For their adaptation of Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical novel — their gritty follow-up to the ground- and record-breaking 'Avengers: Endgame' — directors Joe and Anthony Russo homed in on addiction and PTSD, tapping their younger sister, Angela Russo-Otstot, to co-write the script in this family affair: "You have to submit the ego to the collective."
After wrapping the biggest film franchise of all time with Marvel's Avengers: Endgame, Anthony and Joe Russo wanted to go back home. Set in their native Ohio, Cherry, out Feb. 26 via Apple TV+, is their first non-superpowered project in more than a half-decade. Tom Holland stars as a young Iraq veteran, known in the movie as Cherry, whose battle with opioid addiction leads him to become a serial bank robber. For the personal project, the Russo brothers teamed with their sister, Angela Russo-Otstot, who co-scripted the adaptation of the semi-autobiographical novel by Nico Walker, who wrote the book while serving a prison sentence for bank robbery.
The siblings talked to The Hollywood Reporter about how social media — for better and worse — influenced the movie and their hopes of appealing to Gen Z audiences.
How did you first hear of the book?
JOE RUSSO It was recommended to us by a book agent that we know who really understands our [home] state, who called and said, "Listen, I know you guys are from Cleveland, I know you're passionate about your upbringing there. There is this book that's coming out that is really profound, it's in a really unique voice and it's detailing the opioid crisis in the industrial Midwest and it interweaves the Iraq War." The opioid crisis is a very personal issue to us. In a lot of ways, the industrial Midwest is ground zero for this crisis. We've lost people who are very close to us to opioids and have others that are struggling with their sobriety. I read it and passed it to Anthony and Angela.
Was that a similar situation for you, Angela? The story felt personal?
ANGELA RUSSO-OTSTOT It did. We, the three of us, grew up in the same pocket that a majority of the book takes place, and I had also been living there. It was almost like all your senses come alive when you're reading something that is that close to you. I'm pretty close in age [to the author]. I think also, to Joe's point, it offered such a specific and truly valuable perspective. The book gives you an entryway into the internal nuances of what these experiences in the war feel like, and then with PTSD and addiction.
Was it understood from the beginning that you three would work on this together?
ANTHONY RUSSO It evolved over time. We have a very fluid relationship and creative engagement with one another. I don't really remember the tipping point, but I think it just grew out of our shared connection over the material and what the movie should be. It was kind of a natural evolution.
What were those early conversations about what the movie should be?
JOE Gen Z is at the forefront of this fight. I've got four children, Angela has three, Anthony has two. This movie was engineered with a visual language to appeal to that generation. It's why Tom Holland is such perfect casting for this movie. The message of this film, the meat of the movie, is about making simple life choices that can cost you a decade and a half of your life. Both Cherry and Emily [played by Ciara Bravo] make those decisions without any life experience. This drug is scientifically engineered to make you addicted to it. It will cost you thousands of dollars and years of your life to get off of it. You may never get off of it — it may take your life.
ANTHONY It's a difficult story but it's a very important story to tell now. We wanted to make the movie accessible to audiences. We didn't want to make the movie feel like you were taking your medicine by coming to see it. That was one of the key touch points for all of us in terms of understanding that we need to balance the movie in such a way as to make it entertaining and inviting to watch, because it is such challenging subject matter.
Angela, when you were writing, what was in Walker's book that you wanted to make sure made it into the movie?
ANGELA He has such a remarkable voice and there's so many gems in there. When I went back into the book, it was about, "How do we capture the specialness of what Nico Walker has put on the page and translate it here within the script?" We found different ways to do that, and more inventive and experimental ways to do that. That's when we started to get into more detailed conversations about shifting tone and genre.
This movie blends a lot of genres — romance, addiction drama, war movie. Were you worried about fitting that all into Cherry?
ANTHONY We've always been drawn to an unconventional mixology of genres. We like taking the things that seemingly are incongruous and smashing them into each other and seeing what that does. That was definitely part of the essential appeal of this story to us. We also liked how it helped support this idea that this is an epic life arc for this character in this film. It's almost like an Odyssean journey.
ANGELA A choice that Anthony and Joe made very early on, which I think was really smart, was that the anchor of the movie is the love story. It carries us through those different experiences so that there's that constant through-line. Emily is the one piece that keeps him surviving and keeps him afloat through it all.
Was having Tom Holland break the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience a part of that visual language you were talking about?
JOE Yeah. You want to invite the audience into the character, with an actor as charming as Tom Holland. Ultimately, what the movie is espousing is empathy. We feel like we live in a time where empathy is dangerously anemic and we lack empathy toward each other. And [addiction] is a disease and it requires an empathetic, holistic approach to treatment, otherwise we're going to be in a lot more trouble if we can't reverse the trend. Technology and social media — they are all working against us, working against humanity and preservation of humanity. I think that you can draw a corollary between the opioid crisis and the advent of social media. We are becoming numb to crisis and we're becoming numb to pain, and that is not a good thing.
ANGELA Nico Walker, in the book, provides such an honest and transparent perspective. And it's unflinching. It felt very important to relay that within the film and with the level of detail that he does in the book. Our number one mission was to draw as many lines of empathy to this character as possible so that people who do not share these experiences, which is probably a vast majority of the audience, are able to feel compassion for him. And then for those who have experienced what Cherry finds himself going through, we would hope that there is some sense of appreciation on their part that their story is being represented. To us, the best feedback we could ever receive comes from people who share some of those experiences.
Directly talking to the audience is also how social media influencers engage with their audiences. Because you were targeting Gen Z, was that a conscious effort to create a familiar experience for them?
JOE Absolutely conscious. We are in a very unique period in movie history — the advent of digital platforms. You're going to reach any inflection point and there are going to be people who want to champion and hang on to the past, and there are going to be people who are more interested in what the future holds. Having four children, I can tell you that their acumen for understanding visual language is so much more significant than mine was at their age. Narrative is going to go through an evolution over the next decade or two. And as technology infuses into it, it's going to become more experiential. They are less precious about how they receive it. I love and adore the theatrical experience. My kids like it, but they also have six other ways that they can process information.
What [Anthony and I] love so much about the Marvel Universe is that it was a grand experiment that had never happened before. You were combining narrative from different franchises with different movie stars into mega events. And that was fascinating to us. You go back and look at our career. Arrested Development: riotous. Community: riotous. Ultimately I think what Marvel was doing — no matter how people want to ascribe it as some sort of commercial monster — it's still riotous in structure. It's still a new event, something that hadn't been done before.
Arrested was the first narrative show on television to shoot with digital cameras at that scale. I remember the fight we had with the network over that, [saying], "Look, this is the future, it's going to allow us to do this and move around and get 40 setups a day and six location changes with available light." We get out of bed every day for the challenges of trying to discover something new.
Do you view this as a period piece?
ANTHONY We definitely approached it that way. This movie is very much about the post-9/11 experience and about the post-9/11 generation. It's always fun to do period, and it was fun to realize that the early 2000s is in fact period now.
JOE We didn't have to change that much, which is why we found the material timely. If you go back and source the post-9/11 moment, it really draws a direct line to where we are right now as a country, where we are as people, where the opioid crisis really started and where it took root.
ANTHONY The opioid epidemic doesn't resemble drug waves that have preceded it. It's very different in terms of who is using the drugs, how they are being used, where they're being used and how they're being obtained. It is a wholly unique phenomenon that Joe just pointed out we are still in now, but that started in this period when the film is set.
How is the experience of working with family in a creative and professional capacity?
ANTHONY There certainly is a shorthand because of the shared experiences that really inform a lot of your artistic sensibilities and instincts. That was definitely at work on this movie with the three of us. We were able to tap into a shared experience that helped feed this movie very specifically.
We grew up in kind of an old-school, Italian American family. You develop this pattern where you have to understand that you have to submit the ego to the collective. That's sort of a fundamental premise of the clan. I think that helps in a creative collaboration because you are certainly never going to agree completely. You have to have that ability to let go of your own ego at certain moments and just run with the collaboration.
ANGELA You can also talk really loudly, but it doesn't mean you're angry.
Have you had an opportunity to screen the movie?
ANTHONY We're just beginning that process.
JOE This is an issue film. It's about PTSD. It's about trauma. Whether you were in a war or not or whether you're a recovering addict or not, we are all victims of trauma right now. We are traumatized every day by our government, we are traumatized by a pandemic. And I think what is important about this film is how we receive trauma and then how we process that trauma and work through it. We are going to have a couple years of fallout from everything that has happened over the last two or three years. And trauma is going to be on a wide scale in this country and in other parts of the world. So again, I feel like the antidote for trauma is empathy and acceptance and inclusion. And I think that is really what this movie is about.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
From 'Riotous' TV Directors to Box Office Titans
The Russo brothers brought the Marvel Cinematic Universe's third phase to a close with this blockbuster that grossed a whopping $2.8 billion worldwide.
Captain America: Civil War
This installment launched the MCU's third phase, setting up the events that would culminate in Infinity War and Endgame.
Avengers: Infinity War
The first chapter of Marvel's star-studded two-film crossover event, this entry in the MCU ended with a shocking cliff-hanger that killed off many of the franchise's heroes.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Russos joined the MCU with this sequel, the second Captain America installment in the franchise.
The brothers served as EPs on the Dan Harmon-created NBC comedy, for which they directed the pilot. Anthony directed an additional 13 episodes, while Joe helmed 20.
You, Me and Dupree
The Russos' third feature film starred Owen Wilson as a house guest who outstays his welcome with newlyweds played by Kate Hudson and Matt Dillon.
The brothers won an Emmy for directing the pilot episode of the cult-favorite comedy. Separately, they directed 14 episodes during its initial three-season run on Fox.
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.