It was roughly 20 years ago when Steven Soderbergh viewed a film called Pieces at the Slamdance Film Festival and offered to produce the next project by its directors. Those filmmakers were Cleveland-born brothers Anthony and Joe Russo, and the picture Soderbergh helped shepherd for them was a comedy called Welcome to Collinwood.
One thing led to another, and the Russos were soon major producers and directors on television, working on shows like Arrested Development and Community. But it was in 2012 that their careers changed forever, as Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige picked them to direct 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a film that was a turning point for all involved–including the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The Russos returned for 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, the brothers’ first billion-dollar grosser, and that led to them getting the assignment to direct both Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and the sequel that eventually became this year’s Avengers: Endgame. We know what happened with those films, as both shattered box office records and the latter became the highest-grossing movie of all time.
The Russos have now leveraged their success into their own mini-studio called AGBO, bringing along collaborators like Chris Markus and Stephen McFeely–the screenwriting duo who wrote all four of the Russos’ Marvel entries–and many of the craftspeople they used on the MCU movies. The first project out of the gate is the new crime thriller 21 Bridges, starring Black Panther’s Chadwick Boseman as a lone cop who orders all the roadways in and out of Manhattan closed to catch a pair of cop killers.
Also coming from AGBO: a Russos-directed drama about the opioid crisis called Cherry; an action thriller called Dhaka; an adaptation by Markus and McFeely of a post-apocalyptic graphic novel called Electric State; a documentary on the longstanding rivalry between DC and Marvel Comics and other film, TV, and streaming projects. We touched on all of that when we sat down last weekend with the Russos while also discussing 21 Bridges, the Martin Scorsese debate, Endgame’s Oscar chances and more.
Den of Geek: When you take the role of producers on a picture without actively directing or writing, what do you see as your job?
Anthony Russo: That’s a good question, because there’s a wide range of what that could mean.
Joe Russo: Some producers are very hands-on, some aren’t. We tend to be very hands-on. We want to be creative godfathers of a project, want to make sure that we are passionate about the project and we love the project, and that we’re consistently putting our energy into it. So we’re very hands-on with this film. From getting Chadwick involved to hiring Brian Kirk, the director, to getting our second unit director Spiro Razatos to help us out with the action, and to the rest of the casting and to the rewrite on the script. It’s a lot of people within the orbit that we’ve created in the last 20 years.
Anthony Russo: Yeah, I mean look, we’ve played different roles in different projects that we contribute to, but I think for this project, right from the get-go, there’s something about this project that hooked us. We love classic genre movies. We love the great New York City corruption stories, Sidney Lumet movies, et cetera. French Connection. And this movie had such a great central concept to it. This idea that there was a crime that was committed, and that by its nature and severity warranted they lock down Manhattan and a manhunt unfolds over the course of a night.
I think from that point forward, Joe and I just sort of really enjoyed figuring out how to build that idea, and who we build it out with, in order to make a special film. And that’s basically our role on this one: finding the right collaborators to realize this idea.
When you look back at your past and you see the guys who gave you a helping hand, like Steven Soderbergh, do you see what you’re doing now as paying it forward?
JR: One hundred percent. AGBO is a pay it forward company, that’s the reason we’re doing it. The same way that we were godfathered, we want to godfather other people into the business. We came from Cleveland, Ohio. It’s a million miles away from Hollywood. There’s no whiff of Hollywood in that city. It was going bankrupt when we were children and it was a steel town. We took a very odd path to Hollywood, and it was only because Soderbergh held the door open for us that we were able to get into the business and ultimately end up where we did. Now we want to be able to hold the door open for other artists, whether they be directors or writers and editors, composers. No matter who that is.
AR: We worked for many years, maybe about a decade in television. And our role in TV was that we would direct pilots and then come on to executive produce the shows. We would direct many of the episodes of the shows, but we would also hire a lot of other directors to direct. We really enjoyed that part of the process because it allowed us to find a lot of interesting creative voices, directorial voices that we could bring to the table, and help them find roads forward.
I’m thinking of that now because we had a similar experience with Brian Kirk. We had seen a lot of his television work, and he had made these very special episodes of some great shows. It’s been a favorite thing of Joe’s and mine, just to find people, especially working in TV, directors who you’re sensing a very vibrant and original voice in, and finding a way to sort of help them with their road forward as filmmakers.
You mentioned the crime thrillers that you think this is in the lineage of. Is that what enticed you to produce something along those lines, only in 2019 terms?
Joe Russo: For sure.
Anthony Russo: Yeah. And I think really the key was what you were just saying there, in 2019. While we love the history of that genre and the history of that storytelling, we wanted to do something that was very much about today. Because there is a lot of complexity happening within the police in the United States today. Figuring out how to run right at the heart of the problems within law enforcement today was really important to us.
With this and Cherry, your next film as directors, you seem to be getting a little bit more into films that touch on things happening today. Are you interested in using social commentary more directly than you could in the Marvel films?
AR: We always tried to put it in the Marvel films. That was always front and center with our agenda. Again, because those movies were based upon creative material that had existed for decades, and that we had loved for decades. We wanted to figure out how we tell an original version of those stories today, and why are they relevant today and how do we layer this in a way that–especially our jumping off point being Captain America, it’s a character that kind of begs for that level of consideration in terms of what role that character is playing in our understanding of ourselves, and our understanding of that idea.
Now those movies are fantasy movies, so we are one step removed from reality when we’re executing them, because we’re dealing with an alternate version of reality. These movies, 21 Bridges, Cherry, these are not set in a fantasy world. These are set in very real experiences that people are having today, whether it be within law enforcement or the U.S. military, or the opioid prescription industry. So yeah, we’re running right at real world settings in these films.
JR: I think we define cinema as films that bind people together in a community. They can have a common shared emotional experience watching a narrative. I don’t think we looked at the success of Avengers: Endgame–we don’t see that box office as a signifier of economic success, we see it as a signifier of emotional success. You can’t bind people together without addressing current issues and current thematics in some way. And to be able to pull them together globally, I think, is what would define a very special film. It’s very rare that you’re able to do that.
So we’re always trying to bring social context into what we’re doing. Our father was an activist politician in the ’70s in Cleveland while the city was going bankrupt. So we’re very sensitive to social issues. They were very important to him and he passed that on to us, and so now we can’t help but bring it into the work that we do.
Since you brought that up, let’s just address Martin Scorsese’s recent comments about the Marvel films not being cinema, because Avengers: Endgame and films like that definitely evoke an emotional response from viewers.
AR: It’s hard to get too deeply into it, because we’re left with the overriding sort of feeling in his comments that he hasn’t really seen the movies. So it’s hard to really get into a dialogue about it.
JR: But I think at the end of the day, look, we don’t own cinema, you don’t own cinema, he doesn’t own cinema. What do we know? We’re just two guys from Cleveland, and cinema ultimately is a New York word. In Cleveland we just call it the movies.
When you’re producing things now through AGBO, do you look at projects maybe first as a directing vehicle for yourself?
JR: We’re as excited about producing as we are about directing, and we can’t direct everything that we’re excited about. Another thing is the very nature of what we do every day is a collaboration. We love collaborating with people. I think the auteur theory, in some ways, does a great disservice to all of the people that are required to make a great film. The essential nature of being a director is collaboration. If you don’t have key collaborators, you can’t get the job done. It’s too hard of a job.
Coming from a big Italian family, we love creating a work family, and a work family that we work with for years. A lot of the people that worked with us the last decade, on the Marvel movies, are now working with us on 21 Bridges and Cherry. It’s so much fun to be able to branch out to different material and tell different kinds of stories with people that you love and that you love working with.
So was it your recommendation to use Chadwick for the lead role in this?
JR: Yes. Again, we’re working with Tom Holland on Cherry. We’re working with Chris Hemsworth on Dhaka. It’s a unique experience in the Marvel Universe where you’re working with the same actors over the course of seven or eight years. You become very close to them and you love what they do.
I mean, Chadwick is a spectacular actor. He’s very nuanced in a way that very few actors are. He brings a quiet intensity to his performance, and this is a character that required that. He’s an enigma. You’re not sure whether he stands on the side of right or whether he stands on the side of vengeance. The question ultimately is, can be bridge his emotions with his sense of duty. Hence the title. I think there’s very few people that could’ve pulled off the performance the way he did.
This was shot in Philadelphia and New York. Is it harder to shoot on location in New York?
JR: Obviously, it’s very difficult to shut down parts of Manhattan for shooting. It helps that this was at night. I think we kind of split production between New York and Philadelphia.
AR: It’s similar to the experience we had on Captain America: The Winter Soldier where the film was primarily set in Washington, D.C. It’s notoriously difficult to shoot there because of all the other concerns that happen there on a daily basis. So we ended up using Cleveland to double for D.C. extensively. We kind of use the same model here, where because of the difficulty of New York, we used Philly as the double. But yeah, in both cases we did do shooting in both New York and D.C.
The Oscar season is starting up, what do you think might happen with Avengers: Endgame?
JR: There are certainly craftspeople who have worked on that movie who are amongst the best of the world at what they do and are very deserving. And we said before, you know, Robert Downey. I’d like to see [composer] Alan Silvestri get a nomination. Our VFX team–Dan Deleeuw, it’s unprecedented what he did over the last 10 years, just in the four movies that we worked on with him. Costume designer, editor. Jeff Ford, our editor, is I think the best in the business. Markus and McFeely. We can go on and on. Charlie Wood, our production designer. So there’s certainly people who are very, very deserving.
But we don’t make movies for awards. We make movies because we’re excited by the material, and it’s something that we want to share with the world.
I talked to Markus and McFeely a couple of weeks ago and they were really excited about Electric State. That’s just one of a whole bunch of projects you have coming out with AGBO. What are some of the ones you’re really excited about?
JR: AGBO’s a very left-of-center company. That’s what we love about it, is we’re able to make movies like 21 Bridges. Nobody’s made an adult cop thriller in quite a while now. So it’s refreshing for us, because it’s the kind of movie that we love, to be able to make that and then watch it.
AR: Because AGBO’s artist-run, we are uniquely able to get certain ideas through the system that may not make it through a different studio system. And I think that’s really the special nature of AGBO. And Electric State I think is a great example of that.
JR: Matt Carnahan, who wrote 21 Bridges, also directed a movie called Mosul for us, which had a rousing premiere at the Venice Film Festival. It’s a movie shot entirely in Arabic, portraying a group of Iraqi SWAT team members in Mosul during the fight with ISIS as heroes. You can count on less than one hand the Western-made films that are shot in Arabic that also portray them as heroes.
So that’s one we’re exceedingly proud of. We have Dhaka coming out with Chris Hemsworth, which is also an elevated genre film. It takes the notion of heroism and flips it on its head. So we like to ask questions, we like to challenge the audience. Electric State has a beautiful script written by Markus and McFeely.
AR: We’re also doing TV and streaming.
You’re doing a documentary for the Quibi platform on the history and rivalry of DC and Marvel.
AR: Yeah. That’s going to be a lot of fun, I think.
JR: Being big comic book fans, we can go back and examine the history and inception of Marvel and DC and the rivalry. For us it’s just an intellectual exercise to go back and look at this material that was so important to us as children and look at the roots of it, and the creators behind it. It’s so significant now. Can we see a direct line between why it was created and the social circumstances under which it was created, and why there’s a corollary between the two? That seems fascinating to us. So we’re just doing a lot of things that stimulate us intellectually and get us out of bed every day to keep working.
21 Bridges is out in theaters this Friday, Nov. 22.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye