Q&A: The Russo Brothers, the directors of ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’
Anthony and Joe Russo, the team behind “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” wouldn’t seem like the first conventional choice to direct a film on the scale that Marvel movies demand. After years in television on shows from “Community” to “Arrested Development,” Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Entertainment, tapped the two to direct the sequel for Captain America, which finds Steve Rogers fighting his toughest challenge yet, The Winter Soldier. But the Russo Brothers have, by and large, exceeded audience expectations, delivering a film that displays a political awareness while utilizing all the spectacle and visual effects at their disposal.
The Russo Brothers spoke to The Eagle’s David Kahen-Kashi about making the film, Chris Evans’ purported retirement and Captain America 3.
Eagle: Basically, you’re on the eve of the release. What does that feel like?
Anthony Russo: It’s incredible. We’ve been on the movie for over two years now and it’s tough when you’re making a Marvel movie because you have to be so secretive, so finally to be able to talk about the movie with people who have seen it is incredible.
E: So what was it like when you got the call to direct?
AR: We just showed up on a list of theirs. Kevin Feige has said he just looks for people or directors who’ve done something interesting. It doesn’t have to be specific to the genre at all and he’s a fan of some of our work and we showed up on a list and they wanted to talk. Now they have the luxury of being able to talk to a lot of people because their movies are so popular – a lot of people want to do their movies. So just because they start talking to you doesn’t mean it’s going to lead to a job by a long shot. We went through a very long process, partly four meetings over two and a half months, where we had to get very specific about what our vision for the movie was going to be. We drew a lot of story boards. We wrote script pages. We wrote new scenes. We did a mock trailer that was comprised of clips from other movies and shots from other movies that gave an impression of what we wanted to do stylistically and tonally with the film.
The great thing about going through a process that was that long was we knew by the end of it exactly what the movie was. So we got the gig.
E: I know you have storyboards but the moment you get on set, are you prepared for the organized chaos?
Joe Russo: Well you have a huge infrastructure, right? There’s a mass amount of talented people working for you on a movie like this. It’s more comparable to being executive producer when you’re doing television where you’re managing a massive machine. I don’t know why people think TV’s smaller just because it’s on their television, but the scale of it from a production standpoint is significant and difficult because you’re producing something every week. So you’re in prep [and] you’re in production and post-production at the same time for eight months on different episodes. The managerial skills you hone as an executive producer in television are very applicable to what it’s like on a big movie like this. The scale of it. You really have to manage a large army of people to make sure the point of view and the focus stays clear on the movie.
AR: But also on a movie like this because what you’re trying to do on set is so complicated in terms of the action set pieces that it’s rehearsed exhaustedly before you get to set. We’ve shot it all before we’ve even gotten there in practice runs. By the time you get to set you’re really thoroughly prepared. Everyone has dialed in. Of course, you have to improvise sometimes because something unexpected happened, you take advantage of ideas you have at the moment. But there’s a really hardcore embedded plan in place.
E: What’s the first day on set like when you first call action?
AR: There’s a lot of nerves because a picture’s worth a thousand words. You can talk about something to death, but until you get to that moment where you actually do it, it doesn’t crystallize. I think everybody comes to that first day with the ideas of like, ‘Oh, yeah. This is what we’re trying to do.’ But until you get it on its feet and you start sort of watching the actors perform a fight, or whatever they’re doing in that scene, of watching how we’re using the cameras to interact with that. Until that happens, that’s the first time everyone’s like ‘Okay, we’re all on the page here.’
E: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is a far more political film that any other Marvel movie before it. Was there a discussion about communicating certain ideas like mass surveillance through it?
JR: Yeah. It’s a political thriller, right? And all the great political thrillers have a very topical issue at the center of them. That’s what makes the viewing of the film immediate for the audience. You want to reflect the current anxieties of, through the lead character and that keeps the audience more emotionally invested in the film. We’re also politically inclined, we read a lot, we have our own collected anxieties about issues and I think we live in very complicated times.
So you’re taking a character like Cap who is very black and white and comes from the greatest generation, then plopping him into a very subversive and cynical time. He hasn’t gone through Watergate, the Iraq war, the Iran-Contra, 9/11, the NSA. He hasn’t been stepped [sic] here the way we all have so he doesn’t understand the complexity of the issue of drone technology. We have a democratic president who has a kill list. Viewed as necessary for security. Where does the line get drawn? So if there’s a hundred people on a kill list, if you get rid of these people we’re going to be a lot safer. Well, what if you expanded it? What if we got rid of a thousand? Or what if we got rid of ten thousand? What if one country invaded another country and the way to stop the war was to kill the entire army of one country with drone strikes? Where does the line stop? So we wanted to investigate that in the film and use a character like Cap, whose again this very black and white character, to sort of point out the flaws and thought process.
E: Was there any challenge in adopting a political stance in a Marvel film when their films are known for being large and fun? Have you gotten reactions from people about it?
AR: I think people are refreshed by it. Look, Marvel has had a great run and they’ve made some marvelous movies, but people want to be surprised. They want the movies to go into fresh territory. They want to find new interpretations of what a comic book movie can be. So what we’re finding so far is that when you offer them that, they really respond. You have to understand it’s in the DNA of Captain America. The character was created during World War II as basically a propaganda tool to encourage America’s involvement in World War II. The nature of the character is political. So he’s been used throughout the decades since to be a political mirror from time to time. It’s very organic to the nature of the character even though you haven’t seen it much in other movies. It’s hard to understand him as political tool for us during World War II sometimes because World War II was so black and white. You know, the good allies versus the evil Nazi’s. There was not a lot of politics involved with that. It’s a very easy clean black and white scenario. And today we have a much more politically heated environment and that’s why it was so fun to rub our current condition against Captain America and see what happens.
E: What was the experience in getting Robert Redford?
JR: Actually, Marvel got a phone call saying he was interested in appearing in one of their movies. Obviously for us, making a film that owned a huge creative debt to “Three Days of the Condor,” we were the perfect film for him. We have a role that would play against type for him as well. He read the script. He really liked it. We sat down and had lunch with him and he had really great thoughts about the character and the script itself. He’s a very thoughtful, disciplined, generous guy. A real pleasure to work [with].
E: So Chris Evans (“Puncture”) has claimed that he wants to retire from acting, what is your opinion on that?
JR: He debunked it, I think.
AR: Here’s what it is actually. Chris had the opportunity to direct a film recently. Shot it back in December, editing still.
JR: He got bit by the directing bug.
AR: Yeah, I think he loved his experience and it really excited him. Chris is a wonderful actor. He’s clearly going to keep doing it because he has wonderful opportunities for it, but I think like Robert Redford, there’s a lot of actors who enjoy directing as well.
E: You guys are going to work on “Captain America 3.” Are you in pre-production now?
JR: We’re in the real early phases of the story. It’s weird working on a sequel before even number two even comes out. So we’re really looking forward to is seeing this movie come out, seeing how it plays, seeing how people respond to it and then getting a sense about where to go for the next movie.
AR: We’ve always been very audience responsive starting with “Arrested Development” through “Community.” We like hearing how people respond to things. It’s like having a dialogue with your audience.