The Russo Brothers are using the clout they earned from directing “Avengers: Endgame” and several other Marvel movies to get some interesting projects off the ground. Take “Mosul,” a jittery, intense thriller about an elite group of Iraqi soldiers facing off against ISIS in a bombed-out city. There’s little about the film, which relies on a cast of unknown actors, all of whom speak only Arabic, that screams blockbuster.
“We know it’s unconventional,” said Anthony Russo, who, along with his brother Joe Russo, produced “Mosul” through their company AGBO. “But we hope that the global cinema market is open to new ideas and excited by new ideas.
“Joe and I want to use the capital we’ve built up to help films like this find an audience and get made,” he added.
There were other risks involved. Matthew Michael Carnahan had written the scripts to hits and notable films such as “The Kingdom” and “World War Z,” but he had never directed a film before sliding behind the camera on “Mosul.” But after coming across a New Yorker article titled “The Avengers of Mosul,” he was seized by a desire to not only adapt it for the big screen, but to also call the shots.
“I threw them a lot of curveballs,” said Carnahan. “To my great surprise, when I brought up the idea of directing they didn’t hang up or break into laughter.”
“Mosul,” which premiered at the Venice Film Festival and screens on Monday at the Toronto Film Festival, is a showcase for actors who have been frequently overlooked or relegated to bit parts. Suhail Dabbach, who plays Jasem, the soulful and charismatic leader of the SWAT team, is the film’s true standout. An Iraqi refugee, Dabbach was finally given an opportunity to play the lead after a career playing glorified walk-ons (his highest-profile role was as a suicide bomber in “The Hurt Locker”). Other members of the ensemble had never acted professionally and were found after they responded to fliers for casting calls.
“We didn’t just want to go to the West End and pick up a couple of actors who sort of looked the part,” said Carnahan. “We cast our net far and wide.”
Part of what excited the filmmaking team behind “Mosul” was that it presented an opportunity to tell a story of Iraqi heroism, particularly at a time when the war in the region isn’t being covered as aggressively by Western media as before.
“The conflict has been taking place for a long time and it has affected so many people,” said Joe Russo. “We felt it would be valuable to look at this issue from a point of view that American audiences don’t often have access to. Maybe that will be valuable in helping us figure out how we can all move forward together.”
It’s also a sign of the ambitions that the Russos have for AGBO, “an artists collective” that they founded to chart their post-Marvel Cinematic Universe life. The company plans to make movies, TV shows and digital content and has already lined up an impressive range of projects including the Chadwick Boseman thriller “21 Bridges” and “Cherry,” an adaptation of Nico Walker’s acclaimed novel about the opioid crisis.
“We have a wide agenda,” said Anthony Russo. “We like finding ways to bring projects to the screen that may not find a road otherwise.”
They may have wrapped up their run on “The Avengers,” but they were willing to field a few questions about the breakup of Sony and Marvel over Spider-Man. Marvel produced the last two web-spinner movies, but won’t be involved in future installments because the two companies couldn’t agree to profit-sharing terms. The original deal was struck in part so Spider-Man could appear in “Captain America: Civil War,” “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame,” all of which were directed by the Russos.
“We don’t know how things are playing out on an inside level,” said Anthony Russo. “We fought hard to bring Spider-Man into the MCU, but it was always a complicated marriage. We’re thrilled that we got to introduce a new version of Spider-Man to the world and we’re grateful for the time we had with the character. In terms of how it moves forward, we can’t comment beyond saying it’s complicated.”