A diminutive figure, dressed in black, Joe Russo is escorted to our meeting by a significant entourage. Burly security guards are posted outside the door. Bustling Disney executives ensure everything is as it should be before Russo arrives. A fair few crew members have flown in with the filmmaker from Los Angeles and he is almost invisible in their ranks as he walks into the room. Within a few seconds, however, Joe Russo’s superpowers become evident. Warm, convivial, charming — several adjectives come to mind. His last movie, Avengers: Infinity War, is Hollywood’s fourth highest-grossing film of all time, but Joe Russo is all humility, no hype.
There’s a certain familiarity — an instant connection — that comes from being a card-carrying member of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Joe and his brother Anthony Russo have birthed four Marvel films, so every single fan (and there are millions) is likely to feel this kinship with the director duo. We’re watching the clock, because Joe has a packed schedule in Mumbai, but it’s easy to forget the time. The fact that the filmmaker doesn’t wear a watch contributes somewhat to our ease, but the truth is, once our conversation begins, the words just flow. “I don’t wear a watch because, frankly, I don’t think it helps to know what time it is. Besides, this was fun,” says Joe, as our exchange draws to a close.
From the MCU and his plans after Avengers: Endgame, to his early days as a full-time film buff, Joe Russo narrates his story. Elements of drama, action and comedy make for an engaging script, with two central characters. You may never have heard an opening line like, “Once upon a time in Cleveland, Ohio,” but that is how this tale begins.
I’ve probably seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail a hundred times. I think comedies are easy for repeat viewing.
With an attorney and a judge for parents, the Russo brothers had no ‘godfathers’ in Hollywood. Their pedigree comes from passion. “I loved a lot of genre movies as a kid. I grew up watching, consuming, everything. We’re a family that used to watch The Godfather on Christmas every year,” Joe recalls, amenable to my suggestion that it’s the Italian connection at work, but emphatic about the significance of Francis Ford Coppola’s trilogy in his life. “The Godfather is a very important movie for us. What a complicated story, a wonderful amount of characters, an ensemble piece — my brother and I have always been influenced by ensembles; most of the work we do is ensemble,” Joe explains.
Directing a cast comprising Hollywood’s biggest stars — Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Samuel L Jackson, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Don Cheadle and Benedict Cumberbatch are just a few notable names — seems like second nature to the Russo brothers, but it all began with Coppola at Christmas.
It’s quite simple. If we do disagree, the best idea wins.
While crime fiction was one favoured genre, comedies fascinated the Russo boys too. “I’ve probably seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail a hundred times. I think comedies are easy for repeat viewing,” says Joe, before confessing to being a comic book buff and a Spider-Man fan, while his brother Anthony was obsessed with The Lord of the Rings. In fact, when the Russo brothers first got to Hollywood in the mid-90s, they were chasing the Tolkien tomes. “My brother used to carry The Lord of the Rings around like it was his Bible. That was always something that we wanted to adapt,” says the filmmaker; now one of the leading figures in another fantasy universe. It has been quite a journey — from Erebor to Asgard — and Joe believes he’s sailed through it all because of the bonds of brotherhood, ‘fellowship’ and collaboration. “Anthony and I subscribe to the Mastermind Principle which states that two heads aren’t doubly better than one, they’re exponentially better. There’s a sort of brain trust that gets created between us… we are constantly challenging each other’s ideas and I think that ultimately makes the ideas stronger,” says Joe. Though Anthony is the elder of the two brothers, Joe insists he has no veto powers when their views diverge. “It’s quite simple. If we do disagree, the best idea wins.” It is this ability to work as a cohesive unit that fosters other collaborations — with MCU screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, for instance. “We are not threatened by collaboration because we’re accustomed to it,” says Joe. After four Marvel films with Markus and McFeely, the screenwriters have also come on board as “co-presidents of story” at the Russo brothers’ studio, AGBO.
“This summer, we are going to work on a film called Cherry with Tom Holland. It’s about the opioid crisis in America,” says Joe, about AGBO’s immediate future. The Russo brothers have also been in talks with Priyanka Chopra for an upcoming project, though Joe is categorical that it is not a Marvel film, as has been widely reported.
This summer, we are going to work on a film called Cherry with Tom Holland. It’s about the opioid crisis in America.
Understandably, it is the MCU angle that dominates mainstream media reportage. With a line-up of stars more dazzling than all the infinity stones in the galaxy, Joe’s latest film, Avengers: Endgame, is the year’s most anticipated release. And that, perhaps, is an understatement. “I believe this is our best film for Marvel and I think the audiences should prepare themselves for a very emotional ending,” says Joe, giving away as little as possible. He’s happy to chat animatedly about the vintage Mustang that Robert Downey, Jr. gifted Chris Evans (“He had the car painted powder blue for Captain America”), but don’t hold your breath for any spoilers from Endgame.
Since digging for inside information on Avengers: Infinity War isn’t embargoed, we dive headlong into that subject. Alongside Markus and McFeely, the Russo brothers have “a ton of freedom” with the Marvel film scripts. Thankfully not all Joe’s story ideas are incorporated because, if he had his way, Captain America wouldn’t have made his Infinity War appearance until the Battle of Wakanda. “Markus, McFeely and my brother thought it was crazy to hold Captain America out that long,” Joe laughs, and so they came up with the “train reveal” in Edinburgh, where Captain America shows up to save Vision and Wanda. “There was a film that I loved as a child, Excalibur by John Boorman, where Lancelot shows up at the final battle and it’s a very rousing moment,” Joe explains, “and I was trying to create that moment for Captain America.” But, because none of the others agreed, the dramatic Battle of Wakanda entrance went to Thor and Captain America came in sooner. “We knew we had to give Captain America a grand entrance because he’d been on the run since the end of Civil War and that’s why the train reveal scene was crafted.”
We don’t ever kowtow to what the fans want because there are so many fans and they all want different things. There’s no universal voice for the fans, so we just try to tell the stories in ways that make us happy. I grew up reading comic books and I love these kinds of films — so we try to make the movies that excite us and then, hopefully, the fans get excited as well.
As a result, there was an opening in the Wakanda battle scene and that led them to bring Thor to Earth. “He was originally going to Thanos’ home planet Titan,” Joe recalls. “There are so many characters and a million iterations. You have to give everyone their moment and I think that’s why these films have such audience appeal. If you sit in a theatre with an audience on one of the first few weekends when one of these movies comes out, you’ll hear a lot of vocalising and cheering and laughing and shouting at the screen and I think it is because there are so many stars and so many moments… so each fan in that room gets a moment with the character that they love the most. That’s our job; to make sure the fans get that moment.”
There’s undoubtedly pressure to please the fans, but Joe brushes it off: “We don’t ever kowtow to what the fans want because there are so many fans and they all want different things. There’s no universal voice for the fans, so we just try to tell the stories in ways that make us happy. I grew up reading comic books and I love these kinds of films — so we try to make the movies that excite us and then, hopefully, the fans get excited as well.” It’s a system that must work, because Infinity War turned out to be one of the biggest box office hits of all time, raking in a staggering 2.048 billion dollars. That sets the bar impossibly high for Endgame, but again Joe insists it is best to ignore the numbers. “You have to ignore it. Really. Because if you make decisions based out of fear, they usually end up being really poor decisions. Endgame is wrapping up an unprecedented narrative mosaic of over 20 movies — 11 years, 9 franchises. Nobody has ever done anything like that. My brother and I are really committed to telling complicated stories with stakes, so we just do our job and hope the audience responds.”
As enormous as it is, Endgame isn’t the end for Joe Russo. Strip away the fans and the awards, the stars and all the other hoopla, and life is about simpler things. Family, good food, soul-stirring music and an enduring passion for movies. “Once we’re done with Endgame, we will go on vacation. That done, we will go back to pointing a camera at people who are pretending. That is the essence of it.”
The russo brothers' cinematic universe
“WE lived in Cleveland, Ohio, which is very, very far away from Hollywood. My brother and I grew up watching movies together. This common interest in film is the one thing that we shared — we’re about a year apart. When we were teenagers, an art house cinema opened up down the street from us. We used to go there together all the time and watch really obscure foreign films.”
Their parents played their part
“MY mother would drop me off at the theatre to keep me occupied all day. I’d watch the same movie 4 or 5 times in a row. Our father was also a big movie buff and a huge treat for us as kids would be staying up and watching the late show with him.”
From fans to filmmakers
“I WORKED at Blockbuster (a chain of video rental stores) for a year. We had a VCR at home and I’d bring back 3 or 4 movies a night that we would watch. When we were in our early 20s, we made Pieces, using credit cards (to finance the movie). We were fortunate enough to get into a very famous film festival and then we got discovered by a very famous director, Steven Soderbergh.”
He's no average joe: Little-known facts about the filmmaker
Joe started off as an actor. He was the lead in Pieces, a film he co-directed with his brother Anthony Russo in 1997. He still does the occasional cameo — “sometimes for fun” — for which he uses the stage name Gozie Agbo. His film production company takes its name from this pseudonym.
When he isn’t working, Joe binge watches new content. Fargo is an all-time favourite, while recent preferences include the BBC show Bodyguard with Richard Madden and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. He also confesses to being “as excited as everybody else” for the return of Game of Thrones.
While in Mumbai to promote Avengers: Endgame, Joe checked out a new restaurant every night. From the smoked mutton chops at Arth in Khar, to the truffle soufflé at Hemant Oberoi’s eponymous eatery in Bandra Kurla Complex, Joe and his family relished every meal.
Crazy about comics
Spider-Man is Joe’s favourite comic book character. “I started reading comics when I was around 10 and Spider-Man was only a couple of years older than me in the books,” the filmmaker explains. “A kid with superpowers who is struggling with his sense of responsibility was a highly relatable concept.”
When Thanos wiped out half the universe with a snap of his fingers, millions of Marvel fans lost their favourite characters. As a filmmaker, Joe was committed to executing the scene as it was scripted but, as a fan, he feels he’d have saved Shuri. “Because she’s so brilliant,” he explains.
PICTURES: Prabhat Shetty
Location: Taj Lands End, Mumbai