"Community" and "Arrested Development" may seem like a far cry from the souped-up blockbuster action of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but for the sibling directing team of Mark and Anthony Russo, there's less of a difference that you might think.
The duo -- best known for directing and producing those aforementioned TV comedies -- called the shots on the upcoming "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." The Russos discussed the Marvel sequel on a visit to the film's L.A. set last fall, where they were directing a piece of a big action scene featuring Cap (Chris Evans) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie).
As comic book fans themselves, getting the call from Marvel exec Kevin Feige was a dream come true. "Winter Soldier" departs from 2011's "Captain America" The First Avenger" in several significant ways, especially its darker tone, inspired by '70s political thrillers.
After directing the George Clooney indie comedy "Welcome to Collinwood" in 2002, the Russos turned their focus to TV work, but yearned to return to features. Known for comedy, they also had an inkling to tackle large-scale action, even trying to snatch the rights to "The Lord of the Rings" in the pre-Peter Jackson '90s.
"We got a call from our agent, who said that Kevin was a big fan of 'Community,'" Mark told us. "They were interviewing a lot of directors at the time. The conversation was just about our passion for the material, that it kind of lined up with our love of comic books and '70s thrillers."
"I think he [Feige] had seen the paintball episode of 'Community.'" The comedy is known for skewing and deconstructing genre conventions, with the episode in question spoofing both large-scale action movies and apocalyptic fiction.
"The Winter Soldier" seemed like a good fit, albeit a belated one.
"It's a great piece of material," Mark explained. "You have great actors who understand their characters. We got to reboot a little bit on the tone, which is great. All the ideas that came to the table are in the movie. It so rarely happens that way."
Mark cites Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" as a leading example of the type of post-modern, deconstructionist superhero story that influenced the film. He calls Marvel Comics writer Ed Brubaker's Winter Soldier storyline one of the best in comics' last fifty years. As the main inspiration for the new film, the story arc finds Cap confronted by his WWII pal Bucky Barnes (played by Sebastian Stan in the film), who has seemingly returned from the dead as the souped-up super-assassin known as the Winter Soldier.
"The core is Cap's relationship with himself…and the modern world. There are people he's saying goodbye to," explained Mark. "There's a new friend in Falcon, he has a very strong relationship with Widow. He and Fury have a great relationship, but its combative in this film."
"He goes on a very personal journey in this movie," he added, saying that the Winter Soldier storyline is "very operatic in its construct because your best friend is the villain. [One of the] first things we said to [Kevin] was If you're gonna do the 'Winter Soldier' story, you've got 'Star Wars' on your hands because so rarely do you ever have a hero who has an emotional connection with his adversary. I think that's the genius of Brubaker's storyline; it's [Cap's] best friend."
The Russos ere keen to show off their action directing chops in the sequel, which follows both 2011's "Captain America: The First Avenger," directed by Joe Johnston, and 2012's "The Avengers," directed by Joss Whedon.
"What most excited us what how we can come up with these great action set pieces that play to Cap as a character," Anthony explained. "Looking at him and how he's unique in the Marvel universe and what sets him apart and the fact that essentially he's a man, only moreso. It's not flying across the sky or transforming into something else. We wanted to do a hard-hitting, hardcore realism version of what a superhero movie can be on an action level."
"[Evans] had to do a lot of heavy training for this movie," Anthony continued. "He understands the character really well. He wants to direct himself, so he doesn't think only from an actor's point of view."
"He really embraced the concept and he worked his ass off," Mark chimed in. "He trained for months, and he executes of lot of fighting on his own. He drives a lot of the movie, clearly. It's his film. But there is a sort of dual storyline that's playing out within S.H.I.E.L.D. And the earlier parts of the film are moving back and forth between those two story lines until they intersect and then Cap takes over the movie."
"We are action nuts," Mark wanted to reassure any fan who didn't trust their comedy credentials when it comes to film combat. "We do study action movies. There were some action sequences that we knew were going to be very complex. We wanted to bring some style of action that maybe haven't seen in American movies for a while. A style of fighting and intensity so that we really feel it. These stunt guys are taking hits and it's a very visceral execution of a lot of this stuff."
Mark name checked the acclaimed Indonesian action film "The Raid," saying that it succeeds because you can see the actual actor engaging in the fighting.
"One of the things that really attracted us to the movie was the ability to come at it with a fresh point of view on an action front," Mark went on. "It's very gritty. We're working with Spiro Razatos, who does all the 'Fast and Furious' movies, as a 2nd unit director, and the three of us got very engaged in how far can we push things. How aggressive can we make them look? There are some cool car chases in the movie that were very influenced by '70s movies." He also mentioned "To Live and Die in L.A." and "Ronin" as inspirations.
You can see some of that bone-crunching action in the brand new 4-minute clip at the top of the page.
With the depiction of such real-world adventure, Cap also got a new, darker costume more S.W.A.T. than S.H.I.E.L.D. "It has to have a real functionality," Mark said of the outfit. "All we kept saying to everybody was if there's a design element on it that's not functional, take it off."
"He's thrown himself into working for S.H.I.E.L.D., he's committed to it at the start of the movie," Mark revealed. "Imagine an organization where you're not just dealing with Chitauri and aliens, you're dealing with hostage crises, terrorists, situations he would be necessary for. So we want a suit that would reflect the reality of him being an operative on that level for this organization. Obviously, it's also thematic for us, because it's not his traditional suit. The tonality of the suit would for secret missions."
The hero's signature shield also slightly changed roles, according to Mark. "In the 40s it makes sense; he's off the street and he'll fight like John Sullivan," he explained. "It's that style of big swings and the shield is very pronounced, because he hasn't necessarily been trained yet. Now that he's in the future, he has a fast mind, a tactical mind, he learns things quickly. Our approach was he would absorb everything in that year, year and a half, all the training that you could possibly get, and all the tools at his disposal would be affected by that training. So, there're some interesting moments with the shield here he even uses just one handle on it and uses it in more of an Eastern style to fight people."
On set, we watched the filming of an action scene in which Mackie and Evans ran around on a stage with a green screen behind them. As Mackie described it, "We have decided to take down the bad guys. We go into the lair of the bad guys and poison their diabolical plan to take over the world."
The actor said the role included "a lot of hard, hot work and heavy suits."
"The first day we shot, they had me jumping backwards off a 30 foot platform, head-first into the pavement," he recalled. "And they're like 'don't worry -- we'll catch you before you hit the ground.' I doubt if we're using that footage..."
The easy give-and-take between the directors and the Marvel brass seems to be a nice change of pace for the Russos, who are more used to the intense pressures of TV. "Arrested Development" specifically was a source of stress for the duo. "I think that show became what it became because the three of us [including series creator Mitch Hurwitz] didn't give a shit," Mark admitted. "We had nothing to lose at that time, so we said 'alright we'll make it as radical as we want to because what do we care? They already don't think the show is gonna work.' That's one environment to work under. This has been the exact opposite of that."
The two brothers have an easy rapport, and seem to have little in the way of on-set conflicts. They generally call the shots on the project together. "It's a little bit like a Vulcan mind-meld," explained Mark. "There's no formal division of labor, it's really who has the most energy to get up out of the chair and give the note [to the actor]. It's a very loose set with us."
After the set visit, it was later revealed that the Russos have signed on to direct a third "Captain America" film. They fit right into the Marvel mold.
"If you are a comic book geek like me, you get off on that stuff," Mark confided, discussing how the Russos' vision fits into the bigger Marvel picture. "You're constantly pitching out ideas that not only just effect your movie but may have a ripple effect on the other films," he said. "And then Joss [Whedon] is reading the scripts and saying 'OK, this is where I'm getting the characters and this is where I have to pick them up in the next movie."
"It's a weird sort of tapestry of writers and directors working together to create this universe that's sort of organic," added Anthony. "It's not structured. Of course, there are things you know you can go and borrow from the books, but it stays very fluid, the process."
"It comes very natural to us because the work that we did with "AD" and "Community" we [used] a lot of foreshadowing and callbacks and call-forwards," Mark continued. "We're sort of patterned for it anyway. We can understand how you can take a larger story and wrangle it into a moment, and keep them connected."
"[Kevin Feige] doesn't think too far down the line," he added. "He likes to keep very focused on what's happening. Of course you have to be mindful of the possibilities in the future, but if you get
too far ahead of yourself you're not servicing the movie."
"Captain America: The Winter Solder" opens April 4.