Anthony and Joe Russo are now colossal figures in Hollywood, but it wasn’t too long ago that FOX entrusted them with the directing duties to a small comedy pilot, and their dailies panicked the studio heads. That comedy was Arrested Development. They would follow that up with work on shows like Happy Endings, LAX, Running Wilde, The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaretand of course, Community.
And it was Community that really set them up for success, but more on that later. While the Russo brothers helmed a few films initially, including their debut Pieces, which caught the eye of Steven Soderbergh, they found little success. When they returned to TV, they further cut their teeth as directors, setting themselves up to become the big budget, massive scale, A-list directors that they are today.
A Hiatus In Cinematic Directing
Their debut movie, Pieces, caught the attention of Soderbergh when he viewed it at the Slamdance Film Festival. After viewing it, he approached the brothers and offered to produce their next film with his partner, George Clooney. That movie would become Welcome to Collinwooda caper comedy remake of the Oscar-nominated 1958 Italian film, Big Deal on Madonna Street. It had a lukewarm reception, and didn’t recover even half of its estimated budget. And while this film didn’t help their jump to major directorial opportunities, it opened the door for them to direct the pilot for the show Lucky.
Amidst some success directing pilot episodes of other shows, the duo had another directorial opportunity, this time with You, Me, and Dupree in 2002. It was a flop financially, as well as receptively, with negative views nearly across the board. They would return to TV again. And while Lucky had a short run, their work on the pilot caught the eye of yet another well-known director… Ron Howard.
It’s Arrested Development
Ron Howard, who was producing the show Arrested Development, had a hand in selecting the Russo brothers to direct the pilot. Their approach to the show and the pilot were dramatically refreshing. The duo shot it quickly and guerilla-style, jumping out of vans with the actors ready to roll and without permits.
The dailies of the shoot, however, did not instill confidence in a Fox executive. The brothers told the following story to the LA Times in 2016:
“They called us up after seeing the first day of dailies, we were on set on Day 2, and they said, ‘This is a disaster!’” Anthony Russo recalls of his early work on the 2003 comedy series created by Ron Howard and Mitch Hurwitz.
“To be fair, we were running four or five cameras at a time,” brother and directing partner Joe Russo interjects. “We knew we were going to grab two seconds here, three seconds there.”
“It was revolutionary at the time,” Anthony continues. “We were shooting in digital video, which nobody understood. The irony of it is that we ended up getting an Emmy for directing on the episode where they were like, ‘You guys can’t direct!’”
The brothers won that battle and would go on to direct (mostly individually) some of the standout episodes of the beloved comedy, including (Anthony) “Top Banana”, “Key Decisions”, “The Immaculate Election” and (Joe) “Bringing Up Buster”, “In God We Trust”, “Pier Pressure”, “Marta Complex”, “Shock and Aww”, “Missing Kitty”, “Hand to God”, “Motherboy XXX”, “Meat the Veals.”
The visual style, dry humor, and eclectic approach to storytelling of the show has made it a cult classic today, much loved and oft-quoted by avid fans. The brothers certainly developed a unique sense of style during their time on the show and it would translate to later success.
And yet, despite their work on Arrested Developmentit would take another show to help them find their ticket to the big screen again.
Honey Their Action Skills
After FOX canceled Arrested Development in 2005, the Russo Brothers directed a few other pilots for shows that never found much success. Then, in 2009, the brothers landed a new show called Community. Community developed a cult and passionate following, although it too suffered the same challenges of Arrested Development in terms of ratings, despite its passionate, albeit small, fanbase. However, the brothers ended up directing some incredible episodes of the show. Community allowed the brothers to work on equally honey their directorial skills, along with their comedic talents behind the camera.
Individually, they directed 34 episodes of the show, including standouts like “Introduction to Film”, “The Politics of Human Sexuality”, “Physical Education”, “Beginner Pottery”, “Foosball and Nocturnal Vigilantism”, “Debate 109″, ” Investigative Journalism”, “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons”, “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking”, “A Fistful of Paintballs”, “For a Few Paintballs More”, and “Advanced Advanced Dungeons & Dragons”. It was the paintball episodes in particular that caught the eye of Kevin Feige at Marvel Studios. their work on Community hit that balance of tone between comedy, but an eye and understanding of action, which Feige considered being crucial for an upcoming film.
It isn’t difficult to see the translation and appeal that Feige saw. In “A Fistful of Paintballs”, the crowd-pleasing sequel to the first season’s “Modern Warfare” elevated the storytelling within the halls of Greendale more than it had before. Quick cuts, endless Western homages, quippy one-liners, slow-motion, and of course – paintballs – all would pop-up again in their Marvel work. The second half of this story, “A Few Paintballs More” was just as satisfying, shifting to a star warsfueled homage, that surely also struck a chord with Feige.
He ended up tagging the pair and signing them to direct Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which was not only a huge commercial success, but also highly acclaimed and beloved by fans. Without the time, skill, and success of their television work, the Russo brothers would likely not have been able to bring their mastery of big budget comic book storytelling to the screen. Their work at the helm of Captain America: Civil War, The Avengers: Infinity Warand The Avengers: Endgamehave enshrined them in history as successful, talented, and admired directors.