PHOTOGRAPHY BY GL ASKEW II
Growing up in Cleveland, Anthony and Joe Russo loved movies—especially blockbusters. The brothers, born one year apart (in 1970 and 1971, respectively), consumed box office smashes—Joe claims to have watched The Empire Strikes Back for 12 straight hours when it was originally released and to have seen RoboCop more than 30 times. They maxed out credit cards to pay for their first film, the 1997 indie comedy Pieces, and earned a champion in Steven Soderbergh as well as writing and directing gigs for beloved—if at the time underappreciated—shows such as Arrested Development and Community.
There’s nothing indie or underappreciated about the Russos anymore, as they’ve become go-to directors for the Marvel Extended Universe. Their two Captain America movies, 2014’s The Winter Soldier and 2016’s Civil War, have grossed more than $2 billion worldwide combined, and the filmmakers are back now with Avengers: Infinity War. The brothers called Rhapsody from their Los Angeles office to share what they learned from childhood family movie marathons—and how those lessons prepared them to make some of the biggest hits in cinema history.
If we went back to the mid-’80s, what VHS tapes would we find at the Russo house?
Anthony Russo: [Laughs] We had a Betamax! That was the big purchase our father made, and we had to wear that out before we got a VHS player. Growing up, we watched the great genre movies of the 1970s: The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three; The French Connection; Three Days of the Condor.
Joe Russo: After a while, there was a smattering of foreign films getting through. I remember The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover making an impression. We loved David Lynch: Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet. We had eclectic tastes that ranged from independent to commercial.
Did you dream about making movies together?
JR: No, we were just fans of movies when we were growing up. We did not start making movies until our early 20s. It all started when Robert Rodriguez made El Mariachi for $7,000 and wrote a book about it. We thought, “Wait, you can make a movie for $7,000? We have to do that.”
And now you’re making big-budget films that are seen by basically everyone. How do you create material for such a wide range of viewers?
AR: The way we grew up relates directly to the movies we make. We had two sisters as well, and we watched TV and movies as a family—all six of us would sit around and enjoy the movie together. Part of our love of cinema came from our love of the experience of watching movies with children and adults. Our favorite movies are everyone else’s favorites—we wanted to make those movies that you can watch over and over again.
These days, comic book superhero franchises have come to dominate the film industry. Why do you think that is?
JR: In large part, it’s the technological advancement of filmmaking. There’s a level of photorealism that makes this material possible and believable. And the stories, of course, are relatable: These are fantastical, heightened versions of human beings doing things that we all dream of being able to do.
How do you consider tools such as 3-D and IMAX when you work on these films?
JR: Infinity War is the first studio film to be shot on IMAX start to finish. We learned that we can frame characters differently: Thanos [Infinity War’s villain] is a very tall character, and the verticality of the format has been fun to explore.
How is it to direct actors when so much of the setting is being added in postproduction?
JR: We do a lot of extensive artwork before filming, and we look at it with the actors so everyone is educated about the scene we are creating together. Actors need something to interact with; sometimes we’ll substitute props for objects that we’ll be adding later to give them a physical object to look at. Robert Downey Jr. is a genius at this kind of acting—no one can deal with those challenges like he can. He can create so much with his imagination.
And it’s a truly global audience: Marvel movies pack theaters all over the world.
AR: One of the greatest things about what we get to do is seeing the fandom worldwide in such a great diversity of places. It’s inspiring to see that we can all engage in a narrative together. That’s a stunning experience.
Have you been to memorable screenings in other countries?
AR: One that stands out is the experience of premiering both Captain America movies in Paris. We were in a spectacular venue, the Cinéma Le Grand Rex, which seats 3,000 people. It’s an elaborate and ornate theater, and there is such a reverence for movies. And the audiences love superhero movies—sitting through those screenings in Paris, I have never heard an audience react so loudly to a movie. They were screaming and cheering all the way through.