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Issue Date: April 2014 Issue


Lights, Camera, Action: Hometown Heroes

The filming of Captain America: The Winter Soldier was last summer's main attraction, with celebrity sightings, traffic tie-ups and Hollywood action. Now as the Marvel adventure storms into theaters, Clevelanders Joe and Anthony Russo are ready to make the city a star.
John Hitch

The bullet-riddled Metrobus sprawled on its side looks like a giant cheese grater.

Splayed across West Third Street, just before it dips under the West Shoreway toward Lake Erie, the aerated steel carcass offers the only semblance of protection for Chris Evans. Wearing the plain-clothed khakis and navy jacket of his character, Steve Rogers, he's crouched near the bus's emergency exit. Captain America, it seems, is in a bit of a spot.

A ghost from his past — the Winter Soldier — has returned, guns blazing. At the moment, the only thing separating four black-outfitted bad guys from their target is about 50 feet of Cleveland potholes and cracked asphalt. The meanest one, perched atop a black sedan, is strapped into a four-barrel minigun fed by a seemingly inexhaustible ammo belt. Three others, cradling M16s, flank him on both sides. Their business ends are pointed squarely at Rogers, who seems more annoyed than anxious.

As the mercenary on the hood clenches the minigun trigger, a storm erupts. Brilliant light flashes from the barrel, a thunderous roar blasts from under the bridge and echoes around the intersection, holding everyone within earshot hostage. Except for Captain America, of course.

Evans bounces on his heels for a moment, then darts toward the barrage with his virtually indestructible red, white and blue shield held head-high for protection. As Captain America sprints ahead, a guy on the left falls. Then the guy on the right — apparent casualties from rounds ricocheting off the superalloy shield. Then Captain America springs onto the sedan to take that guy out.

"Cut!" a voice shouts.

Joe Russo, one half of the Cleveland-born brothers directing Captain America: The Winter Soldier, climbs out of a white van stationed by the shady trees of Fort Huntington Park across from the Justice Center, where he's been watching the action.

Clad in shorts, T-shirt and drab-blue baseball cap, Joe walks onto the set.

"Eric needs to haul ass!" he yells. Eric, the mercenary on the right, nods and goes back to his mark. Evans stretches out near the bus as Russo makes more adjustments. Anthony Mackie, who plays the Falcon, sits nearby and playfully swats at a swarm of Canadian soldiers.

It's June 2013, and Joe, 41, and his brother, Anthony, 43, have been responsible for explosions, crashes, road closures and general mayhem on the West Shoreway, in the Warehouse District and various other locales in town for the past three weeks. Cleveland is standing in for Washington, D.C., during filming of the much-anticipated sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger.

Set to open with a local premiere April 1 and nationwide three days later, the $170 million production is the brothers' biggest gig to date. It picks up where The Avengers left off, as Captain America works with the international espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D. but grows increasingly suspicious about who he can trust. If that's not enough, the Winter Soldier — a former friend turned foe — returns to dredge up his past.

Recalling political thrillers such as The Manchurian Candidate, the movie is also a homecoming for the Russos. Born on the East Side, the Italian-American brothers developed their love of cinema watching The Godfather every Christmas with their parents and two sisters. It's where they wrote, directed and starred in Pieces, a darkly comic student film that got them noticed. And it was the setting for their gritty, hard-luck caper comedy, Welcome to Collinwood, which filmed here in 2001.

In between, they have made their mark developing and directing quirky TV comedies such as Arrested Development, Community and Happy Endings and movies such as You, Me and Dupree.

"We often say we fell into a comedy brand by circumstance," Joe says. "It was not intentional, and it was not a career goal."

Yet as unlikely as it may seem, here they are in the middle of the first blockbuster of 2014, fueling Cleveland's fanboy obsession with superheroes and celebrity sightings and hyping the region as a legitimate location for filmmaking.

— — — — —

As kids, Joe and Anthony were very different.

The family lived in a duplex north of Shaker Square and the boys, born 15 months apart, shared a room. As the younger of the two, Joe was creative, independent and messy. Anthony, the oldest, was methodical and orderly.

Their conflicting personalities and close quarters weren't the best mix. "They fought all the time," says their mother, Pat. "The happiest day of my life is when we moved [to Mayfield Village] and they could finally have their own rooms."

"We grew up in a big Italian-American family," explains Anthony. "We all just beat the hell out of each other."

Their sister, Gabriella, calls these fights a daily event. "Joe was kind of the instigator," she says. "He knew what to do to push other people's buttons."

One of their first stunts was sending their youngest sister, Angela, down the stairs in a suitcase. "They were constantly scheming," says Angela, who enjoyed playing a part in their games. "Their whole life, in some regards, was a movie."

Their backstory translates well to the Marvel Universe, where Captain America and the Winter Soldier, aka James "Bucky" Barnes, grew up in Brooklyn as best friends.

As Captain America's sidekick, Barnes was lost in battle fighting alongside Rogers in The First Avenger. While Rogers' body was recovered and reanimated, Barnes was presumed dead. Found and brainwashed by the Soviets to be a cold-blooded assassin, the Winter Soldier has been occasionally brought out of hibernation to execute political killings and governmental unrest.

"From a thematic standpoint, it's something you understand at a very deep level," Joe says. "The relationship between Cap and Bucky is very similar to the relationship between brothers. We knew it had an operatic, potentially deeply moving climax, and that's really the thing that got us so excited about the project."

At Benedictine High School, the brothers were model students — if you ignore the occasional unauthorized lunch runs to New York Spaghetti House on East Ninth Street. Anthony played center and guard for the football team, was on the debate team and was voted Mr. Benedictine. Joe played soccer, was a columnist and editor for the school paper, The Bennet, and served as class president.

It's also where they started to develop a knack for storytelling. After they read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness in Marc Francioli's literature class, the teacher showed Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam film adaptation Apocalypse Now in their after-school film club.

"It ripped my mind open," Anthony remembers. "I never felt art in cinema quite like that before. I've watched that movie a million times since."

"[Francioli is] our Robin Williams from Dead Poets Society," Joe adds. "He started getting us to think more radically."

After graduation, Anthony attended the University of Pennsylvania, while Joe went to the University of Iowa. A year behind his brother, Joe took an extensive course load to catch up with Anthony so they could spend a semester in England together.

"That time in London was a very transformative time for us," says Anthony. His business and pre-law college track put him squarely along his father's career path, but it was wearing on him.

"I OD'd on business for two years," he recalls. So at King's College London, Anthony studied literature and went to a play a week.

Joe took up playwriting at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. When asked to write and perform a monologue, he obliged by offering a heady, obtuse and antiestablishment rant about the merits of the assignment, before dramatically exiting the classroom. His professor gave him a part in a production of David Mamet's American Buffalo.

The brothers also traveled Europe whenever they could — even running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, for Joe's 20th birthday. "I had an infatuation with Hemingway," Joe explains.

They returned home altered — especially Anthony. "Why don't you go to school for directing?" Joe asked.

"I didn't even know there was such a school," Anthony says. "A little bit of light started cracking through the door."

After graduating in 1992, the dutiful oldest son was accepted to Case Western Reserve University School of Law. Joe followed to get his master's degree in fine arts at CWRU.

The brothers began a sketch troupe called No Shame and became writing partners. They'd grab late-night doughnuts at Presti's Bakery and an art house film at the Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque.

"It was sort of like the most uncomfortable way you could watch a movie," Anthony says. "There was no other appeal to the place except for what was on the screen. There's something hardcore Spartan about that."

By the end of the school year, Anthony had forgotten all about law school. "When I knew it in my gut, there wasn't any debate at that point," Anthony says. "This is how I want to spend the rest of my life."

But now came the hard part: telling dad.

— — — — —

On this nearly 90-degree Sunday, David Blond and his sons, Leo, 7, and Elan, 4, huddle against the red brick Courthouse Square Building in a sliver of shade on West Third Street. Blond has been friends with the Russos since they met at CWRU 20 years ago. They are trying to stay out of the way as dozens of crew members run about with radios, clipboards and water bottles.

Elan holds the plastic Captain America shield that's been part of his Halloween costume the last two years. Several yellow and black cranes, arms outstretched with cameras attached, and silvery-white reflectors tower over the area.

While Chris Evans' stand-in crouches by the emergency exit of the bus to get the right camera angle, Anthony approaches with some yellow and pink foam earplugs, telling the boys how loud it's about to get.

A few minutes later, Joe, who had been prepping for the upcoming stunt, comes by for the same reason. He gives the boys a high-five and admires Elan's shield.

They run through the scene — bad guys firing, Captain America charging — two more times. The guttural roar of the minigun bounces off the West Shoreway's underbelly, echoing off surrounding buildings, the reverberations slamming against your bones.

Someone calls out, "Second Team wrap!" and the directors check back on the Blond boys. "What'd you think?" Joe asks.

"The scary guns were scary," Elan responds.

Everyone chuckles.

"A lot of our approach has been thinking back to when we were kids and what it was we responded to when we went to the movies," Joe says later. "I want to feel like I felt when I sat through Empire Strikes Back for four screenings in a row at the movie theater in Mayfield Heights."

That connection's not lost on Blond either, whose boys spent the rest of the day playfully recreating the scene. "[The Russos have] been trying to bring a movie back since Collinwood," Blond says.

The brothers lobbied hard for Cleveland's virtues, such as the great lighting and textured architecture. "It has the production value of a big city but it's more user friendly," Anthony notes. But both say the West Shoreway access and $9.5 million in tax credits swayed Marvel Studios, which previously filmed The Avengers here in 2011.

"When we grew up, we felt like we were a million miles from the movie business," Anthony says. "Maybe we came to filmmaking a little later than we would have if we had some exposure."

— — — — —

Basil Russo sat with his sons at the kitchen table in Mayfield Village, where they'd spent time talking sports, politics and whatever else came to mind.

"They were both very nervous," he recalls. "That's uncharacteristic of the two of them."

A lawyer for 40 years, the former Cleveland city councilman and judge even ran for mayor in 1979 against incumbent Dennis Kucinich and the eventual winner, George Voinovich. ("I actually carried more city wards than either one of them, but finished third," he'll tell you.)

"There's something we need to talk about," Basil recalls them saying.

Then Anthony just blurted it out: "Dad, I'm going to drop out of law school."

Apparently all those weekends watching The Bowery Boys and Big Deal on Madonna Street together had more impact than his time as council majority leader or on the bench.

Basil was worried they'd move to Los Angeles. He didn't want them to "waste years of their lives breaking into a very difficult industry, come back in their mid-30s and start all over again," he recalls.

"We have an awesome relationship, but I don't think he spoke to me for six months," Anthony says, grinning. "And we lived in the same house."

Joe and Anthony had already been working on a script for Pieces, a bullet-riddled dark comedy revolving around a hairpiece business. They had read Robert Rodriguez's book Rebel Without a Crew, which showed how he made El Mariachi for $7,000. And while they had tried to pay for as much as they could with student loans and credit cards, the brothers needed help to finish the shoot.

"You can either invest your money in strangers in the stock market or you can invest your money in your children's future," their mother Pat told Basil.

So he gave them the money and even allowed Joe's theater buddy from England to stay with the family during the monthlong filming.

"In the end, we're family and we're gonna take care of each other," Basil says.

When filming finished, Joe headed to the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and Anthony to Columbia University's film school. They planned to establish contacts on both coasts and appropriate film school editing equipment to finish Pieces.

At a screening of the film in New York, the program director of the Slamdance Film Festival, a subversive alternative to the Sundance Film Festival also in Park City, Utah, saw Pieces and suggested they apply.

It was accepted. About 40 friends and family members joined the brothers in the mountain resort town with T-shirts, fliers and stickers touting the 76-minute film. The promotion worked. Steven Soderbergh ended up in the theater.

"I walked away and thought immediately, OK, I saw some shit in there I'm gonna steal," Soderbergh recalls. "And that's a good sign."

Weeks later, the Russos received a call. Soderbergh wanted to work with them.

"I just thought these guys are really bright, and they know and love movies," says the Oscar-winning director of Traffic.

"It's like talking to one person with two voices," he says. "They seem to watch out for each other's blind spots."

When Soderbergh started his Section Eight production company with George Clooney, they approached the Russos to develop a movie. The brothers had a script for Murray Hill, which was a fictionalized account of the Danny Greene mob war of the '70s. Yet the movie had an epic scale, which would take a lot of time to figure out, so Soderbergh instead took a look at a side project they had written.

"It was a reimagining of Big Deal on Madonna Street, which was a childhood favorite of ours," Joe says.

The movie became Welcome to Collinwood, and brought top-tier actors such as Sam Rockwell, William H. Macy and George Clooney to Cleveland for 40 days in 2001. Basil even got a role as a funeral director.

Although Welcome to Collinwood garnered plenty of buzz at the Toronto Film Festival, it received only a limited release and recouped roughly 3 percent of its $12 million budget.

"People's early directing efforts, they are more referential," Anthony says. "In Collinwood, we were being very specific in our references. As we've matured as filmmakers, you're less tethered to that."

Yet even before Welcome to Collinwood was finished, they had their next job, shooting the pilot for Lucky, a 2003 dark comedy about addicts and gamblers in Las Vegas. It was their first foray into the world of single-camera-style shows, which would become their hallmark.

While FX canceled the show after one season, it led to the creation of Arrested Development. David Nevins, then-president of Imagine Television, saw Lucky and introduced Joe and Anthony to the studio's founder, Ron Howard, who wanted to do a single-camera comedy with a more purposely cheap, reality-show vibe.

Nevins, Howard and comedy writing veteran Mitchell Hurwitz were developing a story about a riches-to-rags family and a son who had no choice but to keep them together. But every director they contacted said it was impossible to make — too expensive, too much story. "The pros who had done Seinfeld said it can't be done," Hurwitz remembers.

Then the Russos appeared, and Joe promised to get it all shot. "I loved them right away," Hurwitz says. "I always wanted to be a Russo brother. They have such winning personalities. They are avant-garde filmmakers and then they have that kind of Cleveland politeness."

They introduced nine characters in the pilot's opening few minutes and deluged the audience with hilarious sight gags and flashbacks. Yet, the handheld camera approach was key.

"You make the most absurd thing play real," Joe says. "We have a real absurdist point of view about life. Things do come back around in weird ways."

The show was initially a ratings flop, despite a passionate fan base and critical acclaim. In September 2004 at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium, with their wives, sisters and parents in attendance, the Russo brothers accepted the Emmy Award for best directing in a comedy. Hurwitz won for writing, and the show won outstanding comedy series, saving it from cancellation.

"It never would have happened at all if it wasn't for the Russos," Hurwitz says.

For the family, it was the validation Joe and Anthony needed to continue in the industry. Basil's fears of his sons not making it evaporated when they hoisted their gold statuettes.

"We were on cloud nine all night," Basil remembers, smiling.

— — — — —

Little Italy feels a little like Beverly Hills on a late Sunday afternoon in June. A sports car club has descended on the neighborhood, with Lamborghinis, Ferraris and Porsches lining Mayfield Road.

Ristorante and Wine Bar, Anthony quips that he drives a Toyota Prius. Joe, who only woke up an hour earlier, finishes a phone call and sits at the corner table in the small, dark restaurant.

 

Although there are four days of filming left, the Greater Cleveland Film Commission hosted a wrap party on the top deck of Shooters in the Flats last night. The afterparties at Drop Bar and Barley House went almost until the sun came up.

"They're tearing it up here," Joe says. "The crew loves this town."

When they got to Cleveland, the Russos emailed the crew of about 300 a list of 50 local places to check out. Evans, who was here with The Avengers, was frequently seen in Ohio City, especially at Town Hall.

"Chris is a great guy," Joe says. "He's a unique movie star. Very normal guy."

"Clooney was the same way," Anthony says, taking a sip of his beer. "We used to go to [Johnny's] Little Bar. Just hang out there and play pool."

Tomorrow they are shooting at the Cleveland Museum of Art, taking advantage of the enormous glass-enclosed atrium, a modern, James Bond-like set-piece perfect for The Winter Soldier's spy thriller mood.

Walking past their glistening curves toward Etna

"It's not yet another thing we're shutting down," Joe says. The museum is closed on Monday. The brothers are keenly aware of how the two-week shutdown of the West Shoreway impacted Cleveland commuters and the city as a whole. To apologize, Joe went to the Treehouse and the Flying Monkey Pub in Tremont and bought rounds of drinks. It's also a reason they got Marvel and Disney to host a premiere here along with events in London, Paris, Beijing and LA.

The Russos used Cleveland for 95 percent of the movie's external shots, making the city look sexy, modern and desirable to the millions who will see the film. "Cleveland's virtue [is] it can be sort of classic, big-city America without the cost or inefficiencies," Anthony says.

"What would be great for Cleveland is if they had soundstages here," Joe says, ripping off a piece of fresh Italian bread. "It would make the town that much more attractive. It makes it easier for us to get productions to come here. Television productions would set up shop for eight months out of the year."

Louisiana's world-class soundstages and uncapped tax credit, for example, have attracted dozens of movie and television productions, from 12 Years a Slave to Dallas Buyers Club. The industry has brought nearly $1.8 billion of certified spending to the state from 2010 to 2012.

"For every tax credit dollar that we issue, four dollars and change trickles through the economy," says Chris Stelly, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Entertainment Industry Development. In 2012, more than 6,000 direct jobs have been created or supported by the film industry, a 2013 economic impact survey reports.

This type of success is exactly what Ivan Schwarz, president of the Greater Cleveland Film Commission, has been trying to build since 2007. "In the last five years, more than $300 million in economic impact has hit this region," Schwarz says. "That's a lot of jobs and a lot of use of local services."

But it could have been much more, he argues. "We could have gotten all of Captain America if we had infrastructure and higher credit."

Currently, the yearly credit cap is $5 million per production and $20 million total. The Winter Soldier got $9.5 million since it had two units.

"We're gonna keep losing this stuff until we take this seriously and create an industry," Schwarz says.

One movie the Russos would be hard-pressed to film anywhere else is based on their Murray Hill script, the fictionalized account of Cleveland's mob war.

"It's like a fable about the unions and mafia in the '70s in Cleveland," Joe says. "This is a very passionate project, very personal, very emotional. ... But you have to wait for enough time to pass where people haven't made gangster movies, so it feels fresh again."

Then a tall, slender man in a dark, pinstripe suit and slicked back black hair approaches the brothers and asks, "You the guys doing Captain America?"

"Yeah," Joe says.

"No matter what anyone says, I thank you for bringing that here," the man says, inching closer to shake their hand. "You don't realize how great it was."

"We're so happy to be here," Anthony says cordially.

"Thanks for saying that," Joe says.

— — — — —

It's a rainy Saturday night in November, almost five months before the premiere of Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Marvel's Thor: The Dark World opened in theaters the night before with a Winter Soldier trailer. In two-and-half minutes of nonstop action and ominous dialogue, the teaser spotlights Cleveland's supporting role. The Winter Soldier terrorizes East Sixth Street, Euclid Avenue and the West Shoreway.

While the brothers still have months of postproduction to finish, they are back in town as inductees to Benedictine's Hall of Distinction. Held at the Western Reserve Historical Society, the third annual ceremony honors the school's most prominent alumni and is hosted by their influential teacher, Marc Francioli.

A five-minute video features Anthony and Joe's closest friends saying sweet and sometimes embarrassing things about the brothers. After the video, the crowd stands for a long applause as they walk to the front of the room to accept the award.

After some jokes, they get serious. "The sense of community that we have here is very profound and a very special thing to be a part of," Anthony says. He talks about the attributes he took from the school — dedication, toughness, compassion, humility and faith — that have made the brothers able to face the challenges of the film industry.

They're the same qualities Steven Soderbergh identified from the start. "One thing that was clear to all of us was they were very bright, very hardworking and very self-activated," he says. "They always have stuff going."

The next installment in the Captain America saga could be among them. As the rest of The Avengers are working on a film in Europe, Marvel is negotiating with the Russos to direct the third installment of Captain America even before The Winter Soldier opens.

Tonight, however, their project is catching up with friends and family at ABC the Tavern in University Circle's Uptown district. About a dozen friends and the whole Russo clan and their spouses (excluding Joe's wife, Alicia, who is home in LA with their four kids), have claimed a couple of high-top tables by the entrance. They are eating nachos, drinking Great Lakes Brewing Co.'s Dortmunder drafts and laughing about high school hijinks with Francioli.

"We were just lucky we went to school on the East Side," Anthony says about the residual effects of the West Shoreway closing. "If we went to Ignatius, we might have gotten hanged."

Anticipation for the premiere seems to have wiped most of that from Clevelanders' memories. Whether The Winter Soldier will be the city's breakout role as a movie town remains to be seen. So talk of soundstages and tax credits will also have to wait. This is a celebration, after all.

"We're going a lot of places," says Anthony, of the premiere. "But the most fun will be in Cleveland for sure."

"It's a dream come true for us," Joe adds. "Sharing with the family and community is unquestionably a career highlight."


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