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'Avengers' directors return to Slamdance with $25,000 award

SALT LAKE CITY — Anthony and Joe Russo just wrapped filming on “Avengers: Infinity War” — reportedly the most expensive film ever made. The brothers still consider themselves to be indie filmmakers, though.

“At our heart — even though we’ve had success in television, we’ve had success with big studio films and we’ve loved all of it — at our heart, we have a very indie spirit to us,” Anthony Russo told the Deseret News.

That success includes helming some of the best episodes of “Arrested Development” and “Community,” and later Marvel’s Captain America films. But before all that was the Slamdance Film Festival, an annual companion of sorts to Sundance, which returns to Park City Friday through Thursday.

Slamdance was Anthony and Joe Russo's first big break: Their debut film “Pieces” barely made it into Slamdance in 1997, and Steven Soderbergh (“Ocean’s Eleven,” “Erin Brockovich,” “Out of Sight”) just happened to catch the screening. Soderbergh liked “Pieces” so much, in fact, that he offered to produce the brothers' next film.

This year, the Russos are acting out a similar scenario at Slamdance — this time as providers instead of beneficiaries. Their offering: The inaugural Russo Fellowship award. The award includes $25,000 and a yearlong stint at the brothers' new studio in Los Angeles, with hands-on mentoring by the Russos themselves. They’ll give the award to one of this year’s Slamdance filmmakers during the festival.

In a recent phone interview, Anthony and Joe Russo discussed the details behind this new venture.

“It’s a very unique environment to foster a very specific kind of talent and expression in filmmaking,” Anthony Russo said of Slamdance. “Joe and I will always value it for that reason.”

Twenty years have passed since the brothers' initial Slamdance experience, and talking to them on Tuesday, it seems to have stayed fresh in their minds. Joe Russo still remembers what he was making (mac and cheese) when he got Soderbergh’s phone call. He was a new father at the time and in massive debt at UCLA’s film school.

“Soderbergh was like a call from heaven for us,” Joe Russo explained. “We were just two guys from Cleveland who had no idea how to get into the film business. We didn’t make a movie that appealed to the film business. I think (Soderbergh) found a creative kindred spirit in us.”

Soderbergh eventually launched Section Eight Productions, a joint venture with George Clooney, which produced the Russos' 2002 follow-up “Welcome to Collinwood.” In the brothers' minds, their Los Angeles studio will function similarly.

“Working in television as executive producers, you spend a lot of time fostering talent, fostering young directors coming into the system who are working underneath you on your show," said Joe Russo. "So the notion now, to be able to take that muscle and flex it in a different way, and foster and support new voices, is really cyclical and has a real karmic meaning for my brother and I.”

The new studio, they explained, will have the money and resources of a bigger studio, with the autonomy and flexibility of an indie operation. Having experienced firsthand the many tiers of TV and film production, they feel positioned to point new filmmakers in the right direction.

Peter Baxter, one of Slamdance’s founders, has known the Russos for two decades now, and he said the brothers possess a unique kind of determination. That grit belies the Cinderella nature of their success story.

“A lot of times, when you read in media, you get the impression that things just happen so quickly and overnight — suddenly, it went from a festival screening to a film production produced by George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh. It actually wasn’t like that,” Baxter said.

“They had made 'Pieces' on their credit cards, and it wasn’t an easy time, even after Steven had found them,” he continued. “Slamdance is very much orientated around practical support, and what a community can really do — not just in good times, but also in times of development, when sometimes it can be a struggle. And I think that’s one of the reasons why Anthony and Joe have stayed in touch, is they recognize that.”

Check back later this week to read more of the Russos’ conversation, in which they discuss “Arrested Development” and “Avengers: Infinity War.”

If you go …

What: Slamdance Film Festival

Where: Various locations throughout Park City

When: Thursday, Jan. 18-Jan. 25

How much: $10-$14