India is the fastest-growing market in the world for Marvel, says Joe Russo
In the late ’90s, brothers Anthony and Joe Russo financed their first film — an experimental comedy titled Pieces — using credit cards and student loans. More than two decades later, the brothers are at the helm of perhaps one of the biggest Hollywood releases of 2019 — Avengers: Endgame. One half of the wildly successful director duo, Joe, has started his promotional tour for the film in Mumbai. t2 chatted with the 47-year-old filmmaker at the Taj Lands End in Bandra about everything, from his favourite Avenger to not sharing the entire script with the cast and how a clip from India kept their morale up while filming Avengers: Endgame.
You’ve directed four MCU films in the space of five-six years. Did you ever have a moment where you went: “I don’t want to hear about another superhero for the rest of my life?”
(Laughs) We’ve never reached that point, otherwise we would not have kept making these movies. I feel like we’ve been doing this long enough and we’ve been fortunate to have a really great career; we were incredibly successful in television for a decade before we made these movies. And I feel like we’ve learnt that unless you’re getting out of bed excited every day to tell the story that you’re about to tell, you can’t do it, and you certainly can’t do movies on this scale. They’re just too hard and they take a lot of your life, energy and time away from your family.
You have to feel like you’re saying something that has value and something that’s meaningful and emotionally important to you; and we felt that. We also try very hard that these movies have a global feel, making it relevant to audiences, and I don’t know whether we’re going to have a moment like this again in movie history, where you have the Marvel Cinematic Universe come to a crescendo at the end of its first phase. Who knows, it may get bigger from here or it may not… I have no idea. What I do know is that both Infinity War and Endgame have an incredible amount of pop culture attention around the globe and the opportunity to infuse that with relevant thematics is too important for us to pass up.
In terms of thematics, can you give us a sense of what Endgame will reflect?
I think that both Infinity War and Endgame ask the question: “What is the cost to be a hero and is it worth the price of standing up?” I think that’s certainly a question that’s relevant today and if you look at these films, they’re about community. They’re a community of heroes that try to stand against tyranny and I think you’d certainly look at that as waves of nationalism sweep the world. Is it about individualism or is it about community? And when you watch the films, you get our answer.
The previous Avengers titles, like Age of Ultron and Infinity Wars, were named after major comic book series, but that’s not the case with Endgame....
We do take ideas from the comics, which we then use to build out a movie or a series of movies. But that’s not always the case. With Endgame, we just felt there was a poetic importance to it because Tony (Stark) said it in (Age of) Ultron, (Dr.) Strange said it in Infinity War and this is the end. It’s the final chapter of the first 22 movies (in the Marvel Cinematic Universe). So everything about it seemed poetically relevant and that’s how we came up with the name.
When you and Anthony work together on projects, what are your strengths and what do each one of you bring to the table individually?
We’re yin and yang, and that’s why our relationship works really well. We don’t try to divide up duties; we try to put our minds together on everything equally. We just have different thought processes and that makes for very good testing of ideas. We can be very spirited when we argue about concepts, but I think that’s what challenges the ideas and makes them stronger ultimately.
How important has the Indian market become for Hollywood?
It’s incredibly important and it’s the fastest-growing market in the world for Marvel. It’s so important that this is the first stop of the press tour. There’s a recording of an Indian audience watching Infinity War, and the moment when Thor lands, the cheers sounded like it was a football stadium. We used to play that whenever we were getting tired on Endgame, because it took us two years to make that movie and we’d get reinspired just knowing that audiences here respond to movies that way.
If you had to pick any Bollywood star to play an Avenger, who would you pick and why?
I would pick Bollywood stars to play Indian superheroes. I think, moving forward, you’re going to see a really diverse Marvel universe. Because these movies are so global, I think it’s really important that audiences around the world be able to identify with a character on screen; I think you’re going to see that happening real soon.
If you were to be a character from the Marvel cinematic universe, which one would you choose and why?
Spider-man. He was my favourite character growing up and I just related to him when I started reading comic books when I was 10 years old. The idea of a boy who is tasked with incredible responsibility, and the Shakespearean weight of the death of his uncle who’s his father figure, all seemed very powerful to me as a child. I think the things that impact you as a child stay with you and continue to impact you through your entire life emotionally. I don’t know that I’d ever connect with another character the same way that I connected with Spider-man.
You spent a decade with television. How has the storytelling of sitcoms like Arrested Development and Community influenced the ensemble of Endgame. Are there parallels?
There are certainly parallels. Community and Arrested Development were both ensemble shows with very colourful characters, very well defined and we had 21 minutes to tell those stories; that’s a lot of character to put in very little time. Sometimes, on Community, we’d have 20 or 30 characters make an appearance in 21 minutes. So that takes a little story discipline and focus and a certain style of execution. Of course, that correlates to working on something of the scale of Infinity War or Civil War; finding moments with characters, making sure that they have motivation that validates their existence in the story.
Television, by far, is the hardest medium. For Community we would shoot for eight months straight; that’s longer than any movie you can think of. So when we had to shoot Infinity War and Endgame back-to-back for one year straight, it was really just like doing another show and your body is prepared for it, psychologically you’re prepared for it. I think that there is a reason that some of the more ubiquitous filmmakers at the moment come from television — we do, J.J. Abrams, Judd Apatow, Joss Whedon, the list goes on. And it’s because we’re trained to deal with volume and the scale of these movies, which can be really rigorous. We’re used to it from the rigours of a TV schedule.
Why do you think superheroes have suddenly become so important in the present culture? Also how important is it to have a director’s imprint on these movies?
They’ve become important because they’re archetypal, and I think that they’re hopeful. There’s a lot of conflict in the world right now and I think that there’s a lot of superheroes, which is important because everyone can identify with one of the characters. You can find the code, the ethics or the values that a character represents and you can identify with them. You can identify with the morality of Captain America or the amorality of Deadpool, it just depends on your personality type. But they’re archetypes and that’s what I think makes them so accessible to the global audiences, anyone can relate to them. It’s no different from Indian or Greek mythology, any God that you can think of — it’s just about simple human relations.
Thanos is considered by fans to be one of the greatest villains that MCU has ever produced. How did you approach the character in Infinity War and what will we see in this film?
We try to approach villains the same way in every movie. Look at Bucky in Winter Soldier, or even (Robert) Redford’s character Pierce. Zemo in Civil War has an emotional motivation — his family died. Thanos has an “altruistic” goal, which is that he wants to kill half the universe to preserve the other half. And I think that’s relevant thematically — people understand that we’re dealing with a potential global crisis and using up resources incredibly fast.
He’s a sociopath and has sociopathic self-importance about the goal. But I do think that we tried to make him emotional, and we gave him all the traditional beats of a hero in the film. They’re horrific beats, throwing his daughter to her death in order to obtain a stone to complete his goal, but people related to the monastic dedication to his cause. Ultimately, he’s nuts but there are other elements to his personality that are admirable too. It just complicates it for the audience and makes it more interesting when they’re not sure whether to hate him or root for him.
There’s a lot of secrecy involved in making these movies and it’s also known that the entire script is even held back from the actors. Does it make your job as a director difficult when the actors don’t really know the entire script?
No. We’re the ones who withhold the script from the actors and we do it for a reason. If they don’t know the whole story, then they can’t slip up in an interview. Makes it a lot easier for them to not say things if they don’t know. So on the first film, the only copy of the script existed on one single iPad and only a handful of people actually read that original draft. Every other script that existed was fake. And we did the same thing with Endgame, even more so.
We cleared the sets for important moments and there are very few people who know what actually happens. But we work with the actors in a way where they can discover their arc within the scenes that they’re part of. Thor, in Infinity War, doesn’t need to know what’s going on with Captain America; their motivations aren’t related because they’re in completely different stories until they meet in Wakanda. So we have very thoughtful conversations with the actors about what their motivations are, and what they’re doing in specific scenes. If we’re trying to hide something, we’ll elicit a performance from them using different tactics.
Any Indian actor’s work you particularly like?
I’m an action director, so I saw Dabangg years ago. I started to see Dabangg 2 and I thought the camera work was great in those films, so was the tone and energy. So I certainly know Salman Khan. Priyanka (Chopra) is transitioning into global status right now, I think she’s fantastic and I’d love to work with her. I’m smiling because we’re talking to her about something, but I’m not going to say what.
Robot almost influenced the climactic moment in Avengers Ultron (directed by Joss Whedon). Just like the scene with all the robots at the end forming a snake, there was a moment where all the Ultrons came together to form a large Ultron and the Avengers had to fight that; it was inspired directly by that sequence from Robot. We eventually had to cut it out for time but it was this close to making it into the movie.
This is your first visit to India. How’s the experience been so far?
It’s been fantastic. Press tours are always a whirlwind but it’s been amazing. I brought my whole family with me; they’ve been out every day, touring around. Unfortunately, I can’t do the same but I’m having an amazing experience here. I relate to every location I go to through food; I’m Italian. I’ve had some incredible food. I was at Arth, I was at Oberoi last night and had the most amazing 10-course meal that included a truffle souffle that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.