When American producer-director duo Joe and Anthony Russo — widely known as the Russo brothers — visited India last month, coinciding with the Netflix release on July 22 of their latest action thriller The Gray Man, they made it clear that they were aiming to grow their association with it. “I love India. So, we will keep casting Indian talent. The Indian film industry is so vibrant; it rivals Hollywood. There is so much talent here that’s untapped at an international level,” says Joe, 51, on his third visit to the country.
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The brothers, who have worked on major money-spinners like Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Captain America: Civil War (2016). Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), are familiar with Indian talent. For their 2020 Netflix movie Extraction, they worked with a bunch of Indian actors including Pankaj Tripathi and Randeep Hooda. In The Gray Man, Dhanush is the Lone Wolf and fights Ryan Gosling. The brothers, who have been heaping praise on Dhanush for being “a consummate professional”, have expressed their wish to work again with the Asuran (2019) actor. Meanwhile, they are working with Priyanka Chopra for the spy thriller series Citadel. Their time in Mumbai was eventful. “Being here in India has let us see first-hand how much entertainment is thriving here,” says Anthony.
Based on the novel The Gray Man (2009) by Mark Greaney, the film was in the making for close to a decade. “We were in awe of Greaney’s writing and the amount of research he does. We are always on a quest to develop interesting sideways to a genre. Having been inspired by the ’70s thrillers that we grew up on, The Gray Man encompasses themes of a complex political rebellion against the system, and we have reflected on our own fears about the world,” says Joe. The Gray Man revolves around CIA operative Court Gentry (Gosling), aka, Sierra Six. As he is hunted across the globe by Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans), a former cohort at the CIA, he finds support in Agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas).
Soon, a spin-off movie, written by screenwriters Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese (Deadpool, Zombieland), will explore a different element of The Gray Man universe. The plot line is being kept under wraps. Talking about the development of the sequel, Joe says, “With so many amazing characters in the movie, we had always intended for The Gray Man to be part of an expanded universe. We are thrilled that Netflix is announcing a sequel with Ryan, as well as a second script that we’re excited to talk about soon,” says Joe. Next year, they are coming up with another sequel, Extraction 2an action thriller directed by Sam Hargrave and written by Joe.
Over the years, the brothers have built an impressive filmography featuring multiple blockbusters. Their partnership started during their college days as Anthony studied law and Joe studied acting. They got their break when Steven Soderbergh approached them after watching their first feature Pieces (1997), an absurdist black-and-white comedy, and offered to produce their next film. Since then, they have directed and produced several talked-about movies and series. “It’s difficult to describe our process. It kind of flows naturally. At the end of the day, it is about if you like the story and if others would like it,” says Anthony.
The process of executing a project varies depending on the nature of a story. “We try to figure out where we can go cinematically with that story. We start thinking about it at an abstract level, trying to find a few key ideas that we want to use. Then, we move to the scripting phase. The next stage is a more collaborative phase where we bring in the people we want to work with — production designers, actors, cinematographers,” Joe says.
Famous for creating big-screen spectacles — for instance, Avengers: Infinity War (2018) with an impressive ensemble cast that featured Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland and others — they are aware that after being cooped up in their homes for long stretches of time, the audience is craving tent-pole movies that serve as escapist fare. “Spectacle entertainment allows you to escape. We like escapist entertainment,” says Joe.
The biggest challenge while making spectacle movies, according to them, is creating a convincing world. “The Gray Man is set in a real world and you would think it’s not so hard to create. But to stage some major sequences in the movie, we needed very specific locations,” says Anthony. The Gray Man was shot in seven different locations across the globe including the US, France, the Czech Republic, Thailand, Croatia, Austria and Azerbaijan. When it comes to creating a fitting world for their characters, the brothers think live-action movies can be much tougher than working on a Marvel world. “When you are dealing with worlds that simply don’t exist and are fantasy, the concern is how are we creating it — physically or digitally? A story can live in your head forever but to make a movie, you have to physicalise it,” Joe says.
Their next project, The Electric State, too, promises to be a mass entertainer. “It’s a fantasy film and we start shooting during the fall,” Joe says. The forthcoming adaptation of Simon Stålenhag’s sci-fi graphic novel has already generated interest as it has roped in Stranger Things (2016) star Millie Bobby Brown. Set in a retro-futuristic past, The Electric State will tell the story of an orphan Michelle (essayed by Brown) who teams up with a sweet but mysterious robot and a drifter to look for her brother.
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