By Brooklyn Draisey
The first thing Joe Russo did when he came to Iowa City was have a burger and a beer at George’s Buffet. Then he went to Joe’s Place and sat in the booth where he met his wife.
The younger half of the dynamic directing duo the Russo Brothers came to the Englert on Monday to talk about his part in one of the most anticipated movies of the year. Russo answered questions from the University of Iowa Lecture Committee and a raving audience and received the 2018 Notable Iowan Award.
The Russo Brothers have directed TV shows such as “Arrested Development” and “Community,” and directed Captain America: Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers Four, which will come out next year.
Before Russo made Emmy-winning shows and blockbuster superhero movies, he was a student at the UI.
Russo said he loved movies and comic books from a young age, collecting Marvel comics featuring Spider-Man, his favorite character, and watching The Godfather with his family.
Many things happened during Russo’s three years at the UI that affected his career and life, he said. He met his wife while working at Joe’s Place as a waiter. He also met the man that Russo said made Infinity War possible: Jay Holstein.
“He was a huge influence on me as a storyteller and my understanding of how stories could resonate with audiences,” he said.
Holstein has taught in the Religious Studies Department for 50 years, and Russo was his student and teaching assistant. Russo said Holstein had a huge influence on his career and his storytelling. The biggest lesson he learned was about schematics in storytelling — what is the movie trying to say? He also learned about symbolism and metaphor and using film to talk about real issues, such as the possibility of a surveillance state in Winter Soldier.
“It was a bubbling argument at the time we made the movie, and the world’s technology and privacy invasion was something my brother and I were obsessed with,” he said.
Russo graduated in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in English, then went to Case Western Reserve University with his brother to study film, where they started what Russo called their “10-year overnight success story.”
They created their first film, Pieces, with funds from student loans and maxed-out credit cards. They débuted their work at the Slamdance Film Festival, where they were noticed by producer Steven Soderbergh. They created a piece with him and George Clooney called Welcome to Collinwood.
Ron Howard later approached them to work on “Arrested Development,” and they stayed in TV for a few years before being approached by Marvel.
Russo said Captain America had never been his favorite character; he felt two-dimensional and square. So when they began working on Winter Soldier, they deconstructed the character, taking a hero and forcing him to realize the agency he was fighting for was actually the enemy.
All the Marvel movies the Russo Brothers have directed have signaled a big change in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Infinity War is no different, Russo said. There is no point in making something if it isn’t going to have an end, and each film has sort of ended Marvel eras, such as the time of Shield and a united Avengers team. Movies also need to have extra layers, something for the audience to ponder and discuss.
“We want to inspire conversation. The theme of the film is, ‘What does it cost to be a hero in a world where there’s no easy answers?’ ” he said. “I think we live in a world with no easy answers … it certainly reflects a complex place that I think we found ourselves in as Americans.”