For Anthony and Joe Russo, choosing their next project after making the all-time highest-grossing film “Avengers: Endgame,” was not easy. But after reading the novel “Cherry” by Nico Walker, the filmmaking duo saw a personal connection to the opioid epidemic that they witnessed first-hand within their community and their own family.
From a script by their younger sister Angela Russo-Otstot, which she co-wrote with Jessica Goldberg, it’s a dramatic departure from their other work. The same goes for Tom Holland’s performance, after his portrayal of Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In an interview with Variety, the brothers discuss their origins and the personal connection to the story of “Cherry.” They also open up about some of their cinematic influences, such as Steven Soderbergh and the Coen brothers, and if solo projects could be in their future.
Growing up with so much brotherly love, who had the idea to get into filmmaking?
Anthony Russo: It was very incremental baby steps. Joe got into the arts first, pursuing a master’s in fine arts, acting, and drama at Case Western Reserve University. I was there at the same time pursuing the first year of a law degree. We didn’t go to undergrad together and were at the same school for the first time. We started a comedy troupe together and put out a couple of shows. And the enjoyment of doing that led us to try to write a screenplay. This was right in the wake of “El Mariachi” and was inspired by the idea that you can make a movie for $7,000. The little light bulb went off for us. That’s how it basically started.
Joe Russo: I think that there was a bit of a craze at the time, because of Sundance, starting with Soderbergh, anointing filmmakers left and right. So people were coming out of nowhere. It was this new idea that you could make a very low-budget movie, with some ingenuity, and get recognized, and suddenly you’re the next big thing in Hollywood. So I think it was just a moment in time. It inspired thousands of other people across the country and us. I remember we applied to Slamdance in 1997, and I think they got 2,000 submissions. We ended up getting very lucky because the one person who would respond to the movie we ended up making actually saw the film, and that was Soderbergh. It was a very nonlinear experimental movie, inspired by François Truffaut in the French New Wave, and we did not get a big response out of mainstream Hollywood.
The two of you have ties to Steven Soderbergh, and he recently announced that he would be one of the producers for the upcoming Academy Awards. Is there any chance you guys could have any involvement in the ceremony?
Joe Russo: I got to say, I got to say, I loved his photo in the trades, like Sergeant Pepper, something only Soderbergh could pull off. He should produce the Oscars in that Sergeant Pepper costume. [laughs].
Anthony Russo: The first thing that Joe and I ever produced together was our high school talent show, so we have a history in a variety show presentation.
Having directed films in the MCU like “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers,” do you both feel an artistic exhale, allowing you to move into the next phase of your careers?
Joe Russo: We had an incredible experience working with Marvel, and we prioritize the work experience as much as we do the storytelling and the subject matter. They were an incredible group of people to work with, doing some very experimental storytelling. No one had ever done a mosaic of stories spread out over 22 movies. We found that a very interesting concept, as mentioned, our biggest inspiration growing up was the French New Wave, we were these punk rock kids who grew up on Cleveland’s streets. We had a point of view that was not necessarily mainstream. When you grow up in the industrial Midwest, especially in a city that gets made fun of all the time, it fosters a certain attitude and a certain point of view that isn’t 10 blocks from your home. But also, when we were kids, we sat in theaters and had those emotional moments like everyone else during “Empire Strikes Back,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” It was something about big movies and being in a packed theater and people collectively reacting together. Those were strong impressions on us. We wanted to pass those feelings on to another generation.
With your younger sister Angela co-writing the screenplay, “Cherry” is a family affair.
Anthony Russo: It was hard for us to think about what to do after “Endgame,” and we came across the novel “Cherry” by Nico Walker. It just cleaned things up for us very quickly. We responded very strongly to it. That was a very personal response. Nico grew up in Cleveland, on the east side, the very same neighborhoods we grew up in. We felt a strong connection to the setting and the experiences he was talking about, particularly the opioid addiction. Our family has had experience with opioids. We’ve even lost people from it. It’s been complicated and personal because it felt so close to home. I think that’s one reason why we just went into our big brother mode with Angela and just basically said, “here, write this.” We knew that she also understood it in a very personal way. This has definitely been the most exciting collaboration with her yet.
Why is it so difficult to tell genuine stories about the opioid crisis?
Joe Russo: There are people very close to us who died from it, and the Midwest is a bit of a ground zero. It’s an existential crisis that is gripping that part of the country. There was a “heyday” to this country, but that might not be true moving forward, one that every generation will do better than the previous. I think the psyche of the country realizes that. It’s creating stagnancy, and these drugs have become really cheap. They’re super addictive; they’re scientifically engineered to be completely addictive. If you get introduced to them, it’s very hard to get off of them, especially if you don’t have the means to get off. Understanding this crisis firsthand, seeing how it’s affected people we love, we felt we had to tell a story that was as truthful as possible about it to help generate a conversation.
Having worked with Tom Holland as Spider-Man in the MCU, were you always envisioning him in the “Cherry” role?
Anthony Russo: Yes. Very early on, I don’t even know that Joe and I wanted to commit to doing the movie at all until we thought of Tom in the role. The book is dark, very complicated, and that’s what its value is. We wanted to make this movie because it speaks to very relevant and current issues dealing with opioid addiction that has to do with the military experience, the modern military experience. It was a very original take on those experiences, specific to the modern generation. We wanted to do a version of the movie that was palatable, not like taking your medicine. Tom is so likable. He’s such an appealing actor, and so good. Once we started thinking about him as a character, the whole movie opened up for us as a possibility because he was our road to an accessible, exciting, enjoyable version of a difficult film.
Joel Coen is directing “Macbeth,” which is separate from his brother Ethan for the first time. Have there been any discussions about doing your own solo projects now or down the line?
Joe Russo: I get it with the Coens, but I’m heartbroken because I think they’re two of the greatest living filmmakers on the planet. I think that “No Country for Old Men” is a modern-day “Citizen Kane” movie. It’s beautifully made. There’s not a wrong frame in the movie. Anthony and I subscribe to something called the “mastermind principle,” we don’t call it that, but it’s a book we read a few years back that says, “two minds are doubly better than one.” They are exponentially better. There’s some unquantifiable component, that when you put two minds together, it creates magic. We value that magic a lot. When we did television, we would work separately on the episodes. As far as big projects go now, it’s never been something we’ve contemplated or contemplate. Because we enjoy collaboration. We know we do better work.
It would be hilarious if Anthony said, “Actually, I would love to direct one right now, but he won’t let me.” Anthony, do you concur with Joe’s sentiments?
Anthony Russo: I would totally concur. With the Coens, and I’m just speculating, we don’t know them personally, even though we idolize them; they’re getting older, and you want to slow down a bit. There may be one of us who may run out of gas first. Who knows?
What’s the movie that you watched as kids that hooked you into the dream of getting into the industry?
Joe Russo: “Apocalypse Now.”
Anthony Russo: “Once Upon a Time in the West.”
Name an actor you would have loved to direct but who is no longer alive.
Joe Russo: Paul Newman.
Anthony Russo: Ugh, I was going to say, Newman. I’ll say, Anna Magnani.
What’s the movie you want to make but you don’t have the money yet to make it?
Joe Russo: “Murray Hill.” The script we wrote 25 years ago is set in Cleveland and spans like three decades. It examines a mob war from the point of view of three different cultures engaged in the war. It’s a very expensive period movie with like 150 speaking parts and very complicated. It’s something that we’ve always aspired to make.
Which “Avenger” actor makes you laugh the most?
Joe Russo: Paul Rudd.
Anthony Russo: Robert Downey, Jr.
What superhero movie needs to be made that hasn’t been made yet?
Anthony Russo: The Great Lakes Avengers. Look it up.
Joe Russo: There’s a great indie comic that I collected in the 80s called “Grendel.” I don’t think anyone’s ever developed that. Another one called “Concrete” is also really good. Both of those.
What actor are you dying to work with but haven’t had the chance to yet?
Joe Russo: Denzel Washington.
Anthony Russo: John Turturro.
What’s next for the Russo brothers?
Joe Russo: We’re working on “The Gray Man” for Netflix. We’ve got a project called “Electric State.” It’s a dystopian sci-fi setting in the United States, which we thought was very politically appropriate for where we are in the world right now. This is the nice thing coming off all the branding you get from the Marvel films. You see this with Taika Waititi; you can use that branding to get things made that traditionally wouldn’t get made. We’re always looking at projects that have a level of complexity but are also broad appeal stories. Soderbergh taught us very early on and said, “one for you, one for them.” He meant to show people you can make money, then use that brand leverage to do an interesting project. We don’t always go one for one. We did a good 10-year run at Marvel, but “Cherry” would have never gotten made, with this budget, if we hadn’t done those Marvel films. The future for us is to keep challenging ourselves.