At a recent screening of Captain America: Civil War, an onscreen graphic identified one scene as set in Cleveland. The local moviegoers cheered.
Joe and Anthony Russo, former Clevelanders as well as co-directors of Civil War, like to put shout-outs to their home turf in movies, for example by shooting large portions of 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier here.
“We have Cleveland on our minds all the time,,” Anthony said during a recent visit. They won’t force mentions but keep an eye out for opportunities. The Civil War scene, involving a former agent of the evil Hydra in hiding, reminded them enough of the notorious Clevelander John Demjanjuk that they fit it into the movie.
They would have liked more, too, Anthony Russo said in a chat Tuesday at the Intercontinental Hotel. (Joe, battling illness after the grueling international tour to promote Civil War, was unable to attend.)
“Listen, man, it breaks my heart that we weren’t able to make Civil War here,” Anthony said of the film arriving in theaters Thursday. He said the logistics just did not work, with the film needing large stages that Cleveland could not provide. Atlanta filled the need.
“Atlanta has top-shelf facilities and hopefully we will have something like that here soon,” he said. “I know people are working on it. My brother and I trying to be very supportive of that process.”
Their clout keeps growing. Before Winter Soldier, they were known mainly for TV work (Arrested Development, Community) and smaller films such as the Cleveland-made Welcome to Collinwood. Winter Soldier led to Civil War, and they have been tapped as directors of the next Avengers movies, the two-part Infinity War coming in 2018 and 2019.
While Civil War is technically a Captain America movie, its story is about a break between Cap and Iron Man, and the resulting schism among an array of superheroes.
The cast includes Chris Evans as Captain America, Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Anthony Mackie (Falcon), Paul Rudd (Ant-Man), Elizabeth Olson (Scarlet Witch), Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther), Paul Bettany (Vision), Tom Holland (Spider-Man) and Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye).
Now imagine a battle at an airport with all those characters.
“That scene almost ate the movie,” Anthony said with a grin.
For starters, with that cast, it was not possible to have everyone in the same place at the same time. If they could be had at all.
As soon as they pitched the movie to Marvel, the Russos were told that Downey was not under contract and they would have to persuade him.
“We pitched him and I think he was fascinated,” Anthony said. When George Clooney taking a supporting role in Collinwood, Clooney told them, “The job of a leading man is to show up and let everybody else steal the scene. … Now I get to steal the scene.”
“I think Downey had a similar approach in this movie,” Anthony said. “Cap’s character is the spine of the movie, as lead, and it gave us the freedom to go to some more interesting, vulnerable, complicated places with the Iron Man character.”
Downey even recommended the award-winning actress Alfre Woodard for a scene where Tony Stark/Iron Man is confronted over a past act. “We knew that would be a complicated scene for Downey. (Tony Stark) is the kind of guy who wins every scene he’s in, and we knew he was not going to win that scene. We had to put in an actor that excited him on the other side.”
Woodard is just one of the acclaimed actors in small roles, but Anthony said, “That’s the great thing about doing Marvel movies. Actors are very attracted to them. They know how popular they are, and they can be good for their careers.”
Still, a scene like the one in the airport had to be done piecemeal because of the stars, with a lot of assembly done in post-production. And that was just one challenge.
“The sequence was set in an airport, which we shot in Leipzig, Germany. But you can’t do a lot of things in that scene at an airport. It’s too dangerous and disruptive to airport operations. So we shot most of that sequence on a back lot in Atlanta … on a big concrete slab we built for the sequence and surrounded by green screens.”
Then, he said, “ a lot of stuff that you see in that scene is staged fighting between actors and stunt people, and some of it is completely (computer generated). It’s as hard a sequence as you can have as a filmmaker to execute.”
It was basically “hard grunt work,” Russo said, and goes a long way toward explaining why years go into making these Marvel movies. (The Russos have a pet project, Murray Hill, that will probably have to wait until after the second Infinity War is out in 2019 — possibly longer.) In fact, as soon as Marvel saw Winter Soldier, they started talking about Civil War.
“The great thing about Marvel is they have interconnected stories,” Anthony said, “(but) they don’t get too far ahead of themselves. They take it one movie at a time. When we started talking about the next Captain America movie, there was no idea whatsover of what it was going to be.”
Long discussions with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely wound up focusing on Civil War, a comic book series from 2006-07 that asks whether superheroes should have some kind of legal oversight.
“One of the things that excited us about the concept of this movie is that it’s kind of unreconcilable,” Russo said. “It’s the age-old concept we’ve had. We all need societal control to provide a safe environment for us to live as people, while at the same time we all want to be individuals. We all want to have freedom. We don’t want whatever structure is put in place to limit what we can do. It’s a never-ending, unreconcilable conflict which is part of the fun of the movie and part of the tragedy of the movie.”
It’s also an idea in the competing film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, another battle-of-heroes epic. Asked if they were concerned to learn the movies were on similar ground, Anthony said, “There was a little bit of that. … But we had no idea about the specifics. We knew Civil War was the right story for us to tell and we just had to go, hopefully these movies will be distinct from one another.”
There was enough to be done just making their movie, after all. Once the idea was set, the writers and Russos did an outline, then Markus and McFeely wrote their script. Reading and discussion followed. But it all paid off, Russo said. “By the time we get to shooting, we have a script we really believe in.”
And one that is not only grim, but laced with humor — the balanced storytelling the Russos prize.
“We like movies that make you laugh, that make you cry, make you think, scare you, etc. You want more experience for your money when you go to the movies. We believe in that.
“Now, we knew the story between Captain America and Iron Man is very dark and complicated. So we wanted to bring people into the movie who had very good reasons for being there but didn’t have all the emotional baggage that others did. … That’s why Spider-Man and Ant-Man were so valuable to us. They could have a little more whimsical take on what happens. … And some of the humor is heightened because it’s an emotional release for people.”
It seems to be working. Showings overseas have already generated more than $240 million. Almost all the reviews have been positive. “My brother and I are very proud of the movie,” Anthony said, “and all the hard work we did on it.”
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal, Ohio.com, Facebook, Twitter and the HeldenFiles Online blog. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or email@example.com.