When director Gina Prince-Bythewood took the helm of Netflix’s “The Old Guard,” bowing on the streaming service July 10, one of the first people she called was longtime collaborator and editor Terilyn Shropshire — the two have a partnership that dates back 20 years, along the way collaborating on “Love & Basketball,” “The Secret Life of Bees,” “Beyond the Lights” and “Shots Fired.”
Prince-Bythewood knew what production company Skydance wanted when it entrusted her with the film, starring Charlize Theron as the leader of a secret band of immortal mercenaries who have been protecting the world — and their own identities — for centuries, and must now be even more vigilant as they bring on a new member (played by KiKi Layne of “If Beale Street Could Talk”).
“They said, ‘We love “Love & Basketball” and “Beyond the Lights,” and what you did with the characters,’” the director explains. “They wanted to bring that kind of nuance and depth to this film so that it felt more like an action drama as opposed to a straight action film.”
Noting that Skydance had committed to hiring a female director, Prince-Bythewood applied the same philosophy when it came to assembling her crew, one that was 85% women in post (with women making up 50% department heads) , from Shropshire and costume designer Mary E. Vogt (“Crazy Rich Asians”) to her “Beyond the Lights” cinematographer, Tami Reiker.
She brought Shropshire to a meeting of 25 executives at Netflix, which had picked up worldwide rights to the film. “Teri went in there and said, ‘I know this is new for you, but I’m just here to tell you guys that you need to catch up to where I am.’” That confidence is apparent in the way “The Old Guard” is put together.
One key scene features Nicky (played by Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) having a serious conversation about love and romance. Prince-Bythewood shot the scene inside an actual military truck, using three cameras. “It was amazing to get those dailies in,” says Shropshire of the footage, compiled over 13 takes. “We wanted to keep it intimate but make sure that it didn’t become too melodramatic or earnest. We wanted it to feel organic and real.”
Prince-Bythewood also wanted the action sequences to be character-driven, supported by emotionally charged fight scenes. Stunt coordinators Brycen Counts and Adam Kirley and fight coordinator Daniel Hernandez (“Avengers: Endgame”) were brought in to train Theron and Layne for a battle between alpha female Andy and new recruit Nile. The scene also takes place in tight quarters — throughout sections of a military transport plane built by “Captain Phillips” production designer Paul Kirby.
During this early showdown, Prince-Bythewood chose to shoot handheld for the sequence while relying on natural lighting to capture the actors’ faces. “We were trying to find the balance between showcasing the fight and building the emotion in the story,” says the director, “and when to go to Andy’s face or Nile’s face.”
In the film’s third act, Nile ascends 15 stories in an elevator as she takes charge of a mission for the first time. The camera follows Layne, capturing the ascent in real time. It’s an emotional scene, as Nile gradually becomes aware of her importance in the group.
The decision to stay on Layne for the shot was entirely Shropshire’s, who notes that the key to editing is not always so much about “when you cut, but when you don’t.” She explains the scene easily could have been “The elevator opens, the elevator closes and she walks out. [But] that doesn’t tell you anything, because it doesn’t move you to an emotional space. Often in action, it’s about just getting through space and to the next thing.”
Prince-Bythewood recalls the first time she saw the scene with Shropshire’s editing choice. “Teri did not cut, and I remember feeling, ‘Oh, my God, I love this moment.’ I thought it was brilliant. This is why Teri is my ride or die, because that was bold.”