Interview: 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' Directors Promise A "Significant Shift" In The Marvel Universe

When Anthony and Joe Russo were mentioned as possible directors for the Captain America sequel I got excited about the prospect. Perhaps best known for working on TV shows such as Arrested Development and Community, the two also wrote and directed the movie Welcome to Collinwood. That film (a remake of Big Deal on Madonna Street) has some wonderful dialogue, and demonstrates the same ability to create a unique story environment that served them well on Community.

I got the chance to talk to the Russos during Comic Con in San Diego. We spoke a couple hours before the first Cap 2 footage was premiered in Hall H. Had I already seen the elevator fight sequence described here, for example, I might have been able to ask for more specifics. But this conversation will give you a good overview of how they approached Captain America: The Winter Soldier, without going anywhere near spoiler territory.

Technically speaking, is this a sequel to Captain America or is this a sequel to The Avengers? The title suggests one thing, but the chronology suggests another.

Joe Russo: It's a little bit of a sequel to both. I mean obviously the character has advanced. He's been frozen for seventy years. It has narrative elements that tie to the first movie and it has narrative elements that tie directly to The Avengers and also has narrative elements that tie directly to Avengers 2. I think, and Kevin [Feige] has said this, it's as big of a bridge of any of the Phase 2 movies from Avengers to Avengers 2. There's a significant shift in the universe at the end of this movie. Like all of the Marvel movies it has elements of all of the other films, this one I think has probably the strongest bond between those goals.

That suggests that you have a lot of structural Marvel Universe stuff to do while you're also crafting character-centric action.

JR: The interesting thing about that is that the script was structured so well that it's not really something that... The things that happen in the movie are really germane to the movie and germane to Cap. The big shift in the universe happens because of him. It's not something where we had to feel like we had to patchwork in all of these other narrative elements, it's really Markus and McFeely wrote an amazing script that really streamlined this concept that Kevin wanted to get out there.

Anthony Russo: And it's very personal to Cap, too. I think that's the other thing, even though it's a big event that connects it to the rest of the universe, it's very much Cap's relationship to that and we enter the whole thing through him. So it's all riding on his shoulders and in terms of his experience at this moment with this movie.

In Ed Brubaker's original stories there's a sense of paranoia and mistrust, which cropped up in The Avengers. Does that grow in this film?

JR: Yeah, Brubaker's work for this... I mean I love Brubabker's run. I think it's absolutely brilliant. It's one of the best runs in twenty years of comics and that really, to us, when we knew it was about the Winter Soldier storyline, we couldn't run faster to the meeting at Marvel, but there is certainly a very strong element of espionage like a political thriller. I mean this movie draws upon The French Connection and The Conversation and Three Days of the Condor [ed: starring Cap 2 supporting player Robert Redford] and all of these '70s thrillers in a way that there is paranoia and mistrust at the heart of the movie.

Can you talk about the film's basic visual language? Naming those thrillers connotes a certain visual style, but one that is far from what we've seen from Marvel movies.

AR: The movie was shot largely in a very verite style, which is unique for Marvel's movies. They really embraced the approach to it, and it's a very experimental approach. It's a very grounding approach. There's a strong edge to the film. It's very visceral. It's got a lot of action in it, but I think it's definitely a movement, tonally, in a different direction. It's just great to be able to add another color to the pastiche of these movies.

JR: We felt it was important to try and do something like that with the movie stylistically, because number one it was germane to the material in terms of the genre and all, but also as we get more and more of these movies it's like you have to work harder to keep them fresh and exciting while surprising the audience. The idea that we could push the movie into that, a more unusual style and tone, was really exciting for us.

Does the verite/hand-held style follow through into the action as well?

JR: Yeah. You know Chris and all of the actors, Mackie, Frank Grillo, Sebastian... They trained their asses off for this film. They were in fight training for four months, because we really wanted the audience to feel it. There were a lot of bumps and bruises in the shooting. They endured a lot of real physical pain while we were shooting the film, because we wanted that cutting edge feeling of real combat and I think they all did an exceptional job. I think people are going to be shocked when they see these guys fighting on camera with what they can do.

AR: Again, and we were like "How do we make the greatest version of a Captain America movie that we can?" It was like "How can we play to the nature of the character the best way that we can?" When you look at him in the universe, he doesn't fly across the sky like Iron Man, he doesn't turn into a green monster, he doesn't come from another world. He's a man, only more so. We wanted to focus on that intensity, and the visceral texture of who he is and how he fights.

JR: Iron Man is really interesting when you get back real wide and he flies through the frame at two hundred and fifty miles an hour and shoots repulsor blasts from his fists. Cap is really interesting when you get the camera really close to him. When he's fighting, it's intimate combat; it's hand to hand combat. So that was our overriding principle as we shot the action.

There's a fast cut handheld action style that's become a template thanks to the Bourne films. Are you cutting in that style?

JR: It's energetic, but we also like to track the action. We really want people to understand what's going on from beat to beat. The characters move very quickly because they are superheroes and we really wanted to convey that. We didn't want it to feel like Bourne. Cap doesn't move at the speed of a normal man. He moves at the speed of an exceptional man, so the sequences are fast. The fighting is very fast and the movements are very fast, but we do want trackable storytelling.

AR: The action sequences are coherent.

JR: There's a movement through each piece.

How do you balance pleasing fans and making the narrative feel whole when introducing characters like Anthony Mackie's Falcon?

JR: Well at a narrative level, the jumping-off point was easy in the sense that, again we are picking Cap up seventy years after he left his old life. It's like he has a huge void in his life in terms of friends, he's lost everybody he knows. So that created an opportunity. He has a definite need and with Anthony Mackie we were looking for somebody who would bring an energy. It's stoicism that Cap is known for, especially being in such an emotional place as he is here. In The Avengers they didn't really catch Cap up to the modern world. It's like you never really had a moment where you felt the enormity of what has happened to him on a personal level of losing everyone he's known. So starting him there in a somber, difficult place, we wanted to find somebody with some nice energy that could help...

AR: Play against that...

JR: Exactly, "play against that" in a nice way and Anthony Mackie has such a marvelous fun energy.

AR: The way you have to approach these characters too, to answer your question about fan favorite characters and things like that, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is different than in the books. It just is. It draws upon them and pulls influences from them, but it's not based on any specific run, it's based on multiple runs of these books from a variety of artists and writers and storytellers. Then you're adding in directors and writers and collaborators that all have their own feelings about what things should be.

One of the first books I ever bought was a Cap/Falcon book. So to me that was the wildest kismet in my life; now here I am thirty years later making a Cap and Falcon movie. There were things that bugged me as a kid about Falcon, and we got to address some of those things in the film and it's per our taste. I don't know if it's going to be up to everybody's taste, but this is how we like him as a character and what I always felt he should have been.

It's the same way that I always viewed Cap a little bit simplistic morally when I was kid. I would always imagine Steve McQueen in my head as Cap; that would give me a little bit more bite to the character that I wanted, a little more complexity. Brubaker, Millar, and those guys all sort of went in that direction with the character and that's exciting to us, so I think you will find that there's more of that energy in this film. He's a real ass kicker in this movie.

Did you do any dialog polish on the script? You guys have a great voice for dialog.

JR: Thank you. I mean look, we sat in the room with the guys for a few months. That's our process, we really go through every line in the script a few times and wherever it lands it lands. Sometimes on the set we will throw out ideas, but the guys had a real voice to them and you've got to be careful. We're always respectful about being careful not to throw out a line that doesn't have the right flow or feeling.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier opens on April 4.