Back in 2017, Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández created a successful comic book with a lot of heart and an interesting concept – that of a band of ragtag mercenaries who can’t die and lead by an ancient immortal named Andy. It was only a matter of time before their concept, named The Old Guard, got picked up for a movie release and sure enough, Netflix snapped up the rights, and recruited Rucka to write the screenplay for a movie starring Charlize Theron as Andy and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood.
We spoke to Greg Rucka and Leandro Fernández as the movie based on their creation is about to be released…
Where did the inspiration come from for The Old Guard?
Greg Rucker: It came out of two places, first it came out of a fascination with this myth that you can find in almost every military around the world of these ‘ghost soldiers’. The mysterious company or platoon that vanishes and then reappears in times of need. And I’ve always been fascinated by it. There’s a Stan Ridgeway song called Camouflage that fed into that that I loved. It’s something that my wife Jennifer [Van Meter] (who’s also a writer) and I have both been intrigued by it. So that was one part.
The other part was, I had this idea of this character who became Andy in my head for quite a long time. And I knew certain things about her. I knew she couldn’t die. And I knew she was exceptionally old, she was incomprehensibly old if you really stop to think what it means to live for 1000 years or 2000 years or 5000 years. And the ideas sort of met up and I kind of soft pitched it to Leo and he was fascinated and started sketching out some ideas for Andy and it went from there.
How did it evolve into the comic book?
Leandro Fernández: As soon as we started talking about this, I felt fascinated by the project and I couldn’t stop thinking out it. And when I started thinking about it, the characters themselves, I wanted to design them to be easily recognisable. I wanted them to have a strong personality. More than anything, as they are immortals, they should be seen in different periods of time and in different situations. The fashion changes all the time so they [look] different every time. They’re warriors so they should be in the mud, filled with blood. It was my goal to give them a big personality. I wanted them to have their own voice when the readers are reading the book.
You give a lot of time to exploring the characters’ personalities and pasts…
GR: There were certain things that I felt I had to do in presenting [the characters of] Andy, Nicky, Joe and Booker [in The Old Guard] – less with Nile because Nile is contemporary. But I wanted to make it really clear that the first story is not concerned with the ‘how’ or the ‘why’ of their immortality. I didn’t want anybody coming away from it going “oh well Nicky’s immortal because he died on the Crusades” so he died in service to God, I didn’t want that. It needed to be this very inclusive thing, and at the same time, Leo’s always been brilliant at just slamming personality onto the page. You see his characters and they have personality.
But the thing that I loved about empathy with The Old Guard is that you can see their ages in how they look. You can see Nicky as Nicolo [as he used to be called] and it doesn’t require a lot of work – it requires a costume change and him having longer hair but that’s it. Their faces are, in particular, timeless in a way – no timeless is the wrong word – they are old, and I love the choices he made.
What is your process when creating comic books together?
GR: I think this looks very different for each of us. Haha!
LF: For sure!
GR: It’s funny, for this one, Leo and I didn’t spend a lot of time talking about the story. What I try to do is I want to surprise him. I want him to get the script, flip the page and go “OH MAN I GET TO DRAW THIS!” because Leo loves drawing the historical stuff.
LF: It happened. Yeah, you succeeded in that!
GR: So that’s part of it – I kind of want to surprise him so I play some stuff close to the vest. Other times I’ll reach out and be like “I want to set this thing here” and Leo will come back with ideas or whatnot. I think writing The Old Guard has been its own challenge. Writing the first one was easier than writing the second one which is not really surprising if you think about it. We’re gearing up to do the third and I know Leo is ready to start as soon as he gets his script and I’m not ready to write yet. I am wandering around and bumping into corners because I don’t wanna wing it.
Part of what happened with the original was I literally sat down one night and went “yeah, I think it’s time to write this” and I just wrote the first issue, and that’s very rare for me. Most of the time it is a lot of bricklaying and fairly careful work and I kinda went into the first series with just abundant glee and no restraints. The benefit of that was the story and the downside of that is that you can’t do that the second time because you have to work with what came before.
What is your process, Leandro, when bringing these characters to life?
LF: Oh it depends on the deadlines!
LF: From the beginning, we had to tell [this story] the best way we could, so we needed all the freedom to handle the story the best way possible. That’s why, for example, we changed the format. We were supposed to start with a 24-page comic book and the first issue ended up being 36 pages. The thing is, especially with The Old Guard, it’s such a visual story. It has so many elements that deserve to be shown, different spaces in human history, different moments, scenarios and also we are in the present day. It travels a lot so there are a lot of things that deserve to be shown.
The process I use is, first, I get all the documentation that I need (which in this book is a lot!). After that I sit and draw the storytelling, which is a special moment. That [takes] 70% of my energy and I can’t be with anybody in the same room when I’m working on that. And after that comes the pencils and finally the inks. But on the first pages where I think ‘what is going to be inside the page?’ that’s where all the energy goes.
GR: One of the interesting things that came out of the process as an addendum to that was Leo and I had worked together before but was had never worked together on a creator-owned project like this before. And that meant that I needed to give him as much room as I could. These books kept getting bigger and trying to write saying: “Okay I’m writing the script for 24 pages but you have 32” so open it up. So by the end of Force Multiplied, the second series, I think we discovered that that wasn’t enough either. There’s never enough room!
Did you ever envision that The Old Guard comic book would become a film?
GR: I didn’t, but I write for the medium that I think will suit the story and for Opening Fire [the first comic book series of The Old Guard] the medium was a comic, it wasn’t a novel.
When SkyDance reached out and said: “Hey we’re interested in this” and I said I want to write it, they said “oooookay…?”. I think what was surprising for them was my willingness and eagerness to acknowledge that as much as I wanted to adapt it, it wasn’t meant to be a translation. Things had to change. And once Netflix became involved that became even more useful because Netflix opened up a whole bunch of possibilities.
We initially conceived it at SkyDance as a fairly low budget movie honestly. But Netflix bringing their resources and support, meant that we could do different things. I believe very firmly that the animals are different – a short story is not a novel, a comic book is not a movie and if you go into the movie expecting exactly what you got in the comic, you’re going to be disappointed. The intention all along was ‘can preserve the heart of this and can we explore these things, can we illuminate these things more acutely, can we expand it?’.
Greg, you wrote the screenplay for The Old Guard – what was the one element you wanted to make sure translated from the comic book to the movie?
GR: The most important thing to me, and this is going to sound a little soft but it’s true. I would have been willing to remove just about anything from the original comic as long as I felt we had kept the heart of it, the emotional truth of it.
Look this is not the first story about people who can’t die – I didn’t invent fire here. There are these myths out there and other stories have been told about people who are immortal, we have vampire stories and I knew that.
The thing that I felt made this, if not unique, then different, is really interrogating the honest emotional cost of what that was. I really feel that Gina absolutely clung tightly to that throughout the filming. I think it is evident in every frame of not just Charlize’s performance but in Luca Marinelli’s, in Marwan Kenzari’s and in Matthias Schoenaerts’ as well – you see that they carry that honesty about the cost [of immortality] as much as the joy about the benefits.