What It Was Like Making the Biggest Movie of 2019

The brothers Anthony and Joe Russo discuss their unlikely journey to directing Marvel’s megahit Avengers: Endgame.

Toby Melville / Reuters / The Atlantic

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is defined by its spandex-clad stars—heroes including Captain America and Iron Man who’ve powered the franchise to unprecedented popularity over 11 years, most recently resulting in the record-breaking success of Avengers: Endgame. The interconnected nature of the 22 Marvel movies means a single film like Endgame, which brings the entire ensemble together for a big goodbye, can have a sweeping effect. But pulling off such a project also requires a ton of coordination behind the scenes. Anthony and Joe Russo—who’ve directed four Marvel movies in total, including Endgame—have built a reputation for that kind of managerial mastery.

Before the two were brought into the Marvel fold by the company’s chief producer, Kevin Feige, nothing about the Russos’ resume suggested that they’d be particularly suited to big-budget superhero storytelling. After being discovered by Steven Soderbergh at the 1997 Slamdance Film Festival, they made a charming indie caper called Welcome to Collinwood and otherwise mostly worked in television, helming the pilot episodes of comedies such as Arrested Development, Community, and Happy Endings. A look back at Arrested Development suggests the Russos’ adeptness for juggling massive casts in a way that allows everyone moments to shine—something the Marvel movies needed to do as the franchise rolled on.

In 2014, the Russos made Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a well-liked entry that placed the star-spangled hero in a story with the air of a ’70s conspiratorial thriller. From there they moved on to 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, which brought the title character into conflict with Iron Man and introduced the Black Panther. The directors’ skill for coordinating such an extensive cast got them tapped to make Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), a two-part mega-epic that was shot simultaneously and features just about anyone who has ever showed up in a Marvel film. I talked with the Russos about the way they planned the grand story arcs for the series, the pressure of managing so many performers, and whether large-scale “event” movies will define the theatrical experience going forward. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

David Sims: You joined Marvel for the first time with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. When you came aboard, how much of the broader story arc was already on the map?

Anthony Russo: We entered the universe right before The Avengers came out [in 2012]. So [the Marvel movies were] working well enough for the studio to want to make a second Captain America movie, but the environment we came into was Kevin Feige trying to keep things fresh and surprising. Marvel had conceived of perhaps doing a Captain America movie as a political thriller, but it was a tentative concept. Our big thing to figure out was, how do we modernize the character and toughen him up? He can’t possibly be the same human being he was in World War II as he is 70 years later, with none of his old friends around him.

Sims: This is ludicrous to say, because it’s a very big movie, but Winter Soldier was so much smaller than Endgame because you’re dealing with one character’s arc rather than 20. That early on, were you thinking about the four more movies you wanted to do with this character?

Joe Russo: No. You try to imbue the film with the richest storytelling that you can because, if you do that, there’s always somewhere to go. There’s some interesting corner you’ve painted yourself into that will provide dramatic propulsion moving forward. If that movie doesn’t work, you’re not making another one.

Sims: Did you immediately move on to Captain America: Civil War? Was that where the bigger arcs come in?

Joe: We were working on it almost overlapping with Winter Soldier.

Anthony: Marvel is very disciplined in its process. They did not invite us to do another Captain America movie until they had seen the edit for Winter Soldier.

Joe: And they also didn’t want us to take our focus away from that [first] movie. Feige is very good about doing one movie at a time. As soon as you hand the movie in, there’s a phone call, and literally while we’re working on press for Winter Soldier, we’re also dreaming up ideas for Civil War.

Sims: Endgame is all about these endings that feel so natural for the characters. Were you trying to think of an ending for Captain America at that earlier point?

Anthony: We wanted to go right to the heart of what we care about in these movies: the relationships between these characters. Once we came out of the edit of Civil War, we realized that we’d succeeded in divorcing the Avengers, destroying the relationship between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. We’ve set the table for Thanos; we’re ready for him.

Sims: Was [setting the table for Thanos] totally intentional, or was it born out of the idea of Tony and Steve’s conflict?

Anthony: It was really just us running at the conflict. How do we tell the most wrenching family drama we can?

Sims: When you were on set for Infinity War and Endgame, you had all these arcs to manage at once. How do you separate the signal from the noise for the actors?

Joe: You have to have a very cohesive plan. You’re making thousands of decisions a day. There are multiple filming units, there’s a whole visual-effects team, we have actors coming to us, saying, “I wouldn’t say it this way, I’d say it that way.” Our job is to collect all this information and be the arbiters of taste and provide focus for the entire process. You have to leave room for everyone else to be empowered and assist in making creative decisions.

Sims: Infinity War has so much action and wrenching chaos. Endgame is a lot slower, more deliberate on the character stuff, and I appreciate that viewers got the chance to slow things down and sit with the team for a while. Is there a scene that exemplifies that new approach that you particularly enjoyed doing?

Anthony: The scene that Joe was in, Cap’s counseling session [with other survivors of Thanos’s decimation].

Sims: A scene about which a studio would immediately ask, “Do we need this? Can this go?”

Anthony: You are very right [Laughs]. But it was very important to us! If you have a story point where you kill half of all living things, you have to move beyond the experience of the Avengers. To have an everyman in the story at that moment, and see Cap in a sensitive moment that spoke to his history as a character and the reality he’s living in now—that was an important thing for us.

Sims: For 11 years, these movies have been stand-alones that tell their own stories, but they’ve all been aimed toward Endgame. Do you think Marvel will continue that storytelling style, or will things get more diffuse now that you’ve done the big conclusion where everyone’s together?

Joe: You have to find a new path forward. That was always our [pitch], which is why I think they allowed us to make these really disruptive choices. You can’t keep giving people chocolate ice cream.

Sims: You have to blow up S.H.I.E.L.D. immediately after giving people S.H.I.E.L.D, in The Winter Soldier.

Joe: Exactly. So I think [Marvel has] to find a new path forward in this next mega-story they’re going to tell, and I think they’re going to make some very different and surprising choices. The thing we’re most proud of is how diverse the Marvel universe will be, moving forward. The first gay hero is coming, characters of different nationalities are going to be introduced—it’s going to pull the entire world into the story.

Sims: Do you have to get to the level of success that Marvel is at now to make those riskier choices that a studio might balk at earlier on in the process? In 2008, if Feige had [proposed] an African hero, a gay superhero, maybe a studio would have wavered. Is that how Hollywood always has to work—that you build up capital to spend it on “riskier” stuff?

Anthony: When we were in the edit room on The Winter Soldier, I remember Kevin walking in one day and putting a hand on us and saying, “Can you believe that we’re getting away with making a political thriller as a superhero movie?” Because of the success of the series, we’re all empowered to make decisions that you may not have been able to before. There’s a cycle happening there, because when you make those choices, it surprises audiences worldwide, if you tell the stories well. You’re being very noisy as a storyteller, and that feeds the beast even more.

Joe: Black Panther was perhaps one of the more significant cultural events in movie history. That only emboldens the studio to keep moving forward. You’d hope that decisions would be made irrespective of the financials, but ultimately it is called show business, and things are driven by dollars and cents. What’s great about audiences today is that voices can be heard, and people can collectively ask for things from their storytellers and receive them.

Sims: I know you guys worked with Steven Soderbergh when you were coming up in the industry. I talked to him when his Netflix movie High Flying Bird came out about how we both perceive this widening gap—there are the little movies, there are the big movies, and there are fewer of the middle-sized movies like rom-coms and dramas. Is there ever going to be space for that again?

Joe: Here’s where it’s all headed, and I think social media was the driver for all of this: There’s a very clear metric between generating conversation and box-office revenue. With all of the quality content you can get in your home and given that [streaming companies are] only going to increase what they’re spending on that content, getting people out of the house requires a special experience. That’s why movies are becoming more event-sized. Marvel is creating this emotional connection with its audience—it has done so over a decade, and there’s emotional capital invested. This generation is more invested in serialized storytelling than they are in two-hour narratives.

Sims: Which is what you both started out doing.

Joe: We’re children of the ’70s and ’80s, the golden era of auteur filmmaking. We love it, but at some point the impressionists have to step aside, and the next group of artists has to show up and paint in a different way. I think this generation of viewers is going to change the way that we perceive narrative because audiences are so facile in the way they consume content. Whether it be on Twitter in 30 seconds, on YouTube in five minutes, on Netflix, at the theater, they all value different experiences, but they value a connection and, above all, a conversation. That’s why I think movies in the middle have sort of disappeared, because they don’t drive conversation the same way that event movies do, and they don’t drive it on a global scale the way event movies do.

Sims: Do you want to keep working on this global scale? Or do you want to trend back to a smaller thing?

Anthony: Look, our next movie is a smaller thing: We’re going to make a movie with Tom Holland based on a book called Cherry. We’ve made movies for as little money as you can make a movie for, and for as much money as you can possibly make a movie for. We’ve done television, comedy, drama, cable, network—we love the entire variety of what you can do. By changing the format, you change the creative possibilities for what you can do. But we definitely have a taste for, and a skill set for, these big event films, so I know we’ll return to them at some point.