'Captain America: Civil War' Director Joe Russo on the Film Industry's Chinese Future (Q&A)

Anthony and Joe Russo GETTY H 2016
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In Beijing, he discusses how the movie deconstructs the superhero genre, the end of indie movies in the U.S. and why he's setting up a Chinese studio.

Over the next few years, a large slice of the Marvel cinematic universe effectively will be the Joe and Anthony Russo show. The sibling director duo are riding high on strong critical buzz and big commercial expectations for Captain America: Civil War, their follow-up to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which grossed $715 million worldwide in 2014.

Although Civil War doesn't open in most major markets until May 6, Marvel and Disney have already given the brothers the ultimate endorsement by signing them to direct the forthcoming Avengers: Infinity War movies, which will serve as the culmination of the first 20 films in the sprawling and wildly successful franchise.

The Russos will insist, however, that their commercial success at the elite Disney tentpole-level of the film business belies an experimental streak that has characterized their work from the beginning — a tendency that is now taking their careers in one of its most surprising directions to date: into China. 

The Russo brothers emerged from the U.S. indie scene of the late 1990s. Their first film, Pieces, an absurdist art house crime picture, was financed with personal credit card debt and discovered by Steven Soderbergh, who became a mentor and arranged their entree into Hollywood. The brothers later won an Emmy for their directorial work on the cult Fox comedy Arrested Development. They've directed and produced numerous TV pilots, film shorts and commercials. Now, they are setting up shop in China. 

Last month, the brothers secured financing for Anthem & Song, a studio based in Los Angeles and Beijing, which they will use to develop and produce Chinese-language films for China's booming theatrical market, which is expected to top North America as the world's biggest box office territory next year. The Russos expect to have two films in production by the end of 2017; they're visiting China on a monthly basis.

In a lengthy conversation at the Rosewood Hotel in Beijing,THR spoke with Joe Russo about why he and his brother find the Chinese film industry more creatively exciting than Hollywood and how Civil War was one of the riskiest movies of their careers.

How's your visit to Beijing been going so far?

The town is so fascinating. I love it. And the food ... I'm Italian, so I absorb other cultures through their food. The group I bring out here all the time, we love 1949, the Peking duck house. We go every time we come here. We're starting to get our regular spots. 

So, how have things developed with Anthem & Song since you first told us about the studio last month?

There's been a lot of progress. We've got a project that's very close to going. I don't want to jinx it, but we expect to announce it soon. We've been here for four days and we've had meetings from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. It's a very explosive market, so there's a lot going on. We're seeing potential production partners, writers, directors, actors — everybody. We're really immersing ourselves into the market. 

There is a long history of directors from around the world coming to Hollywood to make movies in the American tradition. Thanks to the market growth here, it's becoming possible to go the other way for the first time — for American filmmakers to make big movies in Chinese. Do you have any desire to direct here?

As a director, who knows. Certainly as producers, that is the plan. What's fascinating about this market is the potential it has to bring more diversity into global cinema. That's what's creatively exciting to us, rather than figuring out how to make Chinese filmmakers more Western to appeal to the international market. China has a deep historical mythology. Storytelling is as old here as it is anywhere in the world. We're not interested in altering those cultural elements; we're interested in fostering them. To me that's what's creatively interesting about this opportunity. 

Your timing is good too, with the Chinese box office beginning to tilt in the direction of local-language content over imported Hollywood fare ...

Without question. It's nice that not everything gets eaten by Hollywood. It's probably concerning to many studio heads. But for artists, especially guys who appreciate international voices, I find it very interesting the way that they are cultivating Chinese cinema here. It's not built to be taken over by U.S. corporations. To work here as a [non-Chinese] artist is probably much easier than it is for a company like Warner Bros. to figure out how to get a foothold. 

Does the growth of the Chinese market affect your creative process when you're developing and directing the Marvel films? 

It does, but in very subtle ways. You're just thinking in a more worldly way, rather than myopically, which helps you create more robust stories. I'm sure some of the talent relationships we're developing here will pay off, too. Jiang Wen is going to be in the next Star Wars movie. If they hadn't gotten to him first, we would have loved to have used him in one of our Marvel films. Somebody else will excite us in that same way, I'm sure. We're very experiential in the way we work, so having more experiences here will definitely work its way into our storytelling. 

Nothing has worked its way into it yet?

Other than a few shots we stole from Jiang Wen's Let the Bullets Fly? [Laughs] Nothing so explicit yet. The typical, hasty reaction is to pander, right? To suddenly start dropping in Chinese locations and references just to appeal to the market. But the Chinese audience is very perceptive about when that's being done for the wrong reasons, and it's not what interests us. Our intent is to have a Chinese-language film company, because we're interested in Chinese voices and dimensionalizing world cinema. We're not interested in co-opting and anglicizing it. Our part of the world has had a long enough run. Some people would even say we're spinning our tires in the mud a little bit. 

How do you mean? 

From a storytelling standpoint. If you're looking at the future of film in the U.S. domestic market, it's all about serialized, branded content. Disney represents the future of filmmaking in North America. It's a juggernaut of branded content that owns the calendar. A Marvel movie every May, August and November. There's a Star Wars movie in December. You can't come out in those months or you're going to get killed, you know? I think independent cinema isn't going to exist anymore. Very few films are going to be made and released in the U.S. market that aren't branded content. You'll have to have an established name as a director to cut through the noise to get your film released. Occasionally, there will be a small film that will get discovered that's worth a theatrical run — like Nate Parker's movie (The Birth of a Nation).

Television remains vibrant ...

Television, by comparison, is in an incredible, very healthy place. Once it shed the shackles of the Nielsen ratings and became a non-metric-based content source, you suddenly started seeing some of the most incredible stories ever told on screens. So, Netflix and Amazon are going to be the future of independent cinema, because they're cash-rich and they're not metric-based. You don't have to worry about trying to open three weeks after Civil War with your $10 million art house film. You can release it on Netflix and it goes on the homepage and the only way it's judged is by the cultural conversation that it creates — the amount of people who are talking about it.There's no metric that people can point to and say, oh, that was a success or a failure. The Disney direction that business is going in has a certain predictability to it. But what we like about the Chinese market is that it's explosive and completely unpredictable. Who knows where it's going? 

The Chinese government has quite clearly stated that it's ultimately in competition with Hollywood and U.S. culture. At the highest policy level, the goal is to assert soft power, to begin to match China's newfound economic might with cultural influence around the world. You're known best for a franchise that's called Captain America, which has done big business in China, yet you're also setting up a studio to foster Chinese cinema. What's it like for you to entertain the geopolitical backdrop? 

It's not something I reflect on too much, because ultimately, from a directing standpoint, what I do in Hollywood reflects just one part of who I am as an artist. It's a very specific business. If it's your goal to ascend to the top of that business, then you're going to make very specific kind of content. We took a very interesting journey from being really extreme art house filmmakers. But we find that working in commercial filmmaking and creating a brand on that high level affords us a lot of interesting opportunities. Setting up a studio to produce Chinese films is one of those opportunities. There are others. I'm just as fascinated by the virtual reality space as I am by the Chinese market — there's the same explosive growth potential, where you have to acknowledge that anything could happen. 

How are you getting involved in VR? 

We have a company called Bullitt, which we've been using as our home base. We're in the middle of a fund raise right now. We're looking at ways to expand that company. We feel a lot of the future of storytelling is going to be in the VR space. The possibilities do feel limitless. We've spent 100 years understanding film as two-hour, closed-ended stories. What's interesting about what Marvel has done over the last 10 years is they've borrowed from television and turned the films into open-ended stories. Now, of course, serialization started in the 1980s, but the scale of it is unique and the amount of characters who exist in their own franchises and then cross over, that's unique. Nobody's done that in TV or features. That's an advancement of storytelling. Some people get grumpy, and say, you know, 'I've always understood stories to be two hours and I can't keep up with all this shit.' But it appeals to a younger audience who doesn't own televisions and that watches most of their content on their phone and computer, and most of the content they watch is fragmented and interspersed in their lives and incredibly diverse ...

You see a through-line from Marvel to VR? 

The next phase after something like Marvel is going to be VR, where you're in a fully immersive story and can choose your path. What's going to happen to movie theaters? Is it a bunch of people in a movie theater with VR headsets because you still want a communal experience? Or are you going to be sitting at home on your couch because it's so immersive that it doesn't matter where your body is and who's actually around you, and the communal experience is on the inside? Maybe the communal experience is in the immersive space, where you're with your cousin who's actually halfway across the country but then you meet in the VR space to choose a path through a story together. We'll only know how this medium works once certain things start to dictate viewing habits on a communal level, and then we'll go 'oh, that's what's working.' In the meantime, lots of things will be tried — and how fun is that? 

So you've got two Marvel movies in the bank, and two to come. How are you feeling about the relationship and your place in the franchise? 

We're ecstatic about working at Marvel. I think we've gotten away with putting some really interesting content into some very expensive tentpoles movies. Civil War really deconstructs the superhero genre and people seem to be responding to that. It was a very risky movie for us. It has a non-traditional three-act structure for a superhero film. 

How do you get everyone on board with that kind of story decision when the stakes are so high? 

You have to feel that the market is saturated enough that the audience is ready for something different. It's a calculated risk. But again, that's what gets me out of bed. I'm much more interested in deconstructing the genre than doing the traditional execution of it. We've been out of synch for years. Shows like Arrested Development and Community were well received critically and had a devoted fan base, but they weren't commercially successful. The audience's taste finally seems to be lining up with our desire to pursue post-modern storytelling. 

What do you think might be driving that change?

Well, it helps that we're working within a very popular genre. But I also think social media has altered viewing habits and tastes. The quality of tentpole movies has gotten very good and very competitive over the last couple years. Because of social media and the discussion that happens there, the audience has gotten a stronger collective sense of taste and you're dead at 6 p.m. on Friday if you didn't make a good movie. And they're starting to champion more radical storytelling.

Deadpool's a great example of that. I mean, holy shit, $750 million worldwide? For our part, when we finished Winter Soldier two years ago and we were thinking about doing the next one, the only thing that seemed interesting to us was to deconstruct the Marvel Universe — because where else can we go at this point? There have been 11 or 12 movies so far, all with a fairly traditional structure. Our pitch to them was: People will tell you they love chocolate ice cream — until you give it to them five days a week. It's time to give them some rainbow sherbet. Kevin [Feige] is a maverick and he's very sensitive to how people are responding to his content. He said he thought we might be right. And after they announced Batman v. Superman, he said, 'you guys are absolutely right.' We needed to do something challenging with the material or we were going to start to lose the audience. 

Your first film, Pieces (1997), was very art house and self-financed. What do you think those guys back then would make of the fact that you're now directing the culmination of the biggest film franchise in history and launching a studio to make Chinese movies on the other side of the planet?

Well, you know, we were mavericks. The first movie we made was a nonlinear absurdist film that was highly influenced by [Jean-Luc] Godard and [Francois] Truffaut. I think those two guys would be shocked by our commercial success — but they wouldn't be surprised by our desire to work in the Chinese film world.