Joe and Anthony Russo, the 'Avengers: Endgame' directors, on dealing with high expectations, and which characters they still want to see in the Marvel Cinematic Universe
- The trailer for the fourth "Avengers" movie dropped on Friday.
- Directors Joe and Anthony Russo spoke to Business Insider this week about the state of the film industry and the high expectations for "Avengers: Endgame."
- They also touched on their upcoming TV projects with Amazon and FX, the short-lived "popular Oscar," and what characters they'd still like to see in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Joe and Anthony Russo, the directing team responsible for Marvel blockbusters "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," "Captain America: Civil War," and this year's "Avengers: Infinity War," never slow down.The brothers were in New York City on Tuesday for Business Insider's Ignition conference to speak about their new production company, AGBO. Then they headed right back to Los Angeles to work on post-production for "Avengers: Endgame," which has been shrouded in secrecy until Friday, when the highly anticipated first trailer dropped and revealed the film's title.
"Avengers: Infinity War" is the highest-grossing movie worldwide this year with over $2 billion. "Avengers: Endgame," its follow up which comes to theaters in April, has been pegged as an end of this era of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But those high standards don't phase the Russos, they said - they're just trying to make great movies.
The Russos spoke to Business Insider about the high expectations for "Avengers: Endgame," their upcoming TV projects with Amazon and FX, which characters they'd like to still see in the MCU, superhero movies at the Oscars, and the state of the film industry.
(This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
Travis Clark: Before I get into the inevitable Marvel questions, I wanted to ask about your TV projects you have lined up. You're working on an Amazon "global event" series, and something for FX called "The Mastermind" with ["Fargo" and "Legion" creator] Noah Hawley. Is that still going on?
Joe Russo: We're keeping a tight lip on what that Amazon series is about. It's a new concept for storytelling. We're always interested in the new ways to tell stories. We're in a disruptive market. I think the next generation is much more adventurous than any preceding generation in how they perceive content.
Clark: So you're pushing it to the limit?Joe: We are. The concept with this show is international reach, and how to tell a global story. There will be a flagship show and some subsidiary shows that are set in foreign language markets.
Anthony Russo: It plays very much to the Marvel movies we've been making, which have such a global reach with passionate audiences around the world. We've been spending the last couple years interacting with those audiences. We grew up on global cinema and we love global cinema. I think the idea of communicating with a worldwide audience has always been appealing to us and now we're doing it on a larger and larger scale.
Clark: And what about "The Mastermind"? Is that still with Hawley?
Joe: Yeah, we're huge Noah fans. "Fargo" is one of my favorite shows. It's another international show loosely based on a true story. We're in the process of working on the script right now.
It's loosely based on true events about a criminal in South Africa who built an international crime syndicate using the internet. Again, we're being tight lipped about the actual plot, but it's a fascinating show.Clark: Will it be a limited series, or an ongoing?
Joe: It will be an ongoing thing. It's built to be an ongoing thing.
Clark: What's it like working with Hawley?
Joe: Once I saw half of season 1 of "Fargo," I called him. We had met Noah years ago while we were working on "Community." We had a great meeting with him, we love him. We gravitate towards people that excite us creatively that we want to collaborate with. The essential nature of our relationship [Joe and Anthony's] is collaboration, so we're always trying to do that with other people.
Clark: Has he talked about his Doctor Doom movie at all?
Joe: [laughs] Yeah, we've talked about it in passing. Who knows what's going to happen with everything with the Disney acquisition [of Fox].
Clark: Would you like to see that character in the MCU?
Joe: I'd love to see Noah's interpretation of that character. Anything that Noah does.Clark: It's sort of up in the air at this point, though?
Joe: Yeah, I think so.
Clark: You mentioned disruption in the industry. The Disney-Fox merger plays into that, and streaming services like Amazon play into that. Can you elaborate? What's it like working with Amazon? Where do you think these things will lead the industry?
Anthony: I think it fits a larger pattern for the road that Joe and I have been on as filmmakers. We're self taught filmmakers. We bought a bunch of books after Robert Rodriguez said he made a movie for $7,000. We thought, "We can do that."
Clark: And then you made "Pieces."
Anthony: And then we made "Pieces," and our entire road has been defined by that. "Arrested Development" was the first primetime scripted show to be shot on digital video. There were many specific reasons we wanted to do that, to find a new way to shoot a half-hour, single-camera comedy. We like the idea of unconventional and new models for how things are made and brought to audiences. That opens up possibilities for us as filmmakers to surprise ourselves.
Joe: This is the main driver of disruption [holds up phone]. We have a very powerful personal computer in our hands. Digital distribution is changing. Obviously the Disney acquisition of Fox is a response to this conglomerate of media companies. You have Apple that's worth a trillion dollars, Amazon that's worth a trillion dollars. Throwing your hat into the content arena means you have to scale up to compete.
And Netflix is also a driver of disruption. I think there's a confluence of events that led to this. I don't know how long for this Earth the two-hour narrative is. It's become a predictive narrative. It's predictive in the structure. It's easy for a 10-year-old five minutes into a movie to know how that movie's going to end now that we consume so much content. The most disruptive thing Netflix is doing is dropping 10 hours of content in one day. That's a whole different structure for narrative. In 10 hours you can do a lot of different things for narrative that you can't do in two hours. That's probably as significant a driver as anything. The new generation that's growing up on technology is going to create more complex, and ultimately immersive, narratives.Clark: And people are watching those 10 hours in one sitting like they would a movie. There's this stigma toward calling TV a movie or vice versa. But it seems like the lines are increasingly blurring. What do you guys think of that?
Anthony: Things will continue to evolve. If you go back long enough, you never saw actors cross between film and television. So the barriers between the two have been on a constant breakdown for the last 20 years and it will just continue in that direction.
Clark: This is where I get into Marvel and "Avengers" now. In terms of "Infinity War," it begins on a grim note and ends on a grim note. Was that always the plan and did you fear a backlash to that?
Anthony: We knew it was risky but we've tried to make risky choices with all of our Marvel films. Part of the virtue with the fact that the brand is so popular and is doing so well is that you can push the audience because you have the audience. It allows us as storytellers to push them a little harder than you could with a normal film that didn't have that kind of framing. We basically want to bring audiences what we want to see in a theater. We want a story that will give us the whole range of human experiences: will make us laugh, make us cry, make us think, and excite us, thrill us, scare us, and ultimately surprise us. And also give us something that we can live with after we've seen the movie and chew on for a while.
Joe: The thing that's nice about the Marvel universe is that it's long-form storytelling. It's not predictive. You can challenge the audience. It's impossible to tell the stories we have been telling for the last few movies without the movies that predicated ours. The audience has that emotional investment so we can make radical choices in a market now driven by social-media conversations. A movie to a large extent has to drive that conversation or it's not going to be a successful film. Making disruptive choices with the narrative is a way we're driving that conversation.
Clark: Did you see Black Panther being as huge as he was in his own film when you introduced him in "Captain America: Civil War"? Do you think it would have been as huge as it is without that introduction?
Joe: Well, I think Ryan Coogler really brought an incredible amount of passion and emotion and care to the character and the narrative and people always respond to that. He's largely responsible, not solely responsible. We were fortunate enough to introduce him [Black Panther], but he was one of 20 characters we were doing with that movie. Marvel also does a good job of maintaining quality around the content. But you can never predict. That was a film that was a commercial movie that was also a cultural moment.
Clark: What do you think of the "popular Oscar" idea and superhero movies breaking through at the Oscars in general?
Anthony: It feels like Oscars do need a change in perspective. It seems there is a bit of a disconnect between movies that audiences are responding to globally and what the typical Academy presentation is of those films. I think that's largely based on the membership of the Academy and the fact that it's this sort of older group of people. So, yeah, it doesn't necessarily need to be the popular Oscar but something like the popular Oscar can certainly shake things up and help evolve the thinking and the approach the Academy has when celebrating film.
Joe: We have to be careful that we don't lose touch with audiences. That's the reason we make movies. And if it feels elitist in a way and disconnected, I think it can create a divide between audience perception of content, and the industry perception of content.
Anthony: Part of what's special about Hollywood is that it brings movies to the world. The American film business has been the world's primary film maker for decades and decades now. In order to continue to thrive in that capacity, you have to be tuned in to audiences worldwide. The vast majority of growth in audiences is overseas, and that will continue for the next couple decades. It's something that we as filmmakers want to stay tuned in to. Ideas like the popular Oscar can help the Academy be aware of that, as well.
Joe: I think it [the popular Oscar] represents them trying to find an answer, which is what's valuable. However they reach that is going to be important. I do think the disconnect has to be addressed.
Joe: Diversity. Diversity in casting and storytelling. And I think you're seeing that reflected. I think Marvel is making strides in that category. You just have to reflect the taste of the audience and the makeup of the audience. Everyone deserves a right to be represented.
Anthony: I'll give you an example. One of the first movies that AGBO produced, a movie we're very proud of, is a movie called "Mosul," which was directed and written by Matthew Carnahan. It's based on an amazing New Yorker article called "The Avengers of Mosul," where a journalist embedded himself in an Iraqi SWAT team. To be a member of this SWAT team, you had to have a family member killed by ISIS, so it was a very driven and focused group of people. We financed that movie, we shot that movie entirely in Arabic, entirely in local language. We cast it with almost all Iraqi actors, and when we couldn't use Iraqis, we cast other Middle-Eastern actors. When that movie finally comes to audiences, nobody will have ever seen a movie with that kind of production value in war-time Middle East in the local language where the locals aren't the bad guys. It's a revolutionary step in how Hollywood can make movies and something we're very proud of and eager to get to audiences.
Joe: It's an important narrative to tell, and it's important to counteract the narrative of stereotypical representation. The more we can keep globalizing stories and getting different points of view - that's what we want to do with the Amazon show.
Clark: When is this movie coming out?
Anthony: We're in the process of finishing it and finding distribution for it. I'd imagine sometime in the next year, but we don't know exactly how yet.
Clark: Is it intimidating to make a movie ["Avengers 4"] that is so big that people would probably go see it even if a trailer didn't drop?
Anthony: When Joe and I got hired to direct "Winter Soldier," that movie was many multiples larger than anything we'd ever done before as filmmakers. But the way we work as filmmakers is we have to satisfy ourselves first and foremost. If we're making a movie that excites us, that's the best we can do. We can't predict if people are going to like it, we just know whether we like it. That's how we've made every one of our Marvel movies and it's how we're making this one. For all of the anticipation and anxiety about it, nothing serves Joe and I better than staying focused on the story we're trying to tell and telling it the best way we can.
Joe: I did. My uncle handed me a box of comics when I was 10 years old, probably 100-200 comics in there. I think I read through them in a week. I liked Marvel characters because I found them flawed and interesting and human. I tended to gravitate toward them more than I did DC characters.
Clark: Was Stan Lee a big part of that?
Joe: I think Stan Lee was a huge part of that, without question. There are lot of great voices at Marvel, and Stan's was critical to the success of the company.
Clark: Which comic book or superhero do you think is the hardest to bring to the screen?
Anthony: The more powerful a character is, the more difficult to deal with that character on a narrative level. As storytellers, and the way we explore characters, we always look for vulnerabilities in characters because that's where characters become interesting. They're superficially interesting in their strength, but they get much more depth when you find where they don't have that kind of strength. In general, the more powerful a character is, the more tricky that is.Clark: Like Superman.
Anthony: Yeah, exactly.
Joe: He's a very difficult character. You have to find an emotional flaw or weakness in the character in order to make them vulnerable.
Anthony: That's why Vision fell in love.
Clark: Is there a character you'd like to see in the MCU?
Anthony: Nobody's done the Great Lakes Avengers yet. They're still out there. [laughs]
Clark: Disney is developing Marvel shows for its upcoming streaming service [called Disney+]. Have you been approached about that and would you return to that universe if asked to take on one of these TV shows?
Joe: We love Marvel, we've had an incredible experience with them. It's why we've made four movies in six years with them. They're like family to us. I think they do a great job of separating "church and state," where we're focused on the projects we're focused on, and someone else will focus on those other projects. We'd work with them in any capacity moving forward, and we value as much as anything in our work life the quality of the people we're around and quality of the life that we have when we're working with those people, and that's A++ when you're working with Marvel.
Watch the "Avengers: Endgame" trailer below: