6 Filmmaking Tips From the Russo Brothers

By  · Published on May 4th, 2016

Lessons in filmmaking from the directors of Captain America: Civil War.

The Russo Brothers, Joe and Anthony, are back with another installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain America: Civil War, and they’ll soon be following it with more superheroes with the two parts of Avengers: Infinity War. They’re a pretty big deal in Hollywood considering just a few years ago their resume consisted only of little comedies on big and small screen, the latter including many episodes of the fan favorite Community.

It’s not just that they make successful comic book movie blockbusters, though. Their two Captain America movies are among the most critically acclaimed in the genre. They’re pretty good filmmakers in many regards, skilled with writing, directing action, directing actors, and more. They’re not ones to directly hand out advice for others to follow, but we managed to glean six tips from their statements in interviews, and hopefully they can be of help to some of you.

Start in Television

Many filmmakers give the tip to work in television these days, because there’s more freedom on the small screen for authorship and experimentation. But for the Russos it was more a matter of them being able to hone the skills they had and learn new lessons about compromise, fandom, and more. Here’s a recent quote from Joe in a piece at Vulture where he talks about the benefit of the path he and Anthony took:

Working in television trained us to be able to deal with the amount of decisions that have to be made on a movie of this scale, which is significant. I think that’s why the process can swallow some people up. Because it’s a very complex and dense process that requires 1,000 decisions to be made a day, and if your batting average is not so great, then those decisions are going to compound and, you know, the ship sinks.

And the path has been particularly beneficial to their current work wrangling the biggest installments of the MCU. Here’s what they had to say to /Film’s Peter Sciretta in 2013 on the set of The Winter Soldier about TV preparing them for the job:

Anthony Russo: Also, I think it comes very natural to us because the work we did on Arrested Development and Community, we played with a lot of foreshadowing and callbacks and…

Joe Russo: And layering.

Anthony Russo: And tracking that stuff over a season of television, or multiple seasons, it’s just something that’s in our … we’re sort of patterned for it anyway. I think that’s one reason why we may have made a nice fit here at Marvel. It’s like we sort of understand how you take a larger story and wrangle it into a moment, yet keep them connected.

Love and Respect Your Characters

From the TV shows to the Marvel movies, the Russo Brothers have mostly worked with characters created by other writers. But they adopt them as if they were their own and give them tender loving care.

In 2010, Joe acknowledged this approach in an interview with Alan Sepinwall at HitFix, stating that it was a mandate for them and showrunner Dan Harmon while working on Community:

“Let’s maintain that warmth. Let’s maintain a joy for the characters.” And I think it really just comes down to everybody who’s involved loves the characters. Loves to see them express themselves and we’re not afraid of heartfelt moments…embrace the characters because the show is going to live or die with the characters.

And with the MCU, the love and respect has carried over to the fans. Here’s Anthony in a January 2016 interview with on appreciating all characters in an ensemble, in part for the sake of the audience:

Joe and I, as we were developing the script with the writers, we like to pick a path and look at the script from every different character’s point of view. Even though it’s Cap’s movie, and the ultimate way we decide where to go with the film is filtered through Cap’s perspective, we do take time and walk ourselves through the story from every single character’s point of view as if its their movie.

We know how important these characters are. We love these characters ourselves. We know that there’s somebody sitting out there in the audience whose favorite character is that one, even if that character has only a few scenes in the movie. We want to make sure everyone’s coming to the movie and it’s going to get a lot of satisfaction and have a lot of fun with what’s being done with their favorite character in the movie, regardless of who it is. We work really hard to do a lot and do something special with characters who may only have limited screen time in the film.

And if they don’t love the characters, they mold them into something they can love. Joe often admits that he didn’t care for Captain America growing up. He explains how that didn’t matter when taking on The Winter Soldier in the below interview with Collider:

Adapt to Your Actors

It’s incumbent upon a director, if you want to pull the best performance out of an actor, you have to really work to who they are and how they work, and not just expect them to hit a mark every time. You have to be very adaptable in the approach that you use with every different actor.

That’s a quote from Anthony from another part of Collider’s interview, sectioned off below, focused on how the brothers work together and with actors. The latter comes a lot from Joe’s own background in acting, and he goes into some detail here about the differences between the acting styles of Chris Evans, Chadwick Boseman, and Robert Downey Jr:

Be Progressive

“You have to switch it up as you move forward, because if you keep giving them the same thing, they’re going to tell you that they love it, and then one day you’re going to put a movie out and it’s going to bomb,” Joe recently told Meredith Woerner for the Los Angeles Times.

And the guys know that’s a risk, especially when characters are altered and a whole franchise and maybe even genre are deconstructed. But it’s certainly working. It also goes for the visual content of these movies, as Anthony expressed two years ago in an interview with Den of Geek:

We also have to up our game on the action. You don’t want to repeat stuff, you know. And as much as we love the tone you don’t want to repeat tone because people just saw that. You don’t want to give them the exact same movie they just saw, so what we can do differently, not only to elevate the game but change the game so that people go, “Well shit, I wasn’t expecting that.”

Embrace Criticism

“Coming from Arrested and Community, where we had these ravenous fan bases, I’m always reading the message boards to just get ideas from people,” Joe told /Film during the Winter Soldier set interview of being conscious of if not exactly serving everything the people want. “At the end of the day, I’ll sit back and enjoy the choices we made.”

Fortunately, they’ve mostly pleased fans and critics anyway, in most things they’ve done (not all – cough – You, Me and Dupree). Yet even something as great as The Winter Soldier could be nitpicked by the people at Screen Junkies who do the Honest Trailers videos. The Russos embraced the humorous beatdown enough to pay a visit to the site and respond to each quip in the following interview:

Be a Global Citizen

A lot of people in Hollywood are looking to China these days, but it’s mostly for the money to be made distributing movies like Marvel’s to the enormous Chinese market. The Russos are looking to the country for even more opportunity. They recently set up a new production company, Anthem Pictures, to make Chinese movies for Chinese audiences. In part because they needed something new to inspire them. Here’s what Joe recently told the Los Angeles Times about the enterprise:

The U.S. market is becoming stagnant. It’s very hermetic. It’s about tentpole films, and there’s no independent scene anymore. Anything that was independent is now in television. So TV has really do-si-do’ed with the movies and I think the most interesting content being made is in television – the more adventurous, character- driven content. As filmmakers we are interested in unique voices.

And here he continues when asked if he’s bored with Hollywood:

The U.S. is a predictable market. I love what we do, I love the Marvel films, I think we’re telling stories on a grand scale. So as directors we’re very happy with what we’re doing.

As producers, we look for diversity. I like to be inspired – it has to be about what gets you out of bed in the morning. It’s not an easy job. It’s a physical job, the hours are long and it takes you away from your kids. I want to be inspired. I think investing ourselves into a new culture and a new market is important. It dimensionalizes you as a human being. Being a global citizen makes you a more interesting person.

What We’ve Learned

The Russos have had an interesting career, beginning with critically panned small movies then fan-devoted but ratings-dry television then critically successful superhero movies. Want to be as prosperous as they are? You could follow their path, or just follow their more pinpointed statements as advice.

Basically: Television is good, but it’s not movies. Tentpoles are fun to make, but they’re killing the rest of the market. Characters should be respected but also changed to your favor. Actors should work for you but you should also work to their talents. And fan input and criticism is great, but in the end it’s your vision. It all sounds conflicting but apparently it works.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.