“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” arrives in theaters Friday with the promise of bringing to the screen the famous 2005 comic book storyline by writer Ed Brubaker and artist Steve Epting that inspired the name of the Marvel sequel, but star Chris Evans and fraternal directing team Anthony and Joe Russo also looked back to certain cinematic landmarks to help bring a contemporary resonance to the superhero tale.
It seems to have worked — critics have widely praised the film in early reviews and Marvel already has announced its plans to bring the Russos back to direct the third “Captain America” film, which takes place months after the events depicted in “Avengers” and opens with Steve Rogers having remained in the employ of international espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D. and occasionally teaming with Scarlett Johansson’s spy Natasha Romanoff, also known as Black Widow, on key missions. He finds an ally, too, in veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), who has his own heroic identity as the Falcon.
Although the Russo brothers are best known to a certain swath of fans for their groundbreaking work on the subversive cult comedies “Community” and “Arrested Development,” they were able to put their cinephile side to use with their first large-scale action film, working from a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. Hero Complex sat down with the filmmakers last month to discuss their “Winter Soldier” approach.
Hero Complex: Marvel films are known for pairing humor with action and adventure, and while there are some comedic moments in “Winter Soldier,” this movie feels perhaps somewhat more serious than the films that have come before. Was that intentional?
Joe Russo: It’s a political thriller. In order to have thrills, you have to have stakes. You can’t have stakes if everybody’s making light of the situation, so the humor in the movie comes from relationship comedy. It’s not situational. They’re making light of their relationship to each other at certain moments, that’s why you get Cap/Natasha humor and you get Falcon/Cap humor. Sometimes it’s there to counterbalance the tension in the movie, it’s a very tense film. But it was important to us to try to make something as topical as we could because that’s what we always felt were the most successful political thrillers. If you look at “Three Days of the Condor,” Cliff [Robertson], at the end of that movie, he’s basically predicting the war for oil that happens over the next 20 years in American history, in world history. You want to try to grab onto headlines that feel very current and topical so that the audience is really engaged in a way that they’re going, God, this is my paranoia, this is my psyche, these are all the things I’ve been thinking about. Weirdly the [Edward] Snowden thing happened while we were shooting, but we were already grabbing onto headlines about civil liberties and drone technology, preemptive strikes.
Anthony Russo: Rubbing the idea of Captain America against all that was just too enticing.
HC: Did you go back to the Brubaker comic while you were filming at all?
AR: We really didn’t go back to it, it was more of a jumping-off point. It’s so difficult with these movies. Everything kind of has to become it’s own thing ultimately so you take it as an inspiration and framing and everything after that just comes about, what does this want to be.
JR: It’s a two-hour medium. You have two hours to tell a story, wherein a comic you have multiple, multiple years and different writers. So it was a jumping off point for tone, for theme, and for that character, the Winter Soldier, which we felt like was one of the greatest gifts you can have as storytellers is to have a villain who had such an emotional connection to the hero. It’s one of the first things we said to Kevin [Feige] when we met with him. We said, “You know this is ‘Star Wars.'” It’s an operatic conflict between two family members. This is his best friend who is essentially his brother. They’re both equally matched and they have equal power sets. And they’re fighting for opposite principles.
AR: It makes him a very powerful villain.
HC: Were there discussions about how to treat the identity of the Winter Soldier? It’s not a secret for Marvel fans, but other moviegoers might not realize who that character is prior to seeing the film.
JR: If you go to Wikipedia, or you go on Twitter, you’re going to find out fairly quickly who he is. We’ve always said, This isn’t a surprise for the audience, it’s a surprise for Captain America. It’s a crucial moment in the movie for him as a character. It’s a turning point in the film. It’s impossible with the proliferation of pop culture to kind of keep that from the audience.
AR: At first “The Winter Soldier” wasn’t in the title of the film and we were really passionate about calling it “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” There was concern at the time, but you just have to rip that band-aid off.
HC: What was the experience like for you as filmmakers coming into a franchise and working with actors who have played these roles multiple times in earlier movies?
JR: It makes our job so easy when you’re working with actors who are that talented but also know their characters this well. There’s something great about coming into – what do you call this, a mosaic franchise? – where you’re getting actors who have played the characters before. You don’t have to spend as much time and effort worrying about character beats because they’re going to take care of those. You can worry about the overall picture, the arcs of the characters throughout the movie. We were able to talk through tone with them.
HC: You might not assume Captain America and Black Widow would work so well together, but they make for a very interesting pair.
JR: Why I think their chemistry is so good together is they’re very close friends. We did a lot of script work with them on their scenes. They brought a lot of their own ideas to their scenes and a lot of personal energy to those scenes to create what we like to call a work wife/work husband relationship between those two characters. I don’t know if they know as characters where that relationship’s going to end up until they get to the end of the movie. It could end up being very platonic, it could end up going in another direction, a more romantic direction, but that’s part of the fun of watching their relationship evolve. One of the cool things about the Avengers is it’s a group of people who come together to fight for a common cause. We get to make a movie about two of those characters and I think we can explore now, well, what are friendships like coming out of that group? Who’s going to be attracted to each other? Who’s going to end up becoming closer friends? To take those two who are so opposite and put them on a journey together just really, it’s a very electric compelling character journey.
The way we approached almost the whole movie and every concept in the film — and it’s a little silly to say it on a superhero film – was, all right, how realistic can we make this feel? If you were in a work relationship with this person who’s clearly very attractive, there would obviously be flirtation there because they’re both fun people, they’re both interesting people and they’re in intense situations together. But when you look at the sort of code of principles that Cap has and the lack of a code that she has, you also go, Well, clearly this isn’t something that probably would work out between them. And they both know that. If they were intelligent, living and breathing people in the world today, this is probably the journey they would go on.
HC: This is the first time you’ve staged big action scenes for a film. How did you approach that challenge?
AR: You have to lead with character and narrative at every moment through the action. We love action, we fetishize it, but that was our litmus test for when we were getting off-track. When we couldn’t find the character in the moment, we knew this was something we had to throw out.
JR: We did a lot of script work and we had a lot of prep, which is unusual for a movie of this size. We had a year to prep this movie, probably a little over a year when you consider we had done a lot of work to get the job and done a lot of thinking to get the job. Once we got the job we knew tonally where we wanted to go, thematically where we wanted to go.
HC: Exactly how much work did you have to do to land the directing job?
JR: We did a lot of story work. We pitched them a lot of story ideas. We had read the script, it was a great script, but there were areas where we felt like we could improve upon character, we could improve upon storytelling. We really pushed for as topical themes as we could because we wanted the audience to have a very visceral reaction to the movie. If you’re in a political thriller, you want to feel like, Oh my god, this is everything that’s happening in my life right now. Action was really important to us in the film. Because we were doing an homage to ’70s thrillers, we said we need those protracted action sequences that were so popular in those movies. They’re almost existential in the way they represent the characters’ journey throughout the movie. They’re like a microcosm of the theme that’s happening or the character arc that’s happening at that point in the movie. We were very meticulous about the influences for the sequences and the storytelling beats in each sequence. For us, action has to come from character and storytelling or it’s empty action. We’re very meticulous about crafting those character beats into each of those sequences. That’s a lot of the work we did. We put storyboards together, we wrote some ideas for dialogue down… Marvel, what separates them as a brand from most superhero films is that there’s a high level of entertainment. There is a sense of humor, or in this movie, which has a little bit less of a sense of humor, at least an enjoyment factor, a high level of entertainment.
AR: We made what we called a fake trailer for the movie, which was basically just clips and shots from other films that we felt like gave an impression of the tone and style we wanted to use in the film. We went in four times to meet on it – from the get-go we were excited about the project and we just kept falling deeper and deeper in love with it. At that point, we were just enjoying that process. By the time we got the job, we’d pretty much figured the film out, which was cool.
HC: You’re going to direct the next “Captain America” film. How far along are you on that project?
JR: We are in the formative stages and we are breaking story with Marcus and McFeeley. It’s the same creative team. What’s nice about the film is that it is, cliffhanger’s probably the wrong term for it, but it’s a two-parter. There’s a journey that the Winter Soldier goes on that isn’t complete yet. The next movie, it would seem logically to want to be about the completion of that journey. Again, we’ll have to see how audiences respond to the characters in the movie and the tone of the film before we make a decision on where to take the next one.
AR: The relationship between Cap and Winter Soldier’s fascinating to me. The idea of a friend who’s been lost and can that friend ever be regained? I always think about movies like “The Searchers,” the stories of kidnappings where settlers were taken by Indians, lived with Indians for a long time and lost their relationship to the original families they were with and had this identity crisis… where they would belong. For me, Winter Soldier very much lives in that world. Where does a character like that go who’s had his identity stolen from him and been given another identity and now is trying to form a third? That’s fascinating. And how is Cap going to relate to that knowing that that’s the only person left from his original life?
HC: At this point, what do you most enjoy when you watch the film?
JR: What I enjoy when I watch the movie is the balance between character and action in the film, and that the action is an expression of the character because those are the things we grew up on. We’ve seen “The French Connection” 100 times and we studied that car chase frame by frame. [When] we were kids on VHS we would go one frame a time and look at what [director William Friedkin] was doing with performances and the sound work and the camerawork and how he was tying all that together in a very stylized way where it would represent the internal struggle or turmoil of the character. To get the opportunity to do that on such a large scale with a comic book character – I’ve been collecting comics since I was 10 — it was a double whammy. That’s what I enjoy most.
— Gina McIntyre | @LATHeroComplex
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