Superhero Roll Call: The Russo Brothers assemble more Avengers than ever for 'Infinity War'
One of the most anticipated movies of 2018 has a built-in problem—Avengers: Infinity War is only the first half of a story whose outcome won't be fully revealed until 2019. No matter what happens in Infinity War (a Disney release opening on April 27), fans won't get all the answers they want for another year.
So directors Anthony and Joe Russo are understandably protective about plot details. Speaking by phone from their office, they will admit that their two Avengers movies continue a storyline that started with their 2014 hit Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
"If you look at the Marvel Universe over the last ten years, these are the final chapters," Joe says. "My brother and I told a very personal story over the course of our four Marvel films. They're related, they tie together characters and themes. It's a quartet of movies I think you can view as a single narrative."
Joe confesses that he still has a box filled with comic books about these characters, and that the emotional bonds the brothers formed for these superheroes when they were youngsters remain strong.
"It's cathartic to be able to correlate those feelings to the thematic issues that involve the Marvel community today," he says. "I can't go into it because it will spoil the next two movies, but we were able to tie together our themes, starting with questioning the surveillance state in Winter Soldier, on the grandest scale we've ever used."
Fans are notoriously defensive about the Marvel Universe, quick to object to perceived slights and inaccuracies. Infinity War compounds the issue by including crossover characters from Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange. Thanos, the movies' chief villain (played here by Josh Brolin), has been collecting "Infinity Stones," a strategy that pulls the Avengers and other superheroes together to defeat him.
The brothers laugh when asked how they keep track of the storylines and characters. "There's not like a Marvel 'fact checker,'" Joe says. "Mac and Chris [screenwriters Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus] have written six films for Marvel, so they know as much as anybody. It's really the four of us collectively telling the story that we want to tell. You just find the mythology as you tell the story, the timelines, things that you want to have correlations to. But storytelling is paramount, that's the thing that we focus first and foremost on."
"Joe and I love ensemble storytelling, it's in a lot of our work, like our first film, Welcome to Collinwood, and through a lot of our television work," Anthony adds. "We like multiple points of view in a narrative. Your access points are these characters. Everybody finds different favorite characters, and they become your access points to the narrative.
"Inevitably, like in Civil War for instance, some characters are going to have more prominent storylines and some less prominent. But even for those characters, it's our job as storytellers to find a satisfying arc for the smallest moments they may have. I think that's one thing that we feel particularly happy about in terms of what we were able to do in Civil War—we were able to find good story moments based on character for even someone like Ant Man, something that enabled them to intersect with these other characters in our overarching narrative. That's basically the same process we're going through on these films, only with even more characters."
Infinity War's cast includes prominent stars like Robert Downey, Jr., Josh Brolin, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Chris Pratt, Bradley Cooper, Chadwick Boseman, Zoe Saldana and Paul Rudd. Some directors might be daunted wrangling so many egos into line.
"Here's the thing, Joe and I love actors," Anthony says. "These are hard movies to make, acting is a hard job, things can get complicated. But Joe started as an actor. We're very focused on actors, very respectful of what they do. And I think they're happy—they love the roles, they love the films, they love the process. Some of the actors are used to have entire films built around their characters. They know they're in a situation now where they're only a piece of the puzzle, and they behave accordingly. They know they need to help, they know that what's happening isn't all about them."
The brothers keep tabs to a certain extent on the other films in the Marvel Universe, but feel that each title stands apart from the others. "One of the things we love about Marvel is their philosophy that every movie wants to be its own film," Joe says. "They want filmmakers to have the freedom to tell a story that is the most original, the most surprising. Marvel never gets happier than when you surprise them."
"Taika Waititi's interpretation of Thor is very different than our interpretation of Thor and Joss Whedon's interpretation," Anthony says. "Our interpretation of Black Panther is very different than Ryan Coogler's. It's just like in the comics, where different artists and writers would work with characters. It's the core mythology that people respond to."
The Russos shot the two Avengers movies (the second remained untitled at the time of writing) back-to-back. Production began in January 2017 and wrapped in January 2018. They had two weeks off in July in between movies. Locations for the first film included everything from Atlanta to Scotland and Queens, New York.
Over such a long shoot, factors like weather can disrupt shooting schedules. And the size of the productions makes quick shifts in planning difficult.
"Joe and I spent many years producing television as well as directing television," Anthony points out. "We have producer brains. We are very adaptable, and we understand that sometimes you're going to spend more than you initially intended, sometimes less. At the end of the day the movie balances out, but it's our job as filmmakers to try to make sure that it does.
"We were lucky in Scotland," he adds, "but there's still a lot of planning that goes into how you dance with weather variability. We make sure certain scenes are adaptable. Like this scene could happen in any weather condition and we're okay. Or we can shoot this section of this scene if the weather's not perfect. Or we have 'cover sets,' scenes we can substitute in case the weather's too bad."
"We've learned how to accommodate for weather that will change over the twenty days it may take to shoot an action scene," Joe says. "We have giant cranes with mattes that create a shaded base that we can execute in to account for the sun moving in and out of the clouds, for example. Rain is a different story. You can work in very light rain, because some lenses won't pick up rain in the distance. Heavier rain you don't want the crew out there anyway."
Because of the size and expense of the production, pre-planning was crucial. The brothers relied on storyboards and pre-viz before the shoot began.
"We have pre-vized every sequence," Anthony says. "We pre-animated for months with a team of animators and creative collaborators, going through every shot, talking stylistically about where we want the camera placed, how we want it lit, the story that we're trying to tell. We can experiment in a digital realm with executing the movie, and then go to the set and we execute the plan based on what we came up with."
The brothers sound jealous describing their visit to the set of Jon Favreau's live-action Lion King. "He has virtually created all of his sets," Anthony says admiringly. "He and his crew can wear VR headsets and scout locations. They can scout the actual digital locations, Jon can pick shots, he can pick cameras, he can pick lenses. All in virtual space. And then he can execute with cameras by looking at monitors and seeing the virtual location through the camera eyepiece."
But the Russos believe the key to technologies like pre-viz and VR is being able to adjust to the moment. "You can go to set as a director with a very specific vision of how you want to shoot a scene and sometimes you can execute it to the detail you imagined," Anthony says. "But very often you can't because there are variables in the equation that you couldn't account for in your mind. The most significant of which is the actor. You don't want an actor to simply be a parrot of what you had in your mind, you want to find what's organic to that actor, and figure out how you draw that into the scene. So that changes how you execute it."
"Organic performance is paramount for us, so we won't force an actor into a situation where it doesn't feel organic," Joe explains. "So on the day if we find that there's better storytelling being told through a performance, we'll adjust. We have our entire VFX team there with us, our crew is dialed in, everybody understands. It happens all the time on our shoots."
Joe compares the process to working with a storyboard: "You create the plan and then throw the plan away. Pre-viz is just a more complex, three-dimensional storyboard. That doesn't mean the location will work with the way the actor wants to behave. But at least you've started with a core plan, you can see if that's appropriate to the day."
The Russos give the airport action sequence at the end of Civil War as an example. About half the sequence was based on pre-viz, but the other half was improvised on the spot.
"We were rehearsing a fight with Iron Man, Captain America and the Winter Soldier, and we felt like it was missing a critical moment where Cap and Bucky teamed up together against Tony," Joe says. "So we choreographed it in twenty minutes and shot it. That's the amazing thing of having a crew that you work with over and over again. You have a shorthand with them, a Vulcan mind-meld."
Action in the brothers' movies may have a spontaneous, improvised feel, but it is also unusually focused and easy for viewers to follow. It's not just random shots cut together, there's a narrative to it.
"The reason we do action like that is because we have such an extensive background in comedy," Anthony explains. "There's an incredible amount of improvisation in the comedy work we've done over the years. Also, we started in independent filmmaking, and we've learned that some of the best work, the best ideas that you come up with are in the moment. If you're prepared for the moment, then you can throw everything away and be inspired by what's happening in front of you."
The Russos and their team were still completing effects shots at the time of this interview. Their live-action material has been cut together and test-screened. But computer-generated effects often introduce new complexities to the movie.
"When you're shooting live action, the image you will edit to, you can see the movement right there. But when you're shooting digital, you're dealing with animated scenes. When the finished product comes in, sometimes the movement is a little different. Maybe in a good way, compared to what the animated version was. That will change how you edit. The movement's a little fast, the movement's a little slow, something was a little higher in the frame or a little lower in the frame. We need to be a little tighter or wider. As we get these shots in, the changes necessitate a sort of series of recalibrations of the edit, how we work the rhythms through the scene."
"Effects work is all about the details," Joe adds. "That's the phase we're in right now, as we start to get these finished shots in, we're working very hard with our editor Jeff Ford to make sure they are rhythmically correct. And if they're not, how do we get them there? Because we're getting late in the process, maybe it's how do we massage what's around it to make it work ideally. So it's a really active process for us."
The Russos will have worked some five years almost nonstop on Marvel projects by the time the next Avengers movie is released. But their credits include a wide range of material, notably influential television comedies like "Arrested Development" and "Community." Do they think about returning to more intimate, less effects-driven work?
"We definitely do, there's a whole range of films that Joe and I have been working on together through the years that we look forward to getting to at some point," Anthony answers. "But to be honest with you, we've been consumed by both of these films for a few years now. It's been hard to make two movies back-to-back, and we still have the entire second movie to work on for another year. So in terms of speaking about what we're going to do next, I don't think we have the brain space to focus on that. Hopefully sometime in the next year that space will open up."