Filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo may be the directors behind some of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s biggest blockbusters — including their most recent release, “Avengers: Infinity War,” which has made over $1 billion in global ticket sales after less than two weeks in release — but they still remember what it’s like to be indie outsiders hoping for a chance to break out. Twenty years ago, they got that chance, care of one of Hollywood’s most enduring and inventive auteurs.
“We can never forget that the pivotal moment in our careers as filmmakers came when we were just these obscure weirdo filmmakers from Cleveland making a movie that nobody really wanted to see, except for one guy: Steven Soderbergh,” Anthony said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “He appreciated something of value in it, which, by the way, almost nobody else did. He was the only person of any consequence that said, ‘I see something of value in there.’ He helped us move forward from that moment.”
Added Joe, “He’s our mentor. He really taught us.”
The Russos first met Soderbergh at the 1997 Slamdance Film Festival, where they were premiering their feature debut, an off-kilter comedy made on the very cheap called “Pieces.” Soderbergh had previously broken out with his Palme d’Or-winning “sex, lies and videotape,” but the filmmaker was already showing off his now-characteristic bent towards mixing it up by bowing his bonkers, mostly improvised “Schizopolis” at the indie festival. Soderbergh saw “Pieces” and became an instant champion for both it and the Russos, eventually producing their first released film, “Welcome to Collinwood.”
“That was a remarkable change for us,” Anthony said. “It enabled us to have a voice as filmmakers, and so we look at it as our responsibility now. Artists are in a specific position to see something in other artists or see something in a specific piece of material that may be special that the normal business model of Hollywood can’t notice, can’t recognize, or isn’t willing to work with, for whatever reason.”
Soderbergh’s compulsion to try just about everything in the entertainment arena, and not just different genres, but different mediums, different budgets, different release strategies, also inspired the Russos to be similarly ambitious.
“Joe and I have had a very odd career as well,” Anthony said. “We’ve made movies for as cheaply as you could possibly make a movie for and we’ve made movies for as much money as you could possibly make a movie for. We’ve done television, we’ve done comedy, we’ve done drama, we’ve done major network, we’ve done cable, we shoot commercials. We love the variety of everything that you can do as filmmakers because we feel like the change in medium always provides us with new creative opportunities for us to push into and different muscles to use.”
He added, “I think Steven is very similar, but even in perhaps a more extreme way. That’s something that’s always been very inspiring to us.”
Marvel fans can also thank the “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Erin Brockovich” director for providing the pair with the inspiration to make the jump to big-budget movie-making, after working mostly on television shows like “Community” and “Arrested Development.” They credit Soderbergh for allowing them to even consider the possibility that their skill set could be a match for blockbuster films.
“One of those muscles that Steven has used throughout his career is commercial filmmaking,” Anthony said. “I don’t know that Joe and I would have ever been able to wrap our heads around commercial filmmaking in the way that we have without him, without that influence. That was something that he led us to in a way that I don’t know if we could have ever gotten there without his influence.”
Yet Soderbergh’s influence on their career is most obvious in the pair’s newest venture, their funded production company AGBO which aims to shepherd emerging indie talents and their projects to fruition. Just like Soderbergh did two decades ago for them, the Russos are eager to be mentors to the next generation.
“It’s developing very nicely,” Anthony said of the venture, which was announced at last year’s Cannes. “We’ve been very busy, obviously, with our Marvel work, but we have been able to make a lot of progress with that company. Because of our success, we were in a very rare position to bring a lot of capital to the table.”
Their current slate is a full one, punctuated by different projects in very different states of development. Later this year, they’ll release their Sundance pickup (bought in tandem with NEON), “Assassination Nation,” and their series “Deadly Class,” based on Rick Remender and Wes Craig’s comic book series of the same name, just got a full series order from Syfy. AGBO expanded into virtual reality earlier this year, teaming up with Darren Lynn Bousman’s The Tension Experience to help develop new immersive experiences, destinations, and brand partnerships.
The Russos have also brought plenty of indie auteurs under their wing already, including Morten Tyldum (who will direct “Exit West”), “It” filmmaker Andy Muschietti (who is attached to direct an adaptation of the book “The Electric State”), and indie stalwarts The Daniels. The Russos sparked to the pair’s unique talents after seeing their Sundance breakout “Swiss Army Man,” and shared that the pair are currently working on signing up a star actor that they wrote their newest film expressly for.
Elsewhere, the pair are producing “Deepwater Horizon” screenwriter Matt Carnahan’s directorial debut, which is two weeks away from wrapping production. While the pair stayed mum on details, Anthony did offer, “It’s not a project any other company would have made.” He added, That’s really the mission of the company:’ How do we get movies and artists through the system that might not make it through otherwise?'”
“Avengers: Infinity War” is currently in theaters.