Interview with Joe and Anthony Russo, “Avengers: Infinity War” Directors
Everyone knew that “Avengers: Infinity War” was going to be big. But were our expectations impossibly high? Even the extraordinarily talented brothers and co-directors Anthony and Joseph Russo, who made two of the most critically acclaimed of the 18 Marvel superheroes in the past decade, had to feel daunted by the challenge of taking on so many characters and such a complicated story. In an interview, they talked about choosing which characters would be most interesting together, who the supervillain Thanos is, which special effect they particularly enjoyed, and which superpowers they most wish they had.
People love the movie but are very shook up by some of the developments. Do you feel like the two most hated people in the whole world right now?
JR: It’s interesting that people are having this kind of emotional response. But this is a really unique experiment in filmmaking in the Marvel Universe. Ten years of storytelling spread out over very diverse franchises, diverse tonally, diverse from a story standpoint, with unique and different characters. This film represents the ending of that story and “Avengers 4” as well. So the audience is invested in the incredible amount of emotion and time and energy and passion in these characters. And the response we’re seeing to the movie is that it’s a representation of that emotion and passion that they feel for this unique experiment in cinema.
As I have told you before, I am a huge fan especially of your work on “Captain America: Winter Soldier” and “Civil War,” which integrated with the rest of the MCU but had a very distinctive tone inspired in part by the 1970’s cinema of paranoia films. The two most recent Marvel superhero movies were also great, “Black Panther” and “Thor: Ragnarok,” but they had very different tones from very different directors. How do you take those characters and more and make them seem as though they’re in the same movie while maintaining their distinctive personas, worlds, and storylines?
JR: We look at that as one of the great creative upsides of trying something like this. We’ve always thought of ourselves, specifically our creative processes, as sort of akin to being mad scientists. We like to take disparate elements and smash them together and see what that gives us on a tonal level. We’ve done that in a lot of our work, and this movie is the perfect setup for that process.
Like you said, we have all these different tones and styles to draw on. But primarily we look at it as our responsibility to give people our version of these characters. That’s what we love about these characters — they can morph from movie to movie. Our version of Captain America was very different than Joss Whedon’s version. Taika Waititi’s version of Thor has been very different than the previous versions.
I think audiences like that. They like the fact that each individual movie is a conceptual and tonal and narrative presentation that while it is tethered on a story level to what’s come before; its own expression on a tonal level and a style level is unique. And so we try to be very specific to what the needs of our story were in this movie and how we want it balanced, because we’re big fans of balanced storytelling. We like movies that make you laugh, make you cry, make you think, etc.
This movie was challenging to balance because it is so dark in many respects, and intense. So we use that variety of tones that all these characters bring us to give what we think is like a very complete fulfilling cinema experience, the kind of experience that we aspire to see.
In the past, the series has addressed some classic fanboy questions about power like whether Thor’s hammer is stronger than Captain America’s shield. I thought it was interesting that in this film it was more about the way the personalities work together. And it was particularly choice to put the two strongest egos up against each other, Doctor Strange and Tony Stark. So tell me how you looked at all the characters lined in front of you and thought about who would set off the most sparks against who?
AR: Tony Stark and Stephen Strange — one thing that drew us to it is exactly what you’re saying, their egos, and their narcissism. We knew that it would be hard for those two characters to exist within the same space. But I think also what we loved about that was the contrast between the two with Tony being such a man of science and Strange being a man of magic and the incongruity of those two things, their approaches and their respective powers. So that was particularly fun for us.
We spent a long time with the writers, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely exploring every possible combination before we started to lock into a story. But that was so elemental in terms of what the fun and thrill and creative upside of this film would be for us. So the Star Lord/Thor combination with the Guardians was certainly one of our most exciting ones. I have to say the Gamora/Thanos combination was one thing that we were particularly interested in. We always love it when there’s a relationship between a villain and a hero that has a personal dimension to it. That was really what excited us most about “Winter Soldier” right from when we started with Marvel. And so to be able to play with that father/daughter relationship and that villain/hero relationship in a way that had so many personal layers and so much personal complexity to it; that’s something for us as storytellers that’s very exciting creatively.
I loved the interplay between Thor, Groot, and Rocket.
JR: Thor is in a very vulnerable and emotional place of himself. He’s hiding it under a veneer disconcern. He’s trying to act like you know the his mission is to to stop Thanos, which it is, but he’s devastated with all the loss that he suffered in this film and in Ragnarok. Rocket is the most caustic and seemingly unemotional character and Groot, too, is in a very caustic and emotional phase as a teenager. Putting them together, was interesting and it is the most emotional that we have seen Rocket, the most sensitive that you’ve ever seen Rocket portrayed in that scene on the pod. That is because it’s hard not to empathize with Thor because of the level of loss that he has endured. It’s played for somewhat absurdist humor at first. But then slowly it seeps into Rocket’s heart and he makes a gesture by handing Thor that eye.
But we also do get a lot of humor out of that crew.
AR: I think that that grouping is interesting in that you know if you go back to our very early work with like “Welcome to Collinwood” or “Arrested Development,” Joe and I have a strong penchant for for absurdity and absurdist comedy. There’s a strong spirit of absurdism moving through that story line.
Well tell me a little bit about the monumental challenge of keeping so many different not just characters but different locations going at the same time? How do you even begin to remind everybody who is where and what is happening?
JR: Great question. It takes a lot of work and a lot of story discipline. We spent a long time in the writers room with Markus and McFeely going through various iterations of the structure of the script to try and unlock one that tracks the best. Once we committed to the script we then in editorial did the same thing over again. Because rarely does the script offer the same sort of information that a cut film will. Once you cut the film together you can sit there and assess transitions and assess which characters have been missing for too long. And so we really played with that for about five or six months with different iterations of structure until I think we lighted the one that we felt tracked the cleanest and the best. So it really just requires an intensive amount of work.
We’ve been building up to the confrontation with Thanos for a very long time. What makes him the villain you wanted to have as the ultimate threat?
AR: Right from the very beginning Thanos started to loom large in our mind because we knew the goal for this film and the following Avengers film was to provide a climax and a culmination for the entire road that we’ve been travelling for ten years. And a narrative that would somehow inolve the MCU at least to some degree in its entirety. Thanos was in a very unique position for us to find a central figure that could actually bring every corner of the MCU together in a single narrative in his quest for the stones and the fact that the stones have been so well placed throughout the various films. All of a sudden he just started to become this sort of sense central concept here.
And the other thing in thinking about Thanos was that like he had been so lightly teased up to this point in the MCU; we knew very little about him on-screen. We understood that very little about him. So for us and for Markus and McFeely, it was an opportunity to go into a very deep dive into the question of who was this guy and how is he going to end up crashing into these other characters and ideas that we’ve been playing with in this world. And as we started to sink deeper into that and realize that he was sort of like the central figure in a way, we began to fill him out as if he was a lead character and build a narrative around him in a way that you typically build a narrative around a lead character.
That was one of the most exciting parts of the creative process for us, the fact that we got to think about a villain in those terms, to put a villain in that position in the narrative. And I think ultimately that’s really what a lot of people are responding to in this film. It is a very fresh perspective to approach a movie like this from. A lot of the surprises and a lot of the shock of the experience comes from the fact that the movie was designed that way.
We couldn’t have asked for a better actor of course than Josh Brolin to play that role. I can’t think of any other actor that can embody the physical presence that that character has or the level of violence that character has within him, at the same time giving him a soul and a depth and a complexity, and an emotional landscape that you can actually read and relate to on screen. It was quite remarkable and we have to give a big thanks to our visual effects team for being able to innovate and use new technologies to translate Brolin’s performance onto a CG character in a way that I don’t think anyone’s ever seen before on screen.
I won’t ask who your favorite Avenger is, but can you tell me which of the Avenger powers you would most like to have?
JR: I always say and it’s easy because it was my favorite character growing up and I collected most of his books was Spiderman. So I think it was because I always secretly desired to go in to climb walls and swing on webs.
The special effect in the scene with the hair on his arms was absolutely fantastic.
JR: Yeah, it’s a favorite of ours, just the opportunity to physically represent the Spidey sense.
AR: It’s pretty much informed by our experience and having to make two of the largest movies ever made back-to-back; I would love to have the Time infinity stone. We could use that.