Joe and Anthony Russo open up about Avengers: Infinity War
Avengers: Infinity War has been breaking box office records worldwide while leaving fans anxiously and desperately waiting for the Avengers: Infinity War sequel which sadly doesn’t arrive in theaters until May 3, 2019. A few weeks ago, I had a chance to talk to Joe and Anthony Russo about Avengers: Infinity War and how they were able to achieve everything that they did with the film including how they kept everything that happened in the film a secret from everyone including the actors.
Please keep in mind that there are some minor spoilers in this interview so if you haven’t seen the film yet, please be aware.
Scott: Hello, Joe. Hello, Anthony. How are you?
Anthony: Hi, Scott. I’m good, how are you?
Scott: Great. I really appreciate you guys taking a few minutes of your time to talk to me today. I know everybody and their brother wants to talk to you guys.
Anthony: Oh, we’re happy to do it. Thank you. We’re at a big moment. People are finally watching the movie.
Scott: Yeah, I saw it yesterday, and bravo, you guys killed it. The amount of dreams you’re going to be crushing with this movie and seeing the reaction from Press people, I can only imagine how fans are going to react if Press people are reacting this way.
Anthony: Well, we feel like nothing has value unless it has an ending at some point. The stakes are important to us. So this is 10 years of storytelling culminating, it’s got to culminate in a way that’s cathartic.
Scott: Yeah, I just thought it was just so incredibly well-rounded. And the bulk of this conversation, I do really want to talk about the movie, but I do want to first say, and I don’t know how often you do get this, but I’ve been a big fan of you guys since your television days. Arrested Development, Community, and Happy Endings are like three of my all-time favorite TV shows. So the fact that you guys are involved in those, that is just so awesome to me.
Joe: That’s nice of you, thanks for mentioning that. We love all those shows.
Scott: No problem. It seems like they would not exist without you guys, and they were just iconic TV shows that I have very fond memories of, so congratulations for getting those started. I totally appreciate you doing them.
So I’m very curious, and I would like to actually start from the beginning. How did you guys even get to become part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
Joe: Honestly, we just got a call from our agent one day. We were busy, we were producing and directing a lot of television at that time; we had a few shows on the air, as you know. At that time, it was Community and Happy Endings.
We got a call from our agent one day out of the blue that just said, “Marvel has a list of 10 directors that they want to talk to about the next Captain America movie, and you guys are on it.” And we sort of said, “Well, sure!” We have been lifelong comic fans. I’ll never forget seeing that first Iron Man movie, I loved it. We responded very strongly to that movie. Also to be honest with you, even though we were really enjoying our time in television, we had been kind of prepping for the past year or two, to make a transition and do another film and had stuff we had been developing. So it was kind of like the right time for us. Basically what happened was, we went and over the course of two months, we probably had met with them four times. And each time we went in, we came in with a more and more specific vision for the film to the point where, by the end of the two months, Joe and I knew exactly how we were going to make the movie, and they basically hired us.
Scott: That’s just incredible. I mean, TV is one thing, and from what I hear is a whole another animal. I have talked to so many different directors and actors who’ve been in the TV world and have transitioned into film. They said they are pretty different. And I know you were in film a little bit, not with major big films, but kind of smaller movies that got a lukewarm response from critics and audiences. And then, to return to film and do something like Captain America: Winter Soldier, and follow that up with Captain America: Civil War, and then to have the honor, in a lot of ways, of doing the big film to honor the 10-year mark of Marvel Studios. I can’t commend you guys enough. I think you guys knocked it out of the park, totally.
Anthony: Thank you, that’s really sweet of you.
Joe: Really cool to hear, thank you.
Scott: You know, as a Press person, and I know you guys have been talking to every big, major outlet on the planet – Variety, Deadline, Hollywood Reporter, etc. – how the hell did you guys go through this entire press tour without revealing anything?
Joe: Oh, my gosh, it was so hard! It’s a great question and it was extremely difficult. But we have been putting so much effort into these films for the past couple years so keeping the surprises special was so important to us.
It’s weird, we’re enormous fans of the material. We know the thrill of experiencing these stories, and we wanted to make sure that we maintained the integrity of that for our audiences. We knew we had this special opportunity to tell them a story that they’d never seen before because it was a culmination of this 10-year run. And so we wanted to make sure that the entire experience of it really unfolded in the movie theater for them. So we had really crazy security all the way through production, we kept very careful control of who read what. We never circulated entire drafts of the script, we had fake scenes in many drafts of the script that needed to be circulated. We circulated a lot of incomplete drafts to the actors, mostly to make sure each actor had their arc to the film that didn’t have any extraneous material because not that we didn’t trust them, but we didn’t want to put the responsibility on them. It’s hard to censor yourself constantly. It’s easy to forget a script in a hotel room or on an airplane sometimes. So we were just so careful this whole road, that even though it is hard, we know how important it is, and we invested so much effort into it up to this point.
Scott: Again, it’s kind of funny because I feel almost speechless still talking to you guys, even though I saw the film yesterday and I did a 45-minute podcast last night about it and then, I wrote my review this morning. I haven’t put it out yet, but I still feel speechless about walking out of this movie. This film represents something that the Marvel Cinematic Universe knows very well, and you guys are masters at it, and that is replay value. Immediately, when walking out of this movie, I wanted to go right back into the theater even though I was shaking, upset, and don’t know what I just experienced, but I wanted to turn right back around and say, “Hey, I’ll take another one for this,” and I plan on seeing this movie at least one or two more times in theater. So that’s something else in itself, and again, I applaud you guys for doing that because that doesn’t happen very often with me.
Joe: That’s amazing to hear, by the way, because you know, we knew we were taking a big risk going to a place as complicated as this, so to hear that is your reaction, it is very encouraging because we want these movies to be for fans, and enjoyed by fans, and these movies are built in a way where they need to succeed financially, because they’re so expensive to make, so to hear that reaction of yours is very encouraging.
Scott: Yes, and I’m a very honest person. I know a lot of people that you talk to, not everyone, but there are some people in this industry, who will tell you whatever you want to hear, they just want the interview. I’m very much not that type of person. I come from the East Coast and I’m very proud of being straightforward and honest.
And with that being said, some of the other Marvel movies have not worked for me. Last year, I was one of the people who did not like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. I was very underwhelmed by that movie. I did not like Spider-Man: Homecoming. I enjoyed Thor: Ragnarok like everyone else did, but those other two films just did not work for me.
So going into this movie – and it’s funny because I mentioned how those two movies disappointed me in my review, but what you guys wound up doing with those characters, especially Gamora in this movie, as well as Star-Lord, it made me forget about that movie even existing, and I was like, “all is forgotten, I just went back to the first one,” and the story arc with Gamora in this film, was just terrific.
I mean, going off that, how did you wind up balancing the time in this movie to make sure that every character had their moment?
Anthony: Well certainly, there’s an hierarchy of characters who have a relationship to the A-plot, and those characters are going to get a little bit more significant screen-time and significant emotional connection to the storytelling. And those characters include Thor, Gamora, Vision, Scarlett Witch, Tony Stark, and as you know, the other 18 movies and storytelling behind it help us do it.
Tony Stark’s arc is not a new arc, it’s one that was established a couple years ago in the Avengers films. Tony is a futurist who fears for a threat to earth coming from outer space, and Thanos ended up being that threat. So that arc has always been there for him, now it’s just that moment when the thing he’s always feared is presenting itself.
Thor’s arc gets decided by the start of the film. Gamora’s arc is pre-existing, but her relationship with Thanos makes her the most important character in the movie – the one most emotionally connected to the villain, so she’s also the bravest character in the film.
Our job really is just sitting in a room for hours on end with our writers, Markus & McFeely, going through each character, talking through their potential story in the movie – what’s their point of view, where are they starting the film, where are they ending the film, and it really is just a very disciplined process where you keep painting the house over, and over, and over again.
Scott: I think that’s a terrific explanation of everything.
I do want to give you guys another compliment. Thor is one of my least favorite characters, but in this movie, he was my favorite character.
Anthony: That was important for us. We like to dimensionalize the character. I think if there’s one constant theme in the three movies that people have seen, that we’ve made for Marvel, is that emotional realism, is the one constant thing. We like to ground everything in emotional realism. So whether the character is being funny, or the character is fantastical, or the character is being dramatic, we always try to tie it back to something that is emotionally real.
Thor is an underdog character in this movie that you cannot help but feel for because he has had everything in his life taken away from him. And all you want to do is see him succeed, so he is on this journey in the movie, and he is driven, uniquely driven, to try to defeat Thanos. And he does everything within his power to do that. And so for us, there’s a combination of pathos and vulnerability and humor all combined together with a certain drive, and I think Hemsworth just knocked it out of the park, and has the potential to be one of the biggest, if not the biggest star in the world after this movie, and with some of the work he has coming up. Very few people can encompass all of those things – vulnerability, humor, warmth, drive, energy – and believe that he’s that powerful at the same time, it’s just a rare feat.
Scott: You know, it’s funny because I’m talking to you and I have a million questions that I could ask you, but I only have like five minutes left. The movie itself, it’s like a puzzle in a lot of ways. You have it almost set up like three little vignettes, in the beginning where you kind of have three storylines going on at once. “Here are these characters, here are these characters, and here’s these characters,” and I love that they don’t all come together in the end, but they’re all serving the same purpose. Of this entire film, for both of you, what was the scene that was the most difficult to bring to life?
Joe: Most difficult? Well, the battle with Thanos was pretty difficult. The battle of Wakanda, that was a mentally complex sequence just because of the sheer scale of it.
What else was hard?
Anthony: Combining. Even though we loved the process of combining the characters that are coming from the different franchises, there is a challenge that Joe and I have to work out on set, primarily. It’s certainly a script issue to a degree, but really, you’re bringing together characters from different worlds that aren’t aware of one another, and who have been in movies that have different tones and styles. When you put them together for the first time, it does take a little massaging.
For instance, one of the first things we shot on the movie was a section on Titan where Tony Stark is trying to sort out the plan with the Guardians and Peter Parker over what they’re going to do when Thanos arrives. And that was one of the very first things we shot, and so you’re combining, for the first time, Tony and Peter, who have a relationship, with the Guardians, and it was a really interesting process on set getting comfortable with what that meant on a tonal level, where we could push the material – how do we use what’s great about Robert Downey Jr. as a performer, and how do we use what are great about the Guardians and Tom Holland as performers, and make it all work in an exciting way for the scene. And it was a very involved process, and I would say that was the challenge for many scenes, like when Stark meets Doctor Strange, or all the various meetings. There’s definitely a delicate performance phase where Joe and I are working on set with the actors, trying to make sure that we can find a rhythm between these characters that’s fun and entertaining and serving our story.
Scott: This is actually a big thing that I loved about the movie…the pairing of the characters, so I’m glad you’re bringing it up. Was that in the script? Or was that something that you guys and the screenwriters had to all work together and decide, “Okay, so instead of Iron Man and Captain America, we’re going to mix this up and we’re going to pick Iron Man and Doctor Strange. Those are going to be the initial pairings, and then we’re going to add in X, Y, and Z. We’re going to add in Peter Parker, we’re going to add in the Guardians”? Was that something that you guys decided on or was that in the script already?
Anthony: That was very elemental to our development process. We have such a close relationship with Markus & McFeely now, after doing four films together. We’d sit in a room with them for months and we just played with these possibilities, like which characters can we combine, what story elements can we play with that catalyzes these characters in interesting ways? We want to bring something new to the table. We want people to see a film that they haven’t seen before. We want them to see their characters have to go to places they haven’t gone for before. So as storytellers, we know the best way to do that is to put those characters in new situations. So the option of being able to combine them with characters that they hadn’t encountered, that weren’t even from their respective worlds, was a great upside because it allowed us to push into new, virgin territory, so to speak, and stumble upon the new creative ideas that we could find there.
So yeah, that was really a very elemental premise of how we approached this movie from the get-go.
Scott: And you 100% nailed that.
Anthony: Oh, well thank you very much. We probably spent more time on that than we’ve spent on anything in this movie, is working on that.
Scott: I know you were talking earlier about the particular characters having their story arcs and having a little bit more screen time and I guess this is kind of going into the next one, and I know you guys can’t really say much about it, but I’m guessing there’s reasons as for why, say, someone like Captain America did not have as big of a presence in this movie?
Anthony: Well, again, the way we have to organize, is around story. While we want to serve all these characters, and while we spend time thinking about how we maximize all of them in the storytelling, at the end of the day, the story is about Thanos going after the Infinity Stone, so everybody’s role in the movie is basically dictated by their proximity to either the Infinity Stones or Thanos himself. And so you’re naturally going to get people like Doctor Strange or Vision or Wanda, and Gamora, and such, like we were talking about earlier, they get drawn into the narrative a little more strongly. Cap was starting from a place where he and the rest of the Avengers who sided with him in Civil War, they’ve been living underground for the past couple of years, so the start of the film, they aren’t the first to the table because they’ve had to live like fugitives. So Cap’s starting point and then sort of his proximity to those plot elements was a little more removed, so his role ended up being the size that it was.
And that’s just something we have to honor in the process. You can’t give equal time, but there’s something we learned while we were making Civil War, which is, just because a character has limited amount of screen time, doesn’t mean that you cannot do something very surprising and memorable, and thrilling, exciting, or difficult with that character. And as an example, if you remember Civil War, Ant Man and Spider-Man were not involved in the central conflicts that were tearing the Avengers apart. So when they entered the film, they were able to enter the film in a completely different tone than what was happening in the larger story because they were unaware of it, they didn’t have that baggage. And I think that was a creative opportunity for us to do something very fun and entertaining with them in that airport sequence. And I think, just because your character may be limited, you can find creative upsides in that, and we try to do that with Cap as well, in this film.
Scott: That’s a great way to summarize that. Again, I want to just thank both of you for taking your time to talk to me today, because I know you’ve been so busy so I really do appreciate it, once again.
So for my last question, I’m just going to kind of make it a free for all. Can you tell me anything whatsoever about the future of your involvement with this Universe?
Anthony: The future of our involvement with the Marvel Universe?
Anthony: Here’s what we can say, this is all very truthful and this is everything that’s happening with us – we love Marvel. Making these movies has been an honor… Joe and I consider ourselves very lucky, we’ve been very passionate about our work for our entire careers, and I think this is the most incredible working experience we’ve ever had. Collaborating with them has been fantastic, we love the material, we’re lifelong fans, so we couldn’t be more passionate about the MCU.
The truth is, though, these are very difficult movies to make, these two movies. And we’ve been buried in them now for a couple years, and we’re going to still remain buried in them for another year. We have a lot of hard work left. I mean, the next Avengers, is on still. So we don’t really have the brain space to be thinking too much past these films right now. Maybe later this year, as we start to really get a hold of the next Avengers movie and it starts to feel like we’ve got it, we’ll be able to start to think about the future, but as of now, our dance card is full, so to speak, with the work we have on our table right now with these movies.
But, you know, we love Marvel, and we would love nothing more than to continue to explore this world and these characters.
Scott: Okay. Thank you very much. I do really appreciate your honesty on that.
One last thing, and it’s not a question, but it’s just something that I wanted to tell you. Anthony, I work for a meal delivery company for my day job, and your wife, Ann, was on the plan for multiple years.
Anthony: Oh, yeah! Oh, that’s really kind of you. Thank you for mentioning that. I’ll mention to my wife as well.
Scott: Ann was such a sweetheart every time I talked to her and it was funny because I always got the behind-the-scenes scoop. She would tell me like when you were down in Atlanta and filming, and when the kids came down to visit and everything, it was always funny because I always heard about it from an outside perspective.
Anthony: That’s cool, that’s very fun.
Scott: Alright, thank you guys so much, have a great one!
Anthony: Thank you, it was a real pleasure talking. Thank you!
Scott: Nice talking to you too, hope to talk with you again in the near future. Bye, bye.