University Lecture Committee: Joe Russo
The Englert Theatre — Monday, April 30 at 7 p.m.
Hollywood director Joe Russo fell in love with storytelling as an English major at the University of Iowa. In grad school, he and his brother Anthony decided to tell stories through film, inspired by Robert Rodriguez’s film El Mariachi, allegedly made for only $7,000.
Over two decades, the Russos have gone from making “credit card movies” — “You go apply for a credit card and then try to max it out and get a film done,” Russo explained — to helming three tentpoles in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), with a collective budget of more than $700 million.
One of these films is Avengers: Infinity War, the most ambitious and highly-anticipated film since the MCU began in 2008. Infinity War premiered April 27 and has been met with an avalanche of rave reviews and gloriously anguished fan reactions.
The film features the core Avengers — including Captain America, whose solo films Winter Soldier and Civil War the Russos directed — as well as the Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Spider-Man and other heroes, facing off against genocidal space titan Thanos.
“Infinity War will end with a gamechanger for the MCU,” Joe Russo said in a conference call with Iowa City/Cedar Rapids reporters. “I think you’ll see that in one film we’ve changed it as much as it’s changed over all 18 movies.”
Russo will being speaking at the Englert Theatre on Monday, April 30, hosted by the University Lecture Committee. The event is free, and begins at 7 p.m.; guests will have the chance to win tickets to one of two screenings of Avengers: Infinity War at FilmScene later that evening. Russo said he’s excited to hold a dialogue with UI students, hoping to pass along some of the knowledge and inspiration he received during his three years at the university.
As an undergraduate, Russo said he became fond of UI professor Jay Holstein, who has taught classes such as Quest for Human Destiny and Judeo-Christian Tradition at UI since 1970. Russo served as his student and teaching assistant.
“Unequivocally, the most important thing I learned [at UI] was from Professor Holstein. It was about thematics and metaphor and storytelling,” he said. “I was aware of thematics and metaphor but not on such a profound level as when I took his classes and I developed a very close relationship with him … He was a huge influence on me as a storyteller and my understanding of how stories could resonant with audiences.”
The Russo brothers first got into filmmaking while attending Case Western University in their hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, Joe for an acting MFA, Anthony for law school. They were discovered by renowned director, screenwriter and producer Stephen Soderbergh after he saw their film Pieces at the Slamdance Film Festival (in 2017, Slamdance launched the Russo Brothers Fellowship Award in their honor).
Soderbergh and his producing partner George Clooney agreed to finance the brothers’ next film: crime comedy Welcome to Collinwood (2002), starring Clooney, William H. Macy and Sam Rockwell. This domino-ed into an array of projects, from the film You, Me and Dupree to the TV show Happy Endings. Most notable was their work on NBC’s Community and Fox’s Arrested Development, the latter earning them an Emmy Award.
Then came Captain America.
“I didn’t love Captain America as a kid growing up. I found him a very square character,” Russo said. “Most of my favorite books tended to deconstruct heroes, so we wanted to do something similar where we took him from a patriot to an insurgent in the course of two movies. So that required a more serious tone.”
“Winter Soldier is about the dangers of the surveillance state,” he said. (The film also contains an enigmatic reference to Iowa City.) “It was something we were obsessed with, was the role of technology and privacy invasion and can you use technology ultimately to control people if you understand their personality type.” He cited the Facebook data breach by Cambridge Analytica as a real-life example.
“Why make these movies on such a global scale unless you’re trying to incite conversation?”
In planning his superhero films, Russo said he recalls Holstein lessons, which often included breaking down religious narratives.
“Symbolism and metaphor are important, especially working on films about characters who are essentially mythological beings,” he said. “Religious myths certainly can correlate to comic book myths. I think in a way that’s why comic book movies are so resonate with audiences today … it’s our common mythology.”
Infinity War (and its untitled sequel, set to be released in May 2019) presented a special challenge to the directors, not just because they would have to juggle so many characters, but because these characters are coming from films with varying genres and themes.
But Russo said he and Anthony were prepared.
“We have a history of dealing with odd and difficult tones. Community was a show exclusively about messing with tone on a weekly basis; almost every episode is an experiment. Arrested Development could be a hateful show if its tone wasn’t executed correctly,” he explained.
“[Director] Taika Waititi’s retone of Thor [in Thor: Ragnarok] is absurdist. Guardians are absurdist. But Thanos as a villain is a very intense and violent character. The film does walk a line and shift tones rather quickly between the funny and the serious, but I don’t think without the funny we could receive these serious elements of the movie the same way, because it is a very oppressive and violent film. We felt it really required balance in order for the audience to have the proper cathartic experience.”
When the topic of Black Panther and its record-breaking box office was brought up in our call, Russo spoke passionately about the impact of Ryan Coogler’s MCU entry.
“Everyone wants to identify with characters they see on screen from a cultural standpoint, a gender standpoint, a sexual orientation standpoint. It is incumbent upon us, it is incumbent upon all filmmakers, everyone in Hollywood — we are years, years late to this party — to offer the opportunity for people to identify on those most intimate levels with a character. It’s not even a question anymore, it’s a mandate. I’m ecstatic that the world responded with such a resounding ‘yes’ to Black Panther and … I think it’s going to forever alter the landscape moving forward.”
Avengers: Infinity War is inevitably diverse, Russo said, because it contains characters from every corner of the Marvel-verse. Guardians of the Galaxy member Gamora, he said, “is perhaps the most important character of the movie, and certainly the bravest character.” The green-skinned warrior, portrayed by Zoe Saldana, is the adopted daughter of Thanos, Infinity War’s big baddie.
Thanos’ twisted crusade to save the universe by wiping half of its inhabitants out of existence — using the power of the six infinity stones, scattered across galaxies — is at the center of the story.
“It’s told from the point of view of the villain,” Russo said. “The main arc of the film is occupied by Thanos and then all of the other characters are working in concert together to stop him.”
“I think it’s resonant with what’s happening right now. The film is about, what does it cost to be a hero in a world where there are no easy answers? I think we live in a world right now that has very few easy answers. It’s certainly reflecting a place we’ve found ourselves in as Americans in the last year or so.”
Off the director’s chair, Russo is one of the co-founders of Bullitt, a filmmakers’ collective, creative studio and marketing think tank. He and Anthony are currently establishing a film studio in L.A., AGBO, focused exclusively on franchise-driven content.
Russo emphasized the importance of developing a creative community as a filmmaker.
“Avengers: Infinity War is as complex a movie as ever been made and so is ‘Avengers 4,’ and we made them at the same time. There’s no way that we could pull off both of those films without incredible infrastructure and the team we’ve been working with for the better part of a decade,” he said.
This is wisdom he plans to share with the Iowa City crowd at Monday’s lecture — after he’s done taking a trip down memory lane.
“Most importantly, I want to find out whether George’s burgers are as good as I remember them.”