“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” directors Joe and Anthony Russo took an unexpected path to the world of Marvel Studios films — directing key episodes of some of the most beloved cult-favorite network sitcoms in recent years, including “Arrested Development,” “Community” and “Happy Endings.” The two-part “Community” season two paintball finale? Them. “Pier Pressure,” the “Arrested Development” episode that revealed the Bluth family’s habit of leaving notes and teaching lessons? Yep, them too.
Though the Russos may not seem to be a typical pick to helm a comic book-based superhero action film, the choice appears to be paying off: Early buzz for “Winter Soldier” — just their second feature, following 2006’s decidedly smaller scale “You, Me and Dupree” — has been very positive, and they’ve been expected since January to return for the third film in the Cap franchise.
CBR News spoke with the Russos about their comic book fandom, in what ways shows like “Arrested Development” helped prepare them for “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” their Steve McQueen-esque vision of Steve Roger and their very early “Captain America 3” thought.
Joe, Anthony, you’ve stated in the past that you came into this film already comic books fans — what are some of your favorites, either all time or recently?
Joe Russo: I started collecting when I was 10. It was late ’70s, early ’80s. Weirdly enough, one of the first books I ever got my hands on was a Captain America/Falcon team-up, and I always hated the Falcon’s outfit — that’s why we didn’t go with his original outfit. I also thought he was a little short-changed on his powers, too.
When I was collecting, it was really when everything started to become post-modern and deconstructionist. Frank Miller released the “Dark Knight” series. I’m more in-tune with books that deconstruct heroes. I love Golden Age and Silver Age origins of them, but I also find them very simplistic. I love writers like Ed Brubaker or [Mark] Millar who turn things on their head, and try to take heroes and push them into a reality, or a heightened version of our reality.
Also, independent comics were huge when I was collecting. There were all kinds of crazy books that were popping up all over the place; like a proliferation of all of these independent comic book companies.
Joe Russo: Yeah, exactly. I have all the original “Ninja Turtle” books. “Flaming Carrot,” all that stuff. A lot of my books are “Cerebus,” and “Flaming Carrot,” and “Ninja Turtles,” and the other half of the collection is mostly Marvel.
Anthony Russo: I like comic books. I didn’t have the same level of interest. I got exposed to them a lot through Joe. I like the artwork, but my big thing is, I love fantasy literature. I was more into that. That was my thing from 10 or 11 through high school. I read “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” three times over. I would just keep starting over and reading it through and through and through.
Captain American can be a hard character to get right — you don’t want to make him too edgy, but you don’t want to make him too much of a goody-goody, either. Was it difficult at all to find the take you wanted, or did it come fairly naturally?
Joe Russo: It came naturally only because I’ve had an emotional connection to the character since I was 10. When I was a kid, I did have problems with the jingoistic, sort of simplistic code of the character, and I would always imagine Steve McQueen in my head, just to give him that balance of bite and edge. I think that Brubaker and Millar have done a really interesting job in the last 10 years of finding that sweet spot for the character, where he has a level of machismo and a level of grit to him — he is a soldier, after all — without taking him away from his code. The goody two-shoes component is very dangerous, because the character can feel very preachy.
It was a narrow target to hit, but it was one that’s been in our brains for a long time, just from a taste standpoint — how we prefer to see the character executed.
The two of you have been heavily involved with TV shows like “Community” and “Arrested Development,” series that have huge relationships with fans. Obviously, comic book fans are also very vocal. Was that something you had in mind at all when making the film? It seems you’d be more conscious of that than most; what potential reactions might be from passionate fans online.
Anthony Russo: There’s a difference between the online fanbase of the TV shows and this, because you find more diversity of opinion in this than you do in TV. TV shows, there’s only one reference point — the show. For a comic book, there’s so many runs. You find different fans like different versions of the character.
We certainly have carried our penchant to hear what people think about the characters, how they respond to things with the Internet for this movie, for sure. It’s interesting — you have to filter it. Always. At the end of the day, what you do is you sort of listen to everything and you end up rounding back to what you want to see as a fan.
Joe Russo: We like saying this because we know it excites the fans on the message boards — we read the message boards. We do. We’ve gotten a lot of great ideas from [message boards]. We started doing it on “Arrested Development” with Television Without Pity. That was our test audience. We could see which characters were popping, who wasn’t, what jokes they were getting, and what jokes they weren’t getting. You can get a lot of ideas from the fans, and social media and the Internet is just the newest way to connect to people on an instantaneous basis.
You can’t please everybody. We’ve learned over the years, you can only make the material based on how you feel about the material. If you try to anticipate or guess how people are going to feel about it, you’re going to fuck it up. You always have to just rely on your own tastes of what we would want to see in a comic book movie about Captain America, and that’s what this movie is.
There’s a lot going in “Winter Soldier.” How did you approach that balance of multiple characters — Cap, Black Widow, Falcon and Nick Fury all have bit parts to play — and the very personal story of Cap and the Winter Soldier with the broader issues of the plot?
Joe Russo: It took a lot of script work. We put a lot of energy into the script. We were fortunate to have a year to prep the movie, so we had a lot of time to do that work. It is a real balancing act, and in a movie with this much action in it — action for us is a function of character, and it’s a function of storytelling. If it’s not a function of character or storytelling, then it’s empty action. It’s vapid.
We just kept going back through the script, reading it out loud with the writers — [Christopher] Markus and [Stephen] McFeely, and Nate Moore, who is one of the producers on the movie — and we would just talk about, “Are we tracking this character? Where else can we use this character? What if this character intersected with this character here? Would that tie the theme of the movie together more tightly for the audience?” That work was done from a year before we started to literally two weeks ago, when we just locked picture.
Anthony Russo: We didn’t start off as kids as filmmakers. We started off as film geeks. We just loved movies, and we would watch them again and again and again. At the end of the day, that’s the kind of experience we try to create in our work.
We like very dense movies — dense storytelling. Layered storytelling. The kind of stuff you can chew on and watch again and enjoy again. I think you see that in stuff like “Arrested” or “Community.” We like layered narrative.
So have you started, at least preliminarily, thinking about “Captain America 3”?
Anthony Russo: We have. It’s very hard to collect our thoughts completely on it until we see how this movie’s received.
Joe Russo: You need a frame of reference.
Anthony Russo: The movie still exists as the movie we wanted to make in our heads until audiences tell us what it is.
Obviously, these movies are a tremendous amount of work, but when you have time, do you still see yourselves keeping involved in your comedy roots?
Joe Russo: Absolutely. Of course. We like to diversify. We get bored when we stick in one area for too long. We’ll certainly keep exploring different tones and different genres.
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” opens on April 4.
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