How do you go from directing "Community" to taking on "Captain America"? Why not ask one of the directors of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"?
Anthony Russo was at the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour on Tuesday to talk about "Animal Practice," a new NBC comedy that he and his brother Joe are both executive producing. You may know their names from "Community" and "Arrested Development," which are among the projects the Russos have directed. And you may have been surprised when their names were announced as the directors of one of Marvel's biggest franchises. Would these Greendale veterans know how to handle the adventures of the First Avenger?
Inquiring minds wanted to know, so after the formal panel for "Animal Practice" (which wasn't that formal, given that, at one point, there was a monkey riding atop a tiny ambulance on the stage of the Beverly Hilton), myself and a couple of other TV writers went up on the stage to talk to Russo.
We asked about his new show and we asked about Dan Harmon's departure from "Community," but the main thing that we grilled him about was the Russos' plans for Cap. He was game to discuss their new feature film gig; he talked about the different tone the modern-day "Captain American" movie will have to take, how the Russos landed the job and why TV veterans are a good fit for a superhero movie series (Joss Whedon, of course, directed "The Avengers" and "Game of Thrones" and "Sopranos" director Alan Taylor is helming the upcoming "Thor: The Dark World").
Just a couple of notes before we get to the good stuff: There were three or four people talking to Russo during this chat, and for what it's worth, I've marked the questions I asked with an asterisk. Also, this interview has been edited and, in a few minor instances, condensed a little bit.
What do you think it was that landed you such a big project like "Captain America"?
Well, first of all, Marvel's this incredible company that has shown in the past that they think outside the box with directors. I mean, it's shocking the people they've hired, over and over again, and they've had great success as a result. They like character, and they like storytelling and they like fun. We were surprised, but they were big fans of "Community" and you can sort of draw a line between some things we did on "Community" and a Marvel movie.
*I would like you to draw that line for me.
Well, I think if you look at some of the big genre episodes, the paintball episodes, etc. -- there's a cinematic sensibility being explored there that is in the language of [various kinds of] films.
*I think Chris Evans is good at comedy, especially dry comedy, but Captain America as a guy -- what I love about him is that there's kind of a nobility, a heroic quality to him. With the comedic sensibilities you and your brother have, is that going to be part of it, I guess? Is that part of the conception process and the scripting process?
It definitely is. I mean, we're trying to grow him as a character, and certainly he's come a long way, from where he started in pre-World War 2 to where he is in modern-day America. So the character has room for growth because of that huge journey that he's been on, Number 1. Number 2, part of the appeal of these movies is the ensemble. Captain America isn't the only character in the film, there are other characters that are perhaps lighter in nature.
Yeah, exactly. [Note: Anthony Mackie will definitely be part of the "Winter Soldier" ensemble; The actor will play Falcon in the film, and it has also been reported that Sebastian Stan will be back as Bucky Barnes.]
The flip side of that is the concern people have: "They're hiring comedy directors! They're just going to make it into a wacky comedy!" Suffice to say that is not the approach?
There's a little-known side to my brother and I, which is, we didn't start out as comedy directors. We started out in the mid-'90s -- we made this credit card movie that made the festival circuit in '97, that Steven Soderbergh saw at the same time he [was showing] "Schizopolis" on the festival circuit. He loved our movie and offered to produce something for us, so we went into a cycle of writing -- we wrote three scripts, only one of which was a comedy. That was "Welcome to Collinwood," and when he formed his company with George Clooney, he wanted to make something with us, so we showed him these three scripts and he picked "Collinwood," and from that point forward, we were comedy directors. And we've loved doing it, but we've always had another side to ourselves.
People in the industry know that, because they've seen scripts that we've done, they've seen things that the public at large hasn't seen. So I think it is more surprising to people on the outside, but people on the inside get it a little more, because it is in our wheelhouse.
You're going with an existing story for "Captain America," right?
In a way. I mean, they're all sort of rooted in what's come before, but they're all also their own jumping-off point as well.
How did you sell yourselves [to get the job for] "Captain America"?
We were comic book geeks from a young age and big fantasy geeks. We got to talk to them in detail about that history. They knew that we understood the brand really well and the characters really well. It was a long process, actually, of talking to them over and over again, through a series of meetings over a long period of time. And I think they just -- we were really passionate about the movie, incredibly passionate about the movie. They felt that, and they felt like it was the right match.
What did you love about [Ed] Brubaker's "Winter Soldier" [comic-book] story that made you say, "Oh yeah, I know what we can do with this"?
Well, we like the [story]. I can't talk too much about specifics, that's the way Marvel handles things. I can say in general that there's sort of a darker, edgier sensibility at work there that we found appealing, and that is going find its way into Captain [America] in the modern day.
The '40s stuff worked so well in the first movie, and I know Marvel was thinking about maybe doing an in-between story, because [they] just like that era. Do you have any insight into why they wanted to keep it set in the present day?
You know, I actually don't know, to tell you the truth, how that debate went. That was before we entered the picture and I never actually asked them about that.
Are flashbacks possible to World War 2?
Certainly Cap has this complicated history. We're making the movie for first-time viewers, not just for fans, so, because Cap does have this complicated history -- he was this skinny guy who became a super-soldier, he was born back then and he's living [now] -- in the storytelling, you need to convey that to an audience who doesn't know Cap's story.
*What about directing a big, comic-book extravaganza with tons of effects? You've done a lot of different stuff, but is that at all intimidating, to take on a big-budget, tent-pole movie?
Well, two things. It has been something my brother and I have been working on for many years, behind the scenes, sort of preparing. We've had this great run in television comedy, and maybe "You, Me and Dupree" was an extension of that on a feature level. But we've spent a lot of years now researching that craft.
The other side of that equation is, Marvel is this incredible machine with all these amazing people who work there. That's part of their confidence and why they can go outside the box [in choosing] directors, because they have people there who know everything. They said to us early on in the interview process, "We don't expect you to know anything [about special effects and so forth] -- you don't have to know everything about this stuff, because we're here for that." They're very respectful of directors. They're an amazing company to work with.
What appeals to you about Chris Evans' interpretation of this character as we've seen it thus far?
I love his integrity, you know, and his toughness. And I think that's what is at the heart of Captain America's appeal, that sort of indomitable spirit and faith in an ideal. Chris takes that mantle really well.
Marvel's got this cool clockwork approach to figuring out what to seed for other movies in the movies they're making at the moment. Have you already been having those discussions [about] how you're going to set up little things that are going to pay off in other films?
Yes, but they're very balanced in that approach. First and foremost, it is the movie itself [that is the priority, and setting up other things] is a lighter layer of dressing. In terms of the hard-core mechanics of the movie, it's contained within the movie itself.
Where are you at in terms of production? Are you in active pre-production? Do you have a production start date?
We have a release date, April 2014. We are going to go into production early next year.
Are comic book creators that you've been consulting with been helpful to you? Are creators from the actual comic books [giving] advice?
We're actually going to have lunch with Brubaker soon. But no, they haven't been involved. In the same way that they would develop a new comic-book series, they give its own space to develop. But certainly everybody is aware [of what's in the comics], has read everything, is aware of all their other material. But they do like each thing to be its own, organic process, which is nice.
*I read some really smart people who wrote pieces I wish I'd thought of, who said that Marvel is wise to hire people from the TV realm, because, not only are people used to bringing things in on time and on budget and keeping things moving along, there's a sense that a lot of directors now are involved in stories and can very much help shape the vision and tone, as you did with "Community" and other things you've worked on. Am I wrong about how they're approaching this process?
No, I think you're right. One reason why people coming from the television world work particularly well at Marvel is connected to one thing you were saying earlier: Marvel is a big company and they've made a lot of movies and these movies are connected to each other. That's not typical for a feature film. A lot of people who work in feature films, that whole concept is a little foreign, in the sense that you have to be thinking about predecessors in a very specific way. They aren't just prequels, there's a whole mythology that has preceded you. Television people are used to that because there's seasons and seasons of a show and this history is very important.
Also, it's a big company and you're dealing with people from the comic book side and the feature side and so there's a lot of people to work with, as in television -- there's a lot of people to collaborate with. People who have done well in television have a gift for being able to work with a large number of people.
What part of lightning in a bottle from "The Avengers" would you like to grab for "Captain America"?
For me, what I loved about the movie, which is what many if not most people loved about the movie, were the character interactions, those great character moments. You have people rubbing up against each other in a way that's exciting and combustible. While all the special effects and the adventure, the thrill and the danger [are] fun, it was those character-to-character interactions are the heart of the film. So that's what [we'll hope to have].
*So that leads to the follow-up question -- will there be any other Avengers be in "Winter Soldier"?
That's the something that -- Marvel would shoot me if I answered.
I know people like Hayley Atwell so much as Peggy Carter, is there a possibility of using her as Sharon Carter?
I can't talk about any of that at all, sorry.
The only thing Marvel has said is that S.H.I.E.L.D. will be involved in this film. Are you interested in getting another look at the world of S.H.I.E.L.D. and those characters perhaps in this movie?
I'm very interested in that, but yeah, I can't really say more.
Is there a potential in this movie that we might see characters that might be familiar from the comics that haven't been seen before?
I can't say, but it's part of that same mosaic. That essential nature of what they're doing is still intact.
Once everyone else had left, Russo and I kept on chatting, and eventually I asked him a couple more Cap questions before letting the poor man get to his lunch.
One of the things I liked best about Joe Johnston's "Captain America" is that, in part, it felt like an homage to classic war films, in the compositions and the tone and so forth. But as you were saying, you've got a present-day setting and the character is going through these difficulties adjusting -- does "Winter Soldier" have to have a different tone? I mean, it can't quite revisit mood or that feeling.
I have to be very careful how I answer this, because it does border on issues of what the movie is. But yeah, he is in a very different time and place. For as well as that style worked for his World War 2 experience and the origin of Cap -- part of the fun of picking a guy out of one time period and plopping him down in another is that all bets are off. The whole world is different, and that's part of the struggle of the character and the challenge the character faces.
But at the same time, you don't want to make him Don Draper.
No, not at all. Exactly. That wouldn't be the essence of the character either. That's not where Cap goes.