The eldest brother refers to theirs as a “traditional Italian American upbringing” in Cleveland. Extended family members, he says, were “always forming businesses together and running them together ... sort of the immigrant-family kind of dynamic.”
So, of course, when Anthony Russo and his younger brother, Joe Russo, decided to become filmmakers, they worked together. More than two decades later, the Russo brothers have done well enough (including directing “Avengers: Endgame,” the highest grossing film to date) that they’ve launched their own studio, AGBO.
Now they’re telling a story with some disturbing themes close to their hearts, set in the city where they were raised, and making bold stylistic choices that wouldn’t have been possible in a multibillion-dollar franchise. “Cherry,” which opens theatrically this week and streams on Apple TV+ in March, is essentially a larger-budget indie. But to make it even more personal, the script was cowritten (with Jessica Goldberg) by a Russo sister: Angela Russo-Otstot. It’s her first feature-writing credit after a number of TV episodes, but it wasn’t entirely alien for her.
“When we read the book, we had a shorthand because of our shared experiences growing up in Cleveland. Though we may not have experienced the majority of what the character does, the world in which he operates and the people with which he interacts feel so intimately familiar,” says Russo-Otstot, who is several years younger than her siblings (they also have another sister).
“You become protective of those people and places because they’re emblematic to some degree of the same people and places who have shaped us at our core. Collectively, those details say something profound about the city in which we were raised.”
“Cherry” isn’t exactly a love letter to Cleveland. Based on Nico Walker’s 2018 semiautobiographical novel, written while the author was in prison for bank robbery, the story follows a young man (unnamed, but called “Cherry” in the script and played by Tom Holland on the screen) who falls in love, responds to heartbreak by joining the Army as a medic and comes home haunted by his war experiences. He reunites with his love, Emily (played by Ciara Bravo), only for them to descend into hardcore opioid addiction, which he funds by robbing banks.
The film’s extreme directorial choices may shake viewers who know the Russo brothers only from their Marvel Cinematic Universe work or their runs with “Arrested Development” or “Community.”
“We came from independent filmmaking,” says Joe Russo. “We made an art film in the mid-'90s [the unreleased ‘Pieces’] that only Steven Soderbergh responded to. He took us under his wing and taught us about the business. He used to have this motto: ‘One for you, one for them.’ Show people you can make some money and then use that brand leverage to make something difficult. With Marvel, we did four big movies. So we felt we had a big ‘one for you’ coming.”
Anthony adds, “We know people, we have people in our family, who have suffered and died from opioid addiction. It’s a personal issue. The place where we come from is a bit of a ground zero for the opioid epidemic.”
“For the people out there who do identify with those struggles,” says Russo-Ostot, “I hope this film gives them a chance to feel seen and heard and also provides some sort of opportunity for them to feel a sense of catharsis.”
Joe adds, “Empathy seems to be in short supply in the world today, and we wanted to tell the story empathetically. We wanted people to relate.”
The filmmaking itself is very structured. Anthony breaks it down. “The movie is impressionistic. Its intent is to strongly root you in Cherry’s point of view so that you go through the same struggle that he goes through. It’s broken into six chapters, which encapsulate a life cycle for the character — 15 years — and each chapter is unique in its expression.
“The first chapter is magical realism. The second has absurdism. The production design is different. The behavior, acting choices, color palette are different ... to root you in these strong psychological shifts.”
The chapters correspond to large movements within Cherry’s life, such as going from a young man in love to a soldier, to an addict, to a criminal.
“Chapter 1 is shot with impressionistic lenses,” says Joe, picking up the dissection of the filmmaking. “There’s a lens called the Petzval that softens focus around the center subject and creates this romantic quality when he’s falling in love with the girl of his dreams.
“When he goes to basic training, the aspect ratio collapses in to create a square frame to help accentuate the single wide lens that we use throughout the entire sequence. It has a bit of warping to it, so it heightens the cartoonish nature of basic training for him. It’s absurdism; very Heller-esque in its point of view towards the military and training,” he says, referencing Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.”
Anthony adds, “Then we move into the warfare section of the film, and we crash into hardcore realism. As detached as Cherry may have been from his environment, you get to the experience of war, and all that goes away. Warfare and violence clears everything else out of the equation.”
But, notes Joe, “that’s one of the most interesting paradoxes in the character: He decides to go to war. He’s decides to rob banks. He makes these very aggressive decisions that involve violence. He decides to take drugs in a way that can destroy his body.”
Besides finally getting their “one for us” in and seriously exploring themes that matter to them, the Russos cherished the family aspect of the production.
“We would do read-throughs together; it was such a meaningful experience for me. We would laugh a lot. There were points where we cried reading through this together,” says Russo-Otstot.
“One day, two of my nephews were here at the offices ... they were part of the read-through with us,” she adds. “To bring it back to where we started this conversation — an Italian American household — we’re quite used to working together as family members and starting our own businesses. One of my nephews said after, ‘This is really what I want to do.’ And so, well, there you go.”