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The Russo brothers and the challenges of directing the politically charged 'Captain America: Civil War'

Brothers Joe (left, rear) and Anthony Russo on the set of
Brothers Joe (left, rear) and Anthony Russo on the set of "Captain America: Civil War."

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Many of your favorite comic book heroes are back in the new Marvel film, “Captain America: Civil War.” Except, instead of Iron Man and Captain America fighting side-by-side, they go head-to-head.

The film is based on the 2006 Marvel comic book series, “Civil War.” A disagreement in political stances leads Captain America, Hawkeye and other superheroes to go against Iron Man, Black Widow and, yes, Spider-Man (who is actually on loan to Disney from Sony).

The brothers Anthony and Joe Russo directed the latest Marvel film. They also directed the previous Captain America movie, “The Winter Soldier,” and will direct the next Avengers movies.

The Frame's John Horn spoke with the brothers about how director Steven Soderbergh helped them get their start, the craft in the intricate fight scenes in the film, and if being siblings either hurts or helps them on set. 


Was it challenging making a big blockbuster that also tries to tell a politically themed story?

ANTHONY RUSSO: You can't get away from the political dimensions of the character, especially because these movies are global. So you can imagine the connotations that the name carries with it around the world. It's very charged. Frankly, the character was born with a political, even a propaganda, purpose: to encourage the United States to enter World War II, stop Hitler.

Through the decades, the world is in a different climate than it was during World War II. Captain America has to change through the decades as well. And one of the fun things about his story is he gets frozen in ice for 70 years. So he basically jumps from World War II to the present time, two years ago. Cap missed all those things that made our country compromise and created a gray area in terms of how we interact with the rest of the world. For Cap, he's still in that old diagram of good versus evil.

So as you're talking with your screenwriters, actors and department heads, are you referencing other superhero movies, or are you talking about political thrillers from the '70s and '80s? 

JOE RUSSO: We grew up film fanatics and I think a lot of our vocabulary was developed watching movies from when we were younger. We were hyper-influenced by '70s films, but we also grew up around the corner from a cinematheque, so foreign film was a big influence on us as well. 

So we tend to reference movies. And I think what makes superhero films more interesting, and more relatable to a more diverse audience, is if you take a genre and you smash into it. In "Winter Soldier," we're marrying a political thriller to a superhero movie. It's "Civil War," it's a war film meets a psychological thriller. So you're taking other genres and you're creating a hybrid, which can help create some more interesting storytelling and surprise the audience, but also allow you to reach an audience that may not be coming to the theater just for a superhero film.

Before you got hired for "Captain America," you did a lot of television. You did "Community," "Arrested Development" and the feature comedy "You, Me, and Dupree." How did that first conversation with Marvel go? What did they see that made you candidates for that job, and what did you see in yourselves that made you wonder if you were qualified to do it?

JOE RUSSO: Well we were in a very healthy place with our television careers. We were enjoying the shows we were working on at the time, "Happy Endings" and "Community." It's difficult to get to a position in the business where you have a lot of creative control, and we were at that place in television. We got a phone call from our agent one day who said, "Marvel has put together a list of directors they want to speak to and you guys are on the list." We were surprised. But of course we took a meeting — I collected comics since I was 10 years old, and the mythology of those characters was very impactful on my upbringing. We're pop culture junkies. We had a kismet on many levels with them. 

We sat down with Kevin Feige. He told us he really loved our work on "Community." We'd done these paintball episodes which were action spoofs. He knew we had an ability to direct comedy, but he saw that we also liked action, and he thought, Well, these guys could be directing action movies for us.

What was the steepest part of the learning curve of going into that world? Was it what you expected it to be?

ANTHONY RUSSO: It's a great question. Joe and I have done a variety of things as filmmakers. We started as micro-budget, credit card filmmakers. We moved into small but real independent cinema. Then we went into TV. We did cable, major network, comedies, dramas, commercials. We've covered the map in terms of what you can do as a filmmaker. For us, I think it wasn't that difficult — to be honest — to step into the system.

Part of that credit goes to Marvel because they're such a well-run company. They're very well-organized; they have incredible people there. We were able to move into their infrastructure and access all these talented departments that they've already assembled. So that was a great gift. The major difference was we had to do a lot more pre-planning than we ever had before. 

I want to talk about the fight scenes. What's notable is that they have a sense of humor. As you're working with Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely in planning and shooting these fight scenes, what are the things you're referencing or channeling? And how do you integrate comedy into character in a battle?

ANTHONY RUSSO: We always stay very dedicated to narrative and character. It's how we find our way through action sequences. Action is empty unless it's turning on character and the narrative is pushing you through. So that's our access point. And then, the great thing about a movie like "Civil War" is we have a variety of voices to play with. We have some characters like Captain America and Iron Man who are very deeply invested in a complicated conflict with one another. It's serious and tonally intense, but that doesn't give you a lot of room for comedy.

We have other characters, fortunately, who are coming from a place where they don't have as much emotional baggage. Ant Man, for instance. They have specific reasons for being there, but their drives don't have the same level of complication and tension. Therefore, they're able to react in a lighter, more whimsical way. I think it's the contrast between the two that gives a lot of pleasure in this movie, at least for us. 

You're working with some actors, like Robert Downey Jr., who is so closely identified with Tony Stark and Iron Man that people know there's not a lot of difference between the character and the actor. As directors, what is your job when you're working with somebody like Downey, as opposed to when you're working with the young man who's playing Spiderman?

JOE RUSSO: Well. everyone has a different process. Chris Evans [who plays Captain America], for instance, is a very technically gifted actor. He'll get the script, read through it, circle some lines that he thinks could be more on-point for his character. We'll have a conversation with him, discuss them, rewrite some lines. He memorizes the script and comes to set. Again, very technically gifted. The process is very straightforward.

With Robert, it's a very different process. It's very organic. He really wants to discover what every scene is about. On a Sunday prior to the scene we'll shoot that week, we'll sit at his house for a few hours. We'll talk through the scene. He'll improvise quite a bit. We'll fish around for lines and make sure that the storytelling keeps moving forward, but he does know the character better than any of us ever will. He's been playing it for eight years. There's great magic in that with him. So it's a very collaborative process. I think he feels more emotionally connected to the material by going through that process.

ANTHONY RUSSO: It's one of the great challenges of being a director. If you want to pull the best performance out of an actor, you need to be able to speak their language. And you may have actors who speak a variety of languages, and then it becomes your job as a director to create an environment where they can all feel safe and go through their own processes. It's a big trick of the job, sometimes.

What is the secret, or the benefit, of your working together? And have you ever thought about going your separate ways in directing? What is the 1 + 1 = 3 of you directing together? 

JOE RUSSO: Well, we always say that two heads are exponentially better than one. And I think when you're working on a movie of this scale, it's invaluable for us to be working as a team. These movies can get away from you very quickly. I think that because of the amount of people that you're working with, the demands on you, the amount of decisions you have to make — the fact that there are two of us allows us to vet the issue. When one of us may be exhausted, hopefully the other has still got their wits about them. 

Who wins most arguments?

JOE RUSSO: Why you trying to start an argument? 

ANTHONY RUSSO: Our sensibilities are very similar, obviously. But certainly we disagree. That's usually part of our process. I remember, we had a director friend sitting behind us at the monitor for a day. And at the end of the day, he said, "It's so weird listening to you guys talk to each other when you direct, because it's like the voices in my own head are all of a sudden externalized." Every artist-creator goes through a process of trying to figure out what their vision is, how they're going to realize it. It's a process that contains a lot of inner turmoil. Joe and I just get to externalize that process.

If I were that director, what would I hear?

ANTHONY RUSSO: It would be like, "You get up and talk to the actor." "No, you get up." "No, I went last time."

JOE RUSSO: "Do they have carrots at craft services?"

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