Now that their most recent opus, "Captain America: Civil War," has emerged as one of the most satisfying superhero films in an otherwise polarizing year for the genre, directors Joe and Anthony Russo are about to embark on their next foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with "Avengers: Infinity War," the most ambitious effort from Marvel Studios yet: scores of characters introduced in all of the MCU films (and possibly the television seres) to date are potentially in play -- nearly 70, the filmmakers have posited -- in a showdown with death-courting Thanos the Mad Titan, a confrontation that's been looming since 2012's "The Avengers."
Of course, "Civil War" ably demonstrated that the brothers -- who previously worked in the heavily populated sitcom worlds of "Arrested Development" and "Community" -- had a knack for deftly handling both large-scale casts and interwoven storylines, with tremendous payoffs for both. With "Civil War" available for digital download on Sept. 2, the Russos joined Moviefone for a look back at how they approached the challenges the film presented, as well as a glimpse at how they're applying those lessons to their first of two Avengers adventures.
Moviefone: You had the thankless task of incorporating a large amount of characters; introducing significant characters, like Spider-Man and Black Panther, into "Civil War," and still telling a Captain America story. Can you tell me how you approached it to make sure you got all of those moving parts in, but kept it Cap's story?
Joe Russo: Sure. Our focus is always on Cap. That's our intent. That's how we came into the universe. We love him as a character. We wanted to track his story, and it was necessary to bring other characters in the story to help tell that story. One of the more significant aspects of his character is the patriarch Avengers, and the movie is about a family divided. So you have to have a family in order to show division, and we wanted characters who were new who could complicate that division.
So the movie begins through Cap's point of view, and also ends in his point of view. And we make sure that all the major moments of the film flow through Cap. That's how we keep the focus on him in the storytelling.
Easily the most definitively Marvel Comics-feeling sequence in the film is your big superhero smack-down at the airport between Team Cap and Team Iron Man. Can you tell me about the influences and the inspiration from the original comic books that got you guys to how you wanted to present this sort of epic superhero clash, fighting each other in the grand Marvel tradition?
Joe Russo: I was a big comic book collector when I was a kid, and splash panels were always the reason I got kicked out of comic book stores. I would grab a double issue or a big crossover event issue, and I flipped right to the splash panel, the double panel, and I would sit there and study who was fighting who, matching in my head how the story was unfolding, spending 10 or 15 minutes studying that splash panel. Then I'd get a surly counter guy, he would yell at me, "Hey man, buy that thing or get out of here!"
So it was really a way to recapture what I loved about them in my childhood, the level of detail and that wish-fulfillment notion of, is this character or that character going to win in a fight? And I also had a Marvel role-playing game that had everybody's attributes, so my friends and I would sit around and argue who was stronger than who, and who would win the fight, who's more cunning. Would this person's street smarts outweigh this person's strength? So that really is the sort of childlike essence of what's behind that sequence.
From a storytelling standpoint, we had to obviously get much deeper and make sure that every character had an arc that tracked through that sequence, and some of their arcs climax in that sequence. So it was by far, I think, the hardest thing we've ever worked on in our careers.
You guys got to push things forward technologically in your filmmaking quite a bit -- everything from an increased level of action in the big fight sequences, to using the technique that allowed Robert Downey Jr. to play a much younger version of himself. Tell me what that was like, figuring out how to use brand-new technology like that, and how it set up what you guys want to do in your future films with Marvel.
Joe Russo: Using technology to tell the story is part of the value of being in a place like Marvel. It's extremely technically gifted company, where you work with some of the best people, if not the best people in the business, at what they do, from the visual effects standpoint. Getting to work with the best companies in the world, like ILM, and basically being able to put whatever you can imagine on the screen. That is a rare gift for a filmmaker. It's not often that you're in a situation where whatever you dream up you can actually figure out how to accomplish.
So part of that, again, is the wish fulfillment and scale of what these movies require, and what frankly our imaginations require of the material and trying to honor how, again, I felt about it as a 10-year-old comic book fan. I think comic book movies have become so popular because it's finally reached the point where CG can capture our imaginations and you can tell a story where Giant-Man fights Spider-Man and it looks incredible on screen. So if we can do that, then f*ck yeah! As a director, we're going to figure out a way to do that.
And to be able to take 30 years off of Robert Downey [Jr.] is a technological marvel, and we wouldn't do it if it didn't have a purer function in storytelling. It's probably one of the most critical flashbacks in the movie. That's one of the critical moments in the film. But to be able to do that certainly drives our desire to think of ideas and ways in which to try new things. Of course "Infinity War" has to live up to its name, and we're going to pull out all the stops on this one.
You brought this film to a satisfying conclusion, but you definitely left yourself some rich things to pick up on when you get to "Infinity War." Can you talk about finding that balance and making it feel like a self-contained movie, but still having the potential for all that MCU interconnectivity that the Marvel films are famous for?
Anthony Russo: I mean, look: leaving the MCU in a place of very high conflict at the end of this film was very exciting for us. The great thing for Joe and I, we love these movies as fans, as much as we do as filmmakers. So we always look for: How do we excite ourselves? How do we surprise ourselves? How do we satisfy our own desire for what we want to see as fans? And leaving the MCU in a very divided place -- leaving the Avengers in a very divided place -- was an exciting place for us to go at the end of this film.
The idea that we would have to wait a couple years to sort of push that story forward in a new movie -- we love all the possibilities that can go through your mind there during that down period before the story is taken up again. But as storytellers, we're very much going to pick up the storytelling in "Avengers: Infinity War" exactly where we left at the end of "Civil War."
You have been candid about how many Marvel characters you have to work with in "Infinity War." Are you happy with where you've gotten, that everybody gets the right amount to do as you get closer and closer to shooting?
Anthony Russo: It's a never-ending process. The great thing about these movies is ... you were talking about the technology early on ... is that you continue to make these movies all the way through the process. There are still new things you can bring to the storytelling, even after you put the cameras away.
So that's a process that we pay a lot of attention to in the script development phase, and, again, we approach it with fresh eyes during production, and we very much have [screenwriters Christopher] Markus and [Stephen] McFeely as partners with us during the production phase, making sure we're doing exactly what you said: Are we maximizing the fun we're having with the characters? Are we doing the best thing we can be doing with that? Is there a better idea that we can bring to the table that we haven't thought of yet?
We're always asking ourselves that question, all the way through production, all the way through post-production, the editors coming in. We're really testing where we're going with each character, and always thinking about the possibilities. We're never satisfied until the movie is locked and gets pried out of our cold dead hands.
Do you get to give some attention to a character, or characters, that you haven't had a lot of time to play with yourselves that you were especially excited about? And you can be as teaser-y about that as you want to be.
Anthony Russo: Yeah, look, it's an interesting process. I don't know. Characters that we have worked with before, and characters that we haven't worked with, I would say, we give the same amount of thought to both, because with characters that we have worked with before, we want to work hard to bring those characters to a new place, place them into a new situation that we haven't seen them in yet, and that is surprising to us. It takes a lot of creative work to find those places.
Characters that we haven't worked with yet require the same sort of really intense emotional investment when we're figuring it out. So it's like you've kind of got to give the same amount of love to everybody. They're like children. You just work very hard to explore all the possibilities and all the opportunities with all these characters, regardless of whether you've worked with them before or not.
Now that we know that your two "Avengers" movies are not specifically a two-part extravaganza, but two separate movies, is there some sort of blanket statement that you can put out there to sort of define how the movies differ from one another?
Joe Russo: There's certainly connectivity in terms of some characters and some story arcs, as there always is in the continuing collective narrative of the Marvel Universe. But they're distinctly different films, and they're distinctly different stories. We don't want to tease anything yet, but we will say that "Avengers 4" has a completely different title, which will be revealed at a future date.
You were so effective in marrying the superhero structure to a film genre like the political conspiracy thriller that you did with "Winter Soldier." Is that part of the game plan, too? Do you have a film genre in mind along with all the comic book inspiration as you head into your first "Avengers" movie?
Joe Russo: Yeah, we always do. We love to be intertextual. It's kind of who we are as filmmakers. That's how we grew up. We grew up as students of film. We weren't necessarily making movies as kids, but we were watching them when we were down at the local cinematheque, watching foreign films, art films. So that was our approach to filmmaking back then, and intertextuality is an important part of that.
We always look for a way to find a genre that we think is fresh with the superhero genre because it creates something unique and gives the movie a different tone and a different point of view. In the other movies in the Marvel Universe, I think "Ant-Man's" tone is a comic tone, and we can only get the comedy that we've gotten out of that character from Spider-Man in "Civil War," because they're coming from different tones. If those characters weren't pre-existing, those tones would have felt out of place and potentially ruined the film.
So I think that's one of the more unique aspects of collective storytelling, is that the pre-existing talent and the baggage that the audience brings to a movie with experience of the characters in their own diverse franchise is special, and can give us something very unique that we can't get in other films or other kinds of storytelling.
Even though we know that two "Avengers" films are in your future, do you want to keep your hands at the reigns of Captain America, if possible? Do you hope to return to him as a solo character as filmmakers?
Joe Russo: I mean, we love him. As long as [Chris] Evans wants to keep playing that character, we would certainly consider continuing on with him. But there are also are other stories that we do want to tell, so who knows where we'll be by the time we're done with "Avengers 4," if we'll have anything left to say in the Marvel Universe, or if it'll be time to look for some new stories to tell?
Marvel's "Captain America: Civil War" arrives on Digital HD, Digital 3D and Disney Movies Anywhere on Sept. 2 and on Blu-ray™ 3D, Blu-ray, DVD and On-Demand on Sept. 13.
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