Wednesday, October 26, 2016
  • Monday, Apr. 4, 2016
Spring 2016 Director's Profile: Anthony and Joe Russo
Anthony and Joe Russo
From superheroes to the Super Bowl

It doesn’t get much more patriotic than Captain America and the Super Bowl. And that’s just part of the creative range of work being turned out by the Russo brothers—Anthony and Joe—whose directorial exploits encompass high-profile theatrical features, TV, commercials and branded content.

On the long-form front, the filmmaking duo was in post at press time on Captain America: Civil War, looming as another potential Marvel/Disney blockbuster—this one pitting superheroes against one another, bringing a new dimension to the saga started by Anthony and Joe Russo in the 2014 release Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

As for this year’s Super Bowl, the Russo brothers directed the“Coke Mini” commercial featuring the Hulk and Ant-Man for Wieden+Kennedy, Portland, Ore. The Russos’ spotmaking endeavors are done through their commercials/branded content production house Bullitt which they launched about a year and a half ago with director Justin Lin (The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, Fast & Furious, Fast Five). 

The Russos’ television expertise also extends from commercials to the primetime programs themselves. Back in 2004, for example, Anthony and Joe Russo shared a primetime Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series on the strength of the pilot for Arrested Development.

This diverse quilt of production/media disciplines was woven by the Russos initially from threads which took the form of a low budget experimental film, Pieces, which in 1997 debuted at the Slamdance Film Festival. “That movie was our film school,” observed Anthony Russo. “We directed, we did the camerawork, operated the lights, everything. We worked off and on over three years to finish that film.”

Pieces caught the eye of Steven Soderbergh whose Schizopolis opened the Slamdance Fest that same year. Soderbergh and the Russo brothers developed a creative rapport. Out of that connection, Soderbergh produced an indie feature Welcome to Collinwood directed and written by the Russos with a cast that included Sam Rockwell, William H. Macy and Patricia Clarkson.

While in the editing stage of Welcome to Collinwood, TV was coming of age—what’s now considered its new Golden Age—and starting to tap into indie filmmakers. This translated into Anthony and Joe Russo getting the opportunity to direct the pilot for Lucky, a darkly comic series about gambling addicts. The FX network show became an industry favorite though it only lasted a single season. Among those who appreciated the work were the folks at Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment, resulting in the Russos getting the opportunity to direct the pilot and multiple episodes of Arrested Development.

The Emmy win for Arrested Development built momentum for the Russos as TV comedy directors who went on to direct numerous episodes of Happy Endings (ABC) and Community (NBC), both shows for which the brothers also served as executive producers. The Emmy also sparked interest from the ad community as Anthony and Joe Russo served as a directing duo with a small now defunct commercial production house, then later joined RSA Films for an extended stretch before going entrepreneurial with the opening of Bullitt.

Community along with their mix of other endeavors landed on the radar of Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios. “At some point we wanted to segue back into features and Marvel contacted us out of the blue to talk about Captain America. When Kevin and his team are looking at a movie, they develop a list of filmmakers they want to talk to,” related Anthony Russo. “We were lucky enough that Marvel had fans of Community and Welcome to Collinwood. We read the script for Captain America: The Winter Soldier and fell in love with the project.”

The Russos treated Captain America as a movie, not a comic book movie, with sensibilities akin to 1970s thrillers like Three Days of the Condor. “The biggest creative challenge came from us departing from how Captain America was presented in The Avengers,” said Joe Russo. “It was a risk but we reinterpreted the character. It was a very personal interpretation. We had the advantage of the story calling for a guy waking up in the modern world, 70 years after he last interacted with society. That allowed us to reset him as a character.”

As for the major creative challenge posed by Captain America: Civil War currently in post, Joe Russo shared, “This is a story of hero against hero. Audiences will see their favorite protagonists going up against each other—making them more like antagonists...This is the most flawed Captain America has ever been. He makes a choice for himself for the first time in his life. By the end of the film, we want audiences to walk out of theaters and make their arguments for and against each character, who was right and why.”

Joe Russo noted that pitting superheroes against each other has become a bit of a trend, what with director Zack Snyder for example delving into Batman v. Superman. “Superhero movies are ubiquitous but the structure has been predictable—superhero vs. villain, superhero has a personal issue in the first act, collides with villain in the second act, and hero and villain fight it out to the end in third act. The heroes fighting each other represents a mature evolution of the form. The concept is more complex, dictating a different structure. We are deconstructing the structure which has become tiresome to people. We are showing the humanity of the heroes. As the world becomes more complex, we’re putting more meat on the bone for viewers. There’s more gray area.”

Future speak
As for what’s next for the Russo brothers, the answer is twofold—one regarding their directing plans, the other reflecting their business vision.

On the former score, Anthony and Joe Russo will be focused on the much anticipated Avengers’ culmination films:  Avengers: Infinity War—Part I and Part II, with Part I currently slated for release in 2018. “Audiences have so much invested in these characters that we feel the responsibility to immerse ourselves fully in these movies and make them the best they can be,” affirmed Joe Russo. “We want to grow the fascinating serialized storytelling that Marvel has introduced into features. There are a lot of people with a great deal of emotional investment in the characters and these culmination films. As filmmakers we want to honor that emotional investment and embrace the responsibilities that this entails.”

As for business plans, the mantra is diversification. The Russo brothers hope to continue to grow Bullitt, realizing the potential of branded content as longer form opportunities and areas like VR blossom alongside mainstay commercialmaking. Bullitt will continue to be home to a mix of feature and TV directors who will bring their sensibilities to the advertising arena. Anthony Russo further noted that his and Joe’s blockbuster event movies often require interfacing with varied brands, opening up relationships on different fronts, including for Bullitt.

Also on the diversification score, Joe Russo noted that he and his brother have a hand in opening a Chinese-language studio in which they will be involved as producers. Joe Russo said, “We are interested in things that feed us creatively, that engage and excite us. There’s an interesting point of view in Chinese movies. The stylization, the storytelling are rich and unique.”