From their resumes, Joe and Anthony Russo seem about as unlikely candidates for directing a big-budget superhero movie as pre-transformation weakling Steve Rogers was to become super-soldier Captain America back in WWII. The Russos were best known for directing witty, meta television series with small, but very passionate, followings, like Arrested Development, Community, and Happy Endings. But it turns out they are big-time comic fanboys at heart who dreamed of making a movie that combined superhero action and '70s style political paranoia. The result is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a record-breaking box office smash with nearly half a billion dollars in ticket sales two weeks after its release.
I spoke to the Russo brothers about Captain America's Rip van Winkle-style reentry into 21st century America (he was frozen in a block of ice for 65 years, emerging in time to appear in The Avengers), about picking a location for an imaginary office building where a lot of the story takes place, and about why they like to work together.
The Russos are the latest in a string of successful directing siblings, including the Coens, the Farrellys, the Wachowskis and the Weitzes. Joe explained,
It's a tough job directing, and I think with brothers it's like look, you grew up together, you watch the same movies, you read the same books, you're film geeks, you talk about movies your whole life growing up together, developing together, just sharing your passion for cinema. And then also, when we started to study cinema we did it together, we watched movies, we broke them down. We just started finding our way into filmmaking together and we just kept going. I also think there's a unique dynamic you find between siblings. You're patterned to be part of a family. So you have this ability to sometimes forego your own ego for the collective interest. That's, I think, an important dynamic in co-directing. Sometimes you have to compromise; you have to do something that the other person wants to do that you may not totally get or agree with. And so you need that ability to be able to be flexible on that level.
Anthony added, "I think sibling teams work because you need a commonality at some point, there needs to be an access point. It can't be all dissension. Dissension is healthy, but you have to have an overlap."
Captain America: The Winter Soldier makes outstanding use of the Washington, D.C. settings, far better than the usual establishing shots of monuments and the White House. There is a stunning action scene on Georgetown's Whitehurst Freeway and much of the story takes place in an office building they placed right in the middle of the Potomac River on what is in reality Roosevelt Island, a National Park. "The idea of just setting it right there at Roosevelt Island, with classical DC on one side and the towers of Rosslyn, Virginia on the other -- for a movie about a guy from the past, setting it right there between the past and the future is very interesting," Joe said. Anthony emphasized that:
We were trying to ground the movie. I know it's silly to say you want to ground a superhero film but we wanted to bring as much reality into the movie as possible. Cap (Chris Evans) makes it interesting because he's a human. He is an enhanced human but he's a human being. He's not The Incredible Hulk, he's not Thor who is a Norse god. So we felt like the more we put him in the real world, the more relatable he would be become as a human being. I remember very early on when we were figuring the movie out, we were asking, 'How would you make a character likeable?' A very short answer for that with ourselves was, 'You just beat the hell out of them!'
It was natural for the Russos to put Captain America in a political setting. They like to say they grew up in politics, because their father was a Cleveland city councilman and then a judge and their entire family is involved in politics.
Anthony explained why they are drawn to the drama of political thrillers.
They have an immediacy to them because they are dealing with prior and current political issues. You want to have the lead character's anxieties reflect your anxieties. That's how you relate to characters. It also makes the lead more immediate and relevant to you. So for us it was important that we grab on to something we read about every day, something that plays into our collective anxieties as filmmakers, and then you hope that that translates to the audience. We all understand that we have to protect ourselves moving forward as a country. But where is the line? What's the cost of doing it humanely, what if we got rid of a hundred people, are we any more secure? What if we got rid of two hundred? What about thousands? What about 10 thousands? And so, at what point do you stop? If you could stop a war by killing an entire army, do you do it? It's interesting how you use technology moving forward for security.
The plot is political. But the heart of the movie is Captain America's adjustment to the 21st century. He is used to knowing who the bad guys are. And he is used to trusting the people who give him orders. He carries a list of cultural touchstones to catch up on (the moon landing, the Beatles, Star Wars and Star Trek, and, if you're seeing the film outside the U.S., the World Cup). But he has a whole new understanding of the complexities of loyalty and betrayal to catch up on, too. So the friendships he develops in this movie are as significant as the super-fights.
"That was part of the what we loved about this movie," Joe said.
All of our stuff, even our comedies, are very character-based. We love characters. So thinking about where Cap was at the beginning of this movie was like, we've all lost somebody important to us. Cap lost everybody important to him in his life. Everyone he loved and trusted is gone. So obviously, moving forward in trying to join the modern world, the relationships he forms are extremely important because he is starting with none. So yes, the relationships with Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Sam (Anthony Mackie) are all very, very critical relationships in this movie. Cap is so isolated. The thing we love about the relationship with Natasha is that it is so funny because they're such opposites. She is cynical, she deals in lies, and she's a full-on spy; he likes to deal with the truth. She's extremely modern; he's extremely old-fashioned. We knew that putting them in crisis together would pull out opposite points of view and that they would clash with each other. And at the same time it make them very compelling. She's trying to take care of him which is really cool.
Anthony talked about Captain America's relationship to Nick Fury and the new addition to the cast, Sam Wilson. "Cap is similarly is kind of an opposite to Nick Fury as well which is why that relationship with Sam is so important. He finally meets somebody with a similar background, a soldier background. He finally found somebody who was close to home."
Anthony also spoke about working with Kevin Feige, who oversees all of the Marvel movies.
They have this brilliant ability to hold the universe together on some level but also recognize the fact that every movie needs the space to become what it wants to be. He wants you to surprise him. He doesn't want you to come in and tell him what they are expecting or what they were thinking. They know the vitality of the franchise is dependent upon pushing into new areas. So for us, it was a marvelous experience because we just got to come in there with some crazy ideas and they were like, 'Run with that!' And so we tried to push the film into a space that didn't exist in any of the other Marvel films.
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