultures and backgrounds and sexual orientations and genders that have come together to protect humanity. And, you know, it just feels, you know, even more relevant. And then the other is this national reckoning that we're having in this moment, which I certainly believe is tied to the pandemic as well.

But the - how important it is to have characters like Nile in the world given how, you know, complicit, really, Hollywood has been in the images of Black people that have been put out that damage our humanity, as well as the invisibility, which does the same damage, certainly of Black women - and so again, you know, to have these images suddenly, not only here but globally, has been, you know, I think, a really beautiful thing and I hope, you know, has given people some inspiration or aspiration.

GROSS: Nile is the young Marine who becomes one of the immortals. And she wears a cross. She believes in God. And Charlize Theron's character watches the young woman pray and basically says, yeah, you know, give up. God doesn't exist. And then when Nile the young woman doesn't believe in the supernatural story about immortality, Charlize Theron says, you already believe in the supernatural. Meaning, you already believe in a supernatural God. So you should be able to believe in this story of immortality. How does that part strike you? How does that part speak to you?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: It's interesting because that was something that I brought to Nile's character is her faith. And it really started with what I felt was truthful to this young, Black woman and knowing how important the church is in the Black community. So it just felt real that she would believe in God. And that goes to, you know, when you take on a project and you take on characters, to really do the work and really dig deep on who they are and the truth of who they are. So in adding that, then suddenly it sparked so many really good conversations with Greg and I about spirituality and about religion. And...

GROSS: Greg Rucka is the screenwriter who also wrote the book that the movie is adapted from.

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Yeah. He - the conversations were so great because he believes - and it makes perfect sense - a character like Andy, who has lived for so long, would not be religious. She would not really have any faith in religion because she's seen the way, you know, religion has been used for thousands of years for - honestly, for negativity and for evil, and the way that, you know, certain religious societies have really denigrated different people. And then on a (laughter) whole nother level, the fact that when people saw that she couldn't die, you know, early on, that she herself was worshipped as a god. But she knows she's not a god.

You know, to her, despite her immortality, she is just a person. And so she saw the hypocrisy in religion for so long that there's no way that she believes in that. And she wouldn't even call yourself spiritual. I think that reconnection to spirituality comes in meeting Nile and her relationship with Nile. But I just felt that that was a really interesting contrast between the two women. And, again, everything that's happening to Nile, the first thing she would do is try to connect with her spirituality and her belief in God to try and understand the why. But that's also why she doesn't stop asking why, because of her faith.

GROSS: Are you thinking any differently about life and death now after having (laughter) made the film and having to think so much about life and death and immortality?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: (Laughter) I've always been afraid of death. Like, ever since I was a little kid, it was just a thing that's always in the back of my mind. And so - so many times in my life, I have said I wish I could live forever because you just think about the courage that that would give you, all the things that you would do if you didn't have that fear. I mean, I have an incredible fear of flying. I have claustrophobia.

So in doing this film, it was so interesting because, you know, early on, there was some pushback in that some wanted to focus more on the aspirational aspects of immortality. And I just think that that is what makes it interesting to talk about the opposite side of what we all envision immortality to be. And the thought of outliving everyone and the loneliness, I think, alone would be so hard to live with. But also, at what point does the - you're just seeing the world just hurt itself on a loop. And, you know, what would that feel like, especially if you, you know, have this ability you think you can protect and save, yet you just feel helpless in that? That just felt so interesting and real to me and did make me kind of question. Maybe I don't want to live forever. Now, I'd love to have immortality for, you know, a couple of years (laughter) so that I could, you know, jump out of a plane, which is something I've always wanted to do. But it really did make me think about - that having a finite end is actually a good thing.

GROSS: I just think it's kind of strange you have a fear of flying, but you want to jump out of a plane. I'll process that later.

(LAUGHTER)

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: I think so that I could get over the fear, but I think that's the wrong way to get over it.

GROSS: Yeah, it might be the wrong way (laughter). OK. Was it ever your ambition to make an action film?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Yes (laughter). I love the genre, and I've always loved it. It's just the nature of Hollywood. You - there was a long time where it was just a thing of - I like action films, but I'd never thought I'd get the opportunity to make one just because those doors were not open at all to women. It wasn't even in the conversation. And it really wasn't until Patty Jenkins did what she did with "Wonder Woman" and had such success not only making such a good film under such incredible pressure but the success of the film. And that absolutely cracked the door open.

And then suddenly, this thing of, oh, I love those movies - you know, I turned it into, I want to make that movie. And just putting that into the ether and now suddenly having, you know, a specific path - OK, how do I get there? What decisions do I need to make to get to that place? - and really started doing that for myself.

GROSS: So how did the door open to making "The Old Guard?"

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: It started with doing the pilot for Marvel's "Cloak And Dagger." And once you do that first one, then suddenly, people think, oh, that's what she does or that - or she can do that also. And that suddenly put me into the conversation of some of those percolating superhero films that were starting to be made and people starting to think, oh, maybe we should have a female director. And that got me to "Silver And Black," which was the Marvel-Sony film that was going to be the first, you know, Marvel film with female characters at the heart of it.

Unfortunately, that didn't go, but that year and a half of my life absolutely prepared me for the moment when Skydance sent me the script "The Old Guard." And they were very intentional on wanting a female director. And it was my previous work that got me in the room, and that is such a different thing because as I've said, it's so hard for women to get into the room because we don't have action on our resume. But how do you get action on your resume if you're not hired to do films with action? And it's such a catch-22, and it's so frustrating.

But the fact that - they loved my previous work with "Beyond The Lights" and "Love And Basketball" and wanted to bring that kind of character and story to "The Old Guard" so that it didn't feel just like an action film but felt like an action-drama, which was what I was so excited about. And so that really connected us, and, you know, we went from there.

GROSS: Do you think that having directed basketball scenes in "Love And Basketball" helped convince people who needed to be convinced that you could create - that you could direct fight scenes?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: You know what? It was interesting. In the meeting with Skydance, I remember Don Granger - it was Don Granger, Dana Goldberg and Matt Grimm and David Ellison. They had talked about - they were so impressed with how I got Sanaa Lathan, who had never touched a basketball in her life, to look so good as a ballplayer in "Love And Basketball." And they knew that this big action film with two women at the heart of it needed to have that same, you know, for lack of better words, dopeness. Like, you had to believe these women as warriors and fighters. And so they felt because I could get that out of Sanaa, I knew how to do that and felt like I could bring that to the two female actors that we cast for these two roles.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Gina Prince-Bythewood. She directed the new hit film "The Old Guard." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIG LAZY'S "CURB URCHIN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Gina Prince-Bythewood. She wrote and directed the films "Love And Basketball" and "Beyond The Lights" and directed the new film "The Old Guard," which is now streaming on Netflix. It's about a small group of immortals, warriors who have lived for centuries but have had to experience their deaths over and over again before coming back to life.

So I take it you've seen a lot of action films. What do you like and not like about how - and this is a generalization here - but about how women have typically been depicted in action films? - because I'm thinking, like, sometimes there aren't any (laughter) or there's very few of them. And sometimes the ones that are there are, like, just very sexualized.

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Yeah. So when I say this - and you said as well - I'm going to give a generalization. There have been anomalies throughout the years - very few, but there have been. But it is - the female characters are not the center of the story. They're not integral to the plot or the climax. They are usually, if they do have superpowers, are sidekicks or comic relief or do not have full arcs or stories. And the fight scenes, the costume - it is about sexualizing the characters. And that - whenever there's a - you know, a cool fight between two women, it always has to turn into this sexy catfight as opposed to just - these two women are warriors. Let them fight. Let's marvel at their athleticism. That's what excites me, and, you know, I know it's because I am an athlete and grew up an athlete. And those were the women that I grew up with around me. And, also, there tends to be a thought that - OK, we cast this woman in this action role. Let's just design the fights - it doesn't matter that she's a woman; let's just design the coolest fight, as opposed to being true to what a fight with a woman would look like. A woman does not have the strength to pick somebody up and throw them up against a wall, like a man could. But there are different ways that a woman would fight and look cool.

GROSS: What are some of the different ways you had women fight?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: You know, first, I started with the true ways that they were taught to fight. So Nile is a Marine, and there is a specific martial arts that Marines are taught and that female Marines are taught. And so that's what we taught Nile, and that's what we designed her fights around.

GROSS: And she's the young woman. Yeah.

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Yeah, she's the young woman played by KiKi Layne. And, you know, with Andy, Charlize Theron's character, we - she's a little different. She knows every fighting style known to man because she's been around for so long. But, you know, we were very intentional on just the conflict between them and making sure, again, that it stayed true to their strengths, what they could truthfully do. Even if they're stronger than most women, again, they're not superheroes; they just have a supernatural ability to not die.

GROSS: The actors had to learn a lot about fighting for the film. There was a fight choreographer for the film. What did you have to learn about various forms of fighting to direct the film?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: I mean, I certainly had an advantage because I did kickbox for two years, and so I know what it feels like to hit and be hit, which is not fun. But, also, I just know what it looks like, and I know what good fighting looks like. So I wanted it to feel grounded and real. And so that certainly, you know, starts with the action, that things were going to be hand-held. They were going to be at eye-level. I wanted the audience to feel like they were in the fight. I never wanted to have the camera be a character. So for the most part, the camera, you know, was never up high or really down low or swinging around. I wanted you to feel like these are real fights and not - honestly, not movie fights.

So we would talk about, also, the story of each fight, and that was incredibly important because, for me, that's what makes a great action scene, that it has a beginning, middle and end, that it's character-driven, that it's emotional. And so when talking about the story of each one, that helped design the fight and what should happen within the fight. It also helped the actors know what they were doing in the fight so that, you know, it's not just two people punching each other or people just shooting each other. There's got to be stakes to it.

And so it's - you know, it's a fascinating thing to sit and talk about the story, and then they start to build a fight, and then I look at it. And, you know, you know what? I think I want more of this. Like in the plane fight, I wanted a shift in the fight. I wanted Nile to get a couple of shots in, to surprise Andy, to impress Andy, but also to give herself swagger, you know? But then I wanted, you know, Andy to take that back. And that was that face-grab - that was something that I really wanted to push the humiliation in that moment.

GROSS: Sometimes the editing in fight scenes is so - sometimes it's so highly edited that, speaking for myself, I have no idea who's doing what to who. All I see is, like, you know, guns and bullets and arms swinging and chaos, but I don't know, like, who's killing, who is getting wounded.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Is that something you tried to avoid?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Oh, absolutely. It's fascinating. You know, you see how action, it evolves, and it goes in cycles, and people get excited about one thing that an auteur creates, and then everyone tries to copy it for a while. You know, you look at Bourne - the Bourne movies. You know, that first one created a new style of action in - not only just the action itself, but how to shoot it. And it was that super quick-cutting, when you don't quite get what's going on, but it was so well done that you still understood it. But so many people tried to copy it without that same - having that same aesthetic. And it - I think a lot of action following that became this kind of mess, you know, or you're using it to try and hide the fact that you're using a lot of stunt doubles.

And then "John Wick" came, and they suddenly pulled the camera back. And you saw that it is really Keanu, and you could start to understand the choreography, which I think is a really beautiful thing because it just keeps you in it. You're not confused, and you're not having to think. The images are doing that for you. So - but what that takes is an actor willing to put in the incredible work it takes to be able to do, you know, most of your choreography and most of your fights and most of your stunts. And not every actor is - can do that or is willing to put in that work. So, you know, that's a big part of it as well.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Gina Prince-Bythewood. She directed the new film "The Old Guard," which is streaming on Netflix. We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Gina Prince-Bythewood. She directed the new hit film "The Old Guard," which stars Charlize Theron as the oldest member of a small group of immortals, people who have lived for centuries, fought many battles and died many times before coming back to life. These are warriors. KiKi Layne plays Nile, a Marine who's killed in Afghanistan but comes back to life. The immortals claim her as their own and initiate her into a life she doesn't really want. Meanwhile, the head of a pharmaceutical company is trying to kidnap the immortals so that he can replicate their DNA and market immortality.

Gina Prince-Bythewood also directed the films "Love & Basketball," about a young woman trying to be good enough to become a professional basketball player, and "Beyond The Lights," about a singer who's pressured into creating her image around her sexuality.

In some action films there's, you know, like, two characters who might start as adversaries but fall in love or there's a will-they or won't-they kind of friction going on. But in "The Old Guard," the love story part is that two of the male immortals have been a couple for centuries, and they deeply love each other. And in one scene where they're kidnapped, one of the kidnappers basically says in a mocking way, what are you guys, gay? And so one of the gay guys basically gives a long talk about how, yeah, we are. We've loved each other for centuries. His kiss still means everything to me, even after all these years. And it's a pretty interesting scene for an action film. So talk about that scene a little bit. Was that in the original book?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Yeah, that was in the graphic novel and in the script. And it was just something I hadn't seen before. And I hadn't seen characters like that before. And you know, I think, you know, there's a recognition I think in what I bring as a Black female to my craft in being a director and in recognizing how important it is that everybody deserves to be seen as a hero given that I know how rare it is for myself to look up on screen in these films and see myself reflected that way. It was the same for these characters. And I just felt that they were so different and so distinct and so badass. And their love just felt real and special.

GROSS: What kind of reaction have you gotten to that scene? Well, it's not like you're in movie theaters with people 'cause movie theaters aren't open now. But without generalizing too much, I don't know that the action film audience is the most, like, gay-friendly audience in movie theaters. Is that too stereotyping there?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: No, that's - so it's interesting you say that because we had two - before COVID shut everything down, we had two audience previews of the film. So I actually got to see it in a theater with, you know, 250 people per screening. And you know, they target an audience of people they think will see the film for the previews. And I knew there would be nothing to get me to cut that scene, but we did not know what the audience reaction was going to be - at all.

And I remember sitting in the theater and as we're getting closer to the scene, just having - what is the reaction? And he gives that speech, and they kiss. And the audience erupted in applause both screenings. It was such an amazing moment and surprising, I think, given our generalization of the audience. But it honestly was tied to, I feel, this moment when we were shooting. After we'd finished shooting the scene, two different guys from the crew came up to me and said that they - how much they loved the scene and that when they were watching, like, they didn't see two men; they just saw two people in love. And that, you know - I was like, wow. I think, you know, maybe we did do our jobs here because that's what they felt, and that's what we wanted to feel - love is love.

I didn't actually know, but I guess there is a trope out there where when you have a - often when there's a gay character in the film or a film like this - and foremost, it's never been this overt; it's always been hinted at - but that they die or their partner dies. And I just - again, I had no idea that that was a thing. And so many have spoke out about how happy they were - and surprised - that these two characters got to have a happy existence and a happy relationship and live to tell another day.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Gina Prince-Bythewood. She directed the new hit film "The Old Guard." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Gina Prince-Bythewood. She wrote and directed the films "Love & Basketball" and "Beyond The Lights" and directed the new film "The Old Guard," which is streaming on Netflix. It's about a small group of immortals, warriors who have lived for centuries but have had to experience their deaths over and over again before coming back to life.

I want to ask you about your film "Beyond The Lights" from 2014.

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Mmm hmm.

GROSS: And this is about a singer in the hip-hop world who has to do, like, music videos and make stage appearances in very sexualized clothes and do very sexualized choreography. And she doesn't really want to do it. But you know, her mother is kind of like a stage mother and is basically functioning as her manager, too - you know, doesn't flinch about the whole thing and keeps pushing her. No, you got to do this if you want to be a star. And you have, like, a music video in it that is so perfect...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...In terms of that kind of sexualized music video. So I want you to explain what you put into that video and why you put it in and how you feel about that kind of video.

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Yeah, I mean so many things sparked that film, some personal things, but also, you know, the love that I had for hip-hop, but seeing what was happening with female artists and the way that it felt like there was a blueprint, that you come out hypersexualized. And even young singers - 17, 18, 19 - come out hypersexualized make a name for yourself there. But then they seemed to get locked into that. And they were unable to break free because they break free from that and then, suddenly, people are thinking they're not being authentic, where, actually, the way that they came out was not authentic to them. I wanted to put all of that into the video. And it was a fascinating day on set. It was tough for me as a female to be directing that scene. And, you know, Gugu - and all props to her - you know, she went there.

GROSS: She's the star. She's the leading actress.

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Yeah. And it was uncomfortable for her. And she had - but that was the thing of what I love about actors like her - the work ethic, but also the boldness. And as I said, it was my job to make her feel safe in that environment. And she felt safe because she knew the vision. She knew the story. She knew that we had to go there with this scene because what we are trying to say with this film is I can strip all that away and allow artists to be authentic and stop hypersexualizing, you know, our female artists and, certainly, our Black female artists. But it's - that was a hard day to shoot because there was a couple of times where I just - I'm looking at the monitor and saying, am I really doing this with a couple of the moves that she had? But that's really what we had to do with that video. And it was interesting. In the rehearsals for her, it was something that she had to tap into. You have to tap into a narcissism and a just - I mean, her teacher was Laurieann Gibson, who was so great, who, you know, worked with Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga. You know, I wanted people at that level to work with her and bring that reality to it.

And, you know, early on, we realized that Gugu had to train in front of a mirror. And it was something she balked at initially because it is hard to look at yourself doing that. But we knew she needed to do that. You look at yourself, tap into that, you know, and feed it, you know, feed it from the mirror back to you. And in doing that, that was - that kind of rehearsal was about building the character. And so by the time, you know, we did get to that set, again, she could access that. But, again, it doesn't take away from the fact that, you know, it was hard. And as soon as I would say cut, I'd be the first one there with her robe (laughter), you know, to put it around her.

GROSS: (Laughter) You mentioned the word narcissism. You have to have a certain amount of narcissism to do that kind of choreography for real, to do that kind of performance for real. And I think some women see it as, like, empowerment. And so did you get into conversations with people about, like, is that female empowerment? Or is that just hypersexualization (ph)?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Oh, yeah (laughter). Those were ongoing conversations about - you know, because that is the argument that a lot of people give, that I'm empowering myself. But how is that, you know - the issue is there are some who it is authentic, you know? I don't look at Beyonce and think that she is being exploited. Like, Beyonce has full agency in what she's doing. It is the younger artists who do not have that, who are being told to - oh, you have a magazine cover? Take off your shirt. You don't take off your shirt, you don't get the cover, you know?

And that's happened. In the research in talking to these artists, it was heartbreaking to hear. And a couple of them had that - they had that story of the first time they were told to take off their shirt for a magazine shoot. They all had that same story. And no one around them is stepping up and saying, you know what? Let's not do that. Every single one was, you know, turned a blind eye, was silent in the moment. And then you just - as young artists, you go with it. So that's not empowering. That is exploitation.

GROSS: Your film from 2000, "Love And Basketball," is about a girl who becomes a young woman soon in the film. And she's obsessed with basketball. She's really good. But her temper, her arguments with the refs, kind of hold her back. You are an athlete. You played basketball. What did basketball mean in your life when you were in your teens and 20s?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: It was - sports was everything and especially basketball and track because that's where I had the most success and excelled at, I mean, for so many reasons. But I was very, very shy, foremost, and an introvert and also struggling with self-esteem given the way that I grew up in terms of, you know, being Black and then adopted by white parents and being raised in, you know, mostly all white towns. You just - you never see yourself reflected anywhere. And even more than that, dealing with the racism. And, you know, so much of your existence is that you are other or, you know, it's just a very tough thing.

And so off the court, off the track, I was just this quiet person. But on the track, on the court, I could - it felt like I could be myself - and I am on volume 10 on both of those - where all the beautiful things about being an athlete, everything it teaches you and allows you to be, you know, to tap into, you know, your aggression and your ambition and, you know, this belief that you are the best. I mean, you have to have that as an athlete. That's what pushes you to work hard.

And just outworking everybody and having this incredible passion and just bigness and loudness, like, I loved that. And I wish that I could be that person in every aspect of my life. But I do bring so many of the things that I did learn on the court and on the track to being a director because you do need - especially as a female director, you need those attributes to compete and to succeed in this environment which is, you know, so male driven.

GROSS: Yeah. So competing in basketball, which is so male driven, helped you compete in filmmaking for jobs when most directors were male?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Yeah. I mean, you have to - it's so much about perception in Hollywood. And not only perception, but it's also such inbred biases, where there's an assumption that men can do this and women are not equipped to do it. It makes no sense, but it's just there. So when you walk in a room and you're up for a job, they are looking at you to see, does this person - can I trust this person with millions of dollars? Can this person control a crew of, you know, 200, 300 - in the case of "Old Guard," you know, there's a thousand people that worked on that movie. You know, can this person do it? Can we trust them?

And so you have to come in with a confidence and a swagger that they can feel and believe. And that's me walking on the court or walking on the track because there I knew I was the best person out there. And so I literally bring that mentality into the meetings because, I mean, those things are scary. It's scary to sit across from, you know, this group of folks, most often men and already having a preconceived idea of who you are or what you're capable of, and I got to come in there and twist that immediately.

And so outside that room, I am putting myself back on the court so that when I walk in, I've got that little bop, and I've got that swagger, and I sit down, and it's the way I sit and where I sit and how I present myself that then makes them feel like, oh, damn, you know, I trust her; I think she can do this.

GROSS: How far did you get in basketball?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: With basketball, I got recruited by a couple schools but not UCLA, where I knew I wanted to go to film school. So I ended up running track at UCLA - I did triple jump - for my sophomore year and made it to the Pac-12 Championships. But after that, then I got into film school and finally had to make that definitive choice, that I think I can have a career in film. And I didn't think I had enough talent to get through to the Olympics.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Gina Prince-Bythewood. She directed the new hit film "The Old Guard," as well as the films "Beyond The Lights" and "Love & Basketball." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Gina Prince-Bythewood. She wrote and directed the films "Love & Basketball" and "Beyond The Lights" and directed the new film "The Old Guard," which is now streaming on Netflix.

So I want to talk with you a little about growing up. As you mentioned, you were adopted by white parents. Tell us the story, to the extent that you know the story, of why your birth mother gave you up.

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: It's - you know, it's a fascinating thing because you grow up with being told one story. And it was just - I was told the story that, you know, her and my birth father loved each other, but they were young, and they knew they couldn't handle it, and so they, you know, gave me up to, you know, for the good - the betterment of me. But the truth of it was, in meeting with my birth mother, that their - her parents did not want her to have a Black child.

And I was very close to being aborted, which is just mind-boggling to me. And it was the fact that she had a best friend who was really religious who convinced her not to. And I've always found that fascinating because I'm pro-choice, I mean, incredibly pro-choice. Yet here is an instance where I would not be in the world if it wasn't for, you know, this best friend convincing her of that. Though I have to believe there is a part of her, then, that, you know, wanted me to be in the world as well because she did, ultimately, make that decision. But yeah, her parents were not going to let her have or raise this Black child, and so I was given up.

GROSS: So your biological mother is white, and your biological father is or was Black. I don't know if he's still alive anymore.

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Yeah, I don't know.

GROSS: Have you ever met him? Do you know who he is?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: No, I tried to track him down, and I have not been successful. She was easy, but he - I have not been able to.

GROSS: So you didn't know the real story about why your biological mother gave you up until...

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Yes.

GROSS: ...You found her...

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And talked with her? Did your parents know the real story? Did they just keep it from you, or did they not know, either?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: They didn't know, either.

GROSS: Do you think it's just as well that you didn't know, that you didn't grow up knowing that?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Oh, absolutely. It's - I think it was - because there's so much - when you're adopted, there's so many questions when you're little, and it really keeps centering around why were you given up? Why were you tossed away? You know, my parents were very good at making me believe I was chosen, but I still had those questions and that wonder of what was wrong because how do you give up a child? How do you give up your child? So in this - in creating this very positive narrative absolutely helped, it didn't temper the fact that I had this urge and need to find my biological parents, to know where I came from. And I didn't find find her till I was in my 20s. So I think I was better equipped to handle that as well at that age, as opposed to when I was little.

GROSS: Was your biological mother, once you found her, interested in having a relationship with you?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: It - we had a very good first meeting, absolutely. But then it seemed to be too hard for her to - I was a reflection of the past that was not - that was difficult for her. So, you know, we haven't been in contact.

GROSS: Do you think she knows that you're a very successful director right now?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: (Laughter) I like to think so. That was the one thing that I found fascinating, is when I met her, she was really into independent films, which I found interesting just because not everybody is. So I'd like to think that - I would hope that she at least is aware of what I'm still doing.

GROSS: You and your husband have two sons. I'm not sure how old they are, but are they old enough to have seen the videos of George Floyd?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Yeah, they're 19 and 16. And yeah, so we...

GROSS: Oh, they're old enough. Yeah, yeah.

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: It's daily conversations. And...

GROSS: Yeah.

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: ...You know, it was a difficult decision after it happened because both boys were compelled. They wanted to be at the protests. And, obviously, COVID is happening, and we want them to be safe as well. But, ultimately, we decided as a family they needed it, and we wanted to allow that for them. We didn't want to, you know, not let them embrace what they were feeling because it's important to be connected and be out there in the fight. And so yeah, we did make a decision as a family that they could go, but also that we all went to some as well, all together.

GROSS: Was that a hard decision to make? Because although it now seems, in retrospect, that the protests didn't spread a lot of COVID, nobody knew at the time what the outcome was going to be in terms of the virus. So was it a hard decision to say to your sons, OK, it's OK with us if you go and that - to decide that you would go to some of the protests, too?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Oh, no, that's the thing. It was - I mean, it was a big deal at that time, COVID, and also it had just been revealed - to no surprise to anyone - that it was affecting Black and brown folks at a greater number. So, you know, we just - we wanted them to be safe. But, you know, we went, and what was so - it just - the fact that everybody at our - one of the protests we went to, there was a thousand people there. Every single person was wearing a mask.

We were - I hate to say pleasantly surprised because, you know, we had talked about, look - when we're marching, stay on the outside of it; don't be in the center of everybody, so that you can get out if you need to, so that you're not surrounded by, you know, people breathing on you. But every single person had a mask. There was such a commitment to be out there in the fight but also keep each other safe. And that's something that we're not seeing on a big enough level throughout our country, certainly. But it was definitely a thing there - keep each other safe.

GROSS: Well, one more question - and this gets back to your new movie, "The Old Guard." The movie has more than a hint that there would be a sequel, but do you know yet if there will be?

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Yeah. I mean, I have been saying this whole time - which is absolutely true - it's up to the audience whether they want more. And the fervor's been pretty amazing and the desire, which means that, you know, we did our job, and we created characters and a story that people want to see more of. So, you know, I know that everyone has a desire to do more. And Greg Rucka, who wrote the graphic novel, he always envisioned it as a trilogy, so there's absolutely more story to tell.

GROSS: Well, I hope that the virus allows you to tell it sometime in the near future. Gina, it's really just been great to talk with you. Thank you so much for talking with us. And congratulations on the success of your new movie.

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: And stay safe and stay well, to you and your family.

PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: You, too. Thank you.

GROSS: Gina Prince-Bythewood directed the new film "The Old Guard," which is streaming on Netflix. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be political strategist Stuart Stevens. He spent decades helping elect Republicans; now he's working to defeat President Trump. In his new book, "It Was All A Lie," Stevens condemns party leaders for what he says is their cowardly support of a man they know is unfit to lead the country. I hope you'll join us.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.