Emmy Award-winning brothers (who got their start at Case Western Reserve) talk show business and superheroes.
Before the U.S. military transformed him into a fighting machine, Captain America was just a puny kid. Brothers Joe (GRS ’97) and Anthony Russo, directors of Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier, have a similar scrawny-to-brawny story.
While at Case Western Reserve—where Joe was a theater major and Anthony attended the law school—they received an education in film at the Cleveland Cinematheque. Inspired by director Robert Rodriguez’s 1995 book How to Make a Film for $7,000, they maxed out their credit cards and cast their buddies in their first film, Pieces. The film caught the attention of filmmaker Steven Soderbergh and actorproducer George Clooney, who offered to work with the duo on their next effort, Welcome to Collinwood.
Known for their guerilla style of filmmaking, with quick cuts and in-your-face angles, the Russo brothers have received wide recognition for their work on TV comedies Arrested Development (for which they received an Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series) and Community. They spoke with Think a week before filming started on Captain America 2, scheduled for release in the spring of 2014.
Q What was your budget for Pieces?
A Anthony: It was supposed to be $7,000. I don’t think it finished at $7,000. It was probably closer to $30,000.
Q That must have been rough on your credit cards.
A Joe: We had to pay it off on top of our student loans. I think it took us seven years. Thank God that movie panned out, or we would have been in a lot of trouble.Anthony: When we finished shooting, we couldn’t actually develop the film because we had run out of money. It just sat for like six months until we made enough money to develop it.
Q Louis Giannetti (now professor emeritus of film studies) at Case Western Reserve gave you some pointers on that film?
A Joe: We showed him the first cut. I think he said, “Trim everything out of it you can.” It was great advice because we ended up with a 72-minute cut of the movie, and it was the best cut. That was the one that Soderbergh saw and fell in love with.
Q What was it like being discovered overnight? Suddenly you’re directing Welcome to Collinwood and working with George Clooney.
A Anthony: When we made Pieces, we had a crew of six, including us. We did everything.
Our first day of filming Collinwood, we were shooting at a warehouse on the east side of Cleveland. We didn’t understand the difference between a $30,000 and a $7.5 million movie. There were all these trucks there, and we were like, “Oh, this is a big problem. What are all these trucks doing here?” Not realizing that they were our trucks.
Q How much creative control did you have with Arrested? Did a lot of improvising happen on the set?
A Anthony: We got involved with that show at the pilot stage. It was basically the same process that you go through as a director for a feature film. You come to the table and there’s nothing but a script. You spend time refining and developing the script. And then you move to directing issues: What style are you going to shoot it in? What kind of tone is it going to have? Who are you going to cast in the show? How are you going to shoot it? You’re really building things from the ground up.
Q Do you think the two of you guys working in tandem had a lot to do with the energy of that show?
A Joe: There were a lot of location changes in that show. I think we shot 36 locations in seven days for that pilot. And the only way we could pull that off was with two of us. We were leapfrogging and running from one set to the next. The last day of shooting, we had six sets built on a soundstage, and we went from one to the other to the other, which gave that show that energy and feel.
It was during the time of Lars Von Trier’s [Dogma Movement]. We wrote our own dogma for Arrested—said that we were going to shoot it with limited lighting, documentary style, on HD cameras. We wrote up rules for the cameramen on how to operate, and we told the cast that they shouldn’t expect hair and makeup every day. It was a very pragmatic approach to how you get all of that stuff shot in the period that you need to get it shot in.
We had the most fun in our careers working on that show. It was a great time.
Q Did Captain America fall into your laps, or did you actively campaign to get it?
A Joe: We got a phone call that the folks at Marvel were fans of Community, and they wanted to know if we wanted to meet on Captain America 2. Of course we jumped at the chance.
We sort of fell into comedy and it’s worked so well for us. But it’s always been our ambition to do action films because we loved them growing up.
Q What’s it like going from shooting Community, a TV show that’s 30 selfcontained minutes of comic intensity, to a huge film like Captain America?
A Joe: TV’s so rigorous and the schedule’s so fast. The volume of work you do in eight months is significant. Especially with a show like Community where you’re switching genres every week.
The nice thing about coming to work on a movie like Captain America is that Marvel is a very efficient machine. They’ve made a lot of these films so they have all of the top people in place. It makes your life easier to come into the project with a lot of experienced people. The schedule’s the same—you’re still dealing with the script, with actors. And you catch up on the special effects pretty quickly because you spend all day talking about them and going through the storyboards.
It’s actually been a very comfortable experience. It’s probably been the nicest experience we’ve had in the business so far.