Russo Brothers Ghostbusters

When talking about a mid-sized crime thriller set in New York City, “contained” isn’t the right word to describe it. But when talking to producers Joe and Anthony Russo, contained is the right word in comparison to their other recent work. The directors saw 21 Bridges as both a breather from their massive Marvel movies and a callback to the gritty New York crime stories they grew up watching with their dad. The thriller, which was directed by Brian Kirk (Game of Thrones), reunites them with Chadwick Boseman.

21 Bridges is the first major project from the Russo Brothers since the record-smashing success they had with Avengers: Endgame earlier this year. Since then, they’ve finished filming Cherry, and continue developing projects as producers. Now that they’re billed as “the visionary directors of Avengers: Endgame,” they want to support other creatives the best way they can, as Steven Soderbergh once did for them.

It’s a story they told us in a recent career-spanning interview about New York crime stories, life and moviemaking after Marvel, and their unique career paths.

How’s it different promoting a movie you produced like 21 Bridges to the long haul of a Marvel press tour?

Anthony: It is different. Look, we care certainly as much about this movie as we care about any movie we’ve directed, but we are slightly less central to the process as a producer than we are on our self-directed films. It is slightly less weight to carry. Maybe the reason why, too, is because 21 Bridges is just… The last Marvel movies we’re coming off of were so large in scope. The amount of what you’re carrying for those films is pretty nuts. You know, we’re having a blast. 21 Bridges, we’re very proud of and love the film, so it’s a very easy film to talk about.

So the scope of 21 Bridges was a part of the appeal? Did you want to make something a little more contained?

Joe: It’s always great to just point the camera at real things and have people act and put truthful performances on film. We were motived to make the film because we grew up on genre movies. Our father was a genre film buff, and we used to watch The Late Show with him at night as kids. We’d watch movies like The French ConnectionDog Day AfternoonJustice for All, and The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3 — these sort of hard-boiled New York crime stories. We just felt like we hadn’t seen one of those in a long time, and we oughta use our recourses and creative conviction to get this one made.

How tough are movies like this to get made?

Joe: Very difficult.

Even after the success of the Avengers, do you guys still find trouble getting more contained stories like this done?

Joe: I think so, but I also think cinema is evolving and storytelling is evolving. I think digital distribution has also allowed better stories to be told at a greater volume than has ever been in history. Not everything needs to be a movie anymore. Sometimes it’s great to tell a story in ten-parts, ten one-hour segments, and sometimes it services the story better. I think audiences are becoming more passionate about those kind of stories. I think the success of the Marvel Universe is a testament to that. These long-form stories that evolve over years of your life, because of the emotional commitment you give to that story, the more profound impact it can have.

You know, everything is for different reasons. This movie is very cinematic in the fact it has very current issues it’s dealing with, it’s got a lot of social context to it, and it asks important questions. It doesn’t give the answers, but it asks them. The action is great, it’s got amazing performances, and it’s New York at night. We looked at it and thought, “This belongs in the theater,” but there are things that come across our desk and we go, “This should be ten hours or a show,” because it’d be fun to spend that much time with these characters.

Did you guys shoot the movie in New York?

Joe: Philadelphia and New York.

Anthony: Here’s the thing, New York is so complicated to control. A lot of times for some of our bigger action sequences, certainly, we wanted to capture real locations in New York and the scope of New York, and we found a way to do that. But controlling New York — it’s just easier to control sections of Philly than New York, on a functional level. We had a similar experience when we were making Captain America: Winter Soldier. That movie was almost entirely in Washington D.C., but shooting in Washington D.C. is extremely difficult.

I’m from there. It’s terrible.

Joe: Yeah, it’s terrible. They have better things to do than help you with your movie. So we ended up doubling Cleveland for D.C., while we certainly did several days in D.C. It was a similar model to this, but I think we did a lot more shooting in New York than D.C. It becomes a question of functionality, especially when you’re shooting action.

Your names carry a lot of weight now as producers. How does that influence the choices you make of, the artists you want to back or the stories you want to get behind?

Anthony: Nothing can make us happier that we can lend energy to other creative people trying to make things, because that’s how we were brought into the business in the first place. We made our first movie, a small little credit card movie, that went to the Slamdance Film Festival, and Steven Soderbergh saw our movie there. Nobody else responded to that movie. Nobody. Nobody but Steven did. For some reason, he saw something in it he found creatively exciting and reached out to us, offered to help us make another movie. Our whole road forward, literally, manifested itself at that moment. Literally, no one else was interested. We think it’s an amazing opportunity and responsibility to provide that for other people [as producers]. Our new [production] company, our entire instinct to start the company was really to do that on a larger and larger scale. Yeah, our entire process is simply to run at stories that inspire us or creative people that inspire us, and figure out how we build films around that.

Can you find Pieces online anywhere? Is it available to watch?

Joe: We never released it.

Anthony: We made the movie with no understanding of film business whatsoever. We loaded the film with music we cut music very specifically to and it was unaffordable. We were never really able to sort it out.

Joe: Maybe someday we’ll just dump it online. We just did some refurbishment to the negative. It was sitting in my basement.

Anthony: We’re trying to get it into shape.

Looking at the guys you were who made Pieces and Welcome to Collinwood, how do you see yourselves as filmmakers then versus now?

Joe: We still like subversive ideas. Pieces, a part of the reason why Soderbergh was one of the only people to respond to it was because it’s a very subversive movie. It was nonlinear in structure and kind of a batshit film, not dissimilar to his film Schizopolis. You know, Cleveland has a bit of punk rock to it, it was going bankrupt as we were growing up, and our dad was an activist politician. Social issues were important to us. We have this element to us that we’ll never shake, but obviously, you become more accomplished. What’s really important are your collaborators are more accomplished, and you know, it’s some of the best people in the world we work with continually now, from our DPs to our camera operators to our composers to our editors to the casts. It’s amazing when you’re working on a project and you can pick up a phone and call Chadwick Boseman and say, “Hey, we have this really cool cop thriller we think you’d be great for.” It changes everything, so that’s probably the most important distance between then and now.

What changes when you hit that high of a bar as Avengers? Does it change you in any way? Is there a comfort that follows that success?

Anthony: It’s a really funny question because at the same time, I feel like our process is the same today as when we started Pieces. It’s like, filmmaking is always the same process: you come up with a vision, and you find a way to realize it. I think we just keep repeating that cycle over and over again, no matter what our circumstances are. I think if anything with our experience on Endgame, it was a reaffirmation of the possibilities of cinema, the idea you can do anything if you try. I think it’s given us energy to keep moving forward and chasing difficult things and ideas, because there may be any sort of end of the rainbow. There’s a value in doing that. I mean, who would’ve ever thought that this fringe pop culture art form we enjoyed as kids that was never really mainstream would all the sudden end up being the source material for the most successful film ever made? You could’ve never predicted that, right? So, I think that’s the lesson for us going forward.

Does it also affirm your instincts, when you have that many people connecting to the choices you guys made as storytellers? Does it tell you you’re on the right path?

Joe: It certainly does. Look, we define cinema as a communal experience, right? Can you foster a communal experience? That’s the whole point of it: getting people to go out together, sit in a movie theater, and have a profound experience together. That’s been our goal all along. If you look at all the stories we’ve told, they’re about communities, literally and figuratively. It’s why we work with ensembles all the time because we come from a large Italian family with a lot of complicated people in it. That’s the way we perceive the world: lots of people have different points-of-view and every day is about a conflict of ideas.

Without question, you look at that as an affirmation, that what we believe about stories is true. We were in those theaters and heard those audible sobs and the cheers. As guys who were cinephiles growing up and have seen thousands and thousands of movies in theaters, we had never seen anything like that. That was special to us, and that really spoke to why we became filmmakers in the first place. We’re guys, just two brothers who loved arguing about movies every day, you know, and if we can take that love and convert it into a story that people around are brought together like that.

First and foremost, you want to tell the best stories. But I look at a guy like James Cameron and think he wants to tell the best stories he can but also be the best, be no. 1. 

Anthony: [Laughs] That’s awesome.

And there’s nothing wrong with wanting success. I was wondering, do you guys have a hunger for success at all or reaching the top?

Joe: It was never something we set out to do, which is why I think our career path has been more unique than most people’s career paths.

Anthony: I think it comes from this recognition that cinema is… You can make a movie as a filmmaker, right? But all we can do as filmmakers is make a movie that we like. Then we can put it out in the world, but we have no idea… This kind of goes back to your point earlier whether we have confidence in our instincts, but all we can control is if we like the movie. We can’t control whether anyone else is going to like the movie. So that’s the thing, at the end of the day, you can’t really aspire to how the world is going to perceive you, because you can’t control that. All you can control is what you do. All we control is the movie we make. Whatever value that ends up earning us to anyone beyond ourselves, we have no control over that.

Joe: We grew up on arthouse cinema and a lot of foreign films, and that was really important to us, but we also love genre and populist movies, like The Godfather and Star Wars and Jaws. We were not interested in choosing a path as self-indulgent filmmakers. That was never interesting to us, making pure arthouse fare. But we’re also too quirky to be populist at the same time, which is why it’s been a 20-year journey to make a movie like Avengers: Endgame for us, because we had to make the Arrested DevelopmentsThe Communitys, and Welcome to Collinwoods before we could make movies like Winter SoldierCivil WarInfinity War, and Endgame. We had to figure out a path forward that was satisfying to us every day, that we could get out of bed and work, but at the same time, it had to be something we felt was communicating our thoughts and feelings about the world to audiences. You know, it wasn’t premeditated, but a function of, what is tomorrow going to bring us? How do we challenge ourselves in a new interesting way with each project that we work on?

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