Just three months ago Anthony and Joe Russo (aka the Russo brothers) received the International Cinematographers Guild (ICG, IATSE Local 600) Publicists Motion Picture Showman of the Year Award for their historic contributions to the art of cinema and television.
The Russos are the only directors to have to their credit four record-breaking and critically acclaimed films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Captain America: Civil War (2016), Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019). The latter is the highest grossing film of all time, bringing in $2.79 billion, obliterating their own record set with Avengers: Infinity War. Endgame broke more than 100 box office records, including best opening weekend of any movie in history.
Anthony and Joe Russo are among the top grossing directors ever with total box office revenue exceeding $6.8 billion. They have also made their mark in television with Arrested Development, the pilot episode of which earned them an Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series. They also directed for such shows as Community, Happy Endings and Deadly Class.
The brothers additionally maintain a pair of production studios: AGBO, an artist-led collective creating content for film, TV and digital platforms; and Bullitt, which is focused on brand-integrated entertainment and advertising content.
This cornucopia of content and iconic blockbuster fare seemed beyond even the most fertile imagination, however, when the Russos started out. Anthony Russo described he and his brother in the late 1990s as “low to no-budget indie filmmakers” who cobbled together $35,000 to fund Pieces, a film they wrote and directed, and which was shot in their hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. The experimental piece was intentionally “self-aware of itself as a movie,” recalled Anthony Russo--the major break being that it made the grade as a selection for the Slamdance Film Festival in 1996, the year that Slamdance’s opening film was the Steven Soderbergh-directed Schizopolis which, said Russo, was cut from the same self-aware, absurdist cloth that was woven into the fabric of Pieces.
A week after Slamdance wrapped, the Russos got a call from Soderbergh who saw Pieces at Slamdance and loved it, offering to produce a project for the brothers. That project became Welcome to Collinwood, a small indie comedy. The movie came out right around the time when cable television was changing. The Sopranos had made a major impact and there was a rush on indie filmmakers to take on TV assignments. “Cable wanted cinematic work but couldn’t afford the big film directors,” said Russo. So they turned to the indie community--specifically FX gravitated to the Russos to direct the pilot for Lucky, a dark comedy centered on the lives and addictions of compulsive gamblers. The series lasted just one season but gained critical acclaim and caught the eye of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer of Imagine Entertainment who recruited the Russos to bring their indie film sensibilities to the pilot for an offbeat show--Arrested Development.
This kicked off a decade-long run of top drawer television followed by the formation of Bullitt and then Marvel reaching out to the brothers out of the blue about the next Captain America movie. This came at a juncture when the Russos were planning anyway to get back into features with an action movie they were developing. Captain America: The Winter Soldier accelerated their plans. And in turn their atypical approach, fueled by their love of comic books since childhood, infused a new storytelling energy in the superhero space. “Joe and I take our superheroes seriously. We care about the material, the identity of those characters and possibilities have been playing around in our brains since we were young. We have a depth of thought about who those people are.”
The Russos also leveraged what made Captain America unique among Marvel superheroes. “He was the closest to being a normal man, not a god like Thor, or a giant like the Hulk.” This led to a “very real-world version” of him as a man, additionally tapping into his name, which has an inherent political connotation that shapes his identity. “We made him very present, very modern-day, imbuing him with global political anxiety.”
These human character dimensions turned a superhero movie into a movie, impacting that cinematic genre and laying the foundation for more Marvel films driven by that same spirit.
As for how he and brother Joe team as directors, Anthony explained there’s no clearcut division of labor. “We like to have both of our brains on everything.” While there might be certain aspects each concentrate on for efficiency’s sake, in the big picture, “We do everything together.”
Via Bullitt, the Russos have directed big-ticket ad fare--including such efforts as a Coca-Cola Super Bowl commercial a few years back featuring the Hulk and Ant-Man out of Wieden+Kennedy in Portland, Ore.--and nurtured the careers of promising filmmakers in the branded content arena.
On one hand, Anthony Russo observed that commercialmaking has informed the brothers’ overall filmmaking, affording them opportunities to experiment. Furthermore, the Russos have met actors, designers, cinematographers and varied other artists on the commercial side and then continued those collaborations in features. Among the examples is cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel who lensed Cherry, a Russo brothers-directed feature slated for fall release starring Tom Holland as a former Army medic stricken with PTSD who becomes a serial bank robber to support his drug addiction. The story delves into the opioid crisis in America.
Yet while their involvement in one discipline helps to inform another, Anthony Russo observed that ultimately he and Joe’s approach to the work is pretty much the same across the board. “We’ve made movies for little money and for as much money as you can make a movie for. We’ve done network, cable, comedy, drama, streaming, a variety of genres with commercial work on top of it all. It’s all the same creative process. Joe and I come up with a concept of what we went to do, tapping into what makes it interesting or exciting to us, and then figuring out how we realize that on a stylistic level, to bring that concept to screen in a cool, fresh and exciting way. That’s our process from the biggest to the smallest project.”
Reflecting further, Anthony Russo cited Avengers: Endgame as exemplifying that ultimately all types of filmmaking feels the same. “As massive as that movie was--a massively complicated production with a massive release, a massive audience--at the end of the day it’s a simple process. The heart of the film had Joe and I, (screenwriters Christopher) Marcus and (Stephen) McFeely spending a year of our lives talking, spitballing and crafting a film together, going on to involve many other people as well. It’s a surprisingly simple process for as large and complex as the film seems. You find a way to keep the process personal, to make sure it feels personal and very passionate. You find a way to work that way, to tap into your capabilities as a filmmaker. The possibilities are limitless if you serve the process and collaboration.”
The Russos also seek to serve the development of new filmmaking talent, doing so for example in the ad discipline at Bullitt. “Joe and I think back to the experience we had with Soderbergh. We owe this karma debt to the universe to help foster other creative people and help them realize their potential.”