Captain America: The Winter Soldier (finally!) hits U.S. Theaters this Friday. (You can read my review here. Spoiler: I loved it.) A couple of weeks ago I sat down with directors Joe and Anthony Russo to talk about how they felt like scientists in a lab, what Cap's been up to for the last two years, and their unabashed man-crush on Kevin Feige.
GeekTyrant: This is the first time we’ve really seen Cap deal with his time jump. That part of his storyline was sort of suspended in The Avengers, and he’s pretty lost at the beginning of the movie. Like, really lost. How important and how difficult was it for you guys to balance that with the demands of telling an action/espionage kind of thriller?
Joe Russo: Well, there was a lot of thought put into that, because, for us, character is paramount. Coming from shows like Arrested Development and Community, character is everything to us. And you can’t, you know, in a political thriller like this, a movie that’s really, you know, we’ve referred to it as Three Days of Captain America, that’s borrowing very much from that genre, the way that those movies work you take a very empathetic character, and you put them in jeopardy for the movie, and the audience is afraid for their life. and those sorts of stakes are critical to pulling off a political thriller. So it was really important that we ground him as a character early in the movie and make you really care about him. And we thought really hard about him as a character. It’s such a weird Rip Van Winkle story. He’s literally lost everyone and everything he’s known. So there’s a real tragedy, there’s a real pathos in that. And we wanted to be faithful, or, you know, a truthful interpretation of that. Which is why we put him in the place that we did at the beginning of the movie.
GT: You mentioned Three Days of the Condor…
Anthony Russo: Oh, you know, I wanted to mention one thing, because you also asked, like, and how do you balance that against the action?
AR: And it’s a very interesting question, because it was actually an awesome place because Cap’s very distracted by his personal issues at the beginning of the movie, and that leads, I think that is part of the reason, perhaps, why this web of intrigue is allowed to surround him, because he does have this inner focus. And I think it’s really, like for me, I always love how that kind of comes to fruition in a sense in the elevator scene. He walks in the elevator with his head just in this space of [slight spoiler redacted], and just sort of being, being in his own head...
JR: (interjecting) Distracted.
AR: While this thing starts to develop around him that he slowly catches onto, is slowly pulled out of… So I think that scene is representative of what happens to Cap in the beginning of the movie. He’s very much stuck in his personal problems, but he gets pulled out of them by the events of the film.
GT: Right, and he almost seems happy when the twist comes and we find out about [small spoiler redacted], and it’s suddenly clear.
JR: Yeah, he’s a character with a really strong code, right? And he’s a call to action character, and when he’s lost or when he’s confused or when he doesn’t understand what he’s fighting, he can’t fight it. And so I think at that moment, us and the writers felt like it would really great to illuminate this sort of singular drive to him. Now that he understands who he’s up against he can actually fight it.
AR: Well, it’s because in contrast to Natasha, he’s a guy who fights for principles, and so if he can’t anchor his principles, he can’t do it. He can’t turn it on and turn it off depending on situations.
GT: You've mentioned Three Days of the Condor, and the movie feels really grounded in that kind of '70s, post-Watergate, political thriller. Do you think that Cap's position as having been sort of parachuted into a post-9/11 world and having all that we've adjusted to along the way be completely foreign to him made him an interesting character to take on that role?
AR: We loved it for that reason, yeah.
JR: That was something that really excited us. There is a layer of cynicism, I think, to our culture today that is a function of everything that has happened to us in the last 20 years, and I think social media has allowed a certain immediacy to information, and privacy seems to be something that’s disappearing very quickly, both from a media standpoint but also from a governmental watchdog standpoint. And I think it’s interesting to take a character who was from the Greatest Generation and drop them into this culture. It’s like you’re a scientist in a lab doing an experiment to see, you know, if you put these two compounds together how they’re going to react, and Cap is this sort of interesting litmus test, a measuring stick for us to hold this culture up against.
AR: But we just loved that. The idea that like we all have been walked incrementally from this sort of black and white world of World War 2, to where we are today, generationally, and Cap has missed that whole ride. You know, it’s great.
GT: How much of the script was done when you guys came on board?
JR: There was a very good script.
AR: It was a good script.
JR: There was a very good script. We did a lot of work with the guys in a room. We borrowed from our sort of television background and sat around a table and did a lot of script work, just as directors talking about how we saw certain things being executed, story points we felt like could be stronger, emotional arcs of characters, and a lot of the action. Because that was a very personal expression of action in this movie. It’s based on a lot of influences that we’ve had growing up, and things that we love about action sequences that each beat in the action sequence has to tell a story or it has to illuminate character for us, otherwise it doesn’t belong in the movie. And also, we wanted to do this homage to the ‘70s thrillers where there’s this really protracted action sequences that don’t have a lot of dialogue in them, and where you’re doing storytelling without a dialogue. And I think it’s almost like these, you know, these existential action sequences where they represent the theme of the movie or the conflict that’s going on inside the character. As he mentioned, the elevator sequence – heavily influenced by [Brian] DePalma. You know that elevator sequence is really, you know, it’s the stairway scene in The Untouchables. You're just slowly peeling back layers for the audience as they slowly realize what’s happening in the scene and then they start to become very nervous for the lead character.
GT: You mentioned your TV work, and in the press conference you mentioned the Marvel infrastructure. Did that feel at all similar to directing television episodes in the context of a larger series?
JR: Typically, on TV we only work on shows we did the pilot to, so we’re in a position on those where we’re putting the infrastructure in place. It was a relief for us coming into a company that was so well-structured, so intelligent. I mean, I don’t know if people understand how brilliant Kevin [Feige, President of Marvel Studios] actually is, and how, you know, he pulled off what’s probably the most difficult project in the history of movies, which is The Avengers. When you think about the salaries, the stars involved, the story-telling, you know, making sure it gets promoted properly, that audiences embrace comic book heroes, and it was a very clever path that he took the audience on to get to that film so that that movie could explode. It was pretty ingenious. And the way that he structured his company with, you know, very human, collaborative, extremely talented artists? I just, you know... It’s an anomaly in the business. So that’s what we were talking about when we were talking about working for Marvel. It’s, you know, that’s what’s different, is Marvel. Everything else is the same. You still go on set, you still direct people, you still work with the crew. Everything else is the same. Marvel is different.
AR: Yeah, even though from television it definitely did help in the way you’re suggesting because even though we’re in the Marvel role in those TV shows, we understood the model. You know what I mean? So that when we came to Marvel, even though we hadn’t played this role, we were familiar with it.
GT: In the Marvel universe each film has to be its own thing, but it also has to serve the larger narrative. I wondered if you ever felt like you had less freedom than you would if you weren’t within the Marvel universe?
AR: No. Again, that’s a great credit to Kevin. You know, he is... right from the get-go he impressed with how smart he is about not putting too much on you. He really has a philosophy of he wants each movie to be what it wants to be, and he wants to be surprised by the filmmakers, by what that can be. He doesn’t want it to be what they’re all thinking. You know, he wants it to be something else that they weren’t thinking. So he gives you a lot of creative freedom in terms of figuring out what that can be. And yes, at some level, it does have to stay tethered, but he keeps it very sort of specific and limited.
GT: Ok, I have one really quick question before I go about Cap’s new suit, just because my husband is a designer and he loves it. So what went into developing it and what changes did you think were necessary?
AR: We put a massive amount of time and energy into that suit, because it was so important to us. I mean, look, for us it was Cap in this movie, we wanted him to start in a place of trying to embrace the modern world in this film, and not sort of being stuck in the past, even though he is, inevitably. So we wanted him to be training himself in the couple years he’s been alive in the modern world in all the most current fighting techniques, all the current strategies and military moves, et cetera. And we wanted him to be able to sort of craft, he wanted his suit to be an expression of the new soldier he was trying to be. So that suit is very much drawn upon the most current thinking and technology in terms of military war apparel. and that’s basically what that expression is, more or less. And he starts the movie in a sort of a night mission, we call that the stealth suit, we referred to it for a long time as the stealth suit.
JR: It’s a covert suit for covert operations. But also it was important to us that the suit be functional and not a costume. Its job is to stop bullets from killing him, so it’s made of Kevlar, that's the material that’s on the suit, so that’s its job. It’s a soldier’s uniform, it’s a soldier’s suit.
AR: Yeah, but and also, the suit is very thematic in the film as well in the sense that like he begins the movie in this suit that’s very S.H.I.E.L.D., you know? His old suit used to be a symbol. He’s like no longer… the emphasis is off the symbol in the new suit and more on the functionality. And of course, as the movie goes along he realizes he needs that symbol again.