Joe and Anthony Russo seem like the most unlikely Marvel Studios directors since they tapped Jon Favreau of Elf and Swingers fame to bring Iron Man to life in the first place. The screenwriters turned directors of Welcome to Collinwood and TV's "Arrested Development" and "Community" nevertheless took the reins of one of Marvel's flagship characters for Captain America: The Winter Soldier and transformed the sequel to a nostalgic World War II adventure into a hard-hitting indictment of contemporary American politics wrapped in all the trappings of a contemporary spy thriller.
In this excusive interview, I asked The Russo Bros. how they got the gig from Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige, why the transformed the screenplay into a more pointed political allegory, how they managed to fit The Falcon into the screenplay when there were arguably enough characters already, and whether in Captain America 3 they will finally introduce movie audiences to the 1990s phenomenon that was Cap Wolf. (Spoiler Alert: They wil not.)
CraveOnline: You must be excited. Everyone loves this movie.
Joe Russo: We were happy. You know when you work for Marvel it’s like working for the CIA, you’re on some covert operation you can’t talk about for two years. And finally once you get the movie done, which was literally a week ago, now we’re able to share it with people and talk about it. So it’s great.
When you guys got this gig, everyone was like, “The Russo Bros.?” Everyone liked you but this seemed a little afield of what you’ve done before.
Joe Russo: Right.
What was the meeting like? Was it a harder pitch for you guys because you had to prove your mettle?
Anthony Russo: No, oddly enough they came to us. We showed up unsolicited on a list of directors that they were interested in talking to. So the initial contact was from them.
Joe Russo: And Kevin [Feige], you know Kevin, he’s a genius. He’s outside of the box. He says his defining characteristic of what he looks for in a director is that they have done something outstanding somewhere in their careers. It doesn’t have to… because if you limited your pool of directors to only guys who have made successful superhero films, you’re talking about like four people.
Did he say what it was? Was it “Community?”
Joe Russo: It was “Community.”
Anthony Russo: He has talked about “Arrested Development.” He knows our first feature, which was Welcome to Collinwood, and “Community.” He has talked about all of it.
Joe Russo: But specifically I think he saw paintball episode that we did at the end of Season 2, the two-parter, and I remember in our first meeting we sat down with him and he said, “You guys should make being making action movies.” So I think he understood that we were genre fanatics. We like skewering genre on the show. I think he felt we did it well on the show, and he went, “Well, if they can do it well skewering it, why can’t they do it well in a more sincere exploration?”
Anthony Russo: So that was enough, I think, for him to warrant, “Hey, let’s talk to these guys.” Because Kevin is very much the kind of guy who loves what he does, and he loves to talk to people, but he’s very exploratory in terms of what’s possible. So at that point I don’t think he knew that we had an agenda to get into action directing since we started our careers. So because we had such a great run in comedy it kept waiting.
Once you do something well they force you to do it over and over again.
Anthony Russo: Yeah! It’s hard to say no because you have so much energy coming at you to keep doing it. Great collaborators, money, etc. So the fact that it was hard for us to find the opportunity to transition into something else, and this just so happened to drop in our laps after years of preparation to do just that.
Were you writing action scripts for yourselves to do this whole time?
Anthony Russo: Yes.
Joe Russo: We were. We had written a novel called Ciudad, about Ciudad del Este in South America, who was a mercenary who was hired to go and…
Anthony Russo: Graphic…
Joe Russo: It was a graphic novel about mercenary who was hired to go and extract a kidnap victim, and then we had turned that into a script. Shortly before Kevin approached us we had attached The Rock to that script, and we were going to go make that movie, but then Kevin approached us and we got really excited about the direction he wanted to go with in this movie.
Marvel is very studio driven. They have to be, they’re organizing all these films together. How much of this was in place when you came aboard, and was there any room for you to make real changes to the way the story would play out?
Anthony Russo: Here’s the thing, they had a script when we came on board. Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are awesome.
Joe Russo: They wrote a great script.
Anthony Russo: But at the same time, sorry to keep running off [about ] Kevin’s genius and all this…
You want to keep working. You’ve got to keep mentioning it, right?
Anthony Russo: [Laughs.] Yeah! Part of his genius is that he…
Joe Russo: It’s in our contract. We have to mention him seven times in this interview.
Anthony Russo: He wants to be surprised. He wants you to come in and tell him something he wasn’t thinking about. Because he knows that’s the way that the brand maintains its vitality because he’s able to still surprise audiences.
Joe Russo: There was a lot of room to move. We did a lot of scriptwork with the guys. We sat in a room and pulled character arcs out that we wanted to exploit, storytelling points…
Give me an example of something that was subdued but you brought it to the foreground, or that changed dramatically?
Joe Russo: The thematics of the movie. We really wanted very topical political thematics in the film because all of our favorite political thrillers dealt with topicality and were immediate for the audience. They had an immediacy.
Anthony Russo: We believe that it’s a fundamental element of a political thriller, that you have to be wired into the collective anxieties of the moment. We have wonderful collective anxieties at the moment.
Joe Russo: We pushed and pushed to have these issues of taking a guy from The Greatest Generation and having him deal with issues of civil liberties and…
Anthony Russo: Preemptive strikes…
Joe Russo: Preemptive strikes, yeah.
Well that’s one of the great things about Captain America, is that as a member of The Greatest Generation, and as one who never stopped fighting – he didn’t retire and start a family – he’s in a very unique position to be judgmental of the way modern society works but without being a jerk about it. He actually has perspective.
Anthony Russo: Yeah, exactly. We all got to where we are incrementally. There were incremental steps that happened over the course of a couple generations…
Joe Russo: Major psychological touchstones…
Anthony Russo: Watergate, Vietnam, The Cold War…
Joe Russo: 9/11…
Anthony Russo: 9/11, the whole thing. We’ve all been stepped here. Cap has not been stepped here. That’s the wonderful thing about what you say about. He has fresh eyes. We always say that, in our work that we do, sometimes when you need perspective on what your doing, whether a script or a feature or something, you want to get fresh eyes on it. “Hey, take a look at this and tell me what you see.” It’s like Cap’s fresh eyes. It’s great.
Joe Russo: Another thing that we pushed for was the relationship between he and Sam Wilson. We wanted a real backstory between the two of them, that they had a kinship.
You did a good job with that. Any time you talk about incidental heroes or too many villains to this type of movie, the fans get nervous.
Anthony Russo: Of course.
Who’s going to get the short shrift?
Anthony Russo: Yeah. Yeah.
It’s still Captain America’s movie, but Sam Wilson feels significant and we’re introduced to him. The introduction I just like, where they’re jogging together at the mall and they just happen to meet by chance. Was that always part of the script or did you go through different versions of how they would meet?
Joe Russo: We went through different versions of it but…
Anthony Russo: It was always there, but the content of the scene changed a lot.
Joe Russo: Sometimes Kevin will grab onto an idea and he’s open to interpretations about what that idea is, but on this particular one I think he said, “It would just be awesome to see Cap jogging amongst the monuments, right?” And then, as you said, you only have so much real estate, script real estate. So if you go, “Okay, we’re going to open the movie on Cap jogging at the monuments, at what point does he meet Sam Wilson in this film? Is it on page ten? Does it happen on page 15? Is that too late into the movie?” So then you start spitballing ideas. “What if he met Sam Wilson while he was jogging around the mall?” So we could overlap real estate so we could tell a better story. It really is about that. We’re dealing with a lot of characters in a movie like this. On shows like “Community” or “Arrested Development” the stories have to overlap. The characters’ motivation and wants and needs have to overlap so they’re on a common journey together. Otherwise you’re carving out too much story space and people feel like they’re in some ancillary story that has nothing to do with the film.
Anthony Russo: We’ve done a lot… Again, if you look at all our major work, for Marvel, Welcome to Collinwood, our TV work, “Arrested Development,” “Community,” these are all ensemble shows.
Joe Russo: “Happy Endings.”
Anthony Russo: “Happy Endings.” We love ensembles and figuring out how to balance them
I was actually in – at least that’s what they said – the first test audience for Welcome to Collinwood.
Anthony Russo: Oh really? That’s so funny! [Laughs.]
Joe Russo: Wow.
Yeah, I was even in the little group of people that they set aside at the end for furthering questioning.
Anthony Russo: Oh wow!
And one thing I remember saying – and I’ll always remember thinking to myself afterwards “if the directors were here, and they heard that, they think I’m an idiot” – was that I thought it was a heightened reality. I didn’t realize it was set in the 70s. So I just said, “Oh, everyone’s wearing 70s outfits. It’s kind of interesting,” but they said it was set in the 70s.
Joe Russo: No! Actually there’s no time period on the movie. It was like a fable.
Oh, because that’s what I got out of it!
Anthony Russo: Yeah, that’s why it’s confusing, yeah.
Joe Russo: But there isn’t a time period.
Anthony Russo: We tried to be intentionally unspecific about what time period it was. We mixed stylistic elements…
Joe Russo: We were taking cars from the '30s and mixing them with cars from the '60s, because Cleveland is a sort of timeless place, so we were just trying to create this almost alternate universe where this crazy collection of characters were.
You guys are, as far as we know, you’re doing Captain America 3. I ask this of everyone I talk to who works on Captain America… can we get Cap Wolf?
Joe Russo: Cap Wolf?
Anthony Russo: [Laughs.]
Joe Russo: I think you just blew Cap 3 for everybody.
I’m excited about Capwolf. I thought he was awesome. “He’s Captain America and he’s a werewolf?! The nine-year-old in me is going nuts!”
Anthony Russo: I love your question. We get so entertained by those little pieces that Conan O’Brien does where he shows that old Cap TV show.
Joe Russo: Have you seen those, from the 1970s? Those are hilarious.