These days, the universe revolves around the Russo brothers.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe, that is.
By the end of 2019, Joe and Anthony Russo, brothers and self-described comic book fanboys, will have directed four Marvel movies: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War and a second, still-untitled Avengers movie slated for 2019.
"Our day job is spoken for in the foreseeable future," Anthony says on a muggy July day at Pinewood Studios, just outside of Atlanta.
If you have an aversion to blockbuster movies or major pop cultural events — Marvel movies grossed more than $12 billion worldwide between 2008 and summer 2017 — you might have caught the pair's work on the small screen with shows like Arrested Development and Community.
Now the Russo brothers are about to release what fans expect to be a culminating event that will change the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it and make way for — what else — more Marvel movies. Infinity War will tie together elements from the entire MCU, including Thor: Ragnorak, and Black Panther -- a blockbuster so huge it prompted Marvel to move up the new movie from its original May 4 release date to April 27.
I went to Pinewood Atlanta Studios to talk to Joe and Anthony about what it's like to helm a full-fledged Avengers movie, explore virtual reality storytelling and get inspiration from '90s heist films. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
As filmmakers, what technology interests you?
Joe: We're really obsessed with virtual reality right now. I think part of the reason why TV is in such a golden age is that, collectively, we've perfected storytelling in a half-hour format. Moving forward, storytelling and narrative needs to expand and it needs to be pulled in different ways. I've had emotional experiences in VR that I haven't been able to have in two-dimensional experiences.
I think that's really the future of storytelling. I've got kids. I see the way they consume media now is very different from the way I did. What excites them is very different from what excited me. The more immersive the experience, the more hooked they are, and that's what they're looking for. So we're really digging into VR and trying to figure out how you tell stories in that format, what those kinds of stories can be and what the future of the technology looks like.
What's the biggest difference between directing a Captain America movie and a full-blown Avengers movie?
Anthony: On one level, it's the scope of the ensemble. While the Captain America movies we did were ensemble films, and Civil War had a lot of characters in it, they both fail in comparison to these two. Joe and I have always been drawn to ensemble storytelling. We like the idea of telling stories from multiple characters' points of view and thinking about the story from multiple characters' points of view. It's a way to develop very layered, thick storytelling. It's the kind of storytelling that, hopefully, you can keep revisiting because there are a lot of dimensions to discover on multiple viewings.
Joe: You have all these characters coming from successful franchises where they have their own history, their own emotional history, and you put them all together in one film and with all the different tones and different styles. It's fascinating. We're like mad scientists in the writers' room, with [screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely], figuring out how to marry all those tones and all those characters together. It's a hell of an exercise.
After working nearly a decade in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, how do you create a fight scene that feels fresh and compelling?
Joe: [You] use your imagination to put yourself inside the characters and allow the scene to go forward in a way that seems very surprising to you. A lot of times we'll use locations to help us motivate ideas. We're constantly striving to bring something new and different to the table, either in the way that we're using the cameras, or the storytelling we're using in the scene, or the way that the characters are being motivated by the action.
Anthony: That's really the best way to arrive at something original in an action sequence. You have to drive very hard at the character, figure out what's going on with the character, where and how the character is vulnerable and then start to build a scenario around that.
You've talked before about your love of subverting genre. Can we expect that in Infinity War?
Anthony: With Infinity War, the biggest new element to the movie is Thanos and the fact that he's entering the storytelling in a very bold, strong way, to the degree that he's almost one of the leads. We've shaped an interesting narrative around him that in some ways leans heavily on a heist film in the fact that he's going after the infinity stones in a much bolder, successful way than he has in the past. The entire movie has that energy of the bad guy being one step ahead of the heroes. We looked at a lot of movies that had that heist-style energy to them, [and] that brought some inspiration.
Will there be any unexpected characters, and can you give us a hint?
Joe: There's going to be a lot of unexpected characters. There are more surprises packed into this film than any of the others. Part of that is character interactions, new interesting characters, characters that have made small appearances that are really getting fleshed out in this film. A lot of people enjoy the experience, so I don't want to give anything away, but certainly you can expect lots of surprises.
Your movies often show tech that hasn't been invented yet. Who's creating/imagining that tech?
Joe: We have an amazing effects team led by Dan DeLeeuw, who's done the last three movies with us — Winter Soldier, Civil War, Infinity War — and also the next Avengers one. He is dialed into everything that's going on around the world in terms of cutting-edge tech, cutting-edge visual effects. On the camera side, we're always looking for the most advanced equipment we can use to tell our story in a way that's satisfying to audiences and satisfying to us creatively.
Anthony: We also look into the comics themselves for ideas. We may end up doing a different iteration, but a lot of the ideas are sourced from the comics.
You say you're obsessed with VR. Is there a VR project in the near future?
Anthony: It's something we're certainly looking into and thinking about. Our day job is spoken for in the foreseeable future. But like Joe mentioned, we've always been motivated by technology in our processes as filmmakers. [We were] very early adopters of digital video — Arrested Development was the first prime-time network show shot in digital video.
We're always looking for ways to use technologies to open up new creative expressions for us artistically. So we're constantly thinking about where something like VR may lead us in storytelling, or what kind of tool that gives us as storytellers.
Joe: I'm obsessed with VR, but AR [augmented reality] is really interesting. Anything that ends with R has got our attention.
So, big question: iPhone or Android?
Joe and Anthony: [cross talk] iPhone.
This story appeared in the winter 2017 edition of CNET Magazine. Click here for more magazine stories.
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