There are moments when time stands still. Moments where you find yourself on the verge of greatness. Moments that stand the test of time. The Edge is a series of conversations where extraordinary people tell intimate stories of one moment that changed everything for them. A world record, a world championship, an epiphany, a life-changing decision. They relive their moments, minute by minute. How they overcame pressure, fear, pain and pushed themselves to the limit. To The Edge.
In this episode, you’ll hear the story of Anthony and Joe Russo, aka the Russo Brothers. Born into an Italian-American family in Cleveland, they share their journey from making art house films to blockbusters like The Gray Man, their new Netflix movie starring Ryan Gosling. They also talk about their early years, how they started working together, their dynamic and their filmmaking process. So get the popcorn ready and listen to the moments that made the Russo Brothers one of Hollywood’s hottest double acts.
Presented by your host Teo Van Den Broeke, you’ll relive the moments that changed the Russo Brothers’ destiny.
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The origin story
Joe Russo: I think it was in our early 20s. We’re both pursuing other careers at the time. Anth, a legal career and I was looking at acting. And we had a love of movies since we were kids and we made a decision at that point. In the early ‘90s, Sundance was fueling dreams of young filmmakers. You could make a movie for nothing regionally, get into Sundance and get discovered as “the next big thing” in Hollywood. We decided to make a film. Unfortunately, our taste was a little bit more extreme and radical than the types of movies that were exploding out of Sundance. We’re fortunate enough that we got discovered by Steven Soderbergh, and that’s really how our career began. We’ve transitioned over time from making arthouse fare into more commercial fare under the tutelage of Steven, who had a similar trajectory in his career.
The sibling dynamic
Anthony Russo: There are generally two reactions to the fact that we work together. One is, “Oh, I wish I could work with my sibling like that” or “Oh my God, I could never work with my sibling.” It tends to be one or the other. We don’t have a very studied process. We basically have a nonstop dialog between us. It’s the way we started. We learned how to make movies together. We came up from Cleveland, where we grew up. When Joe and I began thinking about filmmaking, we were reading a lot of books and talking to one another about those books, and we weren’t studying film formally at the time.
So we developed this process of just approaching filmmaking as a type of partnership where we were feeding off of one another and learning together and growing together and then figuring out how to express ourselves together. And it just became a natural process. We come from a large Italian-American family. We’re very used to sort of having strong, close relationships with our family members. Our relationship just kind of grew from there. And our process is very informal.
Dealing with pressure
Anthony Russo: We’ve gotten to the place in our careers where everybody on our team is the best at what they do. They require very little external motivation to deliver really inspired top level work. So our job is basically just to make sure everybody’s feeling good and is well supported, so we try to create a very casual atmosphere on set. Everybody is focused, and the work is serious, and sometimes even dangerous with action. So there’s always a level of focus, but we try to keep things very relaxed and we try to have fun in between takes. The movie’s hard. It’s physically hard on the actors and the crew and sometimes the material in the film gets pretty dark and tense as well. The stakes are very high in the movie, so between takes, we try to make sure people are laughing and people are sort of having a good time. People need to maintain a nice, healthy balance and stay in a good space. It’s really important. That’s the energy Joe and I like to have around us.
Why The Gray Man almost killed them
Joe Russo: I’ve said this in the past that the movie almost killed us. I mean, it’s nine set pieces and set pieces require very long days. They’re strenuous. They’re very physical. You know, you have to be very careful with safety issues. You’re sleeping 4 or 5 hours a night. It’s exhaustive. It’s mentally taxing, emotionally taxing. So this was a very, very difficult movie to make in a lot of ways. Because the movie is wall-to-wall action. The exercise is to make people forget that they have popcorn in their laps and they don’t eat it. By the end of the movie, they’re like, “Oh my God. I was so engrossed in what was happening that I forgot to eat my buttered popcorn.” So that’s really the approach to this film. How far can we push it? How relentless can we make it? It’s a ticking clock movie, and it’s two very extreme characters in a parable of good and evil.
Reaching a global audience
Anthony Russo: We look at it as an amazing creative opportunity. That’s really how we frame it. Joe and I, we grew up watching a lot of global cinema. We grew up near the Cleveland Cinematheque, and it has an amazing program of art cinema and global cinema. So from a young age, we were very interested in how cinema can take you far beyond your sort of local experience.
And that’s something that we’ve fed off through our whole careers. And so that’s the real opportunity that Joe and I look for in these movies is what can we do when our palette is the entire world, rather than a more traditional, narrow Hollywood palette? That’s exciting for us. And I do think there are other sorts of benefits of it of course, giving people voices and platforms that they haven’t had before is critically important. But at the heart of it for us is the creative opportunity.
Joe Russo: There’s this famous story where a young filmmaker asked Steven Spielberg, “Steven, I just got my first big movie. Can you give me any advice?” He said, “I’d get a physical trainer because it’s going to beat you up.” And the physical toll that it takes on you is dramatic. So I guess I would have eaten less pizza along the way.
Anthony Russo: I just really loved the process of discovery that’s inherent in this kind of work. And I like the fact that each movie is an opportunity to take us somewhere we haven’t gone before, psychologically or philosophically or intellectually, or even physically.