Joe & Anthony Russo interview: Captain America, Marvel

We talk influences, Marvel, Statham and brotherly love with the directors of Captain America: The Winter Soldier

There are no outright spoilers in this article, although we do talk about Captain America: The Winter Soldier quite a lot, and specific influences on it.

Having dabbled in movies before, the Russo Brothers – Joe and Anthony – went on to hit big on the small screen. In particular, their legendary work on Community – packed to the gills with more movie references and in-jokes per second than hundreds of other shows – would bring them to the attention of Marvel’s Kevin Feige. And, in turn, it’d be a major stepping stone to landing the Captain America 2 director’s chair.

The pair spared us some time last week to talk about the film, and we picked up the story from there…

I’ve worked out from watching your film – giving nothing away to those who haven’t seen it – who is ultimately responsible for Die Hard 4.

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Joe: Good call, good call. Not only Die Hard 4.

Enemy Of State too.

Joe: Yes!

When you come to do Captain America 3, clearly the only logical path forward to is to follow the road trodden by A Good Day To Die Hard. Russia, then?

Joe: Yes, yes. We didn’t see Die Hard 5. What happens in that? Is it any good?

Well it’s terrifyingly shit really. I’m a Die Hard 4 forgiver, but the fifth one is a quite appalling action film. And the irony – see, I’m going to work this into a question – is that the Die Hard series started off with a thriller, and migrated into action movies. You, with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, have gone the other way a bit? It almost felt like you had a series of frustrations with comic book movies, that you’ve tried to address with yours?

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Joe: That is fair to say. Because listen, we’re comic book fans. I started collecting when I was 10. And we’re pop culture junkies. I used to spend my Saturdays watching Hammer double features and Godzilla movies. We grew up on genre films. We studied The French Connection car chase… that was our film school. So yeah, we’re obsessed with films and pop culture.

I have an opinion when I see a comic book film with regards how I feel about it and how I don’t feel about it. And getting the opportunity, as fanboys, to make a comic book movie, we said right, we’re going to take everything that we love or don’t love, and figure out how to put the stuff we love in, and fix the things we don’t love.

And I had a strong opinion on Captain America as a kid when I was collecting the comic books. One of the first books I ever got my hands on was a Captain America/Falcon team-up. I always found Cap very generalistic, to his detriment. I thought he was a superficial boy scout. I used to imagine him as Steve McQueen in my head, because that would bring a bit of bite and edge to the character for me. He was a propaganda character.

But what Brubaker did was so brilliant. He completely deconstructed the mythology, and made him very relevant. And putting it in an espionage genre, he married it to a genre that could support the character and make the character more interesting. We were very fortunate to have that source material.

Also, when I started collecting in the 80s, Frank Miller released The Dark Knight and blew my mind. Finally, he was taking silver age and gold age characters and making them post-modern. Putting them in a hyper-reality that I could appreciate.

So that was our approach with this film. We took everything we love, and put it into a film. 

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So, day one then. This is how I like to think it pans out. Kevin Feige and Joss Whedon give you a Powerpoint presentation on the current state of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They tell you where it’s going, where your film needs to start to stop. Then, in the next room, there’s Joe Johnston, and he gives you extensive handover notes. Robert Redford might come along, looking dryer than last time we saw him, and shake your hands.

But how did it really go?

Anthony: [Laughs] It wasn’t literally like that, but figuratively yes! We basically got a call from our agent that said we were on the list of directors that Marvel was interested in talking to about Captain America 2.

First of all, that was thrilling, having not lobbied for the job. And secondly, it was very inspiring, because we already had a ton of respect for how Kevin Feige and Marvel had been focusing on directors who were unconventional for the genre. Making them work in interesting ways. That was so exciting. I remember seeing that first Iron Man movie…

The Favreau moment…

Anthony: Yeah! I saw that movie. I had this moment, and I don’t have this moment very often, where I went ‘damn, I wish we’d done that’. It was very exciting what they were doing.

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Anyway, we got a level of interest, we went in for a meeting. They were very secretive about the script: we had to go into a special room in their office to read it, and leave it behind. We went through about a two and a half month process, over four meetings. We were basically auditioning for the job. We fell in love with the job from the get-go. We really wanted it.

We had to keep developing our vision, and get more and more specific over what our version of the movie would look like. And it was a wonderful process for us to go through. We came up with a lot new action sequences and character beats, we wrote script pages, we did storyboards, we made a mock trailer for the movie, that was composed of shots and sequences from other movies that we wanted to draw on stylistically, to give them an idea.

It was a wonderful process, even though it was so long and involved, because we really got to figure the movie out. So by the time we won the job, we knew exactly what we wanted to do with the movie. And we were all on the same page with Marvel.

Here’s the great thing about Marvel: while they have an interconnected universe, and while that’s of huge, enormous value, Kevin [Feige] is very smart about not wanting to limit each individual movie with that. He doesn’t give you a lot that you have to do, and he does that intentionally, because he wants you to have the most amount of creative freedom to surprise them. They don’t want you to come back with what they’re thinking, they want you to come back with stuff they weren’t thinking about. They know the vitality of the franchise is dependant on new people coming in with ideas.

The fact that we were pitching something that was very different from what they had done before was exciting to them. And once they saw how connected we were to the material, they became very supportive.

This is an interesting era for big movies, given that – and I don’t mean this in a disrespectful way – lower profile directors at the point they’re given the job are getting the chance to make them.

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Joe: We totally get what you mean there.

You look back, say, to what David Fincher went through on Alien 3, and that’s the high profile example of how it used to be: that you get a great talent early in their careers, and they never used to be allowed to make their film. From the outside looking in, Marvel does seem to let you make your movie. Yet this is a nine figure movie you’ve made here, and presumably, at some point, someone must come in and try and knock a few edges off, and have their say?

Joe: It’s interesting. Marvel is a very streamlined studio. Basically, it’s Kevin. The problem with a lot of other studios is that you’re dealing with the political machine, a lot of people.

It’s very easy to work with Marvel, because you just have a dialogue with Kevin , and he goes ‘that’s a great idea’ or ‘that’s not a great idea’. And the other great thing about Kevin – and we’re not saying this because we need to say this, it’s good for people to understand how and why these nine movies have happened – is that whenever he gives you an idea, he’s moving you forward. He’s very thoughtful, and he doesn’t like to put things out there if it’s a half baked idea. He puts things out there after he thinks through them, which again is not always… sometimes you’re dealing with a bigger studio, and people are trying to justify their jobs, and that’s not really productive talking that goes on.

But Marvel is a unique place. I’ve got to be honest, he never felt invasive in the process. He was supportive, and that might not have been the experience of all the directors who have gone through that place, but there comes a certain point where making a movie this scale, if the movie isn’t on the right track when you need to be locking images that need six to seven months for special effects, then the hand may come in in a strong way.

But I think because we’d done so much script work, and he was really collaborative and transparent throughout the process, we weren’t afraid… we come from television, where a million people want to know what we’re doing. So we’re not afraid of transparency, but we’re also very vocal and extremely opinionated about what we want. We do it in a polite way, and best idea wins. We don’t care where it comes from: some of the funniest jokes we put on the TV shows, it might have been a grip on the set came up with it. We’re open and inviting to that, and I think that created an open process to them, which they felt comfortable with and trusted us with.

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That’s where the hand may come in: when creatively you’re not linked up when crunch time hits!

Can we talk about you two working together then. I have a brother, and I love him dearly, but if I had to work with him closely for months…

Joe: It makes you want to kill him?

No, I wouldn’t kill him. I think I’d punch him hard in the face though, and I suspect he’d do the same to me.

Anthony: That is not an uncommon point of view.

So: you’ve got a family dynamic in your working relationship already, but also there’s co-directing. I’ve interviewed a few co-directors on the way they go about working on projects, and they tend to work on the veto system: if one person doesn’t like a choice, it doesn’t happen. But how does it work with you two? Do you have arm wrestling competitions or something?

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Anthony: Here’s the thing. It’s definitely an interesting, unique relationship. I think every directing team works differently in the same manner that every director works differently. Everybody has a different personality and a different way of working, and that somehow evolves in the process.

For us, we don’t have formal divisions. There’s a very easy process between ourselves. We have a non-stop dialogue running constantly. We work through things, and we try to make it very easy for others to work with us. If you get an answer from one of us, it’s the same answer from both of us. We really put it upon ourselves to handle any discrepancies between ourselves.

As far as handling disagreements though, we have a process where the best idea wins. Sometimes we have different points of view on something, and we’ll both keep advocating for a point of view. Then we’ll switch points of view and take the opposite side maybe, and work through it that way for a while. Usually we arrive at one point or view or the other. Sometimes we’ll try it both ways but not often.

You know this is a hugely disappointing answer don’t you?

Anthony: [Laughs] I know! Sorry!

I want the two of you playing paintball. I want some conflict that has to be resolved in a violent way.

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Anthony: Here’s where we argue: if we have enough time, there’s never a problem. Sometimes, you have to make a decision very fast, and sometimes you’re not sure about it. That’s when it gets difficult, because we don’t have the time to feel it out together and come to a common agreement. Sometimes, I notice, we argue when we don’t have the right answer yet. That’s when we argue the most. When neither of us has the idea that’s working, then we tend to really lock up.

Our process though is that we’re always moving forward. It’s the only way to end up with the movie at the end of the day. So I think we have this natural tendency to keep moving.

Just for the record, I would still punch my brother in the face.

You said you did quite a lot of work on the script, and to your credit, this clearly wasn’t a director for hire job. There’s a sense of some authorship here. There are lots of geeky bits in there too, which I’m guessing is down to you two. I caught WarGames, The Running Man…

Joe: We’re relentless when it comes to Easter Eggs!

Was it RoboCop in there too? Sat in a chair having a dream? Was that a deliberate touch?

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Joe: That wasn’t a deliberate touch, but it could be a subsconscious one, because I saw RoboCop 30 times!

Have you seen the remake?

Joe: I haven’t.

In my view at least, it’s better than you may be expecting. It very much has ideas of its own.

Joe: I love Jose Padilhia. Elite Squad is a great fucking movie, so I’m glad to see he’s getting a shot at making American films.

So what others are in there? What should people look out for?

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Joe: The huge influences on us? Obviously for the car chase it’s The French Connection, To Live And Die In L.A. Ronin was a big influence. The sequence on the freeway, the bank heist from Heat.

Right down to the mask!

Joe: Exactly! De Palma was a really big influence. The elevator sequence, and [redacted for spoiler reasons]. Weirdly enough, The Raid was a big influence.

Have you seen the new one of those?

Joe: No, not yet. Is it crazy? Intense?

It’s great. Whereas The Raid was a full-on 100 minutes, not really letting any story get in the way, this one is 150 minutes with narrative.

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I’m a parent, and I’m an advocate generally of if you’re going to show violence in films, show the real impact of it. I always had a problem with Home Alone films for that, as much as I love John Hughes’ work. If you’re going to show a brick hitting someone, show the damage it actually does. It would be fair to say that The Raid 2 follows that manifesto!

In your film too, you have a few violent moments, but you chose not to pull back too? Not to the level of The Raid 2, but you seem keen to show the real damage?

Anthony: You’re going to get hurt!


Anthony: Absolutely. That’s what Marvel’s always done. The realism for us – it sounds ridiculous when you say you want to bring realism to a superhero film – we wanted that.

Go and watch Green Lantern if you want to see all the realism sucked out.

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Joe: Exactly.

Anthony: So we wanted a verite quality. Cap is a very human character. The other thing is, what I’ll bring up as a big influence, is Rocky. Cap has a very simple arc. He’s a very empathetic character, like Rocky. Rocky has no arc in the movie, right. Rocky’s job was just to persevere in this film.

Look, if this is leading up to the exclusive that Ivan Drago is the villain in Captain America 3, don’t keep me waiting…

Joe: There you go.

Anthony: That’s it.

Joe: And that’s why we put the Rocky joke in there. We thought if he’s Rocky, we need to beat the shit out of him. We needed to find out how, when we have a character with a simple arc who doesn’t change much in the movie, how we can make the audience care for him. And it was by putting him through a lot. He gets shot, he gets stabbed, he gets punched in the face… it’s all about the will to persevere.

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Clearly when you make a comic book movie now, there’s a need to ensure that it gets a PG-13/12A rating, and many words have been written about that, not least because there’s a lot now you can do within such guidelines. But how do you counterbalance that with knowing that with this, somewhere, a young kid is going to be meeting Captain America for the first time?

Joe: Great question, and it’s something we spent a lot of time thinking about. How dark can we go? And I always think of The Empire Strikes Back. I love The Empire Strikes Back. I went to see it at 11am and I left at 11pm watching it back to back. And I loved that it treated me like an adult. I loved that it was operatic. And that it was something I couldn’t get out of my head after I’d seen it. My feeling is that it’s important that you show kids reality. [Talks about showing his daughter the end of the movie, and we’ve redacted the exact detail for spoiler reasons].

I remember when I was a kid, at the end of the movie I might sometimes cry, and that was a very impactful experience for me. I remembered it. I think, as you’d said, that there is a cause and effect in this movie. If you get hit, you get hurt. If you get shot, you might not get up. That’s important. There are bad things in the movie, and bad things kill people. So we wanted to be reflective of that. And that I wanted, like the films I watched when I was a kid, for it to have an emotional impact on people. And hopefully, that’s what we’ve managed to do.

Finally, your favourite Jason Statham movie?

Joe: I think we’d go for The Transporter.

Joe and Anthony Russo, thank you very much!

Read our review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier here.

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