Indisputably, Anthony and Joe Russo have as enviable a career as any pair of filmmakers in history. The most remarkable part? That this remains true even subtracting for the fact that the brothers co-directed 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, literally the highest-grossing movie in Hollywood history (the duo’s 2018 sleeper, Avengers: Infinity War, ranks only a pitiful fifth.) Even in an alternate universe where the unassuming Cleveland-born duo are somehow without dueling solid-gold swimming pools shaped like’s Thor’s Mjölnir, The Russo Bros. would still boast a nearly 30-year filmmaking career full of diverse, innovative work across a variety of genres and budget levels in both film and TV.
On January 22, Anthony and Joe Russo joined Film Independent for a special Film Independent Presents deep-dive spanning the breadth of the brothers’ circuitous career—from their inauspicious indie-film origins, through their pioneering TV work of the 2000s, the blockbuster success of their four-picture Marvel run, and now with the release of their latest film, the Apple TV+ original Cherry, starring Tom Holland, whom the Russos discovered when casting for a rebooted Spider-Man to appear in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War.
The conversation was guest-moderated by Russos friend and collaborator Mitch Hurwitz, creator of TV’s Arrested Development and Lady Dynamite. Watch the entire discussion below, and keep reading for more highlights:
THE RUSSO BROS.
Indie movies. “What’s astounding to me about you guys is how you always step up to the not-possible,” gushed Hurwitz, setting up a clip from the Russo’s 1997 debut indie, Pieces. “There’s a lot of experimental energy in that,” Hurwitz said of the film. The Russos—omnivorous film fans whose dark sense of humor was informed, they say, by growing up amid the Rust Belt bleakness of Cleveland, OH—cited the French New Wave as an influence on the project and compared it to another surrealist comedy released that same year, Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis. The comparison, it turns out, was warranted: Soderbergh discovered Pieces at Slamdance and immediately became an early Russos booster.
Indie movies, continued. Soderbergh would eventually come onboard as an executive producer of the Russos’ next film, the 2002 caper comedy Welcome to Collinwood. The film was produced independently and released to middling box office by Warner Bros. Hurwitz praised the movie’s economic choreography of its large ensemble cast—a skill that would come in handy on Arrested Development and, later, The Avengers. He also speculated (only half-jokingly) that the film’s poster was the reason for its commercial failure. “They took these six big stars and put them in a dumpster,” he marveled. “It’s a like a warning to stay away.”
Getting Arrested. The Russos first gained Hurwitz’s attention with their work helming episodes of the FX series Lucky. “It was a really unusual-looking show, it was really about the filmmakers,” he said. This landed the duo a regular directorial rotation on Hurwitz’s innovative cult comedy, Arrested Development. Said Anthony, “The style all comes from various cinematic fetishes, the different ways to use the camera.” Together, Hurwitz and the Russos reinvented the half-hour comedy, adapting their single-camera show to a more documentary-style approach, shooting digitally and with minimal supplemental lighting.
Community. “We’re deconstructionists at heart,” said Joe, a fact that came in handy on the brothers’ next major project, the Dan Harmon-created NBC comedy Community, for which the Russos served as directors and executive producers. The duo helmed the show’s famous “Paintball” episode—one of many genre pastiches the increasingly postmodern series mounted in its later seasons, giving the Russos plenty of opportunity to expand (and show off) their filmmaking vocabulary. “[In TV] You don’t get a bigger budget just because you want to do something ambitious,” observed Hurwitz. Said Joe, rejecting the term auteur: “You create efficiencies with your collaborators—that’s the independent spirit.”
Marvelous. With 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the Russos were suddenly at the helm of one of the biggest superhero franchises in the world. “It seemed like that was out of the blue,” mused Hurwitz. Of the brothers’ transition to the MCU, Anthony said: “We had a wonderful decade-long run in TV comedy, but we like to move around and do different things. We were wondering what we’d do for our return to [features].” The brothers say they were initially thinking about rebranding themselves as action filmmakers, before a general meeting with Marvel boss Kevin Feige turned into a more serious round of pitches, which turned into two Captain America and Avengers movies apiece.
Cherry. “It was an amazing period in our lives,” said Anthony of the duo’s Marvel tenure, “It was four movies in seven years, one into the next. It was a big run.” Hurwitz observed that, ironically, the brothers had achieved more longevity with their big-budget features than they were ever able to on TV. Nevertheless, the Russos were eager to move on, forming a new company—AGBO—to mentor young filmmaking talent and produce exciting, original work. Cherry, a fact-based drama about an ex-military opioid addict-turned-bank robber, is the Russos’ first non-Marvel feature since 2006’s You, Me, and Dupree.
“The independent spirit is all about finding those efficiencies” with your collaborators, said Joe, adding, The best idea wins.” Hurwitz complimented the Russos: “You make people feel safe enough to take their own risks.”
Cherry will begin streaming on Apple TV+ March 12. In select theaters February 26. To learn more about the Russo Bros. and their new production company AGBO, go here.
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(Header: Tom Holland in Cherry)