This season, NBC's Community has dramatically upped the ante with big, loud episodes. Inspired by the positive response to season one's epic paintball battle ("Modern Warfare," for you title geeks), creator Dan Harmon has gone wild in the show's sophomore year: zombie Halloween, fake space shuttles, stop-motion animation, and an entire half-hour built around a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Key to pulling off these visually ambitious episodes: Joe and Anthony Russo, Harmon's executive-producing partners and the show's in-house directors since the pilot. The sibling duo cemented their reps as small-screen innovators by directing the pilot (and more than a dozen subsequent episodes) of Arrested Development — skills they make good use of with tonight's Community. Dubbed "Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking," it's a chance to see the Greendale gang filmed in the mockumentary style made popular by Arrested and utilized much more successfully these days on ABC's Modern Family. We rang up the brothers Russo to talk about the half-hour, along with the possibility of a "Modern Warfare" sequel, the likelihood of an Arrested movie, and their nascent plan to reunite with Will Arnett.
So how was the idea for doing a mockumentary episode born?
Joe: It came out of the desire to attempt another style. Really what we've been trying to do the last two years is to see how [big] a sandbox we can create for the show to play in. We're testing genres and styles to see what boundaries the show has — or if it has no boundaries. So this was just another popular style for us to attack.
Why this particular plot for the mockumentary experiment?
Joe: The idea for the plotline came first [from Harmon]. We thought putting Pierce (Chevy Chase) in the hospital would allow this ploy to work, to have Pierce employ Abed (Danny Pudi) to document this incident. It's a very emotional episode. It's coming to a point where Pierce needs a great deal of redemption. We heard a lot from people after the D&D episode that people felt he was so evil, he'd crossed such a line, that they weren't sure if they'd ever find him a redemptive character again. But I think this episode goes a long way, and this particular style goes a long way, toward allowing the audience to understand what's going on emotionally with the character.
Do you think there'll be a backlash against mockumentaries now that they've become so common in prime time?
Anthony: It seems to have become an established genre in TV, so it's probably not going to go anywhere. It'll be a useful tool in the toolbox for years to come. It's become almost as elemental as the audience in a multi-camera show. It's a hybrid between reality TV and comedy that strikes a chord and speaks to people. I don't know that it's going anywhere, even if it's becoming a bit overused.
Joe: I'm sure that if you asked Dan, he'd probably say that sticking the landing without the ability to talk to the camera is a higher degree of difficulty in certain respects. It is more difficult to get exposition out, and narrative out, while also telling jokes and not having that luxury of being able to stop and explain things to viewers. But in this episode, it was very handy for us.
You pull off so many ambitious episodes, which is impressive given that network budgets are so tight these days.
Joe: We have to figure out ways to execute this stuff as part of a production model ... where we don't finish our season $2 million over budget. We've taken some big swings with this show. There've been some really expensive episodes that run over in [production] days. So we earn those days back [by shooting less on] other days — episodes like "Cooperative Calligraphy" or the D&D episode, where we shot almost everything in one room but used camera work and sound to open it up.
The biggest episode you've done to date has been the paintball episode, "Modern Warfare." A lot of fans have wondered if there will be a direct sequel.
Joe: The question is, do we go right back at that and try do outdo the original? Or do we do something in the same voice as that, but something different? We've got a few cards hiding up our sleeves. I think there will be something as interesting and ambitious as "Modern Warfare" hitting the air soon.
Anthony: The one thing you know we won't do is literally "Modern Warfare 2." It will be that plus something else.
Is it frustrating that Community doesn't get bigger ratings?
Joe: I wish to God we had double or triple the ratings we have. But the ratings we have are just good enough for us to exist on the network. It allows us to experiment with the show because it's not that high of a risk. We don't have to worry about maintaining that 4.3 [rating]. NBC is very happy with the fanatical base we've built. Our agenda this season was just to be as noisy as possible, to attract as much attention as possible — because we had nothing to lose.
Anthony: Community gets to be the indie movie, while a Modern Family gets to be the big blockbuster release. They service that big massive audience and we service a smaller audience. But we get a lot of creative freedom. We have a friend on Modern Family who told me last week that all they talk about in their writers' room is Community. I said I'd gladly trade my back-end in Community for his.
Stepping away from Community: Mitch Hurwitz is planning to direct the Arrested movie himself. Why aren't you guys doing it?
Joe: We're very close with Mitch. This is Mitch wanting to stretch a different muscle and get a more intimate approach to his own material. He understands the medium as well as any show-runner we've been around, so I believe it's a natural progression for him.
Will you be involved at all?
Joe: There's always going to be some sort of collaboration, whether it's completely on the periphery or more formally involved. Anything we can do to help him, we will do.
Do you think the movie will ever get made?
Joe: I think so. Mitch is very committed and very focused. I think the next six months of his life will be about that film. It's a very complicated concept to encapsulate into two hours. There are so many stories you could tell from that [series]; it's difficult to pull the thread through. But I think everything's finally lining up.
You worked with Will Arnett in both Arrested and the pilot for Running Wilde, which you directed. You're directing a new pilot for Fox, The Council of Dads. Any chance he'll pop up in that?
Anthony: We love Will. We'd do anything for him. We're actually talking about doing another show with Will — something very edgy, something very different on cable. We're talking about a very funny concept where there's not a lot of limitations, where he can swear and do dangerous material. Hopefully HBO or Showtime, that's what we're talking about. Will's just a funny motherfucker.
Does being siblings help your process as directors?
Joe: We get to cover an incredible amount of ground. It helps us with the ambitious parts of show: We can divide and conquer get more stuff done with less money.
Any plans for one of you to have a sex change at some point?
Joe: We're going to flip a coin when I turn 40.