There’s no rest for the wicked — or for two men making the two biggest movies the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ever seen.
“Avengers: Infinity War” was released the night of April 26, and all ready the 19th movie in Disney-owned Marvel Studios’ MCU has made more than $1 billion at the box office around the world — the fastest ever to do so.
The men behind the camera for this movie, as well as for next year’s yet-to-be-titled sequel, are two gents who grew up in Mayfield Village, brothers Joe and Anthony Russo.
The pair recently finished about a month of promoting the film with a weekend visit to Cleveland, Ohio, that also included a fundraising event for the Cleveland Film Commission.
They spent about a year from January 2017 to ‘18 filming the movies back to back. And while Anthony said there was a bit left of the primary shoot yet for the follow-up, the next morning they would be in a Los Angeles editing room starting to put the second beast together.
“We haven’t really been editing that one,” he said. “It’s been sitting, because we’ve been so busy getting this one out.”
In case you don’t know of the Russos, they received serious attention for directing “Welcome to Collinwood,” a crime comedy that was a relatively small Hollywood release but did star George Clooney.
They went on to direct the 2006 comedy “You, Me and Dupree” and episodes of acclaimed TV series “Arrested Development” and “Community.” On the latter, they also served as executive producers for a few seasons.
During their recent stop in Cleveland, we talked to the Russos about their career and making “Infinity War.” We also talked about the movie’s ending in broad terms, so beware of spoilers.
Q Congrats on your little billion-dollar movie. Any thoughts about just how it’s all been going?
Anthony: Joe and I knew that we were happy with the film and proud of the film, but you can’t take anything for granted, so the way the movie’s been received is certainly surprising still.
Q How much were the Marvel comics and these iconic characters you now get to play with as adults part of your childhood?
Joe: A real important part. When I was a kid, Uncle Ron handed us a box of comics — about a hundred comics — and we read through them in a couple of days. And that’s what got us started. I used to collect books with my cousin Frank.
We used to go to the Holiday Inn on Rockside (Road) for every little small comic book convention that would come through town. So we collected books for about 20 years. Still have my collection in my closet. Anything that has resonance with a child stays with you for the rest of your live, has real emotional value to you.
Q And you knew that someday that digital filmmaking would come to a place where you could make these movies.
Anthony: (Laughs.)Joe: It pays off to be a nerd.
Q Think back to “Welcome to Collinwood.” You had George Clooney and it was a Hollywood movie, but talk about how different that movie was compared to making this gigantic spectacle.
Anthony: This isn’t so much about making it, but because we’re hearing about the box office right now, it’s a striking contrast. That movie made about $300,000 in the U.S. box office. It’s about as little money as a release could possibly make. It’s a pretty striking contrast.
You know, for Joe and me, on one level, all filmmaking is the same. We’ve done so many different things in our career. We’ve made a movie for as little as you could make a movie for. We’ve made movies for as much as you can make a movie for. We’ve shot TV, comedy, drama, cable, network, etc. We shoot commercials. We love the whole variety of what you can do. That sort of excites us as filmmakers — to work in different mediums.
I think we sort of look at it as everything is essentially the same for us. It’s, “What story do we want to tell? How do we want to tell it? And then how do we go about doing it. There’s definitely some unique things about how we make these (Marvel) movies, but the experience for Joe and me at the basic level — our basic process — is the same.
Q Is there a short answer to how you got your first Marvel movie, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”?
Joe: “Community” — that’s the short answer. (Marvel Studios president) Kevin Feige is a high-volume pop-culture consumer, and he was a big fan of the paintball episodes we had done ... and brought us in.
Q And then you guys go on to do “Captain America: Civil War,” which a lot of people see as sort of an “Avengers” lite — there are so many characters in that, and you showed that you can juggle a lot of characters in a movie. Was Marvel Studios waiting to see how that went or were you already signed on to do this? Because it seems like a good test case.
Joe: We signed on prior to the release of “Civil War.”
Anthony: But after they’d seen the first edit. Marvel has this great process of thinking about one movie at a time, and a lot of people, I think, don’t assume that because they seem like they have this grand plan. But Marvel is very disciplined, and they know that, like, they really want to complete a movie, see what it is, before they think about the road forward, and I really admire that about them. It’s a very smart way to work. It allows each movie to reach its potential, and then you take a moment and think about how you move forward from that movie.
Basically, when they saw the first edit of “Civil War,” they knew it was working well. And I think because “Civil War” was such a specific setup on a narrative level for what ... the next “Avengers” movie would be — meaning that we tore the Avengers apart, and that’s a great place for them to be in when the greatest threat they’re ever going to face comes to them. So I think it was the combination of what we did with “Civil War,” plus the fact there was such narrative continuity between the two films that made them ask us.
Q: Is there a mindset or a guiding principle you have in terms of how to balance all these characters and make it feel satisfying? It seems as if it would be very difficult.
Joe: It’s disciplined storytelling in the writers’ room, and you have to spend time going through each character in the script. You spend a few days on each character, just talking through that character and pulling them through. It’s just really looking for their moments. Certain characters emerge as being tied to the A plot, and they tend to have more story time, or screen time, and others have less because they’re not tied as directly to the plot. As it works itself out, you have to keep refining and keep refining.
Anthony: We’re always testing our choices, testing material. Like, “Why is this in the movie? What’s the story here? How are we doing something that’s challenging a character in a very specific way?” That’s how we sort of beat on every beat in the film to make sure we are being as propulsive as we possibly can in terms of the evolution of the story and the character arcs.
Q You have a two-hour-and-40-minute movie, probably justified given the story and how many characters you’re juggling. Did you guys have an initial, say, four-hour cut?
Anthony: It was a little longer (than the final cut). We work very well with the writers, (Christopher) Markus and (Stephen) McFeely, who have done every one of these movies with us. It’s very important to Joe and me the script is exactly what we want to shoot because these movies are so hard to make and they require such massive resources. You don’t want to waste anything. You want everything to show up on screen, all your efforts on set. So we really beat on that script before we go into production, and that ends up — we don’t have a whole lot of fat.
We did cut a little more out of this movie than we have the previous two, simply because I think this story was a little more unwieldy so we did have to do a little more experimentation. Maybe it was 10 minutes longer.
Q You’re making this movie, and you have all these characters, all these big-time actors — surely there have been a few, but was there one real pinch-me moment where you go, “Can you believe what we’re doing?”
Anthony: (Laughs) I think there were a lot of those, to be honest with you.
Joe: Yeah, some of those character arrivals in the film are straight out of our imaginations — Cap’s entrance to the movie, Thor’s entrance to the movie ... . Every time I watch those I feel like a kid again.
Q And it must have been fun to get your hands on the Guardians of the Galaxy after seeing those two movies.
Joe: For sure. Absurdism is always helpful in a movie this intense, and those characters bringing that level of humor and pathos is very important to balancing a film like this.
Q You’re not the only directing tandem, but what’s the dynamic like? Does one of you speak more to the actors? Do you huddle first? How does that work?
Anthony: I imagine every directing team works a little differently, just as every director is different from another director. We have a process where we like both of our brains on everything. We like to step through the process together. We sort of have a nonstop dialogue between ourselves, and that’s basically how we sort of move through the process. We have a very open process with each other. It’s very intuitive. It’s basically best idea wins. Sometimes it just boils down to who’s more passionate about something. It’s not very formal — it just kind of flows for us.
Q Now that the movie’s a couple of weeks in and so many people have seen it, I just wanted to ask you broadly about the ending. How do you feel leaving people with that gut punch? Adults understand how movies work, but what about kids who see the movie and may be devastated?
Joe: It certainly is the hardest with kids — there’s no question. But I’ll say that as a child, and I saw “The Empire Strikes Back,” it had the most impact on me as just about any film I saw as a kid, because there were real stakes in the storytelling. And I think it’s important, especially with 18 movies in this giant mosaic of a narrative, that the ending have emotional catharsis as part of the journey and part of its storytelling.
Q: Can you guys, even in a broad sense, give us any kind of tease about the sequel? What can people be thinking about for a year from now?
Anthony: I will say this: For as surprising as this film is, I feel like we have something coming that’s even more so. We don’t want to get into it too much.
Joe: We say that we like to put game changers at the end of each one of these films as part of that collective narrative to move it along in a way that surprising to audiences. We did it at the end of “Winter Soldier.” We did it at the end of “Civil War.” We certainly did it at the end of “Infinity War.” I think you can extrapolate that we’ll do it again at the end of “Avengers 4.”
Q These movies have to be a dream come true. Is there a next dream?
Anthony: There are a lot of things that Joe and I have been passionate about over the years, some stuff that we’ve been working on for many years ourselves. But here’s the thing: We’ve been so immersed in these movies for the past two years and we’re going to stay really immersed for another year, it’s hard to think too specifically where you go forward from here. I think maybe around this time next time next years — a little earlier, maybe — we’ll start to really open up and think about what we want to do next.
We’ve developed a specific skill — being able to make movies like this, at this scope — and I think that’s a skill we’ll continue to use, but we also have a wide variety of other (interests).