Gray Matter: The Russo Brothers’ School of Hard Knocks

The Gray Man himself, Ryan Gosling. 
The Gray Man himself, Ryan Gosling. 

The Gray Man directors Anthony and Joe Russo lock and load for a Life in Film chat on ’70s thrillers, iconic showdowns, physical trauma and favorite Ryan Gosling performances.

The discourse may swirl and surge in attempts to pit blockbuster films against independent cinema, but oftentimes the reality is that the people who dedicate their lives to working in the big-budget field are doing so because they genuinely love the full breadth of what’s come before them. That’s certainly the case for Anthony and Joe Russo, who got their start with the 1997 film Pieces, which they financed with student loans and credit cards.

After Pieces screened at the Slamdance Film Festival, the Russos were approached by none other than Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney with an offer to produce their next film, the 2002 crime caper Welcome to Collinwood. Years working in comedies on the big screen (You, Me and Dupree) and on some of the most acclaimed television series of the 21st century (Arrested Development, Community, Happy Endings) led to the duo’s biggest stage yet, becoming the men behind some of the most gargantuan films of all time.

Chris Evans, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo on the set of The Gray Man.
Chris Evans, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo on the set of The Gray Man.

From 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier through 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, the Russo Bros directed four films of increasingly mammoth stakes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a franchise that will be tied to their legacy for, ahem, infinity. Their time playing with superheroes wrapped up for now, but not their time playing with the actors inside those costumes. The next phase of their career began in 2021 with the Tom “Spider-Man” Holland-starrer Cherry, a much more intimate drama centering on a former soldier who spirals into a life of drugs and crime.

Their latest is back on the larger side of the budget scale. The Gray Man stars Ryan Gosling (back on screen for the first time since 2018’s First Man) as Courtland Gentry, aka Sierra Six, an ex-con turned ace mercenary (operating in the dodgy “gray zone” of CIA activities) whose life is on the line when shady higher-ups in the operation start knocking off his peers. He’s pitted against the sociopathic Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans, with an impressive porn stache and the tightest pants America’s ass has ever been squeezed into), with a banger of a supporting cast along for the ride: Ana de Armas, Billy Bob Thornton, Jessica Henwick, Regé-Jean Page, Dhanush and Alfre Woodard.

Ana de Armas and Ryan Gosling in one of The Gray Man’s many intricate set pieces.
Ana de Armas and Ryan Gosling in one of The Gray Man’s many intricate set pieces.

Putting their cinephile bonafides where their stuffed wallets are, the Russos launched production company AGBO in 2016, using their newly minted status as box office legends to help fund smaller projects from emerging artists. Their ventures so far include the Chadwick Boseman-starring 21 Bridges, Natalie Erika James’ emotional, female-focused 2020 horror Relic and Letterboxd’s highest rated film of 2022 so far, Everything Everywhere All At Once. It’s clear that, above anything else, this duo are cinema to their very core.

In that spirit, it’s no surprise that the Russos were more than eager for a Life in Film chat. So while the Film Twitter discourse rages on their $200-million blockbuster for Netflix (and Letterboxd argues over whether The Gray Man is a movie for women or best-frenemies, a waste of Ana de Armas or a sequel-worthy franchise starter), I sat down with the brothers over Zoom to pick their brains about the films they love, in a conversation that traversed relentless crime thrillers, existential despair and the French New Wave.

William Petersen is a man put through the gauntlet in To Live and Die in L.A. (1985).
William Petersen is a man put through the gauntlet in To Live and Die in L.A. (1985).

You’ve said The Gray Man was inspired by the ’70s thrillers you grew up watching with your dad, which you can certainly feel in the film. What were some of the most formative films of that era for you?
Joe Russo: The French Connection was a really important film for us. I think that was one of the first edge-of-your-seat movies that I can remember watching.

Anthony Russo: That’s for sure. And that was our initial response to the movie, but it also ended up becoming one of those movies that we watched over and over and over and over again, studying every frame of that film.

JR: The sound design, the editing style, reading about how it was executed. There’s also some ’80s films that were important too, including [John] McTiernan’s films. Another movie that we really love is [John] Frankenheimer’s Ronin, which is an underappreciated action film. That was him coming back at 80 years old and just schooling everyone on how to direct action. I think that’s probably the range of action films that inspired us on this one. To Live and Die in L.A. We could probably throw some John Woo in there.

AR: Absolutely. It’s that range of movies that sort of takes a lead character and runs them through a gauntlet, with these overwhelming odds.

JR: Bullitt is another one.

I watched To Live and Die in L.A. for the first time earlier this year and it rocked my world. That ending is so brutal.
JR: Yeah, it’s so great. It’s really cynical filmmaking, but it’s incredible. I think [William] Friedkin was at a really particular place in his life and in his career when he made that movie. That synthesizer score. [John] Pankow having the panic attack in the back of that car and grounding that crazy chase sequence in his character’s desperation. It’s a really great lesson in how character drives action.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) frequently brings Anthony Russo to tears.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) frequently brings Anthony Russo to tears.

Speaking of cynical, Michelangelo Antonioni has been a noted influence on your work. He is a director who really makes you reflect on the emptiness that plagues us all. Tell me about some of the films that are most devastating to you, the ones that just leave you hollowed out by the end of them.
JR: Red Desert was certainly that movie. It’s so bleak.

AR: Antonioni achieves a similar hollowing in L’Avventura as well.

JR: If you want to understand how to use color in film, watch Red Desert.

AR: I would say Once Upon a Time in the West also.

JR: Still probably the only film that makes me cry. It’s about the end of an age, and it’s two characters who are diametrically opposed, not unlike Sierra Six and Lloyd Hansen who represent different ideals and different viewpoints, marching towards a showdown with each other. And the impending doom of that film is felt throughout it. It’s so existential that every time we get to the end of that and that Ennio Morricone score kicks in, I get chills and tears coming to my eyes.

AR: I think there’s actually six spots in that movie that make me cry.

JR: Wild Strawberries, The 400 Blows. We can go down the list of movies that tear at your soul.

Anthony Russo will be sending his bills to Gareth Evans for the physical trauma The Raid (2011) caused him.
Anthony Russo will be sending his bills to Gareth Evans for the physical trauma The Raid (2011) caused him.

You mentioned The French Connection as a film you watched over and over, which is certainly true for the Letterboxd community with your films. We have one member who has logged Avengers: Endgame a whopping 31 times! What are some of the other films you guys keep going back to again and again?
JR: I could watch Flash Gordon a thousand times.

AR: As far as picking apart a movie frame by frame, I think we also did that with Goodfellas to the same degree as The French Connection.

JR: Yeah, if you want to save yourself a bunch of money and not go to film school, just watch Goodfellas about 20 or 30 times and stop it and study it and watch how [Martin Scorsese] uses sound to push his transitions and watch how he moves the camera and why and when he moves the camera. It’s one of the more compelling case studies for brilliant filmmaking that’s ever been committed to celluloid.

The Gray Man is essentially wall-to-wall action for two hours, non-stop. What are your own favorite action sequences in cinema?
JR: We’ve definitely hit on some of the films, like the car chases in Bullitt, French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A.

AR: Heat.

JR: Heat.

AR: The robbery in Heat.

JR: Pick a John Woo movie. The showdown at the end of Once Upon a Time in the West. Oh boy. What are other great action sequences? Tarantino certainly has some incredible fight scenes. Oh, The Raid! The Raid is amazing. It’s really such a study in how to move the camera to accentuate action. They spent months choreographing and rehearsing and it really comes through in the work.

AR: My sense of physical trauma watching that movie is about as high as it gets.

Joe Russo holds The Notebook (2004) in high regard, likening it to an Elia Kazan film.
Joe Russo holds The Notebook (2004) in high regard, likening it to an Elia Kazan film.

You’re working with Ryan Gosling for the first time in The Gray Man, an actor everyone is very excited to have back on the screen as it’s been a few years. What are some of your favorite Ryan Gosling performances?
AR: Oh cool!

JR: Certainly Drive. Like everyone else, we love Drive. That’s another movie I could watch anytime it’s on, I will sit down and watch Drive. I just love his performance in that film and the emotional detail in that movie. It has such odd flourishes. That’s another great action sequence, when he’s in the hotel room and there’s two guys circling on the outside and [Christina Hendricks]’ in the bathroom. That’s an awesome sequence. The level of attention to that. And he flips the mattress over.

Believe it or not, I love The Notebook. That’s another one that gets me choked up. I think maybe it’s as I get older. He’s so charismatic in that film and it’s so old school. It’s like an Elia Kazan movie. It’s shot with a very static camera, with dense frames. We could really go down the list, though. Blade Runner 2049.

AR: Yeah, he’s the kind of performer where every time he suits up, it’s something special.

JR: There are certain performers that never have an untruthful moment, and Ryan is so committed that there’s never an untruthful moment with him. The Nice Guys. We could just keep going, I can name his whole filmography.

The Gray Man’ is in theaters and streaming on Netflix now.

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