Anthony Russo is one half of the directing team behind the top-grossing film in the history of motion pictures: “Avengers: Endgame.”
He and his brother Joe took the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the next level with the tragic and poignant “Endgame,” which featured farewells to Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Chris Evans’ Captain America.
The brothers and Cleveland natives started as independent filmmakers. They rose from the super low-budget “Pieces” in 1997, to directing TV comedies like “Arrested Development” and “Community,” before landing in the rarefied Marvel air of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (shot partly in Northeast Ohio in 2013), “Captain America: Civil War,” and “Avengers: Infinity War.”
Anthony was in Cleveland last week as part of a promotional tour for the DVD/Blu-ray release of “Avengers: Endgame.” I had a chance to sit down and talk with him at Market Garden Brewery, which had created a special “The Brothers Russo Marvel-ous Lager” in honor of his visit. His proud parents, Basil and Pat, and sister Gabriella, were also on hand.
Despite his enormous success, Anthony remains down to earth and humble, and a genuine fan of films and filmmaking. Here are excerpts from that interview.
Q: “Avengers: Endgame” is a beautiful film. Unlike some other Marvel movies, it was not all run-run-go-go, feed-the-sequel. You really allowed the characters to breathe. How did you approach that as a director?
A: It was something that occurred to us while we were writing it with [Chris] Marcus and [Stephen] McFeely. We got to this point where we thought, wow, there’s not a lot of action in this movie. Then we realized why. It was because what happened at the end of "Infinity War" was so devastating and so profound that we had to let that breathe. There is no way to move a character forward from that without going very slowly. So we really wanted to see how that experience affected all of these people on an individual level.
Q: There is an amazing amount of cross-pollination of multiple characters and story lines in the Marvel movies. How did you juggle all of that for “Endgame”?
A: It’s really a very slow, disciplined, organized process. We basically have a room that we spend months and months in with Markus and McFeely. And we have charts on the wall, we have diagrams, we have lists of things, we have pictures. We spent a lot of time tracking each individual character, where they are, where we want to see them go. Then we start figuring out how to weave them together. I love it, but it’s also grueling.
Q: In the past 20 years, you’ve progressed from the low-budget “Pieces” to the most successful film ever. How do you deal with that emotionally, psychologically?
A: On one level it’s hard to even process, to be honest with you. But at the end of the day, I look at it like this: My brother and I became filmmakers because we had such a passion for film. Our whole career we’ve just been trying to find ways to tell stories that we are passionate about. Sometimes it was on a very small level that nobody saw.
Q: What can fans look for on the new “Endgame” DVD?
A: Everyone loves the Easter eggs, and I think everyone has a better chance of cracking the Easter eggs in the DVD because you can stop and start it. And also really special is the fact that Stan Lee survived long enough to have a cameo in “Endgame,” so we have a special tribute to Stan. There’s also some really wonderful behind-the-scenes stuff, which is even more resonant because “Endgame” is an ending for a lot of the actors.
Q: You and Joe have mentioned wanting to make a crime drama set in Cleveland in the 1970s. Is that in the works?
A: It is still on our agenda. We don’t have it scheduled yet, but we will get to it some day. “Cherry” is a better fit right now. It was the right time for us to do something small, quirky, weird and specific to our roots here in Cleveland.
Side note: “Cherry,” based on Nico Walker’s novel, is the story of a young Army vet who returns home suffering from PTSD, develops an opioid addiction and starts robbing banks. It will star Tom Holland (aka Spider-Man) and start shooting in October. Originally, the Cleveland-set movie was going to be filmed in Northeast Ohio. That has been canceled. Anthony said that when the financing for the film was first coming together, the motion picture tax credit was not part of the Ohio state budget. The credit, offering financial incentives to film and TV productions, was eventually reinstated and approved, but Anthony said it happened too late for the brothers, who needed to pull the trigger sooner for pre-production planning.
Q: Where will “Cherry” be shot now?
A: We applied in Toronto and Los Angeles for the [tax credit] incentive, and we’re going to shoot it in Los Angeles. It’s kind of shocking to me that we’re going to shoot this Cleveland story in Los Angeles. But I feel OK with it because [Martin] Scorsese is one of our favorite filmmakers, and his early movie, “Mean Streets,” which is such an amazing, beautiful movie, and a movie that was so New York, right? But it was shot in Los Angeles. If they can shoot “Mean Streets” in L.A., we can shoot “Cherry” in L.A.
Q: In addition to directing, you have several producing projects coming up. What’s next on your schedule?
A: For years we worked really effectively as producers in television. Producing is something we love. And now we're in a position to fit in producing efforts through our AGBO company, and help movies get made. The first one is coming out this fall, “21 Bridges” starring Chadwick Boseman [aka Black Panther]. We have always loved Sidney Lumet’s movies and all the classic New York City police corruption films. This is a modern day New York City police corruption movie. It’s a great potboiler, but also very relevant on a social-issue level.
Clint O’Connor covers pop culture. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ClintOMovies.