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From ‘Infinity War’ to ‘Arrested Development,’ Avengers directors love an ensemble cast

Anthony and Joe Russo share their thoughts on two very different (but surprisingly similar) franchises.

PARK CITY — To borrow a famous line from “Arrested Development,” with two minor substitutions: “I mean, it’s one (movie), Michael. What could it cost? (500 million) dollars?”

That’s where Anthony and Joe Russo find themselves these days. The brothers, who helped create and direct the influential sitcom, now helm Marvel’s next two Avengers films, the forthcoming “Avengers: Infinity War” and an as-yet-untitled follow-up. Combined, those two films have a reported production budget of $1 billion.

The Russos have been in Park City this week for the Slamdance Film Festival, where they’ll reward a filmmaker with the new Russo Fellowship award. Speaking with them by phone recently, “Arrested Development” and “Infinity War” seemed fitting subjects. They told the Deseret News what it’s like to guide the world’s most expensive film franchise, and how “Arrested Development” shares some of the same DNA.

Much bigger casts, much smaller directors

Those two projects exist in much different realms — one a low-budget cult classic, the other a gargantuan blockbuster — but as it turns out, Captain America and Michael Bluth are pretty similar. Both “Arrested Development” and “Infinity War” leverage large ensemble casts, weaving a dizzying number of plotlines and character arcs. Anthony and Joe Russo have spent most of their careers on ensemble work, on purpose.

“We grew up in a big Italian family,” Joe Russo explained. “We like layers of character and personality in our storytelling. We like very distinctive, unique personalities interacting with each other. And I think because there are two of us, and we’re a collective, we identify with that. We call it the mastermind principle: Two minds aren’t doubly better than one, they’re exponentially better than one.”

Anthony Russo, left, and Joe Russo, directors of "Avengers: Infinity War."
Anthony Russo, left, and Joe Russo, directors of "Avengers: Infinity War."
Brian Bowen Smith Photography

They just wrapped filming on “Infinity War.” Marvel Studios, he said, has given the Russos incredible creative freedom, perhaps because of their success directing Marvel's Captain America films. They still feel pressure, of course — these are the most expensive films ever made — but they keep that pressure compartmentalized, stowed away from their decision-making. Instead of predicting what others want to see, they double down on whatever excites them personally.

From the outside looking in, this has become Marvel’s M.O.

Be it “Thor” or “Iron Man” or “Guardians of the Galaxy,” Marvel has entrusted its films to directors with decidedly indie backgrounds/sensibilities. Joe Russo mentioned director Taika Waititi, who directed the most recent Avengers flick, “Thor: Ragnarok” — a film more similar to Waititi’s previous small-budget indie comedies, “What We Do in the Shadows” and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” than to normal blockbusters. He also brought up Ryan Coogler, whose Avengers film “Black Panther” comes out next month. Coogler’s first film, the critically acclaimed “Fruitvale Station,” debuted at Sundance Film Festival five years ago.

“Kudos to (Marvel) for recognizing and identifying the unique voices that they want to work on their movies, and then supporting them, and giving them the freedom to do that,” Joe Russo said.

“The scale of these movies, and the amount of characters in them, it’s staggering but also very refreshing,” he added. “The mere fact that you’re dealing with this many characters, it pushes the narrative into places that are nontraditional.”

L to R: Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) & Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) the Russo brother's directed film "Marvel's Captain America: The Winter Soldier."
L to R: Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) in a scene from the Russo "Captain America: The Winter Soldier."
Zade Rosenthal, Disney/Marvel

Dysfunction junction

Nontraditional narratives — that’s something the Russo brothers know well. “Arrested Development” depended on it.

Though they’re only credited as directors on that show, Anthony Russo said they really functioned as executive producers. The Russos had their hands in the casting and writing, and directed three of its first four episodes.

When it comes to “Arrested Development” (and all their other projects, it seems), the Russos remain united. They share the same favorite “Arrested Development” character: Gob Bluth, played with hilarious gravitas by Will Arnett. The Bluth family’s perennial muck-up, Gob (pronounced “Job”) is profoundly prideful and cripplingly insecure, all at once — a true wrecking ball of vanity and self-loathing. That role, the Russos said, was the hardest to cast. When Arnett auditioned, though, he made it work in a way no one else could.

“Will Arnett was so completely, unapologetically unaware of his flaws,” Anthony Russo said. “It was just endlessly entertaining to us and thrilling.”

“We like existentially wacky characters who exist in existential crisis,” Joe added. “I’d probably put ("Arrested Development" characters) Buster and Tobias on a list just behind them.”

Because the show was so aggressively funny, Anthony Russo said, people adore its most aggressively funny characters (the Gobs and Busters and Tobiases). Jason Bateman’s character, Michael Bluth — “the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together” — is the show’s most underrated, according to Anthony Russo. If the Bluths were the Avengers, Michael was their Captain America.

“When you have a collaborator like Bateman, and he’s the consummate straight man, everybody else is funnier around him, because he knows exactly how to set them up for that,” he said. “He knows how to dedicate himself to the most grounded, relatable point of view, even if it’s not going to be the funniest point of view. For a show that people talk about as being funny and appreciated on that level, Bateman is largely responsible for the magic of what that show is.”