As a novelist, comic book writer, and now screenwriter, Greg Rucka has left his print across mass media. He is best known for writing characters such as Wonder Woman and Batman, co-creating characters such as Kate Kane aka Batwoman, and for a number of acclaimed original graphic novels. One of these original graphic novels, The Old Guard, was just brought to life in a new way by Skydance and Netflix. Rucka wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of his own comics, which is becoming less and less of an anomaly in Hollywood.
The Old Guard follows a group of immortal mercenaries in the present. The squad’s loyalty and dynamic is tested when their age-old secret is put at risk by a new timely threat. Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (Beyond the Lights, Cloak & Dagger) and starring Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, and Chiwetel Ejiofor – it would be more than fair to label this as one of Netflix’s largest original productions. In fact, shortly after release The Old Guard became one of the streaming service’s most-watched movies ever.
We had the fortunate chance to sit down with Greg Rucka for an exclusive interview! We dive into everything from both The Old Guard film and ongoing comics, working with director Gina Prince-Bythewood, and his various other popular works (including some of DC). He gave some teases for some far off projects, as well as some that may be here sooner than eager fans think.
I’ll start right off the bat. How did you first break into the comic industry?
GR: There’s this joke in the industry that whenever someone figures out how to break in, they break up that entryway, so you have to find a different one. I was a novelist and I had written three novels. I had a love for comics and I had an idea for a story that I tried as a novel and it wouldn’t work. Through one thing and another, I was introduced to the folks who had just started Oni Press way back in the late 90s. The folks at Oni had read my novels and knew that I had an interesting comic. That introduction lead to doing Whiteout with Steve Lieber. Whiteout was really well-received and that led to, sort of sideways, an introduction eventually to Dennis O’Neil, who sadly just recently passed away, at DC Comics. Dennis at that time was the group editor of the Batman books, and he hadn’t read Whiteout but he had read my novels, so he said, “Well, let’s see if you can write a comic kid.” The next thing I knew, I was writing a lot of Batman for DC.
Your original conception for the Old Guard comic, how did that come into fruition?
GR: For most writers, I think ideas sort of accrete in the same way planets form. You have different ideas and some are sharper, clearer and you chase them. Others are sort of floating around in the background. In the 90s I encountered, I think for the time in a way I understood this, this whole ghost story about soldiers who don’t die. It was an idea or a myth or a fairytale, call it what you will, that seems to permeate throughout all these military cultures around the world. There’s actually a song by Stan Ridgway called Camouflage which is pretty much the perfect embodiment of that idea. So I was always fascinated by that because I’ve always been drawn to stories of soldiers. It’s a romanticization of the duty, service, and honor in that.
So that idea was bouncing around in my head. Then somewhere around 2013, I had this character who had sort of been rattling around in the back of my skull step forward and manifest, and that was Andy. I knew some things about this character. I knew that she was a she. I knew that she was very very old, that she was thousands of years old, like incomprehensibly old when you really think about what it means to live 100 or 500 years, that her age was almost beyond understanding. And I knew that she was this old because she couldn’t die. For whatever reason, she just couldn’t die. That told me some other things about her. It told me that she was probably the most dangerous person in all of existence because if experience is the best teacher, she had 6000 years plus of experience. There was no language she couldn’t speak, there was no culture she didn’t understand. If she wanted to be the master of something, she could take the time to master it. And that she was terribly sad and adrift that everything she had seen and known kept turning to dust before her eyes. So here’s Andy, and here’s this ghost story about soldiers, and then they meet, and then you get The Old Guard.
Growing up as a comic reader and seeing a lot of your work, you’ve written some amazing female characters like Batwoman, Renee Montoya, Lois Lane, and Wonder Woman. So for one of these characters, especially one you created, what did you think of Charlize Theron playing Andy?
GR: I can’t imagine anybody doing it other than her, especially for those of us in the nerd sphere. We think of Charlize and go, “Oh man, Furiosa! Oh man, Atomic Blonde! She is an ass kicker.” And we forget that she’s an Academy Award winner. The woman’s acting chops are profound and undeniable. On top of that, she is, in my opinion, one of the bravest actresses to ever grace the screen. She picks roles that are not easy, that women of similar beauty and skill would avoid for fear of not being seen as nice, sweet, or gentle.
I knew when I was adapting the screenplay that when Gina [Prince-Bythewood], Skydance, and Netflix went out and looked to cast, that finding the right person for Andy was going to be a challenge. Because Andy, if you look at the comic and the movie, has no interest in making you like her. She doesn’t care, and that’s a really scary place for a lot of performers to be. Add to that the complexity, and just from what I know from my own experiences as an actor in theatre, to get in front of an actor and say, “This how we’ll do this and these are the things that you are dealing with.” It takes a lot of courage to take that part, and when I heard Charlize had agreed to play Andy, I was overjoyed. The result now is that I cannot write Andy and not see Charlize.
Actually, I was reading the latest issues of the second volume of Old Guard recently.
GR: Force Multiplied.
Yes, and I was just thinking…
GR: You can see it.
Yeah exactly! Leading in, how did writing the film impact how you wrote the new issues?
GR: Oh, it absolutely had an impact. The sort of cherry on top of the movie and having been the guy who wrote the movie is that it really allowed me to go back in and really do some intense mining of the characters – figure things out in the first story that I hadn’t given the depth of thought it deserved. The nature of working on the screenplay for eighteen months and then working on the comic is that there’s no way they don’t cross-pollinate. So the experience of writing the movie absolutely inflects the writing of the second story in the comic, and that’s going to carry into the third that Leandro Fernández and I are gonna do.
So there was an interesting problem, and I use that gently, that I encountered while I was writing Force Multiplied going, “Wait a minute, this is movie mythology and movie continuity and I have to keep them separate.” (laughs) The timeline that I’m using in the comic is not the timeline as depicted in the movie for instance. There were times where I went, “Oh no, I have to rewrite that” because I got them confused. But that is a minor price to pay, and I actually think that made Force Multiplied better. The first one, Opening Fire, is well-suited to adaptation I think. I’m not sure Force Multiplied is suited to adaptation in the same way. I think a lot of the concepts at work, if one wanted to make a second movie using that as source material, you can draw from it, but Force Multiplied is less concerned with the plot in the way that the first story is. You can’t make a movie where you’re going, “Eh, plot, who cares?”
This is obviously a big action movie with a lot of potential, especially with so much star and studio power. Has there been any talks of a sequel and would you like to be involved in a similar way to the first film?
GR: Yeah, certainly. There have been discussions, nothing is confirmed, and I don’t think there will be a decision made as to whether or not another one is in the offering for a while yet. The decision to make another one is going to be made by people who are far outside of my lane. If they decide to do another one, I am absolutely there for it. One of the things that I do like about the movie is that while the film has what I call a “In case of sequel, break glass” scene, the movie does not demand a sequel. It’s not a story where you reach the end and they’ve actually hit an end. The movie has a resolution and I think that it’s a very satisfying one as a result. There’s more you can do, and the movie absolutely opens the possibility for that, but it doesn’t demand it. It doesn’t say, “Oh, this will only make sense if we do another one!”
Theoretically, if there was another film, since you said that Force Multiplied isn’t as adaptable into film as Opening Fire was, if you were to write the script would you still draw from that comic or would you come up with something else? Or maybe a deviation from the story you’re telling in the comics?
GR: One of the satisfactions that I’m drawing from the movie right now, and that I will always be grateful to Skydance, Netflix, Charlize, and Gina Prince-Bythewood who directed the movie, is that there was, from the start, a commitment to preserving what Gina called, “The heart and soul’ of the graphic novel. So if we were to move forward with a sequel, I would be looking to the heart and soul of Force Multiplied. It is much more about the characters internalized, really, and about the conflicts. It opens up questions about the mythology that in the initial story I didn’t want to be bothered with, and that in a second story it felt like, “Yeah, we have to start addressing it.”
It’s safe to say that should there be a sequel and should I write it, I will be drawing heavily from the source material. But one of the luxuries of being able to adapt your own work is to go, “Okay, I get to do something different here. I can change it.” What works in the comic might not work on film and that’s important to recognize. The idea that this is a translation is a mistake. It’s not. It’s an adaptation. A novel is not a play, and a play is not a movie, and a comic is not a feature film. So one has to engage with a willingness to acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of the respective medium, and knowing that what worked in the comic may not work on screen.
You mentioned the third book, when are you and artist Leandro Fernández going to try to get that out?
GR: I’m hoping to be getting him scripts by the end of August. Given our scheduling, and the desire to have as many issues completed as possible before we solicit them and put them out for publication, I can see us having the third story out probably summer of next year.
I look forward to that and the final issue of Force Multiplied.
GR: I hope you like it. The final issue is, what I think, not what people are going to expect. It goes in a little different direction than I think people might have anticipated.
To switch gears, I did some digging and realized that you were working as an executive on a TV series for Lazarus. What can you tell us about the status of that adaptation and the status of the Queen & Country film that’s been in development for some years?
GR: (Laughs) Queen & Country has been in development since 2005, so your guess is as good as mine as to when, how, or if it’s going to be made. I have heard that it’s currently in the hands of Netflix and currently in front of Ridley Scott. Both of these things make me very happy, but I have no idea. You know, we’re living in a COVID-19 world, there aren’t a lot of productions going on. So I don’t know if or when we’re going to see a Queen & Country movie, but I’ve been living with the potential of one for fifteen years, so soon would be great.
Lazarus has been through a lot of development and I honestly don’t know where we are with it right now. We’re set up at Amazon and have spent a lot of time and a lot of energy trying to answer their needs. We’re waiting for them to come back and let us know. I would love to see Lazarus be made more than anything I have created. Michael Lark and I feel very strongly that there is a right way to make a Lazarus show, that it is not really a movie; it is a television series. We have been pretty adamant about seeing it done the right way, and I think we would rather see it done the right way than just done. I suspect I’ll know more before the end of the year, and I suspect that the potential success of something like The Old Guard may help our chances. So much of what I’ve learned is that so much of Hollywood is just vaporware until it happens. We are in this weird place. They made Stumptown, which went from being acquired, ordered to pilot, and ordered to series in less than a year. I’ve been in comics and writing professionally now for over twenty years, and to see something happen that quickly had never happened to me before. And I can say that after saying that Queen & Country has been in development for fifteen years, so god knows.
Well, The Old Guard isn’t the only thing this year that has some of your creative influence. There’s also the first season of Batwoman and the Wonder Woman sequel set to release soon. Aside from those big characters, whether it be your own original or franchise related projects, are there any other works of yours that you would like to see adapted to the screen?
GR: I don’t tend to write something in one medium hoping it’ll be in another. The Kodiak novels for instance are the Kodiak novels. I would cheerfully take on trying to adapt them, but they weren’t written to be a series of movies or whatever. They were written to be what they are, and I feel the same way about the comics. There are at this point, three different comic stories that I’m working on that have yet to see the light of day, and will hopefully start to emerge at the end of next year and the beginning of the next. If any of those should gather Hollywood interest, I would be curious, but it’s very much case by case. Right now, I’m going back to a screenplay I wrote several years ago and trying to do it right. I can say this as a guy who’s 50 this year, and has spent thirty years trying to acquire the tools by which to tell a story well. It goes over what I said about adapting to the appropriate medium. I am fortunate that where I stand in my life right now, I can look at a story I want to tell and say, “Is this better as a novel? Because I can write a novel. Is this better as a movie? Because I think I can write it as a movie.” It’s very situational to the idea.
I would be very excited if this screenplay you just mentioned were to see the light of day.
GR: That’s the current project, amidst everything else that’s going on, but there’s never just one thing that I’m working on. There’s a new Stumptown OGN [Original Graphic Novel] that Justin Greenwood and I are planning, and there are three other stories, all of them right now pointed at comics. They have artists and we’re developing them, and in some cases they’re being drawn. I’ve got two novels and I’m sitting there going, “When do I write this?” I’m not going to be bored, which I suppose is a luxury in a pandemic.
Taking it back to the screenwriting experience, what was it like to work on the movie as a whole?
GR: It sounds somewhat cliche to say educational, but it absolutely was because it was getting to move into a professional environment that I just wasn’t familiar with. It was a great experience and I think I was exceptionally fortunate in it. I got to work with some incredibly smart and incredibly talented people, none of whom ever felt the need to tell me to sit down and shut up, (laughs) you know what I mean? Gina, from the very first day we met, was adamant that I be part of the process with her, and that is a graciousness and a compliment that she was under no obligation to give. There are plenty of directors who come onto a project and say, “Hey, love your script, you’re fired, I’m hiring my best friend from high school, and they’re going to do rewrites or I’m going to rewrite it myself.” Gina didn’t do that. Skydance didn’t do that. Netflix didn’t do that. I would say, and it sounds cliche, but I could have hardly dreamt of a better experience. It was remarkable. It really was genuinely remarkable from front to back.
Some final quick questions – have you been keeping up with The CW’s Batwoman?
GR: I have not. I did not watch it. I am not involved with the show, in the same way that I’m not involved with the Wonder Woman movie. One of the natures of work for hire, and that’s what DC is, is that they get to use anything I ever wrote and they don’t need to pay me a penny for it other than what they paid me initially. So they get to do a TV show and they don’t talk to me and they don’t have to. They get to make a Wonder Woman movie that clearly is drawing from stuff that Nicola Scott and I created, and they are under no obligation to engage, and they clearly don’t.
Actress Ruby Rose left the part of Batwoman some time ago.
GR: Yeah, I’m aware she left the part.
Actress Javicia Leslie was cast as a new original character rather than recasting Kate Kane. We’ve heard some different things about her character, but there have not been many solid details yet. What do you think of the show opting to sideline Kate Kane in favor of an original character?
GR: Honestly, I have no opinion. I haven’t watched the show. I think the implication that the audience would not accept somebody else who took the name Kate Kane is a silly one because recastings happen all the time. But by the same token, if they’re going to create a new character for the role, then that’s their prerogative and one would hope that they wouldn’t make a carbon copy of Kate in so doing. I was pleased to see that they cast an actor who identifies as bisexual.
I agree. It’s great casting and it just comes down to the writers and their vision.
GR: Yeah, it’s going to come down to execution, as so many things often do. I wish them success with it. You’re going to have a hard time selling an Alice [Kate Kane’s villainous sister] plot if you don’t have Kate, but who knows?
Well that should be an incentive for many like me to catch up, because I’m more interested just to see how they execute it.
GR: You certainly get the entry level curiosity if nothing else. It’s like, “alright, let’s see how they do this.”