With each of Marvel's Phase One movies, the fans got directors no one was expecting, like the guy who made Elf (Jon Favreau) and the guy behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Joss Whedon). Those choices were largely met with confusion by the fans, until, naturally, they saw the finished product. That trend continues with Marvel's Phase Two sequel Captain America: The Winter Soldier, under the direction of Joe Russo and Anthony Russo, whose only feature directorial credits are the 2002 indie Welcome To Collinwood and the 2006 comedy You, Me and Dupree.
Of course, they've been keeping plenty busy on the small screen for several years, serving as writers, directors and producers on shows such as Arrested Development, Community and Happy Endings, but to say these filmmakers were an unexpected choice is somewhat of an understatement. Still, Marvel has managed to pull off yet another cinematic triumph with Captain America: The Winter Soldier (CLICK HERE to read my full review), which is by far the most action-driven film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with a story that offers plenty of surprises for the fans once the credits roll. I recently had the chance to speak with Joe Russo and Anthony Russo about their approach to the incredible action sequences and using as much practical effects as possible, along with their arduous audition process in getting the job, how 1970s thrillers helped shape the tone of this film, and how they changed the origin of The Falcon from the comic books. Here's what they had to say below.
First off, congratulations. This is my favorite Marvel movie.
Anthony Russo: Awesome!
Joe Russo: That's great to hear.
I wasn't going in thinking it would be bad, but it still subverted every expectation I had.
Joe Russo: Well, hopefully... we were an odd choice for this movie, and I can see how that would confuse some people. Hopefully, that plays into their enjoyment factor, that it does subvert their expectations.
I read that it was a very long 'audition process,' so to speak just to get the job. How did that compare with other projects you had, and did you think that helped you really get into this world?
Joe Russo: Oh, no doubt. First off, we hadn't auditioned for a project in awhile, because, in television, we've been doing what Marvel has been doing in movies. We have a machine, a comedy machine in television, with projects like Arrested Development, Community and Happy Endings, and a lot of other shows we were working on. But, when we heard what they wanted to do with this project, that it was inspired by 1970s thrillers, we're 1970s thriller fanatics. We used to watch them every night on the late show with our dad growing up. We loved The French Connection, we loved Black Friday. We're also comic book fanatics. I've been collecting comics since I was 10 years old, and I have a really strong point of view about comic book characters and what I like about them. So, the audition process was exhaustive. (Producer) Kevin (Feige) makes it exhaustive because he forces you to put a lot of effort into thinking how you would actually execute that idea, storyboards, script ideas. We brought in some script pages, ideas for dialogue, and action scenes that were in the film, character beats we thought were missing from the script, all kinds of stuff.
Anthony Russo: We made a fake trailer that was a collection of shots and sequences from other movies that we thought represented what we wanted to do tonally and stylistically.
Joe Russo: Yeah, it was a lot of work, but when they said the movie was ours, we were absolutely ready to make it.
Anthony Russo: We knew what the movie was, which was great, and it was interesting because, it's like Joe said, one, Kevin has the luxury to do it, because they have a lot of people who want to make these movies, clearly. But secondly, he has a hungry brain. He likes to go fishing. He likes to get people who are just talented or who have done something interesting, he wants to get them in there and see what they have to say, whether or not they're ever going to end up making the movie. It's very smart, the way he approaches it. When he invited us in there, we could have been just guys who showed up who said some mildly interesting things that maybe he doesn't use, but it ended up turning into another meeting, and another meeting. It went from there.
I found it interesting that you described this as a two-part movie, so to speak. You have the thriller aspect and then the third act is more of a traditional superhero movie. It was interesting because it makes perfect sense, but it was very seamless throughout. Was that a mandate or yours, or something Marvel brought up?
Joe Russo: It was a function of the storytelling. Listen, if you look at the film, the first two acts are almost exclusively practical effects, that's because of the grounding part we needed for the thriller. The mystery gets revealed at the beginning of Act Two and the beginning of Act Three, and now you know what's going on, and now it becomes a ticking clock movie, right? I always say one of the great scenes from The Dirty Dozen is where ||Jim Brown has to get grenades in the chimney. We would always say, 'This is the Jim Brown act.' Can we get the grenade in the chimney before the Nazi's leave the room and we miss our chance? It does shift gears to a more adventure film/ticking clock movie. It's less now about the mystery, and more about can we stop it?
Anthony Russo: It's very nice to hear you say that you felt it was all one piece, because we shot it handheld and we had this sort of sloppy verite style to a lot of the camera work early on. We worked really hard to recreate that in our visual effects shots, because that's not germane to how effects shots are normally rendered. All of our visual effects people worked really hard to figure out, how do we keep the movie grounded stylistically, and what's been done before? How do we make the camera follow the same rules that were used on set, and give it the same texture and feel? I think it was very fun and challenging for them to do that, because it's a slightly different way than they normally deliver shots.
I think it helps sets up things for the viewers too, because when you see that big freeway chase scene with The Winter Soldier, hopping from car to car, you know that someone is actually doing that. It helps you transition into, 'Well, that has to be a guy, flying through the air.'
Joe Russo: Exactly! It grounds you for that.
Anthony Russo: Yeah. You've been properly orientated before Act Three.
I was talking with Anthony (Mackie) earlier about the practicality of this suit, and how the gun designs were all CGI. I was really fascinated by that whole setup. Can you talk about how it was designed as this modern-day Taxi Driver kind of thing?
Joe Russo: Yeah, that was an idea we had, because it was our desire to interpret The Falcon on screen. I had never loved him in the books. I always thought that the back story where he's a pimp was kind of crazy and very stereotypical and, frankly, racist. I thought his costume was a little ridiculous. I liked in Captain America that there was a science behind who he was, the serum that heightened... which we're not far from right now. That's probably 20 years off where we start manipulating genes and hormones and restructuring your muscle mass. So, we wanted Falcon to live in that universe, similar to Cap. He's a soldier, who has a gift, and he's very good at what he does. It's a militaristic gift that can be used for good. Those guns, I was thinking, 'What can we do to keep making this character badass?' I always wanted him to be a badass in the books. We were thinking that, if you're holding the wings, you can't be defenseless in the air. We didn't want to have guns mounted to his outfit. He's a soldier, so if you're coming in for a landing, you have to go into immediate combat. Of course, the wizards of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) or wherever would have created these guns that are gyroscopic or smart weapons, so when his arms come forward and he does certain things with his hands, it reads that and the gun comes out and he can shoot. He may, at one point, need to use it very quickly in the air to defend himself. It all came from future weapons on the Military Channel. That was the inspiration for the Falcon.
Anthony Russo: You mentioned that they were CG. One of the things in our orientation for the execution of this movie was let's shoot it all practical. Let's shoot it all real. What we found was that, when we started to get him up on wires and move him around, we just couldn't get the energy and fluidity that we wanted him to move with. We wanted him to have a velocity and an aggressiveness, married with a gracefulness that just wasn't achievable, in terms of the practical terms we had to use. So we ended up going much more CG with Falcon than we thought we would initially.
I read that were you glad this wasn't an origin story, and that you didn't have to deal with all that. Did the fact that this was a sequel entice you more than, say, maybe ||Captain America: The First Avenger, where you have to set up who Cap is and this whole world?
Joe Russo: Absolutely, that was very enticing. It's very race that you have the opportunity to tonally reboot a franchise. Because he was frozen for 70 years, that movie (Captain America: The First Avenger) took place in a certain time period. It's a love letter to the period, and Joe (Johnston) did a wonderful job with that period. Now, you have a modern espionage movie, so the fact that we didn't have to deal with an origin story, and there was the potential for a tonal reboot, we were very excited by that. We didn't have to do any of the heavy lifting of spending 45 minutes explaining how the character becomes a hero. You can jump into the movie with him as a hero and get to the action and get to the dynamic elements of the storytelling.
Anthony Russo: We got the best of both worlds. We really couldn't believe our good fortune.
Can you talk about the style of action you wanted to bring to this? It's very hard-hitting, very visceral, very in-your-face. It's not something we're normally used to with a Marvel movie. Was that something you wanted to use to grab the viewer's attention?
Anthony Russo: Yeah, it's a style we enjoy ourselves. We enjoy that very intense cinematic experience, and it was incredibly valuable because Marvel has set the bar so high. They have done so many wonderful movies. There are so many comic book movies out there, that you have to bring something fresh to the table. We know that was a stylistic choice we could make that was different, and it had value because it was different, and it allowed us to explore who these characters are and what this world is in a slightly fresher way, because we were using that style. Arrested Development also had a very similar style, in the sense that, part of the fun of that show is it's an absurdist comedy, but you're accessing it through a verite camera style that typically tells the viewer that they're there, this is happening, this is all real. We really liked that level of texture, both in comedy and action.
Is there anything you can say about Captain America 3?
Joe Russo: No, we're just getting into it. We are breaking story, but we're also waiting for this film to come out, to have a frame of reference to see what people respond to in the movie.
That's my time. Thanks so much, guys.
Joe Russo: Thank you.
Anthony Russo:. Thank you.