‘Captain America: Civil War’ Directors Joe & Anthony Russo on Crafting a Psychological Thriller

     March 7, 2016


Joe & Anthony Russo have made arguably the most well-received standalone Marvel movie thus far with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and even if you want to debate which is the best Marvel movie thus far, there’s no doubt that they made a tough act to follow. And yet it looks like they’re full prepared to absolutely demolish their hit superhero film with Captain America: Civil War, which will see Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) squaring off over superhero regulation.

Last May, a bunch of fellow reporters and I got to visit the set and we spoke with the Russos about Civil War. They gave us a great amount of information including how the film is influenced by Se7en, Fargo, and The Godfather, how they love referencing Brian De Palma, how Civil War is a psychological thriller as opposed to the political thriller like Winter Soldier, bringing in Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), preparing for Avengers: Infinity War, and so much more. Check out the full interview below.

captain-america-civil-war-posterTalk about the scale of this movie. Not that Winter Soldier was a small movie by any means but you look at this movie and all the people involved and it seems just so much bigger. Is it as far as you’re concerned or is it still just okay we’ve got some more characters on the board?

JOE RUSSO: It’s a sprawling film, no question. There’s a lot of characters, and characters are incredibly important to us so we’re making sure as much as we can that everybody has a fleshed out arc in the movie. You can see how many people we’ve got out here, once you start trying to trigger arcs for everybody it becomes a very, very big, sprawling, epic film. This is much, much bigger than Winter Soldier. I think it’s probably bigger than anything they’ve done to date. Just scale of character, without question.

ANTHONY RUSSO: It’s also very complex on that level because again we’re putting these characters, while these characters have had conflicts before this movie takes it to an entirely different level. So you’re taking your protagonists and you’re turning them into antagonists for one another, that’s a very complicated sort of process for these beloved characters. The movie is very challenging but very exciting to us on that level.

Is the team that we see here an accurate representation of how they may be divided?

ANTHONY: The movie kind of evolves. There’s a moment in the movie where this is the division.

This is the beginning of the Civil War, right?

JOE: We’re referring to this sequence as the Splash Panel or the double panel. If you’re a comic book fan you know that any epic book you would open it up, as a kid I would just go through and look at who was fighting who. I’d stand there in the store for 15 minutes until the guy told me to buy the book or get out. You’d just study it and so this sequence is our live action splash panel or double panel. It’s a big epic sequence.

Speaking of that, are you guys shooting. I know on Winter Soldier you did some stuff with IMAX, are you shooting any of this in IMAX?

JOE: This whole sequence is in IMAX, it’s about a 15 minute sequence. It’s the only one that we’re doing on the camera. The camera literally just rolled off the press like a week before we started using it. It’s an IMAX 65, so it’s the Ares 65. It’s a join camera between Ares and IMAX. We’re going to shoot all of Infinity War on those cameras.

This is the first thing you’re shooting with those brand new cameras?

BOTH: That’s right.


image via Marvel

Something I really loved about the commentary you guys did on Winter Soldier was you kept listing all the films and directors that influenced a certain sequence or how you broke a story or how you shot something, I was wondering if you could talk about some of the films that helped influenced how you approached this one.

ANTHONY: In general, just as a framing we always thought about Winter Soldier very specifically as a political thriller. This movie we think of more as a psychological thriller. It’s connected to what we’re doing in Winter Soldier, but it evolves into a more sensitive, complicated character thriller. Again, I think based upon the fact we’re dealing with our protagonists clashing with one another.

JOE: The movies we’ve been referencing a lot on this one are Se7en, weirdly. We like smashing genres into each other, so if you can find something that’s really idiosyncratic in respect to superhero genre and you can smoosh it into it you usually wind up with something fresh and different. Se7en, Fargo, just as far as we’re not making comparisons in terms of quality we’re just talking influences, The Godfather, because that’s a sprawling film with a lot of characters that tells very intricate stories. Each character has an arc. What else?

ANTHONY: De Palma is also.

JOE: De Palma is the one carry over between both movies, because he’s so good at tension and empty space. Trying to think of who else…

ANTHONY: It’s hard to talk about it because then you give stuff away. We could probably talk about 100 of them.

JOE: We were referencing this sequence as our Rumble Fish sequence.

ANTHONY: We’ve been also referencing westerns a lot as we start to think about these character showdowns.


Image via Marvel

I know you guys were trying really hard with Winter Soldier to trick Honest Trailers and Cinema Sins and you succeeded, are you going to go two for two and make them do another where they’re like ‘There’s nothing wrong with this movie’

JOE: I don’t think we’d ever be that crazy to predict that we could go two for two with Honest Trailers, but listen, logic is really important to us. We spent a good year and a half literally sitting in a room every day with Marcus and McFeely and Nate Moore, combing through the script. You’re constantly trying to flush out logic for every character, and you have to track it. You have to do two or three days where all you do is talk about “What is Panther doing? What is he doing in this scene? How does he feel in this scene? What’s his motivation in this scene? Is this the correct end line for him? Is this setting him on the wrong motivation?” And you have to do that for every character. So we tried to painstakingly do that again. It’s just bigger and more sprawling and I’m sure the running time is going to dictate certain choices that are going to have to get made in the edit room, because we can’t release a three and a half hour movie. At that point sometimes you have to sacrifice logic for expediency.

ANTHONY: I think what Joe is describing is, we do a lot of ensemble work. Most of our work is ensemble work and we love ensembles. I think that’s part of the fun for us, we love looking at movies through the filter of a specific character. Characters who aren’t the lead and figuring out the film from their point of view. How do we connect everything on an emotional level, on a narrative level? This movie is great fun on that level, very complex.

Cap 2 has some fantastic action sequences I was wondering how you’re planning to up that especially now that you have so many more characters to play with with such diverse powers.

JOE: The scale certainly is a lot bigger because of more characters and more powers, but we’re trying to pull those into our universe a little bit. Our handheld universe, our grittier universe. Cap’s Universe is more grounded approach to those characters. Downey’s been doing an amazing job on this film. He’s got a complex arc. I think it’s really some of the more interesting stuff he’s done in a long time. He is fantastic in the movie. That’s just pulling characters. Like the Iron Man films sometimes have a lighter quality to them, they’re funny or whatever. This movie is just pulling that center of gravity more toward that Winter Soldier intensity.


Image via Marvel

I noticed that this takes place in a German airport, and again we sort of Captain fighting a battle in Germany which is kind of familiar for him in his origins and beginnings. How much are you guys looking to bring Cap’s story full circle in some ways from the original while still leaving open for whatever may come next in Infinity War?

ANTHONY: Bringing it full circle is really important. We’re taking Cap to a place, there’s a level of detail that we have to be careful with, but we’re taking Cap to a place in this movie that he’s never gone before. That for us is taking Cap full circle. How do you take this guy that began where he began and had that great arc that he’s had and still take him to a place he’s never gone before? We always talk about him, he’s such a tough character in a lot of ways because he’s so strong and so centered, he has such strong ethics and morals, how do you upend a character like that? It’s easier to upend a character like Tony Stark in some ways because he’s a little all over the place and balanced and blah blah blah. You can spin him out easier so to speak. So how do you spin Cap out? We found a way to really get at the heart of who Cap is to shake his foundation, push him somewhere I think that’s going to surprise a lot of people.

JOE: That’s what I was trying to say earlier about Downey, to clarify it, was I think you’re going to see a side of Tony Stark you haven’t seen in any of the films and he’s just crushing it. He’s fantastic in the very, very complex and dark arc he has in this film.

Can you guys talk a little bit about Black Panther and how he fits in this story and also what you’ve been impressed by with Chad so far?

JOE: Chadwick brings real gravitas to the role. He really personifies that character beautifully. He has great passion for the character. Today was the first day that the character worked in costume, and when he came out on set there were some comic book fans who were just tearing up. It’s a real moment for people to see this character for the first time on screen. People who grew up and championed this character as kids and was a role model for them, their favorite hero. The sense of that as a comic book fan, there was historic nature of getting him on screen for the first time. He’s playing the character with a real intensity and a real grace. He’s got a movement style that he brought because he has a background in martial arts and it’s fascinating. He moves like none of the other characters in the universe. We really distinguished him.

ANTHONY: He did great research on the very cultural aspects of the character. Even though it’s a fictional culture, figuring out ways to tether it into real African culture.

JOE: He found a regional accent based on where Wakanda would be. Just an incredible, intense amount of detail.


Image via Marvel

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier you guys had some fun cameos with people you’ve worked before like Danny Pudi and DC Pierson, is there any plan to just have some fun little bits like that?

JOE: We’ll always have a cameo. It’s more interesting and more fun to have somebody textured deliver one or two lines than a day player off the street. It’s funner for the fans and adds more emotional context for the story telling so we’ll always do that stuff.

You mentioned how it can’t be a three and a half hour movie, but how long can it be? Because you do have so much going on, how much playing time do you have?

JOE: We don’t want to go on record. That’s picking a fight with the studio.

ANTHONY: We’re big fans of very tight, taught storytelling I will say that.

JOE: We’ll beat the material up, that’s important. There’s nothing I hate more than going to see a movie and thinking ‘That could have been an hour shorter.’ Who knows where it will land? It’s definitely going to be on the longer side of action films.

How hard is it to find a balance with the action because obviously they’re all superheroes and they don’t want to kill each other, so how do you make the action exciting but so it’s not enough that heroes are doing serious damage to each other?

JOE: You make them want to kill each other.

ANTHONY: Some of them actually do.

JOE: There’s an intensity in this film. We dug deep to find motivations that were extremely personal and very emotional to the characters. It’s not for all characters because like any fight people take sides and some people have stronger motivations than others, and as the fight gets worse people drop out because they don’t have the stomach for it. We have a couple characters that go to the end and they go to the end pretty hard and pretty ugly.

ANTHONY: I will say this, we’re big fans in the way we approach narrative and drama is we like characters to earn it. Earn every beat. We don’t like anything to come easy. That way you have to have consequences, there are consequences there is a price to pay for people. So you have that.


Image via Marvel

I assume it will be a big ripple effect into the near MCU the events of this movie, much like having SHIELD be taken away.

JOE: There is some significant- Even more so than SHIELD because it goes to the heart of the characters. Everyone is involved in this in some way and everybody comes out with a point of view and some come out with a point of view that’s really extreme.

Talk about some of the characters that are coming into this movie from other ones that other directors and writers were dealing with, Vision and Scarlet Witch and Ant-Man, how you’re approaching maybe visual effects or their powers that you’ll try and separate this movie from how they appeared in previous movies?

ANTHONY: One of the things we think is so great about Marvel movies is that there is differentiation among them. We think that’s critical. We love the movies, we want them to always be surprising and exciting and go into new areas. So with Winter Soldier we were very conscious of trying to craft a little corner of the universe for Cap and what that meant on a tonal level. So if you look at Cap in Winter Soldier there’s obvious differences from what he is in The Avengers movies for instance and what he started as in the 40s in the original. So we tried to do that with everybody, because it is a Captain America movie specifically too, I think Joe mentioned this earlier, we’re trying to pull everybody into the tonal universe that we started there with Winter Soldier. That effects everything, like their behavior. You still have to logically make sense that this is the same character of course but we try to tailor who they are, how they behave, what happens to them, how their powers work, how we shoot them stylistically, everything we try to tailor to this version of the universe that we’re offering.

JOE: Our influences were more post-modern comics than they were Silver Age books. So Vision doesn’t walk around the Avengers compound in his cape, he walks around in clothes. He’s trying to assimilate. So you just make choices like that that try to pull the characters to as human a realm as we possibly can. We’ll look at their powers and go, we like limitations. We like characters that have limitations to their powers, so there’s a cost for everything that they do. Wanda can’t fly, she can use her power to push herself off, launch and then bring herself back down. But she has to stop herself and it’s not the most graceful version of flying. It’s just using her power to create energy to push herself up and bring herself down, but she’s still subject to gravity. Vision, if Vision is too powerful then what do you need everybody else for? So there are limitations to him as a character. His arc specifically in this movie is about him discovering his limitations. Put a handheld 200 mm lens on a character and its very different than a 40 mm wide, so the representations will always be different. It’s just different taste. Joss loves the books he grew up with, he loves that big, wide comic book framing and we love to put long lenses on like Ridley Scott and get in there on the characters in a different way. It’s just different interpretations.

ANTHONY: Dirtying it up a little.


Image via Marvel

You guys are also signed on to do Infinity War can you talk a bit about the ones getting to bookend phase three with Cap and the end of it?

JOE: It’s interesting because we came into the universe through Cap, this is a really compelling story for him. So we have a strong point of view through that character and he is certainly creating a rift in this film, so there will be ramifications that will carry into Infinity War. So I think as far as a book ending it I think he becomes a very important character moving forward, and it’s sort of interesting that we came into the universe through him. We’ll see where all that leads, we’re still breaking story on all that stuff but we’re excited as hell. It’s a dream come true for a couple of comic book geeks,

Back to tracking the character arcs in the script stage, was there a particular character or a character relationship that proved especially challenging for you guys?

JOE: We made some strong choices with Natasha in this movie and it’s a tricky arc that she has to play in the film and it’s something that…You always want to surprise people, you don’t want to make choices hat are easy. I always said what I loved about Breaking Bad is that Vince Gilligan always wrote himself into the hardest corner. I would watch an episode and go ‘I have no fucking idea how he’s going to solve this next week,’ and he would solve it. That’s compelling narrative, that’s compelling storytelling to me. We made a similar choice with her on this film, but it’s tricky because you have to monitor constantly throughout the filmmaking to make sure you’re getting the subtleties of the arc and what she’s doing.

ANTHONY: I think Black Panther too also is interesting because he enters the movie as an outsider and there’s a lot of conflict surrounding him in the film. So that was really interesting, introducing a new superhero in the midst of a family fight where he’s in many ways an interloper. There’s a lot of tension around that, it’s great dramatic tension. It works great on a story level but it’s tense and complicated.

Speaking of Black Panther, how much freedom do you guys have playing with the character since this is his introduction and this is the first time we’ve met a Marvel character before he gets his own movie. How much of what you’re doing with Black Panther has any effect on his movie, or is there stuff you’re limited to doing because he’s going to have his own movie later?

JOE: We haven’t been limited at all. He’s sort of stepping into this story and this universe which is not near Wakanda, so I think they’re free to roam on that film.

ANTHONY: I think we’ve said this before too in our experience with Marvel, one of the things we love about Marvel is they’re very good about taking one movie at a time. They certainly don’t get ahead of themselves. Even though you certainly have to think about things down the line, they want to give a wide berth so that every movie can be whatever it wants to be. They don’t want to hamstring it with too many requirements. We did have a lot of freedom with what we did with him in the film.

With all the stuff you’re juggling you also have the Winter Soldier himself and the plot threads from that movie so how is it making sure that that got its due as well in here?

ANTHONY: Now you get why he said we were in the room for a year and a half.

JOE: If you want a character to be important to the plot you have to tie them into the plot, so he is tied with an anchor to the plot of the movie.

At the end of Age of Ultron it was Captain America and Black Widow that stuck around to train the new Avengers team. Now with Scarlet Witch on the new team do we get to see Black Widow and Scarlet Witch interact at all as the only two women that are super powered in what is basically a guy’s club?

JOE: This movie starts quickly in terms of the complications. They do have a scene together but then the movie gets really complicated quickly.

ANTHONY: They open the movie together.


Image via Marvel

Is that opening similar to, because Ultron opened with a whole big ensemble fight and Winter Soldier opened with a more intimate fight. Is this going to open with a big battle?

JOE: It’s a more intimate, it’s more similar to Winter Soldier. It’s a very specific mission at the beginning of the film and specific characters involved on that mission, something happens on that movie that triggers the events of the movie.

How prominently does Spider-Man factor into this story?

JOE (facetiously): You know, not prominently at all.

I have an easy one, what do Vision’s normal person clothes look like?

JOE: That was a fun conversation because he sort of projects his own clothing so it’s an interpretation of his personality. He’s rather dashing. It looks really good.

ANTHONY: We always thought about it from the point of view, Vision is thinking about how does he make himself fit in to situations and fit in with people and connect to characters. It’s a very interesting projection. It’s like how anybody chooses to dress, it’s how you want to be or who you think you are.

Can you talk about Daniel [Bruhl] and Martin [Freeman]’s roles at all?

JOE: Probably not. Those are both tricky roles to talk about because they’re both spoilery kind of roles. All I can say is they both killed it. They both worked an amazing job respectively in what they’re doing. Bruhl is playing a really, really interesting character in this movie.


Image via Marvel

To make this conflict worth you have to have Tony and Steve have good points, because otherwise it just becomes good guy versus bad guy, but for you guys which side do you find yourself falling on? Are you Tony guys or Steve guys in this fight?

JOE: Depends who is on set. Is it Downey or Evans?

ANTHONY: Because of what you said you know it’s like, we are constantly working hard to balance it because that’s the story we want to do. We want to be torn between these two guys, we don’t want to play safe with either guy by any means. We want to be torn between them. I think we really do live in a space of fluctuation between the two and we’re constantly pushing one. Like Joe mentioned before, you push one guy further than you can push the other you have to rebalance by pushing the other guy further.

JOE: It’s all storytelling metrics, and you have to really think hard about those metrics. I’ll say this, obviously it will be easier for the audience to get behind Cap because it’s his movie, it’s his point of view and he has the most screen time; however, Tony has the most emotional motivation in the film. The most human motivation. Cap’s is philosophical, we did that as a metric. It’s natural instinct for an audience member to want to get behind the person that has more screen time and somebody as likable and rootable as Cap so you have to work really hard to make sure that this is not a protagonist/antagonist movie. Hopefully by the time we’re done it’s a very complex film where you walk out of the film having a fight with your buddy or your boyfriend/girlfriend about who was right in the film.

How pivotal is Emily Van Camp’s role in the movie and will Pepper have any presence as far as being on Tony’s mind or if that’s an important-

JOE: Pepper has a presence in the film. She’s definitely on Tony’s mind and it’s definitely an important part of what’s going on with him as a character. Emily Van Camp it’s a continuation of the storyline with Agent 13.

ANTHONY: She has a bigger role.

JOE: If you’re a fan of the books you can guess where it’s going.

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