Tales of moviemaking during the pandemic are traditionally fraught with hardship and struggle. But on the location shoot of a Russo Brothers action movie, it’s only filled with opportunity. That’s at least what it felt like on the days—weeks and weeks of them—in the Czech Republic capital of Prague when directors Joe and Anthony Russo had the full run of entire city blocks while staging one of their signature showstoppers for The Gray Man.
“There are a lot of challenges associated with shooting during the pandemic, but we may have benefited in the sense that Prague was empty of tourists,” Anthony says with a faint laugh. “It’s one of the most beautiful cities and is normally packed. But the fact that the city was emptier than usual actually helped us out in terms of the amount of real estate we were able to control and shoot.”
That control included building an entire city square and fountain in the middle of town just so they could destroy it—making it one more explosive casualty in the war of attrition between super spies Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) and Court Gentry (Ryan Gosling). The latter is the eponymous “gray man,” a renegade CIA errand boy who must fight, shoot, and survive a dazzling amount of carnage, which is a lot when it comes to the Russos, a pair who’ll happily derail a Prague tram to tell Court’s story.
For two filmmakers who are now synonymous with propulsive action thanks to some of Marvel’s most beloved movies—Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, and the last two Avengers flicks—it might be their most ambitious in-camera stunt work yet. It’s also something the pair have been dreaming about since long before they shepherded the Avengers franchise to its endgame.
“A lot of what we do in the film business is motivated by our love for movies, which started when we were young kids growing up in Cleveland,” Joe says when we catch up with him over Zoom, fresh out of another post-production meeting on The Gray Man, this one on VFX. Speaking with a genuine passion for the spy genre, Joe can still recall growing up and debating with his brother their favorite espionage movies, which, depending on the day, can range from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation to Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. However, he confesses to always really loving those early Tom Clancy films, too, especially John McTiernan’s The Hunt for Red October. The latter is serendipitous since it was one of Clancy’s protégés, Mark Greaney, who authored The Gray Man, a novel that Joe became obsessed with even before finishing the spy-adjacent The Winter Soldier.
As he tells us now, he finished the first draft of a Gray Man adaptation while wrapping post-production on his first Marvel movie, which also happened to be the Russos’ introduction to fan-favorite MCU scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.
“They’re the best story-minds in the film business at the moment,” Joe says. “Historically, they could be as good as anyone who’s ever done this when you look at their track record.” So it seemed only natural to collaborate again when the Russos decided to revisit that idea where the spy is not so Marvel wholesome.
In The Gray Man, Gosling plays Court, a spy who’s lived out on a limb his whole career. It began decades earlier when, after committing a murder to help his brother, he faced death row until a CIA man (Billy Bob Thornton) offered him a reprieve: as long as he’s willing to do the agency’s dirtiest jobs without a name or paper trail, they’ll let him breathe free. But eventually, that freedom puts him in direct opposition with an agency contractor named Lloyd (Evans), who has no handler and even less oversight when he decides to “retire” Court and leave the Gray Man’s sometime-ally agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) out to dry.
“It’s a common theme in all of our movies,” Joe says about the central conflict at the heart of The Gray Man. “Question authority. Be skeptical of the motives of authority when they are claiming that they’re on the side of right as an excuse to wield more power and justify extreme violence.”Anthony adds: “What’s interesting is both [characters] are in a dangerous place, but one of them is ultimately accountable to a chain of authority, and one of them isn’t, and that’s the dividing line… You can see this in a lot of the problems that we’ve seen in our armed services over the past decade or two. When there is no accountability for behavior, when you’re not a part of a chain of command and answerable for your actions, things go wrong.”
The apex of those wrong things is embodied by Evans’ sneering yet gregarious antagonist. If Gosling’s titular character lives in the eternal “gray,” then Lloyd Hansen cheerfully reigns from the darkness of hell. Right down to his loud mustache (which was Evans’ idea), it’s a role audiences may be unaccustomed to seeing the actor in after a decade of Captain America.
“We didn’t have to sell Chris on the role; Chris sold us, in a way,” Joe says. “We were talking to him as we were wrapping up Infinity War and then Avengers: Endgame about what’s next for him or where he wanted to go in his career, and he said, ‘You know what? I’m comfortable enough in my life and the work I’ve done that I’m just interested in taking risks moving forward, and I just want to play challenging characters.’” He dryly adds: “So it seemed obvious to us that the right move here would be to offer Chris the sociopath and not the hero.”
If there is such a thing as a hero in The Gray Man, it’s Gosling’s deeply flawed and isolated protagonist, an assassin with a trail of bodies in his wake. One of the most versatile leading men of his generation—just watch Gosling channel Lou Costello in The Nice Guys—the actor has dabbled in action before. But it’s been more than a decade since he last did a full-tilt action movie, and never has he starred in one with the physicality expected from a Russos joint.
“We knew we needed somebody who knew how to disappear on some level,” Anthony considers. “Gosling has such an interesting technique to him in that he has a minimalist style where he conveys a whole lot of emotion, thought, and complexity, with a lot of subtlety.”
Joe also notes that this is the first actioner that takes advantage of Gosling’s complete box of tools. “I would argue this role uses everything that Ryan is incredible at,” says Joe. “It combines his great physical control; his really wonderful, quirky sense of humor; how he’s smoldering and intense onscreen and can communicate a lot while doing very little… Remember, Ryan was a dancer when he was younger. Playing an action hero is different from any other form of acting because all that stunt work requires incredible body control and extreme discipline.”
And there was a lot of discipline going around on this shoot, from the aforementioned sequences of Gosling running through an exploding Prague square to scenes where he, de Armas, and Evans would train extensively for fights that would be shot and reshot as the Russos continued to refine their fisticuffs to match (and surpass) what they did on The Winter Soldier.
“We shoot during the day and then go to editorial at night,” Joe explains. “We’re watching the footage cut together, and we’re refining it and then going back the next day and altering maybe 30 percent of the material based on the ideas we came up with the night before in editorial. That goes on for weeks.”
For one particularly complex fight sequence in which Gosling’s spook must punch and kick his way out of a crashing military plane, the Russos ended up shooting the scene three different ways.
“Action films are difficult in that regard,” Joe muses. “It wears down the actors. Can you imagine going to Ryan and saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to reshoot this plane sequence for a third time, but we’re pretty sure this is going to be the last one?’”
Nevertheless, the pair now stands at the finish line of what is one of Netflix’s most expensive films to date and the Russos’ first massive spectacle with nary a Hulk or a star-spangled shield in sight. But it was those Marvel experiences, the brothers attest, that made The Gray Man possible.
“It’s different in that when you’re shooting a Marvel movie, there’s a certain reliance on the audience’s emotional connection to historical story points, and you know that you’re going to be able to generate a shorthand,” Joe says. “You’re going to be able to generate enthusiasm for preexisting story points or payoff moments, or for character appearances, in a way that when you’re starting from scratch, you won’t.”
But, he adds, “I think the work that we did at Marvel, and the work Markus and McFeely did there, allowed us to understand large-scale storytelling in a way where we can connect strongly with audiences by delivering characters with storytelling efficiency and in a way that they can become attached to them more quickly.”
And whether in a bullet-riddled Prague square or a collapsing plane, things rarely seem to be of larger scale than when Gosling and Evans lock horns.
The Gray Man premieres on Netflix on July 22, 2022.