When Anthony and Joe Russo were first announced as the directors of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, there was sort of a collective “What?” After all, these talented but not very well-known siblings were known for a few small features and their sterling work on TV comedies such as Arrested Development and Community. What business did they have helming a major superhero action thriller?
As it turns out, a lot. The Russos not only scored a massive box office hit with The Winter Soldier, but made a film that many fans consider on the top tier of Marvel Studios efforts alongside Iron Man and The Avengers. Together with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, they crafted a movie that combined genuine character development, the plot and feel of a ‘70s conspiracy thriller and the enhanced stakes of a superhero adventure in a movie that not only took Marvel’s game to another level but made drastic changes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier arrives on Blu-ray and DVD on Tuesday (September 9) complete with commentary from the brothers, production featurettes and deleted scenes. Den of Geek got a chance to talk with the Russos and get their thoughts on the film now, what it meant for the franchise overall and what we might look forward to in Captain America 3.
Den of Geek: What’s your perspective now on Winter Soldier? Have you had a chance to look back, catch your breath, take a fresh look in any way?
Joe Russo: I mean I think the last time we saw the movie was probably one of the premieres we had. And although I’m sure we’ll sit down and watch it again because, you know, as we’re working on Captain America 3 I want to make sure that there’s nothing we’re forgetting or see if some key sequence inspires us in some way to come up with an idea.
You know, our perspective on it has been great. We had an amazing experience on it. If anything as a director, it allows you to reflect back on what you learned from the process that went well and what you learned from the process that didn’t and how can you fix those things moving forward. And we just love fucking working with Marvel. We love this place. I love everybody here. Kevin (Feige, Marvel president) is one of our favorite people we’ve ever worked with in the business. So we’re excited, which is rare to say, because these jobs last a long time making these films. We’re excited to go back to work with these people.
What were the things that you thought you could have done it differently and what other things maybe pushed you as filmmakers?
Joe Russo: I mean we’re very happy with the movie. You know, certainly our dedication to relying more upon real physical stunts for a lot in the action sequences as opposed to CG is something that we feel ended up playing well and giving people a fresh experience, an exciting experience at an action level. So I think that’s something that we’ll take forward with us because we’re big fans of that style of action in general.
And really we’re just thinking about Cap (Chris Evans) and where we brought him as a character, thinking about where we can take him next, you know. How do we push him further? The character is such a difficult character because he’s so steadfast in his beliefs and his ethics and his orientation that he could be a hard character to challenge and undermine. So as storytellers we just want to find more exciting ways, ways that are going to surprise people — what could we do to Cap that people are going to be excited and thrilled by? That’s sort of where the thinking is going right now.
Anthony Russo: We also have to up our game on the action. You don’t want to repeat stuff, you know. And as much as we love the tone you don’t want to repeat tone because people just saw that. You don’t want to give them the exact same movie they just saw, so what we can do differently, not only to elevate the game but change the game so that people go, “Well shit, I wasn’t expecting that.”
One question hanging over a lot of big superhero and sci-fi films these days is, how far do you push the action? We’ve seen a lot of buildings being brought down. We’ve seen a lot of ships crashing into buildings. You had some of that at the end of Winter Soldier and other films have used that a lot more. How do you up the game without things getting out of hand and too preposterous?
Joe Russo: Well that’s a great question. It’s something we talk about all the time because we like to ground — part of what’s interesting about the tone or what we like about the tone that we’re playing with is grounding things. If this were to happen in our world today what are the details and the elements that would inform it and, you know, if this scale of collateral damage were to occur how would the U.S. government respond to it? How would other governments respond to it? How would the general populace feel about it? And I think it’s important, as part of keeping it grounded, to address that and to use it as a story point to help it inform what you’re doing.
We’re not fans of sort of rampant, random destruction without ramifications because it’s not the tone that we’re interested in playing in. It’s philosophically something that we discuss quite a bit amongst ourselves here with the creative brain trust — where all this is going and how it impacts the characters and the world around the characters.
Are those ramifications something you think you’ll be exploring in Captain America 3?
Joe Russo: It’s hard for us to say exactly but I will say that it’s an important idea to us, because again it’s about real world execution. It can take you out of the movie when there’s too much destruction without the universe in the film or the world in the film responding to it. So it’s just sort of an invaluable aspect. And it’s very postmodern and we like digging into postmodern components of a genre and deconstruction of components of the genre. You pick it apart in ways the people aren’t expecting. So that’s my long-winded obtuse answer (laughs).
One thing about Cap 2 that I really enjoyed was seeing just how much character development there really was, not just for Cap but for everybody: the Widow, Falcon, for Nick Fury — he gives that great speech in the elevator about his grandfather. Was it a challenge to find the right balance and make sure that you had that stuff in there, but also deliver on what people expect out of a Captain America movie?
Anthony Russo: The good thing is because we’re comic book geeks and we’re genre geeks and we love ‘70s thrillers and we love a lot of these actors, and we’re obsessive about performance, we were able to just look at that stuff and go okay, what do we want to see in this movie? If I were to sit in the theater as a fan, what would I want? And then as fanboys, we were able to make Captain America 2. It was sort of informed by everything that we wanted to see in the movie.
We were fortunate enough to have a really long prep process so we could keep going back to the script and refining it and refining it. And things like that speech in the elevator just came out of all of us sitting in the room going, “What would be interesting here is if Fury said something thematic that teed up what Cap was about to see, and that informed us about his history as a character.” That’s how stuff like that shows up in the script. The guys would go off and write for two or three days and come back with a great monologue. There were a few times where it worked out really well and other times when they’d write it and we’d all sit around and go, “No, it tilted the scales in the wrong direction,” or “This doesn’t work, let’s take it back out.”
There are some deleted scenes on the Blu-ray. Anything that you wish you could have kept in the movie or even anything that never even got to the filming stage that you would have liked to see?
Joe Russo: I mean we loved all of the scenes that got cut, you know. There’s some great acting in the Maria Hill/Sitwell scene. I love that scene. We call that scene between Sam Jackson and Scarlett (Johansson) a master class in acting. It was so simple, with three lines of dialogue but they were so expressive. It was hard to cut those scenes but, you know, when you watch the movie as a whole sometimes you go “Ah, it’s the tiniest bit slow in here, let’s move it along.”
It’s also, what information do we not need here? What can we do without? We try to be really disciplined and really hard on our material. I’ve seen Goodfellas a hundred times and one of the things that I take away from that movie is dynamic pacing and energy. I just think that film is sort of a paragon of excellence in filmmaking and the compression of narrative. So we’re always obsessed with how can we keep the story moving and what don’t we need.
So what are you doing right now? You’re also directing some Agent Carter episodes?
Anthony Russo: That’s right. We’re in the middle of Cap 3 development and we’ll disappear for a week, each of us, to go do an episode of Agent Carter. And then there’s Community is going to be back on Yahoo so I think we’re going to do the first episode of Community, do a little rebranding on that show. And that’s what our life is for the next two years.
So are each of you directing separately an episode of Agent Carter?
Anthony Russo: We are.
What’s the tone that you’re establishing with that?
Joe Russo: You know, there was a great tone established in the short film that Louis D’Esposito made that the show is based on. But also, the thing about working in television is the executive producers and Markus and McFeely will all sit around and decide what direction they want to take the show in. Once they start involving us we’ll then be giving them feedback and saying, “Hey, wouldn’t this be interesting if we went more handheld,” or “Wouldn’t this be interesting if it became a lot of fast moving dolly work,” and things like that.
It really depends on what the episode is and what it requires but I think we’ll be a little bit more experimental with the style on that show because it is an eight to ten episode – I can’t remember how many episodes but, you know, certainly a limited series.
At the end of The Winter Soldier, we leave off with Cap and Sam going off in pursuit of Bucky, plus Hydra is still out there. Is Captain America 3 going to pick up where you left off and how do the events of Age of Ultron affect what you’re going to be doing?
Anthony Russo: I mean look, you try to see on a narrative level how it would affect it. The next Captain America movie is taking place after those events (in Age of Ultron). So they exist. I think philosophically there is some interesting stuff that happens in Age of Ultron that we will pick up and carry over in our film.
Certainly it’s no secret that Cap 3 will involve a continuation of the Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier storyline. It’s something that is a prime motivating factor for Cap and we think something that’s very thematically strong in the Cap universe. We feel like we just scratched the surface of that story. I know some people were a little put out that he didn’t have more lines in the film. Winter Soldier wasn’t more expressive. We didn’t learn more about him. That wasn’t his role in that movie. That was really an origin story of the Winter Soldier.
Now we’ll have the opportunity to dig deeper and explore him as a character and who he is moving forward. Does he have Bucky’s memories or does he not? And if he doesn’t, can you even call him Bucky Barnes? There are a lot of really interesting philosophical questions to play with for that character.
Jeremy Renner said there were “some rumblings” about Hawkeye showing up in Captain America 3. Care to comment? (Read about how Hawkeye almost made into The Winter Soldier here.)
Joe Russo: We love Renner, absolutely, and we would love more than anything to play with that character but we can’t comment on that. I mean what we can say is that there are certain characters that would make sense to be in a Cap movie because he has a close relationship with those characters and they fit into the tone of his universe, you know, the tone that we’re playing with in these individual Cap films. So take from that obtuse response what you would.