Would you believe Joe and Anthony Russo’s journey to direct “Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier” started with an episode of NBC’s “Community”? The sibling directing duo (producers/directors for cult favorite TV comedies such as “Arrested Development” and “Happy Endings”) caught the attention of a Marvel executive with “Community’s” famous paintball episode. Fast forward through a long vetting process, and the Russos won the coveted job to direct the new film, which opens Friday.
The sequel sees Chris Evans reprise his role as Steve Rogers/Captain America, who after being cryogenically frozen during World War II, is now wide awake again and trying to save the world. From who, exactly? Well, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), but Rogers isn’t sure he can trust the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization anymore. The movie’s themes zero in on government power and access. Other stars include Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow; Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury; Robert Redford as World Security Council leader Alexander Pierce; Anthony Mackie as Falcon; Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill; and Emily VanCamp as Agent 13.
The Russos, already signed on to direct the franchise’s third installment, filmed in Los Angeles, Cleveland (their hometown) and Washington. Back in D.C. this week, the brothers sat down to talk about going from TV comedy producers to big-budget action directors; the logistical nightmare of filming in the District; how they landed Redford in his first 3D movie; and how the movie’s political themes wound up being so very timely.
I love the story of how you guys got involved with this — that someone from Marvel loved the paintball episode of “Community” you directed. Is that really how it started?
Joe: Yeah, [Marvel president] Kevin Feige is a big fan of “Community.” He saw those paintball episodes we did at the end of Season 2, which were the sequels to the one we did in Season 1 directed by our friend Justin Lin. I remember when we sat down for our first meeting with Kevin, he said, “You guys should be directing action movies.” It really takes somebody like him to think that far outside the box — someone with his credibility and integrity and power — to be able to say, “I’m going to take two guys who are known for comedy and I’m going to give them a big action film.”
Anthony: As Kevin has said, all he looks for in talent is somebody who has done something that he considers exceptional. He was very complimentary about our movie “Welcome to Collinwood” [about small-time criminals in Cleveland].
When you first heard Marvel was interested, did you immediately have a ton of ideas?
Joe: We were excited — because first of all, I’ve been collecting comics since I was 10, so there’s a very emotional context for me. Weirdly, one of the first books I ever got my hands on was “Captain America the Falcon Team Up.” So to be sitting here talking about that 30 years later is very surreal. The second thing that was a real attractive component to us was the fact that they wanted to make a movie inspired by ’70s thrillers. We grew up on ’70s thrillers; really, how we accessed cinema was through ’70s thrillers with our father watching them. “French Connection,” “All the Presidents Men,” “Marathon Man” — we were obsessed with those movies.
So they hit two buzz points for us, and we knew we would have a lot of passion for the material. We read the script [by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely], which was fantastic. Then with Marvel, because everyone wants to work on these films, you go through an exhaustive audition process with them. Which is actually great because by the time you’re done with that process, you really have a very clear idea of what it is that you want to do with the movie.
Did the vision in your head wind up being what the movie looks like?
Joe: Weirdly, we did this fake trailer, which is something you can do to convey a sense of tone. And the tone we put forth in that trailer is almost identical to what the tone ended up as.
Anthony: I think that’s why, even though it was a long audition process and there were a lot of other candidates, so to speak — I think we always felt like it was our movie in the sense that it just felt right for us. We just loved it so much.
In this sequel, there’s a lot of corruption, and you don’t know who is good or evil. Did you always set out to make it darker than the first one?
Joe: I mean, I started collecting comics in the ’80s when Frank Miller turned things on their head. He wrote “The Dark Knight” series in the ’80s, which was the first time that somebody had really deconstructed and post-modernized a superhero from the Silver Age or the Golden Age. And I remember how much that excited me because it felt like the character was more relatable to me. I could understand him in my world, that he didn’t exist in this sort of alternate universe.
This movie is based on material by a gentleman named Ed Brubaker, who wrote the Winter Solider storyline in 2005. He also deconstructed the mythology of Captain America. So, because Ed Brubaker’s run is one of our favorite runs of all time in comics, and the fact that he took his character the Winter Solider and made him so personal to Captain America, yet antithetical — to us, that’s like, the greatest gift you can ask for in a superhero film. Because the hero’s only defined by the strength of a villain; and this is an incredible villain, because he can emotionally undermine the hero.
Did you tell Chris Evans to update anything for this movie, or just keep doing what he’s been doing?
Anthony: Chris is such a great version of Captain America, who’s a difficult character to play. The new stuff for us had to do with [how] we wanted Cap to be moving forward and try to join the modern world despite the fact that it’s a difficult process for him. Part of our thinking on that was like, you know, he has a very tactical brain; the Super-Soldier Serum didn’t just affect him physically, but it also affects him mentally and makes his thoughts very quick. He’s able to learn fast. He’s able to absorb things quickly. The great thing about the first movie, and World War II in general, is that you got plucked off the streets of Brooklyn and then six weeks later you’re in France, fighting. So we always say it’s kind of like a John Sullivan style of fighting because you’re essentially untrained.
Now, people are hyper-trained. Our training now is so thorough, and that’s what Cap would be doing with himself. He would be studying all the modern fighting techniques and military techniques. And he would know Krav Maga, etc. So that was really where we wanted to push him forward, and he was really excited by that.
So you sent Chris Evans to go learn Krav Maga?
Anthony: Oh yeah, he did a ton of training for it; it was great. And, you can see in the movie, he has a very different fighting style than in the first one.
Did you know the themes of the movie (how much power and access the government should have) would be so timely when it was released?
Anthony: The Edward Snowden thing did happen while we were shooting, but that was sort of the tip of the iceberg. All the stuff was in the ether before that. I remember right before we started our first pass on the script with the writers that’s when the New York Times article broke about the “kill list.” And it was just, wow, a Democratic president of the United States sits down with his advisers on a Tuesday morning and goes through a”kill list” and decides who they’re going to kill; then they strike that person with drones, and sometimes they kill their family, too. It’s just like, “Whoa, that’s the good guy in this world.” That was very much a very jumping off point for the moral complexity about where we are, with what the relationship between security and freedom is, where the line is drawn.
Joe: And, can we protect ourselves humanely? You have an interesting character because Cap is a representative of the Greatest Generation. The war, the conflict they were involved in, was very black and white. Now he’s in a very subversive, cynical world, and he’s a great mirror for us. So we felt we could use him to highlight the complexity of our political landscape.
You’ve got quite an ensemble cast. What were the moments where certain actors really stood out to you?
Joe: Chris and Scarlett have a great relationship with each other, and I think they have incredible chemistry in the movie. Some of their scenes together are some of my favorite scenes of the film. Also Robert Redford, he gets to play against type in this movie, and he’s spectacular.
How exactly did that Robert Redford role come about?
Anthony: That was an amazing thing. I can’t remember where his name initially came up, but it was the sort of thing where as soon as it came up, we could not get him out of our minds because he was beyond perfect casting. Then of course your anxiety starts to kick in, “Oh, of course we’ll never get him now.” Somehow we got a meeting with him. He made us lunch at his office, and he said to us: “Guys, I gotta be honest with you, I don’t know what these movies are. But my grandkids love them.”
Joe: He loved the script, and I think he loved the political nature of the script. He had a lot of great thoughts about the character and great ideas for dialogue.
Anthony: He was excited by the idea of doing this. He had never made a movie like this before, and I think that was exciting to him.
Joe: I don’t know if he’s ever worked with green screen, to be honest. It was certainly the first time that Robert Redford has ever appeared in 3D.
Anthony: Yeah, that’s for sure. We had a great moment with him. It’s pretty profound when you realize, “Wow, this guy is such the classic movie tradition that even green screen is foreign to him.” We were standing in Nick Fury’s office on the set one day on a soundstage in Los Angeles and outside the window it’s all green. And I said, “Oh, Bob, so this is D.C. out here, out your window.” And he said, “Oh really? I thought it was Hollywood.” (laughs) So it was fun to bring him into somewhat of a new experience.
Also, he’s very iconic to us in the sense that the whole phenomenon that he started at Sundance. I mean, we didn’t go through Sundance, but we went through sort of a rival festival called Slamdance [with their debut film “Pieces” in 1997]. That’s how two guys from Cleveland found their way into the movie business, through this road that he created — where you can make credit card movies and do-it-yourself movies and go from the fringes of the movie universe to the center of the movie universe. We just owe him a lot at that level, as well.
Did you tell him you went to the rival festival?
Anthony: We did, yeah. We were a little nervous bringing it up because Sundance and Slamdance have been kind of rivals for years, so we weren’t quite sure. But we realized, well, none of the rivalry is coming from him, because he was very warm and gracious about it, and how he spoke about Slamdance.
Speaking of D.C., congratulations on filming here and surviving!
Anthony: Oh, my God, they warned us before we came that it was going to be complicated, and then you see what that means.
What did it take to do things like close down the Roosevelt Bridge for filming?
Joe: It requires a tremendous amount of preparation. You have to be really prepared; you get very limited windows to do things here. We shot at the monuments — sometimes our windows would be less than a half-hour. You can’t affect crowds; you have to shoot very early in the morning. So it was great for us because a lot of the monuments open the movie and they’re at dawn. So it made it easier for us to control the situation. We shut down parts of Dupont Circle in the evening. Then the Roosevelt Bridge, that was for a lot of our second unit work. I’m still shocked they let us do that.
Anthony: That’s the thing [in D.C.]…it’s not like other places, where, “Oh, let’s be diverted by a movie production for a little while.” They can’t afford that here. Even the Smithsonian was difficult to shoot in. We’re like, “Come on, it’s ‘Captain America,’ we’re shooting it in the Smithsonian!” And they were like: “Uh, we’re the most-visited museum in the country. We’re busy.”
Was it hard to control the crowds?
Anthony: No, we stayed away — actually, one of the biggest crowds we had to watch filming happened in Dupont Circle. There must have been 1,000 people on the street watching us shoot there. But even when we were on the Mall, we went there very early. It needed to be a quiet scene, anyway, so we had to get there before the crowds.The restrictions of shooting on the Mall were crazy. We couldn’t bring any equipment on the grounds; we couldn’t move the camera in ways we normally move the camera because we couldn’t move that equipment over the ground. It was really challenging.
What was the mood like on set for such an intense action movie?
Joe: Well, we like to keep the mood light on set. We’re Italian. We like a real family environment on set, let people have fun. It’s a hard job, and there’s long hours. Sometimes you’re working on the weekends and your weekdays, so people can get exhausted. It’s important to keep their spirits up.
Anthony: But we like the collaboration — we work as a team. We like the creative environment on set where everybody feels like they can contribute. The other thing with these movies is a lot of times you’re doing stuff that is dangerous or potentially dangerous, so people have rehearsed very thoroughly before they’ve gotten to set. So there’s a lot of focus and seriousness at times because of that.
I saw you didn’t you use a lot of CGI [computer-generated imagery] in this movie. Why did you make that choice?
Joe: Because it can pull you out of a movie, you know? Also, Cap is a human being, and he fights like a human. He’s not a CGI character. So it’s important to see him function on a human level without CGI. Also I just love it when I see the actor executing the stunts or the fighting. Chris is a great athlete, and he was game for all that stuff.
Anthony: All of our thinking as we approached the project was, “What do we love about Captain America, and how do we have the most amount of fun with that on a narrative level and a stylistic level?” That’s what sort of led to this more human scale to how we framed it and approached the effects of the whole thing.
So, you’re signed on to direct the third installment already. Do you already have everything mapped out in your mind?
Joe: We just started prepping the story on that. You’ll see that the story of the Winter Soldier isn’t done yet, so it’s a bit of a two-parter, the way the movie ends.
Anthony: We’re really looking forward to just putting the movie out there, listening to how people respond to it, and thinking about what they’re responding to and having that sort of filter through our minds as we think about the next one.
Can you almost read each other’s minds when you’re directing at this point, or at least know the rhythm of working together?
Joe: Yeah, we do. We’ve done so much stuff together now, and it’s been a long time and a lot of miles. We don’t just do TV, but we do commercials…really it’s great because yes, you develop a shorthand.
Anthony: You see a lot of sibling teams among the directing teams. It has a lot to do with the fact that we grew up together, we read the same books, we watched the same movies, we developed our passion for cinema together. We developed our understanding of cinema together as we started to study films. We have a strong, common approach in our sensibilities.
Do you have a favorite episode of any of the comedies you’ve directed? (“Arrested Development,” “Happy Endings,” etc.)
Joe: For “Arrested Development,” my favorite episode was called “Pier Pressure” where there was a one-armed man who taught them lessons.
Anthony: For me, I always go to the pilots. It’s interesting because directing a pilot is like directing a feature film: Nothing exists except the script at that point. So everything — the style the design, the casting — it’s like you’re realizing it for the first time. There’s just something so exciting and satisfying about that, sort of fully realizing something.