This interview will appear in the April issue of BIRTH. MOVIES. DEATH.
Will superhero fatigue set in? Our blockbuster landscape is littered with adaptations of comic books, and eventually we’re going to have to get tired of seeing guys in costumes punch each other… right? Not if Marvel Studios’ planning pays off. They’ve entered “Phase Two” of their comic book movie universe, and now that they’ve established their characters and tone they’re shaking things up. Captain America: The Winter Soldier moves the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU to us nerds) into new territory: paranoid conspiracy thriller.
The film is an adaptation of one of the most popular and excellent modern Captain America storylines, where a mysterious Russian assassin with a cybernetic arm ends up having a deep personal connection to our hero. Coming along for the ride is The Falcon, Cap’s long-time partner who wears a winged suit that lets him take the action to the skies. Behind it all might be the shadowy head of spy organization SHIELD, played by cinema legend Robert Redford.
And if sidestepping into a new genre wasn’t enough, Marvel has really shaken things up by hiring new directors for the film, bringing in a directing duo best known for their comedies. Joe and Anthony Russo are the guys who gave Arrested Development its trademark look in the pilot, and they helped create the hip smash Community. Their feature credits don’t read as particularly superheroic either - You, Me And Dupree is their last feature film. But all evidence points to the Russos having pulled this one off, with the biggest sign being that Marvel has already hired them to come back for the yet-untitled Captain America 3.
To outsiders this looks like a big leap for you guys, going from comedy to a giant action movie. Did you feel like this was a leap, or was it much more natural?
Joe: It was natural in that we grew up on 70s thrillers, we grew up on action films. These were genres we loved as filmgoers. I’ve been reading comic books since I was 10 years old, and one of the first books I got was a Captain America/Falcon team-up book, so this felt like a 30 year dream come true for us.
When you’re jumping into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, how many fingers are in that pie? As directors, what’s the level of freedom you get?
Anthony: We had an amazing amount of freedom. We had a great relationship with Marvel. They’re a great company. We came up with a strong idea of what direction we thought the franchise should go, what should happen with the character and we were very clear and articulate about what we wanted to do and they were supportive of that vision. Not only was this the easiest shoot we’ve ever had because of the support system but it was also the least amount of political interference and the most creative cooperation we’ve ever had. It was an amazing experience.
Did you walk in wanting to do Ed Brubaker’s Winter Soldier, or was that something Marvel honcho Kevin Feige already had in mind?
Anthony: That was already in place when we came on board, but it was one of our favorite runs in comic book history, and so it made us salivate. I started collecting comics when post-modern deconstructionist stories became popular in the 80s, that Frank Miller Dark Knight era. That was when people were taking Silver Age characters and turning them on their heads, looking at them through a modern lens, and The Winter Soldier is theDark Knight of the Captain America series. It’s an amazing deconstruction of the character.
Has Ed seen the movie? Have you heard any feedback?
Anthony: Ed was involved every step of the way. He read the script early on, we had dinner and talked about the script. He has seen the movie - and he makes a cameo in the film as well.
Judging by the Super Bowl spot it looks like you have him actually creating The Winter Soldier!
Joe: Very observant comic book fans will notice that is true.
As somebody who read the Brubaker run when it was happening, the identity of the Winter Soldier was never a secret. That character’s identity was how the whole arc was sold. Is his identity a secret in the movie, or is it quickly revealed?
Anthony: Even though there’s an ensemble cast the story is very grounded in Captain America, and is told through his perspective very specifically. For the character it’s a discovery, even if it isn’t for the audience.
In this film you’re introducing The Falcon. How do you come at this character?
Joe: Part of our deconstructionist approach is to use the Ultimates version of the character. For me, when I was a kid, that interpretation of the character, the roots of the character, were a little stereotypical. We were looking for a more interesting interpretation of the character. In the MCU you have to make choices about characters in order to maximize their impact on each other.
How does that work in a movie like this, where you have a threat that is very personal to Captain America but also a larger ensemble cast and, on top of that, larger thematic concerns about the nature of safety and privacy and freedom? It seems like this movie is tying into a lot of the current controversies with the NSA - how do you juggle all of these elements?
Joe: It takes a lot of work on the script, and thankfully we have amazing screenwriters in Marcus and McFeely, who wrote the script and the original film. A political thriller has to be topical. Marcus and McFeely really buckled down with everyone at Marvel; it’s a collaborative effort, lots of sweat. The NSA is something that wasn’t in the headlines at the time we wrote the script, but drone strikes and pre-emptive strikes and eroding civil liberties were, so that’s what we delved into to make the script topical.
As far as keeping the characters in balance, what’s really important about that is making sure each one has an impact on the story or another character in the story. That’s how you keep an ensemble in balance.
How do you get up in the morning and direct Robert Redford? That seems like the most intimidating thing possible.
Anthony: You’re right. He couldn’t have loomed larger in our psyches. But here’s the thing: he’s the nicest human being on the planet. He’s a gentleman, he’s supremely professional. I think he’s aware of the aura he carries, and he’s very gracious about that and is able to make himself accessible and relatable. He’s used that with the Sundance Film Festival and the Sundance Labs, where he’s championed up and coming filmmakers - he’s a very approachable person for a living legend.
You have the star of one of the seminal 70s paranoid thrillers, Three Days of the Condor, starring in a movie with a character named The Falcon. Is there a callback joke that happens at some point in this movie?
Joe: [laughs] I don’t know if we managed to work that joke in, but I can tell you this movie owes a big debt to Three Days of the Condor. It was really inspired by that film, and you could call this one Three Days of Captain America. That’s why getting Redford was so crucial.
Since this movie is different from what we expect from superhero movies, what are some movies besides Three Days of the Condor that really inspired you guys?
Joe: The French Connection was something we watched a hundred times. That was a huge influence on us. Blow Out.
Anthony: It was the whole paranoid conspiracy genre - All the President’s Men, The Parallax View. We were very much just absorbing - and we had absorbed it through our lives - the language of that genre. I think if you’re a fan of that genre you’ll see it being used again, and hopefully in an interesting and new way.
Reports are that you guys are coming back for the next Captain America movie.
Marvel’s secrecy levels are so high you’d probably be killed on the spot if I asked you for anything remotely approaching details, but when you’re talking about the next movie, which comes after The Avengers: Age of Ultron, what kind of team effort with the entire Marvel staff has to come into play to decide what’s next? Is this the kind of thing where you can just say “I really love the storyline where Captain America turned into a werewolf [ed. note: this really happened in the comics],” and just do that, or is there a company direction emerging from Avengers 2 that has to be taken into account?
Joe: What it is is a lot of passionate people sitting in a room talking everything out. Kevin Feige we’ve referred to as an auteur producer, and he’s the brilliant mind behind the whole universe. But he’s also got a loose hand in making sure the authors behind the project is very excited about whatever direction the project is moving in. It’s about sitting in a room and throwing out ideas; everybody’s aware what’s coming ahead. You cherry pick what you’re passionate about and say that’s the direction you want to take the character. Kevin manages from project to project as ideas float back and forth. He’ll say, ‘Hey they’re going to do this in this movie, what do you think about that?’ It’s an awesome process if you’re a comic fan, because you’re really getting to help define the interpretation of the characters on screen.
You guys are using the Falcon from the Ultimate universe - does that mean there’s no chance of him having a pet bird?
Joe: Not on our version of the film.
Anthony: That was definitely one of the running jokes on the set, that’s for sure.