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The Russo Brothers explain how 'The Gray Man' became their first big post-MCU action epic
After setting records with Avengers: Endgame, directors Joe and Anthony Russo set far-reaching goals for their production company, AGBO.
In April of 2019, the release of Avengers: Endgame not only closed a huge storytelling arc in the Marvel Cinematic Universe but it marked the end of a grueling, four-year filmmaking marathon for directors Joe and Anthony Russo. Based on the success of their prior films, Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014) and Captain America: Civil War (2016), the brothers were handed the gigantic task of landing the massive Infinity Stones story-arc in two parts with Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and then Endgame the following year. Starting in 2015, the two prepped both films with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and their massive creative team in Georgia and then shot the movies back-to-back. They weathered the constantly changing schedules of their sprawling cast, ongoing changes to the interconnected narratives, and their own exhaustion. But, they emerged triumphant with both critical and audience acclaim, and even a brief run as the highest-grossing film of all time.
What do you do after that? The Russo Brothers may have hung up their superhero capes, but they haven't slowed down.
For the last three years, the Russo Brothers shifted their focus to their own independent production company, AGBO, where they develop and executive produce genre series like SYFY's Deadly Class and Epix's From. On the film side, they spend a lot of time fostering up-and-coming talent funding and executive producing titles like 21 Bridges (2019), Extraction (2020), and this year's non-Marvel Studios multiverse hit, Everything Everywhere All at Once.
As directors, their first post-blockbuster film was the much smaller drama Cherry, which hit Apple TV+ last year and starred their fellow Marvel Studios alumni, Tom Holland. After Cherry, they were finally able to helm their long-gestating project of adapting author Mark Greaney's The Gray Man novels with Markus and McFeely into, what they hope, will be a contemporary action franchise in the vein of the globe-hopping James Bond or Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan movies.
The Gray Man stars Ryan Gosling as Sierra Six, a convict-turned-CIA black ops assassin, and Chris Evans as Lloyd Hansen, an unhinged, independent contractor hired to clean up messy situations the CIA can't have their fingers on and then bury the evidence. Produced for Netflix, the movie premieres exclusively in theaters on July 15 and then arrives on Netflix a few days later, on July 22. Shot on location around the globe and jam-packed with action sequences that are kinetic and expansive, The Gray Man feels like the spiritual sequel to Winter Soldier — just on steroids and co-starring the guy who played Cap, this time embodying a very, very bad guy.
Considering the depth and breadth of projects the Russos have worked on since their directorial debut, Pieces, which made its mark at the Slamdance Festival in 1997, The Gray Man may seem like a puzzling choice for the duo to take on so soon after their Marvel Studios adventures. But as SYFY WIRE sits down with them at their production company in Downtown Los Angeles, Anthony Russo tells us that there's a very clear reason for why they're making this film, now.
"This was something that had been gestating for a long time," Anthony explains. "And as we get the company up and going, we're doing a lot of world-building with Markus and McFeely. Those projects take a very long time. We've got some special things along those lines coming, but because this movie had been in our lives previously, it was more accessible to us on a creative level, so it seemed like the right time to make this one."
It's also the kind of big-budget project that helps them put into action all the things they want to do via AGBO. Citing what they learned from their own mentors, Stephen Soderbergh and George Clooney, who invested in them via their emerging talent shingle Section Eight after seeing Pieces, Joe says their commercial moviemaking allows them to do the same.
"Anthony and I've spent a decade making commercial movies. We enjoy it. It's not torturous to us," Joe says with a smile. "We actually can infuse modern thematics into it. The Gray Man is a movie that's simply a parable about good and evil. It's two killers who are two immovable objects that are on a collision course with one another, not unlike the world that we're in today. One of them leans away from humanity, one of them leans toward humanity. We're gonna see who wins."
He continues, "There's also a corrupt patriarchy at the heart of it. There's this mysterious old man character and Sierra Six's father is a physical abuser, so it's really an indictment of the way that we see the world at the moment. But, it's wrapped up in this genre package that hopefully, if successful, allows us to get more Everything Everywhere All at Onces made, and support younger filmmakers with riskier visions. These kinds of movies can provide a financial bedrock for them. And the modus operandi of our company is very simple that way."
Having worked in TV with Community and Happy Endings and then working in the Marvel Studios creative slipstream for almost a decade, the pair are now creating their own creative blueprint process for their own IP franchises that they intend to span television, streaming, and film. "We had to codify a process," Joe says of how they work these days. "We took what we call the room in television and we converted that to a process of working with four people collaborating in a room for a decade: Anth, I, Markus, and McFeely. We've made a very specific and disciplined chart of how we do that. And we use that process for our big IP movies."
"We start with a three-page document that could take weeks or months on end to create. Basically, the first page is Act 1, the second page is Act 2 and the third page is Act 3. You need to agree as a group on what that story is before you waste your time turning it into a much larger document that's harder to unravel, and that could get off track in a way that could set the project back months, if not a year or more," Joe explains. "Once we do that three-pager, we go to a 10-pager where we start to infuse character and thematics, and we do some sample dialogue. And then from that, it's very easy to write a script. You're working in a more malleable format for a longer period of time before you commit to building the house instead of building the house and realizing that you don't have any doors on it."
The Russos used this method to make what they hope will be a whole The Grey Man world of storytelling. But, Joe says it also worked to help the Daniels flesh out Everything Everywhere All at Once.
"What they can do is insane," he says, enthusiastically, about the filmmaking pair. "It's been a long time since we've seen filmmakers that adventurous with that high level of skill. They spent their 10,000 hours making commercials and music videos, honing their craft, and pulling up their team that works on all their projects, which helps them bring rocks to life and hot dog fingers and all the other interesting things that they do. But what was compelling is that we found that that [three-page] process worked equally as well with them as it did for the work that we did, say with Marvel or The Gray Man and on our bigger IP.
"And it was unique testing that with the Daniels, who are perhaps the most radical kind of storytellers, who have a process that is emotional and is something instinctual and undefinable for them," Joe continues. "They reminded us a lot of ourselves when we first started and made this completely riotous movie that only Steven Soderbergh could love, and only Steven Soderbergh did love," he laughs. "But we watched Swiss Army Man and went, 'Oh, interesting. I wonder if we help them calibrate just slightly without corrupting who they are so they could create something a little more explosive, that would reach a much bigger audience?' Because their blending of absurdism and emotion is unlike anything we've seen in quite a long time. And also their technical abilities are great."
It obviously paid off with Everything grossing over $92 million worldwide. Now all attention is on how The Gray Man is received and if audiences will be clamoring for more. Regardless, the Russos have a lot to say about the state of action movies today, finding a project worthy of Chris Evans' time and how they pulled off the nine action sequences that fill The Gray Man to the gills with explosions and battles.
The Gray Man opens in theaters on July 15 and will be streaming on Netflix on July 22. Come back for Part Two of SYFY WIRE's exclusive conversation with the Russo Brothers on July 22.