Avengers Directors On Their Future With Marvel and Reuniting With Chris Hemsworth For Extraction
After Endgame, Joe and Anthony Russo are working on their own passion projects. But the superhero world isn't gone for good.
By Nick Schager | April 24, 2020
With Avengers: Endgame, their fourth and final entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, directors Joe and Anthony Russo went out on top – to the tune of an all-time high $2.798 billion global box-office haul. That superhero triumph, however, hasn’t diminished their interest in scaling new action-cinema heights, as evidenced by this Friday’s Extraction, a slam-bang Chris Hemsworth vehicle produced by the duo, and directed by their long-time stunt coordinator Sam Hargrave (in his behind-the-camera debut). The story of a grieving mercenary (Hemsworth) who’s hired to rescue the kidnapped son (Rudhraksh Jaiswal) of a Bangladeshi drug lord, it’s a grim and gritty affair that delivers R-rated mayhem in great, thrilling bursts, highlighted by a bravura 12-minute sequence of hand-to-hand combat, shootouts, and car chases that puts Hemsworth’s hero through the proverbial wringer.
Extraction has been a long-gestating project for the Russos, who first conceived of its graphic-novel source material a decade ago. Following last year’s 21 Bridges with Chadwick Boseman, it’s also another movie that reteams them with a former Marvel star – something they’ll do once again with Cherry, their Tom Holland-headlined directorial follow-up to Endgame. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has slowed post-production progress on that film, their latest producing effort arrives at an ideal time for quarantined audiences eager for the type of tentpole-ready extravaganzas that usually dominate the summer season. Thus, ahead of Extraction’s streaming bow, we spoke with the brothers about collaborating remotely, the current state of their relationship with Marvel, why stunt coordinators are well-suited for directing, and what makes for a great action scene.
How are you both doing during this crazy time? Are you located near each other, or like most of America, are you communicating via online means?
Joe: Anthony lives in Southern Pasadena and I’m in Southern Hills, so we’re across town from each other. We haven’t been in the same space physically together for 35+ days. So we’re all hunkered down like everyone else, doing our best to flatten the curve and protect the elderly and our medical staffs.
Anthony: We see each other all day long on screen, but not in the flesh.
When the pandemic hit, you were working on your next directorial effort, Cherry. Have you been able to continue production on the film?
Joe: We were editing out of AGBO, our production company, when this all started, and we actually closed down AGBO a week prior to the city of Los Angeles’ official shutdown. We were consulting with the medical experts and we just felt like, for the safety of employees, that was the best thing to do. We were able to move the AVID into the house of our editor, Jeff Groth, so we get on a secure link with each other and keep editing the movie.
Anthony: It does slow everything down a bit, but we’re still able to pretty much do it. We’re also working really closely with our partners, [Christopher] Markus and [Stephen] McFeely, on developing a new film. We have sessions with them every day online as well. We’ve been able to maintain both our personal development and our personal editing, and we’ve been tied in with our company AGBO as well in terms of development issues. So we’re able to do a version of everything, but it’s not as robust as it was or could be.
Having worked with Marvel for so long – on Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and Avengers: Endgame – has it been liberating to move on to other projects? Or do you still miss the MCU?
Anthony: Basically both. We were with Marvel for seven straight years, full-time, focused on those four movies. That was the greatest time of our lives; we loved it. We’re very proud of the work we did, and we’re very proud of the collaboration we had with the folks at Marvel. That was amazing. We’re finding opportunities to carry those experiences and relationships forward – specifically here with Chris and Sam Hargrave with Extraction. There are different ways we’re carrying the relationships forward with many, many of the cast and crew and producers of those films. That’s really exciting.
So in one way, that Marvel period is over. But in another way, it’s continuing to evolve into new projects. With Cherry, and Tom Holland, it’s the same thing. A lot of [Marvel] actors, we’re still developing and working with, and we still talk with Kevin Feige and Lou D’Esposito regularly.
Have you had a hand in charting the MCU’s post-Endgame future – and have you considered possibly returning to the Marvel fold one day?
Joe: It’s certainly in other people’s hands. We’re focused on AGBO, and Cherry, at the moment. We’ve got Extraction, and there are a lot of movies about to go into production, and we’re also working on Exit West with the Obamas. So at the moment, that’s where our focus is. We adore Kevin, Lou, Victoria [Alonso] and everyone at Marvel, and we’re always looking for another opportunity to work together. When the right one comes along, I’m sure we’ll all go make it.
Anthony: One of the reasons we were able to do what we did with both Infinity War and Endgame is because we were not thinking about the future of the MCU at all. We had complete and utter focus on closing out the road that had been travelled that far, in the most spectacular, emotionally fulfilling, cathartic, surprising way we could think of. That was our job on those movies. I think we wouldn’t have been able to do what we did with those movies had we been thinking about where the MCU goes from here. We spent it all on those movies, in terms of what we could do as storytellers.
How did Extraction come about, and what was it like to move into a producer’s role on an action-heavy film like this?
Joe: We’ve directed and produced some television, and something that’s always exciting for us in the producing aspect, on the TV side, is that you get to interact with other directors. It’s a very solitary job, so even though Anthony and I work together, you’re almost never interacting with other directors. A lot of interesting creative ideas come from being in a room or on a set with someone else who does a job similar to what you do. So we were always excited by that aspect of it in television.
We started work on this idea maybe ten years ago, when we were transitioning into doing action films. We grew up on action films, we have an emotional attachment to the action thrillers of the ‘70s, and we wanted to make one ourselves. We were friends with the guys from Oni Press, the comic-book company, and we thought, let’s write a graphic novel, and we can use that graphic novel as a visual example of what we’re thinking, and then we can consult the studio and write the script. We worked with Ande Parks, who’s an amazing writer, crafted the graphic novel – which was originally called Ciudad – and then over the years, as we worked on the script, we changed locations and moved to Bangladesh and started Extraction.
We worked with Sam Hargrave on all four Marvel films, over eight years. He started as Chris Evans’ stunt double on Captain America: Winter Soldier, then he was our stunt coordinator on Civil War, and then he was our second-unit director. He’s amazingly talented. He has a wonderful understanding of storytelling and character, combined with a virtuoso and auteur approach to action. We knew that Extraction needed someone who had a deft understanding of character and story, combined with this gift for executing action. Sam was the guy.
On top of his Marvel collaborations with you, Sam also worked on Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2, which were directed by David Leitch, who (along with Chad Stahelski) famously made the jump from stunt coordinating to directing. What is it about stunt choreography that prepares people for moving behind the camera?
Joe: There’s a real discipline to being a stunt coordinator. There are safety issues, there are execution issues – usually executing extremely complicated choreographed sequences. I think there’s a real discipline that goes along with being a stunt coordinator, and there’s significant leadership that goes into that job as well.
When you make the transition from a stunt coordinator to a second-unit director, you’re now bringing into it all the aspects of the job that are required of a director as well: communicating to a crew, understanding how to work the cameras and how to work with actors, how to tell story, and how to develop character. I think it’s just a natural progression from stunt coordinating to second-unit directing to directing, because very similar qualities are required for each job.
Anthony: We’ve had the opportunity to work with Chad and Dave as well, and we have the highest respect for people like them, and Sam, who’ve come up through the stunt world. The best stunt coordinators, and the best people working in that corner of the business – in order to be a successful stunt coordinator, you actually have to understand how to stage a scene, and how to stage actors and action. And none of that has any value if you don’t also understand how to stage the camera with that.
The other thing is, to be great at that job, you have to know that action is more than physical. You have to understand that it’s an expression of character, and that action only stays interesting and compelling when you have an emotional investment in the character who’s at the center of the action, and when the action is pushing the audience’s anxieties and expectations. That’s what separates good stunt coordinators from great ones, and that’s why people like Sam and Chad and Dave can actually transition into full-fledged directing – because they do have that larger sense of what it means to create meaningful action, which is really close to how you create meaningful narrative in general.
There’s certainly a lot of action in Extraction, much of it handled by Chris, and that’s epitomized by the film’s breakneck 12-minute long sequence. How did that come about?
Joe: It was written in the script as a protracted action sequence. Again, our inspiration being drawn from 1970s action thrillers, this was intended to be a really compelling and lengthy sequence that would keep you on the edge of your seat. It was Sam’s idea to turn it into a “oner,” which is a series of shots that are stitched together in a seamless way so it appears as if it were all done in one shot. And it does go on for 12 minutes.
Our initial concern was, can we sustain the audience’s attention for 12 minutes without cutting away? Certainly, a oner limits the point of view of the storytelling. Sam did an incredible amount of work fashioning those shots that were stitched together to make what I think is one of the best oners I’ve ever seen, and has ever been put on film. I think it’s fantastic, and why it’s so great is because there’s incredible storytelling and character work that’s happening at the same time as the action. That is the number one job of a director working on an action film – every piece of action has to advance the storytelling and character in some way, because the audience will only stay with you for so long if you’re not doing that.
Anthony: When you’re talking about Sam and Chris, the other hallmark of great stunt performers is that they develop very intimate relationships with actors, because they’re co-creating a lot of these action characters together. The stunt performer has to carry a significant portion of the performance responsibility with the actor, in terms of figuring out who that character is: how he moves, how he fights, how he holds himself, how he reacts in certain situations. The stunt performer has to very much own the character in a similar way to the actor.
Chris has worked very intimately with great stunt performers, and Sam has worked very intimately with great actors. So they have a natural collaboration with one another that developed through the Marvel work. That’s another reason why they were both the right fit for this movie.
Despite this being a blockbuster-scaled film, it’s coming out on Netflix. Why did you decide to go the streaming route – and given how the pandemic is affecting theaters, do you see the release-platform paradigm shifting more towards online venues in the future?
Anthony: Joe and I have always been most excited by the new horizons in filmmaking. You can go back and look at our career and see this pattern. We came up in the indie film world, the do-it-yourself, no-budget filmmaking of the late ‘90s, and we went through the Slamdance Film Festival. That was around the time – right after The Sopranos had come out – that TV was changing. All of a sudden, there was this interest in indie film directors, so we found these opportunities in television that had never been available to indie filmmakers before, and we were able to go on and make shows like Arrested Development and Community. That was a whole new frontier in TV, to be able to work in that manner.
In the same way, what Marvel has done is, I think in retrospect, now taken for granted. At the time it was unfolding, it was revolutionary – nobody had done an interconnected film narrative like that before. Or since, really. We love these opportunities, so we’re very agnostic in terms of platform and format. We love all the different ways you can work with filmmakers. We’ve made movies for as little money as you can possibly make movies for, and we’ve made movies for as much money as you can possibly make movies for. We’ve done network TV, cable TV, comedy, drama, and we shoot commercials. We love every form of filmic expression there is.
Our experience with Netflix was amazing. They were incredibly supportive of the film. It’s hard and expensive to do action, and they supported the movie financially in a way that allowed us to achieve something that we feel is quite remarkable. And as our creative partners, they were extremely supportive and easy to work with. It couldn’t have been an easier collaboration on a creative level. They really gave us the freedom to make the movie that all the filmmakers wanted it to be. So they were ideal partners; we couldn’t have been happier with the process.