Joe and Anthony Russo, with Thanos’s glove from Avengers: Infinity War, at their AGBO studio, Los Angeles. On Joe, left: John Varvatos jacket and trousers, his own; Louis Vuitton polo shirt, his own. On Anthony: Paige jacket and Maison Margiela shirt, his own. If this were a movie instead of a magazine piece about the directors Anthony and Joe Russo—who, in the course of a twenty-year career, have helped fashion two network-TV cult hits ( Arrested Development and Community ), three feature-film comedies (including Welcome to Collinwood and You, Me and Dupree ), three Marvel blockbusters ( Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, and Avengers: Infinity War ), and another sure-to-be Marvel blockbuster ( Avengers: Endgame )—it might begin like this: The stakes are nothing less than the universe itself. And not just any universe, but a particular universe, Hollywood, where the midsize movie seeks to survive the change from pre- to post-Anthropocene, a time of dying, after which the cinematic landscape is seemingly fit for nothing but Marvel stompers and their superhero competitors at DC.
In Infinity War, which grossed more than $2 billion worldwide—the first superhero movie to do so—the protagonists are a group of disparate artists (the Avengers are artists!) who, though squabbling, come together to protect an endangered world. In Russo World, it’s friends and brothers (also artists!) who have come together to form AGBO, an independent film studio now under construction in downtown Los Angeles. The complex will fill three buildings, sprawling across an entire city block. It will house writers, directors, producers, and editors—plus stages, screening rooms, postproduction facilities, and a catering kitchen—in an attempt to replicate the all-inclusive movie factories of yore, those chimeras of an ancient Hollywood dream, lost when the talent agents (see: Lew Wasserman) broke the old star system. In short, the Russos aim to turn directorial success into power, to become moguls of the artistic variety, backed by a $250 million investment from China. “We’re taking everything that we’ve learned from all our time in the business—as independent filmmakers and television directors, as big commercial filmmakers, doing drama, doing comedy, shooting on shoestring budgets, shooting on the biggest budgets of all time—and trying to apply that to the business so we can curate really thoughtful stories,” Joe told me. In this way, the Russo brothers will return to their roots, the midsize moviemaking they forsook to ride the Marvel train.
Like any such story, it’s about redemption.
This setup would be followed by a few quick establishing shots of the Russos going about their everyday business. One is tall and thin, with dark, wavy hair; thick glasses; and a conspiratorial grin. Anthony.
The other is shorter and thicker, sincere and intense, but aware of the comedy behind this intensity—Marlon Brando as played by John Belushi. Joe.
We’d see Anthony, forty-nine, a husband and father (Joe calls his big brother “Anth”), tooling around in his surprisingly humble Volkswagen, vanishing into his city as all superheroes must when they assume their secret identities. Then we’d see Joe, forty-seven, also a husband and father, wandering the kitchen of the restaurant he owns on South Hewitt Street (a mile from AGBO) and checking out each dish. In an ideal world, the meal would be arranged in the way of a movie: setup (appetizer), climax (entrée), aftermath (dessert).
Once the characters had been established, the movie would go straight into the backstories—I know I’ve carried this conceit a little far, but it’s fun for me—what, in the superhero biz, they call the creation myths. In this case, because it’s a two-hander, the stories would intertwine like the double helix of their already-intertwined DNA.
Like all legends, it starts not with a person but with a place and a time. Cleveland, the late seventies. The city is falling apart. It’s a hymn of industrial rot and ruin, the glowering sky hanging above the polluted waters of Lake Erie. If that mood, rust and apocalypse, gets into your psyche when you are eight or ten years old, as Joe and Anthony were back then, it’ll stay there forever.
Ask the brothers themselves to account for their taste and they invariably come back with the same answer: “Cleveland.”
“Cleveland went bankrupt in the seventies,” Joe told me. “So our memories are vivid with urban decay, people out of work.” The resulting sensibility turns up in every one of their movies. The Avengers takes place in a world quite unlike the industrial Midwest, but it’s there even so, in the predicament of a threatened society protected by a handful of flawed, possibly overmatched heroes. In other words, Iron Man is not all that different from Basil Russo, Joe and Anthony’s father, a renowned politician in Cleveland—the majority leader of the city council and a Democratic candidate for mayor in 1979, running in a time of strife and insolvency. Cleveland, which had gone into default on December 15, 1978, was the first major American city to skip out on its debts since the Great Depression. Basil was defeated in the primary by incumbent Dennis Kucinich and by the eventual winner, Lieutenant Governor George Voinovich. That was childhood for the Russos: grit, churn, stump, and steel.
“The Ohio factor is critical,” said Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man) when asked to analyze the brothers. “And, by the way, they don’t come from some salt-free bloodline either. There’s a larceny and some oddball stuff going on back there in the Russo clan.” Anthony, left, and Joe in the mid-1970s, with their mother, Patricia; their sister, Gabriella; and their politician father, Basil, at Cleveland City Hall. Which made it strange to see the brothers here, in downtown L. A., in this fantasy world, as far as you can get from the Cleveland of 1979. We were in a conference room at AGBO. (They plucked the name of their company at random from an Ohio phone book—as in, close your eyes and point.) There was an Avengers pinball machine in the next room; offices down the hall; a snack closet filled with chocolate, granola, and Lucky Charms; and a pool table that no one seemed to notice. (Having it is cool; having it and not playing it is even cooler.) The table between us was covered with the sorts of books that might come in handy to a writer researching for a Marvel screenplay: 100 Deadly Skills: The SEAL Operative’s Guide to Eluding Pursuers, Evading Capture, and Surviving Any Dangerous Situation; 100 Deadly Skills, Survival Edition: The SEAL Operative’s Guide to Surviving in the Wild and Being Prepared for Any Disaster. Now and then, the brothers looked over my shoulder and out the window. Here’s the view: trees, low-slung blocks, warehouses, office towers, and then, far away, snow-covered mountains that form a hard line between the present and the past, the East and the West.
I was later taken on a tour of the new sections of AGBO, what’s being built across the alley. There will be offices with more nice views; public spaces; a screening room; and a big, lasso-shaped bar, like something from a western. The Russos are building AGBO as a kind of rec room where anyone with a good idea will be welcome. It’s the Ohio family thing taken pro. It’s dream Cleveland, everyone together, spitballing their way toward perfection. It’s Hollywood as the Russos imagined it when they were eight and ten years old. Only that Hollywood did not exist, so they’re building it.
Anthony and Joe were surrounded by family in Cleveland: two sisters; innumerable aunts, uncles, and cousins; and still more distant relatives, who, now and then, in the way of unexplained illnesses, turned up, the result being the jagged oddball energy evident in their best work. (See: the tenth episode of the first season of Arrested Development, in which Buster sends George-Michael to score dope to treat Lucille Two’s vertigo; or the eighth episode of the second season of Community, in which members of the study group search for a pen thief—one of their own!)
Patricia Russo, Anthony and Joe’s mother, gave the boys their tremendous confidence and sense of ease in the world. Basil, the politician father, prodded them toward angst. He loved his children to distraction and, because of that love, feared for them, too. His grandparents had been immigrants, which made Basil suspicious of any career that could not be easily defined. Why produce something that no one needs? Moviemaking fell squarely into this category, as did storytelling in general. Good for the family, not so good for the street. A man needs a profession.
Fortunately for Captain America, the Russos had another influence: the local movie theater, the Cinematheque, the sort of art house where nearly everything is in French or Italian. The boys spent their high school years watching Fellini, Truffaut, Godard.
“Our diet was foreign film,” Joe told me. “We loved French new wave, the Italian neorealists.”
“We liked big commercial movies as well,” Anthony said. “We were Star Wars fanatics like everybody else.”
“ The Godfather, ” Joe added.
The Russos don’t finish […]
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