At the premiere of Avengers: Infinity War this past week in Los Angeles, Robert Downey Jr. noted that one of the hardest directing gigs in Hollywood is making a Marvel movie. “It’s like a crucible,” Downey told the audience. “You either come out steel or you come out dust.” If directing a stand-alone comic-book movie poses a sizable enough challenge, imagine what it’s like to cram all those disparate superheroes into an Avengers film. Only one other man has done it, and Joss Whedon was a physical wreck after his second entry, Avengers: Age of Ultron.
When I interviewed directors Joe and Anthony Russo this past week, then, I was less concerned with unspooling the secrets of their new film Avengers: Infinity War and more concerned with how they’d survived making it. The film was shot back-to-back with an untitled fourth Avengers film that will come out next summer, meaning that for an entire year, the Russos had to corral dozens of movie stars for the sort of physical production that’s nearly unprecedented in Hollywood. While the Russos had previously made Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War for Marvel, this was an exponentially more difficult gig, and as they told me, it wasn’t easy to make it through.
You guys look like you’re holding up okay. How did you come away from these two films without dying?
Anthony Russo: We almost did.
Joe Russo: We came close. Without a doubt, it was the hardest thing we’ve ever done. There’s this adage that television show-running is the hardest job in all of show business, but this is harder, I think.
Making these Marvel movies is not unlike television show-running. It’s serialized over several years, and we’re in the later seasons now.
Anthony Russo: Without question. This movie is very unique because it couldn’t be made without a preexisting universe behind it. You could never fit this many characters into a two-and-a-half-hour story without all the emotional investment people already have in these characters.
Did you guys talk to Joss about it?
Joe Russo: We didn’t. It clearly took a toll on him after Ultron. You know, the unfair advantage we have is that there’s two of us, and we weren’t responsible for writing the scripts. We spent an incredible amount of time in the writers’ room with [screenwriters] Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, but ultimately, we don’t have to go home at night and write five pages while we’re editing and talking to the composer and dealing with the sound design and figuring out how to shoot the scene the next day. We were able to take at least one of those off our hopper.
When you were offered these movies, was it an instant yes, or did you have to consider how much it would turn your lives upside down?
Anthony Russo: Look, the idea of blocking these two movies together preexisted our involvement in the project. It was basically a producing choice as a way to afford the most expensive cast ever assembled for film, so you come up with a challenging production model based on that. The creative upside is that, as storytellers, we can use all these amazing actors in a way that’s been unprecedented. But it was like a deal with a devil because it was also very physically difficult.
So much so that the original plan, where you would have shot both films simultaneously, was scuttled.
Anthony Russo: And that came from us. Basically, as we began to develop the movies, we could see people around us start to get confused between the two films.
Joe Russo: They were overwhelmed by the amount of story information. It’s significant! And these are culmination films, so there’s a lot of story. As a way to simplify the process, we separated the two films and shot them separately, one after the other. They’re also completely different films.
Anthony Russo: We wanted to make each movie a very specific, different, creative expression.
How did that physical difficulty manifest itself?
Anthony Russo: In hours logged. You have a finite amount of time to collect footage for two of the biggest films ever made, and you’re executing 300 pages of script in a year’s time in very different locations, since not a lot of locations get used twice. And the cast … I mean, there are 23 heroes on that poster, and even more in the movie.
Joe Russo: So what happens is that you have to co-prep the movies, and while you’re shooting the first film, you have to edit it because we would be shooting the second movie during the time we would normally be editing the first one. Our days would start at 6:30 in the morning, we’d shoot until about 7 p.m., then go into editorial for four or five hours, and maybe have a story meeting about the next day with the writers. Then we’d go to bed for five hours. Repeat for a year.
Did you have weekends off, at least?
Joe Russo: You don’t get weekends because that’s when you’re filling your time with more editorial problems, more issues that you need to solve. We had two weeks off between the two films, where typically you would prep a movie like Avengers 4, but we were prepping it while we were shooting Infinity War.
So how do you practice self-care during something like that, where you’re living and breathing Marvel 24/7? Do you ever just have to say, “Look, I need an hour to unplug my brain and watch Top Chef?”
Anthony Russo: I made good use of the two weeks we had between movies and had a surgery.
That’s not fun downtime!
Anthony Russo: No, but there were a few things we did to cope when we were shooting. This is something we borrowed from our stunt team: Usually, when you have those long hours, you resort to cheap forms of energy like sugar and coffee, so what we would do instead is this thing called a “push-up challenge,” where every half-hour you’d drop and do a certain number of push-ups. We started adapting that to all sorts of different exercises.
Joe Russo: The cast would join in, too.
Anthony Russo: It’s kind of remarkable, the positive impact that it has on your energy level.
Joe Russo: My family was there for about a year of the prep and half of the shoot, and then they came back to Los Angeles for the second half, and I just started living out of my trailer on the lot. It was just easier! I could get an extra 20 minutes of sleep in that way. It was a vagabond life.
Did you ever hit a physical wall?
Anthony Russo: Well, after my surgery, I got pneumonia as well.
Anthony! How did you direct a whole other movie in that state?
Anthony Russo: Well, thank God we’re a directing team. [Laughs.] Look, it was difficult, but you just had to keep running with it. I hate to use analogies, because at the end of the day we’re just making a movie, but it’s like we’re going to war. You just have to get through it.
Joe Russo: When we were show-running television, we had periods where we were working on three shows at one time. Even though we were a decade younger, the volume of that was probably more significant than this. TV is all about volume and pace and speed — you’re prepping while you’re shooting or posting or delivering something for air — and I think that after ten years of doing that, we were well-prepared.
What was that feeling like as you neared the home stretch of the shoot?
Joe Russo: You count the days when you get close to the end.
Anthony Russo: Toward the end of it, everyone was punch-drunk and staggering around.
Joe Russo: It’s physically difficult. These are action films, and they take a toll on the actors. Chris Hemsworth hurt his back near the end. We put them through a lot because we like to see the actors in their action sequences. It adds that layer of authenticity to the execution of it, but it’s hard on them. Physically, it’s like playing a game of football every day, so by the end, they were ready for a break.
What was the last day of shooting like?
Anthony Russo: It was very emotional.
Joe Russo: For the crew, they felt like they were part of something historic, and when you’re working that long, it takes a toll. It’s a sense of physical accomplishment, like you’re finishing a marathon.
Anthony Russo: We’ve been able to develop a team over the course of these four movies, and we’ve worked with amazing people. For a lot of people, they said the shoot was the greatest experience they’d ever had. We heard from a lot of people: “Man, it will never be this good again.”
Joe Russo: We had a party on the last day, on the street where we were shooting.
Anthony Russo: We had a big cake. There were hugs, and drinks, and everybody breaking down the set and hanging out. But I remember at one point, I looked around and there was nobody else there but me. I was like, Oh my God, I’m the last person to leave the set. Whatever it was, I didn’t want to go.
And then the day after, they probably had you in post, right?
Joe Russo: Oh, yeah. I jumped on a plane to get back in editorial. [Laughs.]