When Marvel’s menacing purple supervillain Thanos started attacking New York City in “Avengers: Infinity War,” Joe and Anthony Russo were huddled safely in Atlanta.
That’s where the directors, who previously wowed audiences with two Captain America sequels, “Winter Soldier” and “Civil War,” spent the past year and a half making a movie that assembles more than 20 of Marvel’s biggest superheroes on the big screen for the first time.
It’s a movie that’s been in the works for the past 10 years ever since Marvel Studios first introduced Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man in 2008. Altogether, Marvel’s 18 films have earned nearly $15 billion for the Disney-owned company.
No pressure, right?
“We’ve loved the (Marvel Cinematic Universe) since the very first ‘Iron Man’ movie,” Anthony Russo told Marriott TRAVELER, “so we know there’s a lot of great high expectations and we take that very seriously. At the end of the day we are so passionate about the material and what we’re doing.”
Listen to the full exclusive Checking In interview with Joe and Anthony Russo below.
Despite a super-sized number of actors on set — including Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Holland, Tom Hiddleston, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista and Josh Brolin— managing all of their potentially clashing egos was never an issue.
“Everybody involved with this movie knows what a unique opportunity it is,” says Anthony Russo. “They know a movie like this has never been made before and they know part of its creative appeal is that we’re dealing with a larger number of loved characters than have ever been assembled on film. All the actors brought their best collaborative energy to the table.”
Everybody involved with this movie knows what a unique opportunity it is. They know a movie like this has never been made before.
While visual effects crew lensed necessary shots in New York City and elsewhere to create lavish set pieces for the film, the Russos were controlling the chaos on soundstages in Atlanta.
Marvel Studios has made Atlanta home base for many of its recent productions, including the blockbuster “Black Panther,” due to some creative financial dealmaking required to pull off such a major and expensive filmmaking feat like “Infinity War.”
The Russo brothers spent the past year and a half filming at Pinewood Atlanta Studios — a bit of a misnomer, according to the directors, given that it’s 45 minutes outside of downtown Atlanta, in Peachtree City.
“I always joke with them, I think they should change the name to Pinewood 45 Minutes Outside of Atlanta Studios,” says Anthony Russo. “It’s a bit away from town so everyone has to make the big decision whether you stay in Central Atlanta, which is a lot of fun, or if you stay outside the studio which is very convenient.”
Given its attractive tax breaks for film and TV productions, Georgia has essentially become the Hollywood of the South. Among the bigger projects, “The Walking Dead” films there, as did three of the four “Hunger Games” movies,” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”
Marvel’s also made Pinewood home for “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2,” “Ant-Man,” and the upcoming “Ant-Man and the Wasp.”
While the distance to downtown Atlanta made it difficult for the Russos to explore much of the city during what little downtime they had, they were able to get into the city.
Eagle-eyed Atlantans will be able to spot the buildings and streets used for New York City in “Infinity War.”
“We largely used Atlanta locations to represent places other than Atlanta,” says Anthony Russo. “These movies that we’ve made are so stage dependent because so many of the environments that we’re shooting are fantastical and don’t exist in real life so we end up shooting a large amount on the stages in Atlanta.”
But the Russos spent as much time as they could checking out Atlanta’s growing food scene. Both turn out to be foodies, and are quick to rattle off their list of favorite restaurants.
There’s The Optomist, for seafood; Dish Dive; Marcel, which Joe considers his favorite steak restaurant in the country at the moment; and Amazza; and Antico, which Anthony Russo considers “the standard” for pizza outside of Naples, Italy.
“That’s how we define a city, through its food and bar scene,” says Joe Russo. “Some of my favorite food in the country is in Atlanta.”
The reality, though, is “filmmaking is based upon how much work you can cram into as little time as possible,” says Anthony Russo. “That’s the way the economics work so we don’t have a ton of downtime.”
Still, Anthony Russo is a “huge fan” of Atlanta’s beltline for walking and biking through “a lot of Atlanta’s most fun and interesting neighborhoods.” He bikes to clear his head during production. “I really enjoy that about Atlanta.”
You want to give the audience a very immersive experience and you're setting the tone and you're telling the story through the environment.
After a wildly successful debut in “Black Panther,” the fictional African country of Wakanda also makes a return in “Infinity War.”
“We certainly leaned on a lot of their design work, but it’s a different movie so we had to make certain changes to make sure the tone was appropriate for the story that we’re telling,” Anthony Russo says. That meant subtle changes in color and texture, but “they had a lot of their artwork worked out just before us.”
Wakanda is seen in a different way in the film since a major attack takes place in Black Panther’s homeland.
Despite all the big screen action in a far away land, “it may be surprising for people to know (that) our primary shooting location for Wakanda was in Atlanta and outside Atlanta,” Anthony Russo says.
Creating a sense of place for the movies the Russos make is “critical,” Anthony Russo says.
“You want to give the audience a very immersive experience and you’re setting the tone and you’re telling the story through the environment often times that the characters are living with so whether you’re designing that location from scratch or whether you’re leaning on an actual location, its relationship with the storytelling and the expression of the film is critical,” he says.
Travel has certainly given the Russos the ability to bring their films to life.
In fact, travel inspired the look of Marvel’s newest blockbuster with Joe Russo wanting to film parts of “Infinity War” in Edinburgh, after exploring the city with his daughter, who is going to college there.
Scotland offered the directors “some other exotic locations for us that we could use in other parts of the film,” according to Joe Russo, but Edinburgh proved a big draw because “it’s a stunning city that’s rarely been shot on film.”
“We knew a lot about the city, so when we were working on (a sequence) in the writer’s room, we were tailoring it to my memories of the city,” he adds. “Interacting with the city of the scale of Edinburgh, you can’t get that kind of production value. I mean, this is a beautiful, historical city and it brought an energy to the sequence that was important, a war-ish look and feel.”
Importance of Travel
There’s something fun about going to a place where the environment is not familiar to you in any way. Like, the languages being spoken, the signage, the buildings — everything is foreign. It puts your brain into a new state of heightened awareness and all of a sudden details take on more meaning.
Anthony Russo credits the impact of travel on many of the projects he produces with his brother.
“I’m sort of very environment orientated,” says Anthony Russo. “I’m very affected by the environment that I’m in and so I feel when I get to change my environment, it really changes the way my brain is working, the way my thoughts are flowing. I find traveling a very creative experience. There’s something fun about going to a place where the environment is not familiar to you in any way. Like, the languages being spoken, the signage, the buildings — everything is foreign. It puts your brain into a new state of heightened awareness and all of a sudden details take on more meaning. It really helps bring my brain up on a creative level.”
Marriott TRAVELER caught up with the Russos just as they wrapped a grueling two-week press tour, premiering “Infinity War” all around the world. The biggest took place in three theaters, including Disney’s iconic El Capitan Theater and the Dolby Theater, the home of the Oscars, on Hollywood Boulevard.
“That very first moment where you show it to an audience is a very special experience,” says Anthony Russo.
The Russos are quick to praise Marvel’s fanbase around the world.
“All the audiences are all so fantastic and amazing,” says Joe Russo. “I’ve had really great experiences in Singapore with a film. We just had an amazing event in Shanghai. London has always been an incredible host to us. Mexico City is incredible. Seoul is incredible. Audiences are less jaded (outside of the U.S.). These movies are so global and the impact is so global that it really is unique as a filmmaker to be able to go into markets all over the world and it’s intense.”
But there’s always one place they make sure to return to: home.
“We shot a good portion of our first Marvel movie in Cleveland, which is where we’re from,” Anthony Russo says. “We did our final premiere there and ever since we bring every Marvel movie. We always finish our premiere circuit in Cleveland. That’s really satisfying for us on a personal level.”
While the response to “Infinity War” so far has been overwhelmingly gushy, Joe Russo did have a favorite reaction from the Los Angeles premiere — a big thumbs up from Jim Starlin, the creator of Thanos, himself.
Starlin has had issues with Marvel Comics over the years, but has praised Marvel Studios’ take on the big purple villain, played by Brolin.
“His reaction after seeing the film was really great,” says Joe Russo. “And very rewarding.”
“I first read his books many years ago, and to have an opportunity to bring that character to life, which was a very important character to me as a kid, and then to have him enter the audience, that was pretty special for us,” he adds.
An Evolving Career
The success of the previous two Captain America movies, and the runaway blockbuster “Infinity War” is expected to become worldwide, is major departure from the kinds of projects the Russos are known for making — namely TV comedies like “Arrested Development” and “Community.”
“I mean, look, we certainly didn’t expect to be in comedy when we started 20 years ago,” says Joe Russo. “Our first film was a noir film, a crime thriller and you know, comedy is certainly an aspect of filmmaking that we enjoy but I think we were more interested in doing more dramatic work, drama work and having fallen in love with comicbooks as a kid, the opportunity arose to do ‘Captain America: Winter Soldier.'”
These movies are so global and the impact is so global that it really is unique as a filmmaker to be able to go into markets all over the world and it's intense.
“Winter Soldier” showed off an edgier, more gritty side to the Russo’s filmography.
“The tone of the books that I loved when I was younger were darker, more deconstructionist, they were edgier and real and that’s the tone that we tried to bring to ‘Winter Soldier,'” Joe Russo adds. “It’s how we like to see these movies executed.”
Flexing their creative muscles meant embracing “diverse tastes and influences.” And taking notes from their mentors.
“We were tutored by our mentor Steven Soderbergh to seek out new challenges always and find these stories to tell and try to do something very different than you did the last time as a way to keep stretching and growing as an artist,” says Joe Russo.
A Much-Needed Vacation
The Russos are hardly done with the Avengers. They’re directing the next untitled installment, in theaters in 2019, following the introduction of Marvel’s “Captain Marvel.”
But before they get back to the set and editing room, there’s a much-needed vacation being planned. They won’t be traveling together.
“Sometimes we travel together,” Anthony Russo says. “We come from a big, close family but yeah, certainly we also need our downtime. Joe and I, we spend more time with one another than we spend with our wives or our children so …”
Joe Russo will be making his first trip to Japan.
“My kids are really interested in spending time in Japan so, we’re going to plan a trip and see as much of the country as we can,” he says.
And Anthony Russo’s headed to Ireland.
“My wife has Irish heritage and she has never been to Ireland so we’re finally going to take our big family trip to Ireland,” he says.