Update: we’ve launched a podcast where you can now find the audio of this interview!
If Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans are the actors most synonymous with the unprecedented success of the behemoth Marvel Cinematic Universe, then Anthony and Joe Russo are the directors who most bear that same honor.
The pair — who originally cut their teeth in comedy, having directed You, Me, and Dupree in addition to episodes of Arrested Development and Community — has helmed four of the MCU’s strongest outings yet, with their credits including Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame. For my money, in addition to Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: Ragnarok, and Iron Man, those are the best films that Marvel Studios has produced in their now-12-year run.
Granted, while the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been known for its ability to plug in directors who will be able to adhere to the already-established-MCU-style, there’s no question that the Russo Brothers brought their own personal flair to the four films they directed, as evidenced by their striking superior quality to the rest of the franchise’s projects. And because of that, when it comes to comic book filmmaking, Anthony and Joe Russo are the gold standard these days — after all, they are responsible for the highest-grossing film of all-time for a reason.
And yet, despite their growing status as mega-writers/producers/directors, we were lucky enough to chat with the brilliant duo (which, as a gigantic comic book nerd, was an absolute dream for me). From the making of Extraction and the Infinity Saga, to taking inspiration from other directors, from the Avengers story that could bring them back to the MCU to reheating pizza, we got into it all with the Russo Brothers. Hope you enjoy!
Joe Russo: Hey Eric, how are you?
Eric Italiano: Good Joe, thank you. And you?
JR: Good, really good, thanks. I’m sure my brother will be on any minute, but we can start whenever you want to.
EI: Perfect, works for me. Let’s get to it — I’d love to start with Extraction.
The blistering pace of Extraction
EI: I found that in Pizza Film School, one of the things you guys really focus on is pacing, which I think is one of Extraction‘s biggest strengths. It reminded me a lot of — and I’m sure you guys have gotten this tons — The Raid, which is one of my favorite action movies of all-time, 110 mph from start to finish. What do you guys do to ensure that your films sustain that sort of forward-driven momentum?
JR: That’s a two-fold process. Your script has got to be tight. Your story structure has to be tight. You need a propulsive concept behind the plot. A ticking clock is always helpful. And then secondary to that is execution in editorial. You look for the leanest version of a movie like that. So, when you’re making a movie like Extraction, you want to trim all the fat so that it’s as muscular as it can possibly be without moving the emotion of the character. There’s a way to be very efficient with both so that you can maintain a high-quality of character and an emotional movie. It’s a combination of all elements – then you add music to that and certainly the pace of performance onset is integral to that as well.
The biggest challenges in making Infinity War and Endgame live up to the hype
EI: It also helps that [director] Sam Hargrave was fantastic. Looping back into Pizza Film School, when you guys were talking with Mark Hamill, you said that the second act of the film is the hardest to craft. So, when I look back on Infinity War and Endgame — Endgame more so — I think you guys sort of subverted what acts are in those films, especially considering it’s one giant story. What were the biggest hurdles you faced in making sure the second act of these long and grand films kept up with the first and third act?
Anthony Russo: You know, the unique challenge of those movies — and this affects act structure in the way that you’re talking about — is the size of the ensemble. When you’re dealing with a large ensemble and you have multiple leads, it tends to spread out the way the narrative flows because you’re not structuring it around a single protagonist, so it tends not to have as tight of a focus. Our challenge with those movies was figuring out how to interweave the ensemble and the various independent storylines together in a way that keeps the story exciting, keeps up guessing about where the movie is going to go next, and is also telling the story of the larger ensemble and following these individual story tangents. That takes a long time in the script phase — we spent a lot of time with [screenwriters] Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely sort of playing with various possible structures for that section of the movie in particular, and figuring out how it actually works best. There is a lot of experimentation in the script phase with those guys trying different versions of an act-two structure particularly.
The process of turning Endgame into a trip down memory lane
EI: I’m not sure if you were on the line yet, Anthony, but I brought up to Joe how you guys really focus on pacing and narrative film structure in Pizza Film School, whereas I find Endgame — you know, it’s a three-act film — but just by the very meta-walk-down-memory-lane nature about it, acts don’t necessarily exist in that sense since you’re jumping between the past and the future. So, at what point did you guys decide that Endgame was going to be that sort of subverted look back?
AR: That was early in the process. We had a sense of what we were going to do in those films before Markus and McFeeley started scripting them. We certainly knew what the outbreak was going to be between the two films and then we contemplated all the ways you could go back and do what Thanos had done. Time travel seemed to be the most interesting, we’re all obsessed with Back to the Future — it’s one of our favorite films. It seemed, conceptually, to be the most interesting approach because it allowed us to revisit story points. No one had ever done this 10-year-long narrative that Marvel had done. Also, with collecting new fans along the way, we knew there’d be people who perhaps had never seen any of the other films, so we thought it would be an interesting way to address all of those issues.
Taking inspiration from other directors and applying it to their films
EI: I want to pivot to the No Country For Old Men episode with Josh Brolin. I think it was Anthony that said that’s what he’ll toss on when he just wants to watch a film, and that’s what I do with Infinity War, so I just wanted to let you guys know that. In that episode, you guys spend tons of time rightfully heaping praise on the Coen Brothers – how do you guys, if at all, take inspiration from other directors and apply it to your work, and are there any specific examples that come to mind?
AR: First of all, that was really kind of you to mention you turn to Infinity War like that — that’s very cool to hear. Here’s the thing, we’re great film lovers: sometimes you absorb things consciously and sometimes subconsciously and sometimes you channel them the same way in your work. Sometimes we’re very consciously thinking of something that we want to emulate because it’s inspiring us to chase something. What we were trying to achieve in Winter Soldier with the action sequences in terms of chasing the action sequences in Heat. Sometimes when you’re doing something specific like a car chase, you’ve got to run with the big dogs — you have to really be conscious of the great car chases that you’ve grown to love, that everybody else loves, and that you’ve studied endlessly, and figure out a way to bring something to the table that’s hopefully a worthy successor to those.
Look at Empire Strikes Back, the shock of that ending — experiencing that at a young age and knowing we had an opportunity to do something like that. That was something we were very conscious of — we knew the effect that had on us and we knew we had the elements to give that sort of experience to the audience, especially younger audiences that weren’t as familiar or hadn’t experienced that at an impressionable age. But also, I think there’s a lot of ways where things will subconsciously work their way into what we’re doing — it’s just a matter of your passion for film and you try to bring that passion and those tools and techniques from other films and you try to apply them to your personal story.
The Avengers story that could bring them back to the MCU
EI: One more thing I want to touch on — I’m a huge comic book nerd, have been reading them my whole life, so these last 10 years have been a dream because I’ve gotten to see these stories come to life. Now, I don’t want to hound you guys about a return to the MCU because I know you get that a lot, but you did once say that if there was a story that could bring you back, it would be Secret Wars. In fact, I actually just started reading it last month. Outside of the job itself, what is it about that story that appeals to you guys?
JR: You know, I read that when I was 10 or 11, and it was the scale of getting all of the heroes together. It was one of the first major books to do that — that was really event-storytelling to me at its finest. And what happens when you put all of those personalities together. I also like the idea of villains having to team up with heroes. Anth and I like complicated relationships between heroes and villains, we like villains who believe they’re heroes in their own stories, so it’s all sort of built into this notion of Secret Wars. To execute something on the scale of Infinity War was directly related to the dream of Secret Wars, which is even larger in scale.
EI: It’s stunning, really, I found myself in deep. I’ve read comic books my whole life and they throw you right in — it’s hard to get your bearings, so seeing that on film would be incredible.
AR: It would be the biggest movie you could possibly imagine, so that’s what really excites us about the story — the ambition of it is even bigger than the ambition of the Infinity Saga.
The best way to reheat pizza
EI: Well, as a fan, let me tell ya — we’d love to see it. One last softball for you guys about pizza here: what’s the best way to reheat it?
AR: (laughs) That’s an interesting question.
JR: It depends on the pizza.
EI: Joe, you’d said you like no cheese, so I’m sure that plays into the reheat.
JR: There’s so many different kinds of pizza, that’s the amazing thing. I think over the past decade or so, the way pizza has continued to grow and evolve and spread and there’s so many different kinds now. Growing up in Cleveland, there’s a lot of Italian bakeries, that would make a style of pizza that’s very simple: it was just thicker-side dough, very little sauce, and very little cheese. They would have them in display cases like in bakeries and they would cut them throughout the day for you — that pizza is best-served room temperature. It really depends on what kind of pizza it is. Do you have a favorite kind of pizza, Eric?
EI: Well, I’m from Jersey, so I like to think just a standard cheese plain slice is our staple around these parts. So, when it comes to reheating that type of slice, I use the pan-method: you put it in a pan so you get that bottom crust nice and crispy, and then you cover it with a top and drizzle some water in there, and the moisture melts the cheese on top, and then it’s as good as it was when it was fresh. Try it out, pan-method is the way to go.
JR: I’m going to steal that technique, that sounds great — I’ve never tried it like that.
EI: Well, guys, thank you so much for your time. The way that you guys talk about how you’re inspired by film — you do the same for us, so, thank you so much.
JR: Appreciate that, Eric. Thank you so much.
AR: Take care, man, be well.
The Russo Brothers have spent their quarantine launching a new online movie show called “Pizza Film School”. If you’re a movie lover, they’re all must-watch, as the pair sit down with stars such as Mark Hamill, Josh Brolin, and Taika Waititi to breakdown some of their favorite films. The newest episode, featuring Taika Waititi, focuses on the 1980 cult-classic ‘Flash Gordon’.
Eric is a New York City-based writer who still isn’t quite sure how he’s allowed to have this much fun for a living and will tell anyone who listens that Gotham City is canonically in New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter @eric_ital for movie and soccer takes or contact him firstname.lastname@example.org