“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” has a very different feel to it than its predecessor, “Captain America: The First Avenger.” While that film was essentially a World War II movie, “The Winter Soldier” is an espionage thriller inspired by the best of ’70s spy movies.
The shift in tone was handled by two very capable men: Joe and Anthony Russo. Known best for their stints directing and writing for comedies like “Community” and “Arrested Development,” the two brothers are “action fetishists” who have more experience in the genre than one might think from glancing over their IMDb profiles.
Zap2it: Is the paintball episode of “Community” the closest you two came to directing an action movie before this?
Anthony Russo: Probably.
Joe Russo: Yes, but “LAX” had some, and our very first movie that never got released. We made a credit-card movie in the late ’90s that ended up making the festival circuit, and that’s the movie that Stephen Soderbergh saw and offered to produce our next movie, which ended up being “Welcome to Collinwood.” That first movie was part dark comedy and part stylish thriller, and it had some very stylized, action-y components.
Anthony: It was centered around a bank heist. There’s been a smattering of it here and there, but we are action fetishists. We love action movies. We study them. My Apple TV lives at quarter speed, where I just go through sequences in slow motion and I’m studying the edits and I’m looking at what they’re doing with the camera.
In a show like “Community” where we’re spoofing genres, we’re constantly going back to the things that you love, and going, “Now that we’re doing a paintball episode and I’m spoofing [Sergio] Leone, I need to go look at five Leone movies and study what it is that makes Leone Leone.” We’re constantly in film school on a show like “Community,” and I think that helped us translate to something like this.
What did you guys use as your influences or study sheets on “Cap 2″?
Anthony: For this, there was a couple of very specific influences, because we do like to look to strong influences and say “here’s what we’re going to do.” Seventies thrillers are the tone. The tone and the theme of this movie come from ’70s thrillers.
Joe: “Three Days of the Condor.”
Anthony: We’ve joked that you could call the movie “Three Days of Captain America” because it owes such a creative debt to that movie. A very likable character gets sucked into a web of intrigue, very violent forces are trying to kill him — and have a very grand plan which they’re trying to protect, which is why they have to kill him. “French Connection” was a huge influence on us growing up. I think we’ve seen the car chase in that 100 times.
Specific influences, like in this movie, Fury’s car chase sequence is really inspired by “Ronin.” I love that film, it has some of the best car chases we’ve ever seen. The scene where Winter Soldier attacks them on the freeway in the car, the bank heist sequence in “Heat” had a huge influence on that sequence. We kept showing it to the crew and to our stunt team, saying, “This is the energy we want. This is how we want it to feel. This is how we want the cameras to work. You see here how loud the guns are in this sequence in ‘Heat’?” You really feel like you’re standing next to these guns. It’s very subjective, first-person filmmaking.
Joe: [The] martial arts movie “The Raid” was a big influence. It really, really drove us wild, that movie. Again, we had everyone who had anything to do with fighting in the movie, we had them watch that movie. The camera work, in terms of how they covered the fight scene …
Anthony: The tracking of the action was so specific in that film. And the last, and probably biggest, influence on this movie was [Brian] De Palma. Fury, when he’s trapped in his car, or Cap in the elevator — long sequences of tension and impossible situations where you’re not quite sure of how they’re going to get out of these situations, and then stretching that for as much screen time as you possibly can.
What did you two do to convince Marvel you were the right people to direct this movie?
Anthony: We’re very passionate about our approach to the material. It was a lengthy audition process. I’ve been collecting comics since I was 10. When we found out it was a ’70s thriller, it was a double whammy creatively for us because we also loved ’70s thrillers. We couldn’t have signed on the dotted line faster. This is a movie we felt like we were born to make. We went through four or five meetings with them over a few months. We worked really hard to prove to them that we had the right vision for the film, that we were the right guys for the job, and thankfully they believed in us.
Joe: Their process is they cast a very wide net. [Marvel Studios head] Kevin [Feige] likes to talk to a lot of different people with a lot of different points of views, just for ideas. The fact that we were interesting enough for round 2, and interesting enough to keep around for round 3, and round 4, and eventually …
I love that they keep bringing the ties back to TV with directors. Since you both already have that experience, do you think there’s a chance you could do a guest director spot on “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD”?
Anthony: We’ve talked to them about crossing back over. It’s just really a function of schedule. We literally locked picture on this [a month] ago and delivered the film, and we’re already breaking story for “Cap 3.” So to figure out where we’re going to find the time is crazy, but we love television. Television to us is going through a golden age right now where some of the best content is on television.
There’s so much comedy in this movie. Was that something that was already there in the script, or is that something you both brought to this while making it?
Joe: When we got involved, [Christopher] Markus and [Stephen] McFeely had already written an excellent script, so that was a great starting point. But then we moved forward from there, and we did do a lot of work with them on the script. We developed it for several months in a room with them, very much in the style that we work on our TV shows. We were sort of pitching out ideas, talking through scenes, talking about character arcs, throwing out lines, and so in that process we developed a lot of the action sequences, and also did a lot of character work.
The comedy was interesting in this movie because, at the end of the day, this movie has a darker tone. There’s no silliness in this world. There are serious stakes. The comedy in the movie, none of it is situational. It all comes from the character relationships. Sometimes in tense situations, comedy pops even stronger in character relationships. A lot of that came in the development process.
The fossil line is my favorite. Was that something that came from you two?
Joe: That did come after we got involved.
Anthony: Like TV, we had a couple of our comedy friends come in and pitch out ideas for jokes in the movie that were character-based. One of them was Chris McKenna, who is an executive producer on “Community” and probably one of the funniest people we know. I think that was either his line, or Aseem Batra — two writers who came in and we spent an afternoon with.
When you’re working on a pilot in television, a comedy pilot, usually you’ll call up all your funny friends in the business and say, “Hey, we’re going to buy everybody pizza and beer. Will you come in for three or four hours, read the script out loud with us and pitch out jokes?”
Joe: Comedy movies work the same way.
Do you have to pay for more than pizza and beer when it’s a Marvel movie?
Anthony: [laughs] No, actually. But we had Chris McKenna and Aseem Batra come in for an afternoon and pitch out jokes, and one of them pitched out of the fossil line.
Speaking of “Community” influences in the movie, I loved Danny Pudi’s cameo. Can you talk a bit about how that came to be?
Anthony: Danny is one of my best friends. I love Danny. That whole cast is like our family. I used to go to Mardi Gras every year with Alison [Brie] and Danny. We’ve been on trips together. For us, we’re always trying to layer in Easter eggs for people because we know that there’s a very rabid fanbase that loves that stuff, and you want to feed that. You want them to get excited, and every time they watch the movie they can rediscover something. Danny was just a very obvious, easy Easter egg. We just felt it would be a nod to our history with that show and to our friendship with him to have him appear in the movie.
Can we expect a “Captain America” reference on “Community” in response, like the “Cougar Town” back-and-forth?
Joe: [laughs] It’s very possible, yes.
Anthony: I’m sure those guys will find some very metaphysical way to explore his appearance.
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is in theaters now.