The Russo brothers might be nerd royalty now — having directed 2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and this summer’s sequel, “Civil War,” before being entrusted with Marvel’s crown jewel, “The Avengers” — but when they shot the pilot for the cult TV series “Arrested Development,” their dailies terrified a Fox executive.
“They called us up after seeing the first day of dailies, we were on set on Day 2, and they said, ‘This is a disaster!’” Anthony Russo recalls of his early work on the 2003 comedy series created by Ron Howard and Mitch Hurwitz.
“To be fair, we were running four or five cameras at a time,” brother and directing partner Joe Russo interjects. “We knew we were going to grab two seconds here, three seconds there.”
Tasked with reinventing the sitcom, the pair of self-described guerrilla filmmakers took to the streets, jumping out of vans with fully wired actors and hand-held cameras, filming permits be damned.
“It was revolutionary at the time,” Anthony continues. “We were shooting in digital video, which nobody understood. The irony of it is that we ended up getting an Emmy for directing on the episode where they were like, ‘You guys can’t direct!’”
The irony of it is that we ended up getting an Emmy for directing on the episode where they were like, ‘You guys can’t direct!’
The “Arrested Development” pilot would serve as a calling card for the duo, landing them a gig shooting “Community,” another indie-darling TV comedy.
That’s about when Marvel came calling.
“We just got a call one day from our agent, who said, ‘Marvel has a list of 10 directors that they want to talk to about the next Captain America movie, and you guys are on it,’” Anthony says.
“We had recently done these paintball episodes for ‘Community,’ Kevin [Feige, president of Marvel Studios] loved them,” Joe adds. “He also looks for people who understand humor. It’s a combination. We were in the tonal zone for him with guys who have done a lot of comedy, and then all of a sudden he saw this paintball episode and went, ‘They also understand the action genre, maybe we should talk to them?’”
Those conversations led to the well-received “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which put the brothers in line not only to direct its sequel, “Captain America: Civil War” (set to premiere May 6), but the two-part film “The Avengers: Infinity War,” coming out in 2018.
So what does it take to land a coveted spot on the Marvel movie roster? How did Joe and Anthony Russo persuade Marvel studios to give them, not just one, but four movies?
“Really it comes down to people having done something interesting,” Feige says over the phone. “Regardless of scale, regardless of scope. [Jon Favreau’s] ‘Elf’ is an incredibly well-made movie. Joss Whedon’s TV projects and even his first feature ‘Serenity’ are unbelievably clever, unquestionably character-focused and spectacular. James Gunn with ‘Super’ and ‘Slither'…. And that’s certainly the case with Joe and Anthony.”
Raised in Cleveland, Joe and Anthony, born a year apart, started as scrappy festival filmmakers. Financing their first movie, “Pieces,” on credit cards, they ran through the festival circuit and caught the eye of director Steven Soderbergh.
The two would form a mentor-type relationship with Soderbergh and eventually hand over three scripts to his production company: a hard-core gangster flick, an action thriller and the comedy “Welcome to Collinwood.” Soderbergh’s team picked the comedy. “It was the easiest to get financed,” Joe says. That decision would send the Russos down an unforeseen comedy path — “Collinwood” led to the FX series “Lucky,” about a degenerate gambler, which led to “Arrested Development,” which in turn led them to NBC’s “Community.”
“The truth is, I wanted [Ken] Kwapis [the director of the American ‘Office’ pilot] and he wasn’t available,” “Community” creator Dan Harmon said. “The reason I don’t mind saying it is because it doesn’t matter how you meet people. It turns out that the Russo brothers were the right choice, they just happened to be my second choice. They came in and they were amazing… When I look back on the decisions that they made from square one and how much they have to do with what made ‘Community’ great, I’m awestruck and retroactively so grateful.”
Even though the brothers unintentionally followed the cult comedy path, working on unconventional material helped teach them to subvert genre — beneficial for anyone entering the heavily saturated superhero market. “It’s like we were made in a Marvel machine,” Joe says. “The reason the [Marvel movies] work is because you’re hybriding genre… that’s all ‘Community’ is; we’re hybriding genre. We’re making fun of genre, we’re deconstructing genre.”
Splicing together the political thriller with Captain America certainly worked for “Winter Soldier,” injecting the franchise with a serious tone for hero Steve Rogers, taking him from hero to insurgent, while maintaining the comic book lightness the fans have familiarized themselves with. But now they have an even greater challenge. After 12 films, three TV series spinoffs, and with a roster of more than a dozen superheroes story lines to direct, “Civil War” could be one of the most complicated films to pull off. Not only will it be introducing Sony’s new Spider-Man and the long-awaited Black Panther character, but “Civil War” will launch Marvel’s phase three initiative by pitting Captain America against Iron Man.
The Russos are well aware the public’s tolerance for superhero fare is one bad movie away — in fact, that was baked into their first pitch to Feige. “You have to switch it up as you move forward, because if you keep giving them the same thing, they’re going to tell you that they love it, and then one day you’re going to put a movie out and it’s going to bomb,” Joe says.
And how do they plan to shake up the Marvel status quo? By deconstructing the whole cinematic universe.
“We’re going to have to do something unexpected,” says Joe. “We’re going to have to play with the audience’s expectations. We’re going to have to be radical with the tone, which is why it’s so diverse in tone. When we sat down to start crafting story, we went, ‘It’s going to be a very heavy movie,’ because we wanted to take Cap on a journey through all three films, and it’s a radical journey… it moves him the farthest away from where he started, to go from a patriot to an insurgent.
“We knew we were taking a big risk by taking these very popular characters, and putting them in a very emotionally wrought, horrific… it goes full-on horror,” Joe warns.
That doesn’t mean “Civil War” is devoid of the levity and wit the audience has grown to love. This is a hybrid of light and dark, psychological horror and an epic superhero showdown. But if everyone is at war, you need to have someone to crack jokes. “We were so lucky [‘Ant-Man’] happened while we were working on the film,” Joe says. “We were able to bring in an actor like Paul Rudd into the movie and a character like Spider-Man so we could have a period of the movie where it did become a lot of fun, so that it wasn’t just a dour experience that’s typically not even commercially viable.”
While the audience is siding with Team Iron Man or Team Cap across the globe for “Civil War” the brothers are already working on crossing the next and more challenging hurdle for Marvel, the two-part “Avengers: Infinity War.”
But for right now they’re on the Marvel global press circuit promoting what could easily be Marvel’s next blockbuster. “The thing I always laugh about is we tried for years to make successful television,” Anthony says. “And at the end of the day we never had a show run as long as our run at Marvel.”
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