As part of our set visit to Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I had a chance to interview directors Joe and Anthony Russo as part of a behind-the-scenes look at the sequel for a small group of lucky reporters. These guys know their stuff. Not just comedy, as fans of their work on Community and Arrested Development surely know, but also the comic book source material, and the genre of political thrillers, which grounds this movie in an incredibly exciting way.
While on set, the Russo brothers talked about how they landed the directing job, being such huge fans of genre, working with this talented cast, balancing character screen time and relationships, modernizing the fighting style, and the all-important Easter eggs. The real stinger here is that something major happens in this film’s third act that will impact the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe! Hit the jump for the interview.
Joe Russo: No, it was specifically Captain America. We had a call from our agent who said that Kevin [Feige] was a big fan of Community, and would we come in to meet on Captain America. Obviously, we jumped at the chance. Set up a meeting and came in. They were interviewing a lot of directors at the time; it was an exhaustive search. It was a real competition; we had to come back for multiple meetings. The conversations were really just about our passion for the material, that lined up with our love of comic books and our love of 70s thrillers. I think our passion translated, and after a few rounds we ended up getting the movie.
You guys knew you were wired for it, but were you surprised you landed on the radar for a gig like this?
Joe Russo: You know, it’s interesting. We’ve been doing this for a long time. We’ve worked with just about everybody in the business. Kevin is truly one of the most interesting people I’ve worked with in the business. Probably the only guy I’ve come across who can pull off a movie like The Avengers. If you knew how difficult it is to line up those kinds of salaries, stars, get that material pushed through, have ownership of that material, have control of that material, quality control, to the extent that he did, it’s almost impossible. As a fan of this stuff, I’d known for years … My brother and I, when we first got into the business, tried to get the rights to The Lord of the Rings. There was a period in the 90s when they were available for a second. We just know how difficult it is to take that kind of material and turn it into something of that scale. So, I think he had seen the paintball episode on Community. He thinks outside the box. “You know what, these guys get action, clearly they’re skewing genre on the show, so they understand genre and how to deconstruct it. Maybe they have a secret love for it,” which we did. He brought us in for a meeting and we talked about it.
What are some of the challenges and advantages of coming into the Marvel Universe, that already exists in its own right, and trying to create something new and take some of the different turns that you guys are taking?
Joe Russo: There hasn’t been any real challenges for us, to be honest; I know that sounds crazy, but it really has been all advantages, you know? It’s a great piece of material, we have great actors who understand their characters, like I said, we got to reboot a little bit on the tone, which is great. Almost everything, all the ideas that came to the table are in the movie. It so rarely happens that way. So, creatively, it’s been a very rewarding film for us. We were just saying, the most fulfilling job of our careers. Arrested Development was a struggle, that was a very difficult show, where the studio was not supportive of it; it was the red-headed stepchild when we were making it. There were quotes that were thrown our way that were vaguely insulting while we were making it with Mitch coming from the network, so it was made under conflict and controversy. I think that show became what it became because the three of us – me, Anthony and Mitch – didn’t give a shit, because we had nothing to lose at that time. So we said, “Alright, we’ll make it as radical as we want to because what do we care? They already don’t think the show’s going to work.” That’s one environment to work under; this has been the exact opposite of that. It’s been support and real infrastructure.
Anthony Russo: We got very lucky because this project was sort of sitting in a sweet spot in that we’d loved everything that had come before, but at the same time, they wanted it to go somewhere completely new. So, for us, it was like what we were inheriting was all good, and where we took it had a lot of freedom. So it’s great.
When you guys work as directors, are you like two halves of the same mind, or do each of you have strengths?
Joe Russo: The same answer we always give is that there’s no formal division of labor with us. We’ve been doing it a real long time together, since 94, so almost 20 years. It is a little bit like a Vulcan mind meld. And we always say, there’s no formal division of labor, it’s really who has the most energy to get out of the chair and give the note at that moment. [laughs]
Anthony Russo: You get it. No, you get it. No, you get it.
Joe Russo: We’ve even gotten to the point where we’ll just sit there at the monitor and yell stuff out. But it’s a very loose set with us. Honestly, you don’t have to double-cover us. If somebody shows him a set plan and he signs off on it, it’s as good as both of us seeing it. He’ll explain to me what we’re doing and vice versa. When we were working on multiple TV shows, we had to adapt that attitude anyway because it’s impossible for one person to run back and forth, so we had to switch back and forth constantly. He would let me know what was going on when he was at Community and I would let him know what was going on with Happy Endings and we would switch, you know. So it’s been a real good partnership; keeps us level.
Anthony Russo: It’s an interesting question. Yeah, because there is so much to do, but the fact of the matter is that the movie was so thoroughly prepped. It was in good shape very early, so it was a long process, and a really thoroughly considered process in prepping this movie and executing this movie, so it was very comfortable. You always get into situations during production where you’re trying to buy a little extra, and certainly having two of us helps to steal some extra stuff now and then because we can run splinter units more easily. Then it’s definitely helpful. With so many people involved, if you have a good partner, it helps.
This film has Cap teaming up with a lot of new and old characters. Is there a core relationship in this film that draws the center of attention?
Joe Russo: Yeah I think the core is Cap’s relationship with himself, really; that’s the essence of the movie, Cap’s relationship to the modern world. And then after that, you have overlapping circles of relationships. There are people that he’s saying goodbye to, there’s the new friend in Sam and Falcon, there’s the potential for new relationships. He has a very strong relationship with [Black] Widow in the movie. But I think the two strongest relationships would be Sam and Widow. He and Fury have a great relationship, but it’s combative in this film.
Anthony Russo: Cap is very much the central figure in this story, so all the strong relationships in the movie are in relation to Cap. Everybody in relation to Cap.
Joe Russo: He goes on a very personal journey in this movie, obviously. The story of the Winter Soldier, it’s very operatic in its construct because it’s talking about, your best friend is a villain. When I sat with Kevin, I remember one of the first things we said to him was, “If you’re going to do the Winter Soldier story, you’ve got Star Wars on your hands,” because so rarely do you ever have a hero of the story with an emotional connection or that kind of emotional stake with his adversary. It’s almost never. I think that’s the genius of [Ed] Brubaker’s storyline, is that it’s his best friend, literally his brother, really.
And with Cap as the central figure, is he in every single scene of the film or do we get to see the other characters pair off as well?
Joe Russo: No, we get to see the other characters. He drives a lot of the movie, clearly; it’s his film. But there’s a sort of dual storyline that’s playing out within S.H.I.E.L.D., and the earlier parts of this film are sort of moving back and forth between those two storylines until they intersect and Cap takes over the movie.
Can you talk about the casting of Anthony and how you knew he was the right guy? And also, I don’t know if pressure is the right word, but is there more to consider when you have the Marvel series because he might be in all these other movies?
Anthony Russo: One thing Kevin always does, which is awesome, is he doesn’t think too far down the line, he likes to keep very focused on what’s happening. I mean, of course you have to be mindful of possibilities in the future, but if you get too far ahead of yourself you can kind of … you’re not servicing the moment. At any given moment it’s about the movie that’s being crafted at that particular time, which is great. Yeah, we fell in love with Anthony Mackie for this character because he has an energy and a sense of fun, and it was sort of just … Cap’s coming from a very difficult place in this movie. He’s basically a guy who wakes up in the modern world, we’re maybe a year or two after he’s come out of the state and his whole world is gone, this guy has lost everybody. It’s a very severe sort of emotional and psychological place to be in, and Anthony Mackie just has this sort of wonderful energy that we just thought, if you’re going to form a new friendship, he needed somebody like that to pull him.
Joe Russo: There’s a maturity to his performance but there’s also a charm and a sense of humor, and it sort of draws Cap out, which is great because it gives him a different shade, a different tone to play off of than he’s played with in the past.
What are some of the other pros and cons of being in the Marvel Cinematic Universe tapestry? Planting the right Easter eggs here or there, not getting too distracted by that stuff? For you guys, what’s been the challenge.
Joe Russo: Yeah, the fun part of that, if you are a comic book geek like me, you get off on that stuff. That’s the exciting component of that, “What can we set up for the future?” And they’re constantly pitching out ideas that not only just effects your movie, but might also have a ripple effect in the other films, and Joss [Whedon] is reading the scripts, the Thor script and the Cap script, and going, “Okay, this is where I’m getting the characters and this is where I have to pick them up in the next movie.” So, it’s a a weird sort of, I don’t know, tapestry of writers and directors working together to create this universe. It’s sort of organic, it’s not structured. Of course, there are things you can always go borrow from the storylines of the books, but it stays very fluid, the process.
Anthony Russo: Also, I think it comes very natural to us because the work we did on Arrested Development and Community, we played with a lot of foreshadowing and callbacks and…
Joe Russo: And layering.
Anthony Russo: And tracking that stuff over a season of television, or multiple seasons, it’s just something that’s in our … we’re sort of patterned for it anyway. I think that’s one reason why we may have made a nice fit here at Marvel. It’s like we sort of understand how you take a larger story and wrangle it into a moment, yet keep them connected.
You mentioned earlier about having no challenges, but is there a particular aspect of this film, maybe a sequence that you were getting into that really excited you?
Joe Russo: Absolutely! I mean, look, we are action nuts, really. We do study action movies. My DVD player, or my AppleTV lives at quarter-speed. I watch things and try to dissect them. It’s one of the things that was so exciting on Community for us, we’re constantly skewing genre; we’re genre nuts. So there were a couple of action sequences that we knew were going to be really complex. We wanted to bring some style of action that maybe hasn’t been seen in American movies in a little while, just the style of fighting and an intensity so that we really feel it. These stunt guys are really taking hits. It’s a very visceral execution of a lot of the stuff. We had a huge sequence in Cleveland where we had to shut down the freeway for two weeks. We always knew that that would probably be the most difficult part of the shoot, not only because of the length of the action sequence, but just fighting the elements, being outside, the city got upset, clearly, because they were all enduring traffic for a movie. But those sequences are the ones we really get the most excited about, because one of our big pitches to Kevin and one of the things that really attracted us to the movie was the ability to come at it with a fresh point of view really on the action front, you know? It’s very gritty. We’re working with Spiro Razatos, who does all the Fast movies, as a second unit director. The three of us got very engaged in how far can we push things, how aggressive can we make them look. There are some cool car chases in the movie that are very influenced by 70s chases … To Live and Die in L.A., I’m a huge fan of Ronin, I think that movie’s genius. I think [John] Frankenheimer schooled everybody as an 80-year-old, you know, “This is how you do it.” So it’s got a lot of that. I think Ronin might be the biggest influence on the car stuff in the movie, just in terms of the sound work that he did on that film, the aggressiveness of the camera work, how close could we get the cameras to the cars, a few cameras were destroyed in the process, that kind of stuff. But it’s all about pushing it, pushing it, and pushing it.
Anthony Russo: What most excited us, too, is how we come up with these great action set pieces that play to Cap as a character as much as possible. Looking at him and how he’s unique in the Marvel universe and what sets him apart, and the fact that, essentially, he’s a man only more so. It’s not flying across the sky, or transforming into something else. So we sort of came up with an approach of a hard-hitting, hardcore realism version of what a superhero movie can be on an action level.
Joe Russo: So you literally have to execute that stuff, and that’s what I was saying. A lot of bumps and bruises on the stunt guys and for Chris, a lot of punches thrown, a lot of hits taken, a lot of violent stunts where guys are getting thrown twenty feet into a car window, you know, and then having to get up and walk away from it. So, as Anth mentioned, for us, that’s what’s exciting about Cap, he can literally execute stuff. It’s not Iron Man where he lives in a virtual world and most of that fighting is done after the fact.
Do you get creative with the shield?
Joe Russo: We do get creative with the shield! That was a big thing for us. The approach for us with Cap was this: In the 40s, it makes sense. He’s off the streets. He can fight like John Sullivan. It’s that style of big swings, the shield’s very pronounced, because he hasn’t necessarily been trained yet. Now that he’s in the future, he has a fast mind – it’s part of what the serum does to him – it’s a tactical mind, he learns things quickly. So for us, our approach was, he would absorb everything in that year, year and a half, all the training that he could possibly get, you know? And all the tools at his disposal would be affected by that training, so there are some interesting moments with the shield where he even uses just one handle on it. He uses it more in an Eastern style to fight people. We figured, for us, those are the things that excite me about the character. I like post-modern … when [Frank] Miller released The Dark Knight and I was like 12 or 13, it blew my mind, and it changed my whole approach to comic books. I like post-modern deconstruction of heroes. It just feels to me like there’s more layers there for the character. Included in that would be, how do we make Cap modern? How do we make him feel modern? And that’s what I like about the MCU versus the comic books. Look, I’ve already read it; I don’t need to see the literal interpretation of that. My imagination’s pretty good, I can sit at home and figure that stuff out. I want to go see some fresh … If we didn’t support people like Brubaker, we’d never have the Winter Soldier storyline, which I think is one of the best comic story lines in the last 50 years. So that’s the way we approached this movie was how do we deconstruct it? How do we put him in a new place that would appeal to people of similar tastes?
Can you talk a bit more about S.H.I.E.L.D.? It sounds like they have a major role. And what we might learn, plus your take on Nick Fury and Maria Hill. I know we met her in The Avengers, but we don’t know as much about her as some of the other characters.
Anthony Russo: If you go back to the relationship question, too, the relationship between Cap and Nick Fury in this movie is really rich and complicated. These two guys are very different animals, and there’s this sort of plot that sets them up in a way where they really have to confront their differences and sort it out, and it’s a messy process. But it’s all wrapped up in terms of, “What is S.H.I.E.L.D.?” And what Cap started fighting for in the first place, and what that organization is, and what that mission evolved to in several incarnations.
Joe Russo: The heart of the movie is how they got a character with a code like Cap to work for a clandestine organization which has a very subversive agenda. Can they coexist together? Fury represents the organization, Cap is Cap, and with it being a political thriller, we want to turn the gas up on that as high as you can because that’s where you’re going to get your political thriller components. It’s where you’re going to get the conflict in the movie. Cap to us is like Rocky: He’s a very clean character in terms of his code. It’s very open, it’s very obvious to you. He doesn’t hide anything. As an audience member, similar to Rocky, I want him to win for that reason. I like that he wears his heart on his sleeve. I find it endearing, especially in today’s world, to have a character that doesn’t hide anything, that tells the truth, and sees truth as an important component to being a human being. This movie puts him through a lot; he really gets the shit kicked out of him, and for us it was important, because the harder he fights to earn it, the more you care, at the end of the movie, that he won. Or that he earns what he gets. That’s sort of how the relationship between S.H.I.E.L.D. and Cap will play out in the movie.
Anthony Russo: We relied on him a lot. We pitched him the idea of how we saw Cap transforming in this movie and how he’d been spending the past couple of years in terms of throwing himself into the modern world, training extremely hard. That was all stuff that really excited him, and he ran with it. I mean, he had to do a lot of heavy training for this movie and it wasn’t in his wheelhouse yet. I think that really got him going. Chris is great, we talk to him a lot and he understands the character really well. We talk to him a lot about how the character moves through these beats in the story, talked to him in the writing phase, talked to him a lot. He has a mind to direct himself, so he doesn’t think only from an actor’s point of view, he likes to approach things from a producer’s point of view or a director’s point of view, so it’s nice to talk to him about this stuff. He’s been very helpful in terms of how we craft the movie and the character.
Joe Russo: He’s a very clever actor. He really embraced the concept and the direction we were going. He worked his ass off in training. He trained for months. He’s in great shape for this film and he executes a lot of the fighting on his own, which is great because that’s like what I was talking about with The Raid, and the visceral quality of seeing the actual actor executing the fighting in the movie makes it more engaging. There are points where we wanted him out of his mask so you could have that experience where you’re watching and you go, “Whoa, that is him. Jesus!” And he does a fantastic job.
Can you talk a little bit about the suit changes and the redesigns?
Joe Russo: Sure. I mean, for us again, the design approach we took to the suit was, he’s thrown himself into working for S.H.I.E.L.D., he’s committed to it at the start of the movie. If he is going to work for this organization … imagine an organization where you’re not just dealing with Chitauri and aliens, you’re dealing with hostage crises, terrorists, situations that he would be necessary for and is probably out there every day being sent into some operation somewhere in the world. So we wanted a suit that would reflect the reality of him being an operative on that level for this organization. Obviously, it’s also thematic for us because it’s not his traditional suit, it’s the Steve Rogers suit. For us, the reason that we went in that direction was, you know, the tonality of the suit worked for secret missions.
Anthony Russo: With the best military effort you can make today, what would he be wearing?
Joe Russo: The other thing was, we didn’t want him in any kind of fabrics or … the suit to us is made of Kevlar, it’s bullet-proof, that’s it’s job. It’s supposed to keep him from getting shot, so it has to have a real functionality. That’s what we kept saying to everybody: If there’s a design element on it that’s not functional, take it off. It has to be functional. If I was going to design this for real world combat, that’s what it needs to be. That was our approach to the suit, because that’s where the movie starts, this very grounded place. There’s a thematic shift in the film, and you’ll see as the movie progresses; I can’t talk about where we go from there, but … there have been various speculations online … but it has a thematic arc.
Did you take any fan input with regards to the suit? Earpieces, no earpieces, where the wings go.
Joe Russo: You know, you always try to listen to fans because it’s who you’re making these movies for. Coming from Arrested and Community, where we had these ravenous fan bases, I’m always reading the message boards to just get ideas from people. I have a very clear sense of taste for what I know I like about the comics and what I want to see. I want to see his ears; I don’t like his ears covered up. For me it was a big thing, so we fought for that. Fans are split on that. You’ll never be able to please everybody, so you’ve just got to go with what your taste is and what your gut is. You’ll always find that that’s the best recipe for success, is that there’s a strong point of view to it and it’s not a diluted point of view. So, we made strong choices. Hopefully people dig ‘em. At the end of the day, I’ll sit back and enjoy the choices we made.
Talk about casting Redford and what it was like speaking to him initially and working with him on set.
Anthony Russo: First off, it was incredible. Look, other than being a fan of his as an actor, and his movies having an enormous influence on us, we also came up through the independent film route in the late 90s, so we went through Park City, we weren’t at Sundance but we were at Slamdance with our first movie. That’s how we got into the business, so the whole phenomenon that he’s begun, it’s like he couldn’t have a larger presence in our filmmaking.
Joe Russo: We owe our careers to him because it’s how we got all our exposure.
Anthony Russo: It was really special, and considering the specific genre and pedigree of this movie, to be able to cast him in this movie, in a political thriller, in a movie that’s aspiring to the best of what the 70s political thrillers did, it’s really incredible and it’s powerful. You watch him in this movie and it’s like a trigger, it’s like you have this place in your psyche that he occupies, especially when it’s in this political thriller mode. You just respond to it and light up to it in a way that’s really special. When you bring a new character into the Marvel universe, it’s got to be somebody strong, because there are strong characters everywhere; we couldn’t have done better than him for that character.
Was there a temptation to drop any Easter eggs from Three Days of the Condor, or just a nod here or there?
Joe Russo: There’s one. We hid one in there.
Anthony Russo: A small one, yeah. [laughter]
Joe Russo: You’ve got to really look for it. It’s a “pause your DVD” Easter egg.
Joe Russo: He was talking about some other movie. [laughter] He’s got a relationship to Cap not unlike Ralph Fiennes in Skyfall. There’s a conflict between the two.
Anthony Russo: The great thing about this movie is that Cap just has conflicts all over the place with these characters. And there’s a level of ambiguity to that and it sort of plays out as the movie goes on.
Joe Russo: Redford’s still the nicest guy we’ve ever worked with. He really is. He’s extremely intelligent and very easy to work with.
Talk about the pairing of Black Widow and Cap a little more, because obviously we saw them together in Avengers. What’s it like to have the two of them away from the rest of the team?
Joe Russo: It plays into what we’re playing with with Fury, as well. Her character lies for a living, that’s what she does. His character tells the truth. That’s why we put the two of them together in the movie.
Anthony Russo: Give them a problem and they’ll have different ways of approaching it.
Joe Russo: Exactly. She’s pushing him to modernize, and he’s pushing her to add a certain level of integrity to her life. Chris and Scarlett have … I think this is their fourth movie together … they have amazing chemistry; their scenes are fantastic in the movie. They’re really, really good together. It’s a really combustible relationship.
Since you guys signed on, how much has the script changed over time?
Joe Russo: The initial story arc is there. We did a lot of work just putting it in a voice. We edged it up a lot more and came up with a lot of set pieces. It’s based on our love of 70s set pieces, which have a certain length to them, there’s a journey that you go on when you watch them. They’re story-based. There’s something at stake for four-and-a-half minutes that you’re going, “Holy shit! What’s gonna happen here?” We just did a reworking in that regard, but they had a really excellent construct to the script that was really sound, where it was going, a very big idea that they’re exploring in the third act of this movie. It’s a sort of, you know, monumental idea for the MCU.
Joe Russo: Yes, it impacts everything. That has always been there. So it was easier to do the script work because it had such a clear spine to it, such a strong spine. They were already playing with the themes we wanted to push into more. I relate to those themes of Cap, the loneliness that he feels and the sense of isolation that he has, that makes him an extremely endearing character, so we wanted to push those as far as we could. Again, in a political thriller, you’ve got to care about the guy, so the more we could make him … if you watch Three Days of the Condor, the first ten minutes are all about Robert Redford being as charming as possible, and then the next 80 minutes are about, “Is that charming guy that you really like going to get killed by some really gnarly people?” It’s a similar construct, we just tried to make you care as much as you can about Cap, and then we put him in jeopardy for the rest of the movie.
In prepping for the movie, did you get to do some fanboy indulgence and have good long conversations with Brubaker, or even Stan Lee?
Joe Russo: Absolutely. Yup. We had dinner with Brubaker. It was one of the first things we did when we signed on. We made sure we had his blessing. He’s a brilliant writer. We wanted to pick his brain about where the character came from, what he’s thinking, what the themes are behind the character. We’ve been in contact with Brubaker all along, and there’s even a Brubaker Easter egg somewhere in the movie. Stan Lee, we didn’t get to meet with until we did his cameo, but he’s fantastic.
Going forward, obviously you’ve gone back into film with this huge project. Do you see yourselves in film going forward, or if there was a chance to go direct an episode of Community, would you be up for it?
Anthony Russo: We love the show and it’s very important to us. I don’t know if we’d have time to do that, but yeah, we love both television and features. We love what we’re doing now. This has been a long time coming for us. We’ve spent a lot of years in TV, and things were going so well for us in television that we didn’t get back to features for a long time, so this movie is representing a lot of years of thought and preparation on our part for something like this.
Joe Russo: And how to transition back. It’s material-driven. Everybody says that, but it really is. If we saw a great TV pilot, we’d go direct it. If someone handed us a great $5-million movie, we’d go direct that. The one thing we do know, this is one thing that we gained from Soderbergh who pulled us into the business, was to make sure you’re fulfilling all of the elements that excite you about the business so that you don’t lose your passion for it. Switch up. We were doing comedy for a long time, and we love it; it’s a great way to go to work and laugh every day. But at the same time, there were so many other things we loved about movies that we wanted to explore. It’s nice to be able to transition back into action and thriller mode. It just keeps it fresh and it keeps us fresh.
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