Primarily known for their work on non-blockbuster TV shows like “Community” and “Arrested Development,” Anthony and Joe Russo were hired to direct “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” for Marvel, and the decision seemingly came out of left field. TV directors with no action movie experience to take on a big Marvel tentpole? Not only did the Russos convince the skeptics, but they knocked ‘Winter Solider’ out of the park, granting further legitimacy to Marvel’s desire to make seemingly off-kilter but collaborative choices. The brothers essentially took over Joss Whedon’s role as Marvel’s in-house consigliere —not bad for their first time at bat on a major studio picture.
That film’s success led the Russos to this year’s “Captain America: Civil War,” a much more ambitious movie that on cursory inspection could easily be mistaken for an ‘Avengers’ film. ‘Civil War’ also leads to a deal to make the two part “Avengers: Infinity War”; indeed, these former “just TV” directors now have the keys to one of the biggest franchises on the planet right now.
With four Marvel movies on their slate, three of which function as collective team movies (not to mention the fact that ‘Civil War’ brings fan-favorite Black Panther to the screen for the first time, as well as debuting the Marvel Cinematic Universe‘s Spider-Man), the Russos quick ascension through the Marvel ranks is remarkable.
The Playlist recently sat down with the Russo siblings to discuss “Captain America: Civil War” and the idea of the brothers being the most significant creative guides at Marvel currently. We also spoke about the secret plan that brought Spider-Man back into the Marvel fold, the decision to use IMAX as an exclusive shooting format for the two ‘Infinity War’ films, and much more.
Since Joss Whedon’s work on “The Avengers,” there’s been the idea of a creative “godfather” for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole, working closely with Kevin Feige. Are the two of you in that role now?
Joe Russo: We’re telling a story that starts with ‘The Winter Soldier’ and ends with the conclusion of ‘Infinity War.’ There’s certainly a through-line that we are shepherding, and we are very close with a lot of the other filmmakers that are working in the Marvel Universe right now. The very nature of our relationship with each other is collaborative. We love collaboration: we’ll text other [Marvel filmmakers] all the time, email ideas, and we’ll jump in the room sometime. We spent time with Peyton Reed a couple weeks ago talking about where he wants to go with “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” and how that might affect our storytelling in ‘Infinity War.’ So it’s all very collaborative, almost like an artist collective more than a “godfather” situation. We’re all very respectful of each other. We get excited by ideas, and we’re more excited by being surprised by ideas than we are in dictating the course of events. We’ve found that leads to more interesting storytelling.
Anthony Russo: I think Kevin Feige really sets that tone at Marvel. We’ve always really respected the way he treats every movie as its own thing and gives it the space to become what it wants to be. He doesn’t put too many expectations on what it needs to hit narratively. There can certainly be ideas that a movie has to get to in order to tether it to the rest of the universe, but it’s always kept to a minimum. And Marvel is never more happy than when filmmakers start doing things they didn’t expect. That’s when they know they’re in a good place. All credit to them for creating an environment where we can look like that.
Was there a point in “Captain America: Civil War” where Spider-Man was not a factor?
Anthony: If you go through the development process, in a sense, yes. When we first started to circle the idea of ‘Civil War,’ he wasn’t necessarily in the conversation. As we started to fill the idea out of what we wanted ‘Civil War’ to be, he came up right away on a creative level. The reality of him being able to be in the movie was lagging far behind that.
So it was kind of a scary place for us to be in creatively, because we were so in love with the idea of having him in the movie for a variety of reasons. To give you one, the movie is complicated. You’ve got Captain America and Iron Man in a very serious conflict that goes to a dark place. We’re big fans of balance in storytelling, and we like movies that hit every emotion. We wanted this movie to be balanced and layered. So it was important for us to bring characters into the movie who didn’t have the same investment in the very difficult storyline that is ripping the Avengers apart. That’s why characters like Spider-Man or Ant-Man are so valuable, because they show up in the movie not having the baggage everyone else has, and they have have different moments or hit different notes than the other characters who are in a more serious conflict can have.
Joe: It creates variance in the tone.
Anthony: So in our goal of making a balanced movie, we thought it was very important to have that. Then the fact that we are actually able to have the character in the movie is a mind-blowing gift that we could never have counted on. But since Kevin Feige and Louis D’Esposito are running Marvel, they figured out a way to work with the good people at Sony to share this valuable property and bring him to the MCU.
Did you have a contingency plan to either cut Spider-Man out or replace him with another character in the event that the Sony deal didn’t work?
Anthony: No. This was a difficult thing. We were developing the script with [screenwriters] Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely for months based on the idea he’d be there. You have to commit to him. The only reason he’s in the movie is because he has to be in the movie to make the story work. Otherwise, he shouldn’t be in the movie.
Joe: If there’s an option for him to not be in the movie, then with all the complicated dealmaking, energy and effort required to do it, people will find a reason not to go through with the deal.
You’d effectively be undermining yourself by providing an out.
Joe: Yes, you have to will it into existence.
Anthony: They always said “guys, you have to have a plan B!” We said “don’t worry, we’ve got a plan B” —and we never had a plan B.
For characters like Black Panther and Spider-Man, who’ll get their own solo films directed by Ryan Coogler and Jon Watts, where does the question of authorship fall in terms of casting and development?
Anthony: Marvel has this focus on the individual movie. You can’t get too ahead of yourself. You can think about where you’re going down the line and can have ideas about it, so you keep in a vague zone of [where you’re going]. But you are going to hurt the individual movie if it isn’t all about that movie at that moment. So when we cast Spider-Man, it was all about ‘Civil War.’ Of course, there were ideas about where he was going, but it was “what do we need to make this character work best in this movie?”
Same thing with Panther: he’ll have his own standalone film, and I’m sure Ryan will make an awesome movie. All it was about for us was “what is Panther doing in this movie?” How do we introduce him in this film, and what are the needs for this particular movie? How do we service that best as storytellers?
Joe: I think the audience is open to it in the same way when they read comic books and different writers deal with different characters. We have a very different interpretation of Captain America than Joss does. His interpretation of him in ‘Ultron’ is very different from our interpretation in ‘The Winter Soldier.’ I think that’s what makes it exciting and keeps the material different, fluid and surprising.
Anthony: Like Joe said, there’s a precedent for that in the comics themselves. There are various iterations of who these characters are, and storylines do end and pick up in ways that allow each expression to be original, fun and not over-burdened with the history.
Are you shooting all of ‘Infinity War’ on IMAX?
Joe: Exclusively on IMAX. We used the IMAX cameras for the 17-minute airport sequence in this movie. We have a lot of characters with a real verticality —these are not people who are bound to the earth. Even moreso than that airport sequence, ‘Infinity War,’ is dealing with characters who have real verticality. Thanos is a very large character in stature. There are other characters like him, because it’s very cosmic. We’re always driven by the storytelling —what is the story we want to tell? We need that verticality for the the scope of what we want those movies to be. We’re fortunate that IMAX is healthy: it’s a format that fans love and it happens to work great for our storytelling.
Anthony: To be clear, you’ll be able to see the film in any theater. But if you are in an IMAX theater, you’ll see the entire movie from beginning to end in the IMAX screen dimensions.
You’d been attached to a “Ghostbusters” movie not too long ago. What happened there?
Joe: Very early on, we were almost identically engaged at the same time Paul Feig was, but on two very different tracks. We were developing an idea with Channing [Tatum] and his company. Two things happened. One is that Paul closed his deal before we did, so it became his universe. Secondly, we closed a deal on ‘Infinity War,’ so we no longer had the option to work on anything until 2019. So we are no longer involved with the project, and the ‘Ghostbusters’ universe that exists is the Paul-authored one.
Do you still have a deal with Sony at this point?
Joe: We have a producing deal with them.
Anthony: Which was actually very helpful in the idea of sharing Spider-Man. That was all going on at the same time as well.
And is “The Gray Man” gone?
Joe: The same thing happened there. We wrote the script, then had to step off the project. I believe Christopher McQuarrie has stepped in.
“Captain America: Civil War” opens on May 6th.