The reason I hit the Avengers: Infinity War press junket was not to gawk at the movie stars, though, to be fair, there were 20-some-odd of them assembled there, ostensibly to be gawked at. No, for this movie — which apparently features almost every character who's ever been in a Marvel flick — I wanted to talk to the architects of this impossible picture. I wanted to talk to the people charged with telling this story.
So I sat down with directors Joe and Anthony Russo, who have conducted the grand movements of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War and now Avengers: Infinity War and the mysteriously untitled Avengers 4. And, separately, I interviewed screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who have been writing Captain America since The First Avenger and helped steer this superheroic love boat into Infinity territory. (Note: Both interviews were combined to form a single thematic piece and edited for clarity.)
I'm trying to think of another film that has this many characters. A real film, not, like, Cannonball Run. What did the beginning of breaking this story look like? Where do you start?
Anthony Russo: We began with your question. We tried to think of other movies that were models for this idea and we really couldn't come up with any. And that's a really exciting place to be, as an artist. We're really in virgin territory here — we don't have a model to follow, there's no format here. We have a wonderful collaborative relationship with Markus and McFeely, the writers, and we basically spent months and months in a room with them, hammering out the possibilities of what this could be. We had pictures of every MCU character around us, on the walls, and we would outline stories below them, pitch each other ideas. It was a long, crazy process, but it was also one of the most fun experiences we've ever had because there were so many possibilities.
Stephen McFeely: We spent all of our downtime during Civil War [production] doing a Jerry Maguire manifesto. We'd read all the comics in the afternoon after we'd done work on the day's shooting in the morning. We had like a 60-page document by the end of shooting that we just handed to Marvel and said, "Please pick from the menu here." Once we settled in back in L.A. we spent the last four months of 2015 breaking both stories for movie one and movie two. Cards on the wall — baseball cards with all the characters. Five months to write both drafts.
How long did the modulation process take? Adjusting the fuel-air mixture, as it were? How much to serve one character over another? I mean, every one of them is at the center of their own franchise… what does that math look like?
Joe Russo: It's incredibly complicated calculus. I think a lot of it comes from our career trajectory. We grew up in a big Italian family and a lot of our movies and TV shows have been ensemble pieces. It's because of our upbringing, we always had so many people around us, a lot of different personalities, and we'd watch and see how those personalities would conflict with each other. So Arrested Development is an ensemble, Community's an ensemble, Happy Endings is an ensemble — Winter Soldier is an ensemble, although right now it looks like a small one. Civil War was a step up from that. And then Infinity War is a step up from that.
So it's just been a natural progression for us. Taking 15 years of calculus at some point, you get really good at calculus. And then sitting in a room with Markus and McFeely, who are also really good at calculus, you can come up with an incredibly complicated problem and the solution to that problem.
Christopher Markus: It all started to balance out once we realized that Thanos is the main character; he's the protagonist of this movie. He is actually the driving force. He will dictate everything that happens in the movie. Until his story or the ramifications of his story interact with certain characters, they're not in the movie. He is pulling people into the drama. We had written, at some point, one of those big-ass group scenes. "Let's get everybody together in a conference room and talk about the threat that's coming." It was cool, because everyone was there, but it was awful.
Joe: It is a very vigilant and disciplined process, of sitting in a room, endlessly, going through the story you want to tell, following the story through each character's point of view. We'll spend a day going through Gamora's story. A day going through Banner's story. A day going through Panther's story. Pulling them through the movie so we understand what their point of view is, what their moments are. This person has a slightly larger arc than this person because they're tied to the A plot of the movie.
For instance, Gamora is a very important character in the film because she is the person in the movie that is closest to Thanos — and anyone who is close to the villain is going to have an important role in the storytelling.
What do you know now about your story process that you didn't know when you started in the MCU?
McFeely: It's gotten faster. We had a couple years to do First Avenger. We had three years between that and Winter Soldier. We had two years between Winter Soldier and Civil War. We had two years between Civil War and two damned movies. The gap always got smaller and more rushed. Partly because we've gotten a little better and more facile at this stuff and it's also because Marvel trusts us more and because of the Russo Brothers — now we're a superhero team that can move on a dime. The process is the same.
Markus: The process is brutally the same. When we start something it still feels like we've never written a movie before. Every damned time.
Joe: The way Anth and I like to work is the way we worked in television. We have a writers room. We sit in the room and we talk about larger concepts. We talk about the storytelling, as directors, we talk about what we're interested in saying with the movie, what are the thematics, what's the tone of it, what are some of the bigger targets we'd like to hit. We collaborate with Markus and McFeely in a room together for months. Crafting an outline.
Once we get to an outline phase, we share it with Kevin, then Kevin comes in the room and weighs in with us for a little while, then we take that to a longer outline form and then, ultimately, to a script. Once we have a script, Anth and I Markus and McFeely sit in a room and put the script up on a screen, just like in a [comedy] writers room in television, and we go through it line by line. And we do this for months at a time. We put our directing notes right into the script, so that document — and there are 6,000 people who worked on Infinity War — when people get it, details what it is we require in a scene. Everyone is on the same page and has the plan.
Tell me the thing you thought was gonna be the hardest thing to pull off that ended up being a breeze.
Joe: I think I expected it to be more difficult working with a cast of this size — to be more specific, for them to work with each other. Some of them have worked together for years and have never worked with each other. I thought that potentially combining them and the tones might be difficult for them to comprehend. But they're all such good actors, and so facile, that they all blended pretty quickly. The greatest challenge of this movie is its tone. You're talking about the unprecedented notion of taking pre-existing franchises, that all have tones that are beloved by the audience, very different tones, and bringing them together. And tone is really the defining element of whether a story is told successfully or not.
The other thing is that there are a lot of ambitious ideas in this movie that required a real leap of faith on a visual effects level. Very complicated worlds, very complicated set pieces and ideas, very complicated characters — in Thanos — and I think that was one of the great surprises. We have such an amazing visual effect team, led by Dan De Lew — that these things all ended up working felt like a small miracle.
And what did you think was gonna be a cake walk that ended up being a nutcracker?
McFeely: Cap's story. The story of the fugitives was harder. We sort of allowed ourselves two movies to tell that story. Look at that poster: Not everyone can have a really big long arc in this movie. They have various sized arcs and some of them won't be the best served in this movie. Talk to me in May of 2019 and you'll say, "Fine. I'm satisfied."
Looking back, on both your work in the MCU and the MCU in toto, what are the unifying themes? Is there one that unifies then all, deep down?
Joe: If you look at Winter Soldier through Avengers 4, those four movies, you'll understand who we are as filmmakers. Particularly in Infinity War, the question we're asking is, what does it mean to be a hero in a complicated world? A world where there are no easy answers. I think we live in that world right now. We like having our themes be very relevant to the audience because it adds another layer of connection. In Winter Soldier the theme was "what are the dangers of the surveillance state?" and now we have Cambridge Analytica and the Facebook data scam.
I do think, ultimately, the thematic question that Infinity War asks is the theme of the Marvel Universe, and can be the theme of any story which involves heroes versus villains: "What is the cost that they're willing to pay? And does the value of doing what's right outweigh the cost?"
McFeely: The cost of heroism. Does your sense of duty outweigh your sense of self?
Markus: How long can you do it without becoming jaded? There's an interesting debate, as to whether Steve Rogers still represents the values he always did, after tearing down SHIELD. Is he Captain America? Are you always sacrificing the right thing?
Not every, but many of the Marvel films have a sort of genre template. Conspiracy thriller, space opera, buddy road picture, etc. Not to give anything away, of course, but does IW follow suit?
Markus: You said Cannonball Run.
Anthony: On a creative level, on an energy level, on a structural level, we referenced Out of Sight, Two Days in the Valley, these movies where there is a lightning-fast plot happening with a villain that's one step ahead of the heroes, and a constellation of characters being pulled together. All based on the idea of Thanos going after the Infinity stones very aggressively. And that being the sole connective tissue between all of the disparate characters in the MCU who, until this point, have had nothing to do with each other. Although I don't know that your experience of the movie, that your takeaway will be, "Oh, that was a heist movie."
McFeely: We love Out of Sight as much as anybody, but I'm not sure if it was Out of Sight.
How do you feel about endings? Not of films, per se, but of stories themselves? I ask because while the MCU has "phases," which seem to function as chapters, they never "end." Is there a part of you that wants to get there?
Markus: Well, I think you have to find the smaller story within it and END IT.
McFeely: I mean, Cap goes into the ice. Yeah, there's an addendum where he wakes up in New York City, but we ended First Avenger on a heroic moment where a guy sacrifices himself for the good of others. In Winter Soldier, he's willing to sacrifice himself to get through to his friend Bucky. And he takes all of S.H.I.E.L.D. down. That's a big ending, these are big swings.
Joe: There's a storytelling adage that says, "Write yourself into a corner." Put yourself in a place, on a narrative level, where you have no idea how you're going to get out of it. Breaking Bad is a great example of that adage. Every episode of that show ends in a place where you go, "I have no idea how this is going to continue next week. How these characters are going to move forward from here." And we've always appreciated that as good storytelling. And we love that as storytellers, because that's the great challenge.
Spend everything you have. Push everything as far as you can. Say to yourself, "Welp, that's it. I don't know how possibly there's anything beyond this." And then let it gestate for a while and it's quite possible that you find a road forward after that. We love the idea of committing and spending it all. But, often times, there is a road forward beyond that, creatively.
Markus: But endings can be open. Endings can be messy. Not every ending is tied up. The ending that everybody always references is The Graduate, where you're just sitting in the bus saying, "That was a terrible idea." But it's an ending!
Anthony: Nothing has value without an ending. If Breaking Bad were still in season 14, I don't know that we'd still be calling it the greatest show in the history of television. It had to end.
Joe: I think that people who've been following along with the Marvel Cinematic Universe for a decade realize that Marvel's been writing a book. And I believe this is the final chapter of that book. New books will be written, but this is the final chapter of that one. And that's important. Anth and I, as directors, are not afraid to commit to strong choices that maybe the fans won't like, but ultimately we feel are the best road for the story to follow.