It’s hard to recall that, prior to the spectacular success of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” there was some question as to whether brothers Joe and Anthony Russo could transition from directing sitcoms to helming an action-oriented, huge scale superhero movie.
Having now delivered one of 2014’s most successful and satisfying films — it grossed over $700,000 million globally and is rated 89% fresh among critics and 93% fresh among audiences on RottenTomatoes.com — the Russos certainly proved that they were up to the task of making the shift from TV comedy favorites like “Arrested Development” and “Community” to the widescreen world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
As “Winter Soldier” makes its debut on Blu-ray Sept. 9, the Russo brothers spoke with Comic Book Resources, reflecting upon the challenges they faced making the film, explaining where and how they went right with the help of leading man Chris Evans, discussing the collaborative process of the interconnected film franchises and even offering a little taste of what they have in mind for a third Captain America movie.
Comic Book Resources: Having to change the era and, to a degree, the tone from the fist film, were you concerned with, “Are we doing this the right way?” And were you relieved with the response that the film got?
Joe Russo: You’re certainly relieved when people like the work you did — I mean, that’s the job here. That’s why you make movies. It’s a populist craft. If you didn’t care what people thought, you’d probably paint pictures and hang them on your wall in your house as a form of artistic expression. Certainly, it was certainly nerve-wracking going into it. We’ve always taken the zen approach in our careers, and I think we find that when we’re the most relaxed about the approach is when we typically do our best work, so we try to stay as relaxed as possible and execute the movie based on what it is that we would want to see, both as comic book fans and as movie fans from this movie. That was our target on this one, and we just aimed as hard as we could at that target. You’re always happy when people respond well, because that’s why you do it. You want people to be excited. You want to give them — I want to give a 12 year-old-kid the same feeling I had when I saw “Empire Strikes Back” in the theater seven times in a row in the same day.
What was the part of the movie that you took to right away, that you just knew was going to work?
Anthony Russo: Well, I think right from the get-go, the idea that this movie was being fashioned as a modern-day political thriller, which is an idea that preceded our involvement with it. Since that idea right there really turned us on, it just seemed like we could do something interesting with Cap in that genre. Certainly, the Winter Soldier setting in the [Ed] Brubaker run, that very much appealed to us, creatively. So I’d say just that sort of nominal setting and shaping was something that lit us up right away and felt like “Whoa — there’s something there!” There’s something rich there that we could do on a cinematic level because we’re big fans of the political thriller genre, a lot of the 70s movies that this movie was inspired by. So that framing, I think, in our heads, that just felt right, and we knew we could deliver on what the potential of that idea was. So that would be like something we felt good about right away.
What were you thinking might be a challenge that you were ultimately very satisfied with?
Joe Russo: Well, that’s easy: That was the Zola sequence. I think we worked on that scene from the time we got on the movie until about a week and a half before it hit theaters. We must have rewritten Zola’s dialogue 15-20 times. It was extremely difficult to figure out what iteration we should choose, for what he should look like. We went through like 30 or 40 iterations of what he should look like. We knew it would be a very difficult sequence because it was five minutes of a computer talking, where he’s just spouting plot at the audience. We wanted to try and find a way to at least make the scene engaging, so everything was about the level of detail and execution of it. It’s a convoluted plot — t was even more so before. I think we rewrote what he said a few times, trying to refine the clarity of the plot. So that was certainly the trickiest scene in the movie.
For the obsessive compulsives that want to peek around and slow-mo the Blu-ray, what are some little corner-of-the-screen Easter eggs that you would like to point people to?
Joe Russo: Steve’s bookshelf in his apartment has a couple of nuggets in it. There’s a shot where he’s climbing in the window — it’s when he finds Fury sitting in his chair. I think when you scan past the bookshelf, there’s a couple of Easter eggs in there.
Anthony Russo: It’s kind of hard to get the whole list without mentioning [Cap’s] to-do list when Sam recommends [Marvin Gaye].
Having been fans of the Captain America character for so long, how did you feel about the character coming out of the film? Did you either get a greater appreciation of some of his qualities or look at him in different lights in your filmmaking process?
Anthony Russo: It’s interesting because with directors, in terms of what that character is, it’s a partnership with Chris Evans in terms of how we sort of realized what that character is and figure out who that character is. We had very clear ideas going into the movie, but once you see Chris perform it and sort of make the choices he makes on that level, I think that brings the character into even more focus and sort of shapes him in a way for us that’s really exciting. Joe and I, we’ve commented to each other, “Gosh — he couldn’t be a more perfect Captain America.” The way he holds together — it’s such a difficult character, in a way, that makes him feel cool and relatable and exciting, inspiring. It’s really remarkable. I think just sort of seeing the range of what he can bring to the character is something that has excited us in the process of making the movie and certainly is pushing up into the next movie in an exciting way.
For the little kids in you that grew up on superheroes, what was the most fun aspect of making this movie, something that you were actually a little giddy doing?
Anthony Russo: So many things!
Joe Russo: It’s a lot of things. Hey, listen, we love fights. We like good action sequences. I think we had a lot of fun conceiving those sequences, the pre-vis[ualization], the fight vis. We had an awesome stunt team, had incredible fight choreographers. [Alfred] Hitchcock used to say that he hated going to set. It’s like digging ditches, going to set. It’s a lot of really heavy lifting. It’s physically and emotionally taxing, the long hours. I don’t know if the set’s ever the best part of a movie, but certainly, prepping this film and posting it was a blast, because posting it is when you get to see everything come together.
I remember, we would sit there like little kids in our post sessions, where we would review the special effects shots as they came in, just thinking, “Oh, my God — we’re getting to make a superhero film! This is insane!” There were a few moments where I just would sit there and go — I was a kid who used to sit in the living room and watch genre movies on Saturday afternoon, like Hammer films and Godzilla movies, and then I’d go upstairs and read my comic books. And here we are 30 years later, getting to make “Captain America.” It’s really pretty special.
Anthony Russo: I will say that as far as set goes, though, no matter how old you get, you never get tired of blowing things up. It’s always a thrill.
Give me a little insight as to what it’s like to be part of that creative brain trust with Marvel, the producers and executives and your fellow filmmakers working on other characters. What’s the collaborative sharing process like? You each work on your own film, but know that you can tap on each other’s brains and make some fun connections between movies.
Anthony Russo: It’s a pretty remarkable process because there’s a lot of special people here at Marvel. And again, the franchise has been such a wonderful thing, and there’s different people that are cued into different parts of that franchise. So yeah, it’s very interesting. Kevin Feige organizes it in a very interesting way. He really wants each movie to be kind of like its own unique expression, and to that end, he tries to structure the way so that people who are involved in any particular project — it’s a pretty hermetic kind of experience that you have in the sense that you’re insulated, and you’re not getting too overexposed to what else is going on in the Marvel Universe, in the spirit of just not being too heavily influenced by the other things, so that you can really focus on what this movie wants to be — which I think is a really smart thing for him to do. It’s a great way to let each movie sort of be its own expression, and I was always really appreciative of the fact that he did that, because it gave us a lot of freedom in terms of where we could go with this movie without having to worry about the rest of the Universe. But Kevin is always there on those big, important points to sort of let us know, “Hey, this is something that’s important to us going forward,” or, “This is a story point that is sort of likely on the horizon.” He just gives us the minimal amount of information we need to keep us tethered to the rest of the Universe and the rest of it is, “Just go play. Go surprise us.”
Joe Russo: One thing that’s really interesting about Kevin is — certainly everyone’s aware of what a scion he is in the vision of the company, but he also has hired incredibly talented, good people around him. It’s really benefitted the company immensely, and really, the key to the success of the company is Kevin’s vision. Not only his vision for the direction of the films, but in the manner in which he staffs Marvel Studios.
You achieved a great shift bringing Cap to the modern day as well as the thematic shift marrying the superhero story to a conspiracy thriller. What are your ambitions for the next one? Is it going to be set in a similar kind of world, or are you going to shift it again a little bit?
Joe Russo: We can’t talk about it yet, obviously, because we haven’t done the announcement yet, but we think it’s coming very shortly. Look, our job, as fans of the genre, lifelong fans of the genre — by genre, I mean comic book films — is to, like I said earlier, blow people’s minds the same way that you want your mind blown sitting in a movie theater. And the competition is so fierce right now. What do we have, like, 97 superhero films coming out in the next few years? So you have to bring your A — you can’t just bring your A-game. You’ve got to bring your A-plus-plus game.
We’ve been hard at work for the last five or six months, trying to craft what the vision of “Cap 3” will be, and hopefully, when people find out what we’re up to, they’ll freak out. Again, because that’s the job. So we will say that the tone will — Cap will keep existing in the same Universe, which is the grounded Universe that we like, the grounded sandbox that we like playing with him in. As to whether it will be a thriller, people have to wait and see, but it will still live in that grounded Universe.
Outside of the world of Cap, are there other territories in the Marvel Universe that you’d love to mess around with and see what you can do?
Joe Russo: Yeah, but they’re owned by other studios! A crossover would our dream. I’d love someday to see Marvel have all of their characters back, just as a comic book fan. I started collecting when I was 12 or 13, and one of the first books I got my hands on was “Secret Wars.” That was always a dream for me.
I have been bugging Kevin Feige about “Secret Wars,” so I’ll keep at him.
Joe Russo: Keep doing it! Keep doing it!
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