As Joe and Anthony Russo receive the Slamdance Founders Award today, their position on the A-list might make their success seem unattainable for filmmakers here with indie films they struggled to finance and shoot for Slamdance or Sundance. After cutting their teeth on hit series like Arrested Development and directing the last two Captain America movies, and then back to back sequels to Marvel’s The Avengers, the Russos are building a new studio in Los Angeles, with funding to set up whatever TV and film projects move them. Some have a decided indie sensibility: the next project by Swiss Army Man directors The Daniels, and the next film by Bellflower director Evan Glodell. They are Exhibit A in the truth about the indie film business: the odds are long, but everybody has a puncher’s chance if they dare to get in the ring. Deadline asked the Cleveland-bred siblings to recount their Slamdance experience back in 1997, when they arrived with 50 Italian relatives, crippling credit card debt, and an experimental film called Pieces, which never got a theatrical release.
DEADLINE: It might be easy for aspiring filmmakers at Slamdance to regard you as the personification of the impossible dream as you receive the Founders Award. Remind us of when you made your debut at Slamdance with Pieces.
JOE RUSSO: We were young. Anthony was in law school at the time and I was an acting student. We were both in Cleveland and Robert Rodriguez had just made El Mariachi and that inspired us. We were film buffs growing up, and his experience inspired us to make our own credit card film. There was a moment there, for about five to ten years where credit card movies were the toasts of Park City.
ANTHONY RUSSO: Everybody had a story from Steven Soderbergh in sex, lies & videotape, all the way to The Brothers McMullen. Somebody was always being minted the next Rodriguez, the hot new filmmaker. We saw that as a way in. Being in Cleveland, we were a million miles from the film business. We shot this really experimental, nonlinear, highly ironic movie that, you know, did not have a ton of commercial appeal. Luckily the team at Slamdance saw the movie at a film market in New York City and really responded to it. And then, luckily, Steven Soderbergh saw the movie at Slamdance. That was the start of our Cinderella story.
DEADLINE: What was the budget and how did you pay for it?
ANTHONY RUSSO: To get the movie shot and in the can, it cost us about 30 thousand dollars. So we felt like we had been a little betrayed by Rodriguez because it was significantly more than his 7 thousand number.
JOE RUSSO: He claimed in his book that he had gotten the film done for 7 thousand. I think there was some additional money put in later by Sony.
DEADLINE: I recall he also said he sold his blood to raise some of that money, along with the credit cards that forged his myth. What was the most outrageous thing you guys did to raise over four times as much money?
ANTHONY RUSSO: I mean, we frankly didn’t pay off the credit card debt until about 10 years later so it added up.
JOE RUSSO: We were enrolled at film school at the time, so there was a cap in terms of how much you could borrow, but if you got a professor to approve a project that you were working on, you could raise the cap. I kept submitting the project as if it was a school project even though it wasn’t, and they just kept allowing me to borrow more and more money.
DEADLINE: What could go wrong?
JOE RUSSO: We were both doing that, trying any way we could think of. It took us like three years to make that movie. We shot it and we ran out of money. The film basically sat in a refrigerator for six months without being developed because we didn’t have the money to develop it. It was just that kind of a process. We would shut down, go back to work for a while, get some cash together, keep working on it.
DEADLINE: The Rodriguez book had the happy ending where his movie got bought and released, launching his star. Pieces never came out. What happened to you guys?
ANTHONY RUSSO: Yeah, our reality was a little different. We were very proud of that movie and we love it dearly. But not a lot of people responded to it. Soderbergh was one of the few that did. He was interested in trying to get distribution for the film and we explored that for a while with him. But we had a basic problem. We cut the movie very specific to the music. We worked like that for three years. And when it was time to have a music supervisor run the cost of acquiring the rights to all the music, it was about one million dollars. See, we didn’t have the rights to any of it. The movie was not designed to spend that kind of money on it, so we all collectively made the decision at that point to just shelve it and readdress it down the road, and put our efforts into the next movie, which is what we did.
DEADLINE: I always imagined that Eric Clapton probably would have given Scorsese Layla for free, the way it played in that gory pink Cadillac scene in Goodfellas. Sounds like you used some established tunes. What was the reaction when you showed them your Slamdance masterpiece?
JOE RUSSO: We had everything in there, from Funkadelic to Led Zeppelin. Once we started exploring the cost, we went, Oh my God. We’re either going to have to open this up and take out all this music that we’d had for three years. We went to New York and got a Steenbeck editing table carried it down three flights of stairs. It was a piece of equipment that weighed like 500 pounds. Put it in a truck, drove it to Cleveland, carried it up three flights of stairs, and then cut the movie on it ourselves for like two years. So we were emotionally married to that version of the movie, with that crazy expensive music. Once Soderbergh said he would help us get our next film made, I think we thought, all right. So the value of Pieces was as a calling card, and Steve Soderbergh seeing it, and now we should just go focus on the next thing.
ANTHONY RUSSO: Well, I just wanted to mention one more thing about the music that is kind of interesting. I remember at the time too, there was something crazy going on with like the rights holders to Funkadelic music, and we were basically told that it wouldn’t even be possible to get the rights to that song at that time. It was sort of like, you know, again, we had a whole sequence woven around it. Yeah. So, it just was very complicated, and again, this was just us making a movie as complete like…very naïvely.
DEADLINE: So there was no chapter in that book about acquiring rights for music you want to put in your movie?
JOE RUSSO: Well, he composed all of his music for that film if I remember correctly, so…
ANTHONY RUSSO: He was self-sufficient in that regard.
DEADLINE: Soderbergh’s name was synonymous with the Sundance Film Festival, as his sex lies & videotape helped turn the indie film business into an industry. How in the world did he even see your movie at Slamdance?
JOE RUSSO: It wasn’t by design. We were both under 24 when we made the film, from a million miles away from the film business. The way Soderbergh got in the theater…we went up to Park City with like 50 family members and we took advantage of that massive, Italian family infrastructure by plastering the town with posters, and we threw parties. When Steven saw the team at Slamdance he said, ‘I’m here with Schizopolis and I’d love to watch one or two movies. Which ones should I watch?’ The team told him to watch Pieces. That led to a phone call a week later.
ANTHONY RUSSO: We didn’t know that he was at the screening. Soderbergh was at the festival that year because he had a movie called Schizopolis, a small, very strange movie, very similar to Pieces in many ways. Slamdance asked him to open their festival and some of the programmers recommended that he check our movie out. We didn’t find out until a week later that he was even in the screening. And look, our movie wasn’t the belle of the festival. They invented an award for us that year, in very Slamdance style, called the Spirit Award, maybe because we had so many enthusiastic relatives there to support the film. But the festival ended with no strong interest in us, other than Soderbergh, yeah.
DEADLINE: How did the rest of the audience respond, the ones not named Soderbergh? How were the reviews?
JOE RUSSO: I think we did get one review, if I remember. Somebody said they should take the negative to Mean Streets and go bury it in the desert so that no one would ever be inspired by that film again. I think that was one of the lines in a Variety review. This was a movie that embraced absurdism on a very high level. In Schizopolis, there’s a character who speaking in Japanese halfway through the movie for no apparent reason. Pieces embraces a similar level of absurdity, but it certainly drew its roots from, you know, the movies that we grew up on like Mean Streets, and it made fun of movies at the same time as it told the story.
DEADLINE: Overnight sensation isn’t the best description?
ANTHONY RUSSO: I think we felt like, I don’t know if our voice fits in Hollywood, which is interesting because of the journey that we’ve taken. We really felt like outsiders. Steven was an outsider at the time. If you remember, he had an incident where as I recall, coming out of Sundance, he may have insulted Don Simpson, the producer. Steven was a maverick and he had two or three independent films that got increasingly worse box office returns. He was in a very similar place in his career, feeling like an outsider, before he made Out of Sight, Traffic, and Erin Brockovich. I think we all bonded over that back then and we watched him as he went on a journey to become a commercial filmmaker. We were able to sit in the front seat; we literally hung out at Section Eight for like two years, on a couch in a corner of the office, as we were trying to get our next film made. We saw everything that he and George went through as they converted to a big commercial slate that included Out of Sight and Ocean’s Eleven and Brockovich. And we learned so much by watching him.
DEADLINE: Describe that moment when the call comes in, Steven Soderbergh on line one.
JOE RUSSO: Anthony and I were getting our film degrees at UCLA at the time and I just had a baby and I was living off of student loans and we still had all the credit card debt from Pieces. The phone rang, and it was Soderbergh himself. He introduced himself and we knew his story very well because it was one of those things that inspired us to pursue a credit card film. I thought it was a joke at first, that one of the other students at UCLA was fu*king with me. We ended up going to lunch with Steven at Versailles and it was really like the lunch that jump started our careers. He said he loved the movie, found it inspiring. It was a very stylized movie and he loved the style. He said it was thoughtful and adventurous and that we were aggressive, ballsy, young, filmmakers.
ANTHONY RUSSO: I think the spearhead of his interest was just that he was excited by the film creatively, and our initial conversations with him were simply about that. That flowed into, is there anything to be done to bring this movie to a bigger audience, a road that seemed a little murky, and then we about our next project. We hadn’t thought about the next project at that point because we were still so focused on trying to bring Pieces to audiences. That was basically our crusade. We said, we don’t have a script, and he was like, well, I could try to keep my eye open for something that might interest you guys. Or you can write another script. Joe and I went into a two-year cycle where we wrote three scripts. When Steven formed Section Eight with George Clooney, that’s when the head of his company called and said, hey, Steven told us he wants to produce something with you guys. We submitted those three scripts. He ended up picking Welcome to Collinwood, and that became our next film.
DEADLINE: What was it like, $30,000 in credit card debt over your heads?
ANTHONY RUSSO: We had more than that, the more we tried to continue and push the movie. We kept sliding into more debt. We were both in film school at the time, so we kept digging ourselves into a hole. It was just a cycle. How do you move the money to a different credit card? It became debt management. It wasn’t fun, but here’s the thing. Our experience making Pieces, all it did was confirm our passion for film making to ourselves. We were having the time of our lives and we were in love with what we were doing. We were just excited to find ways to make more movies, figuring all that out.
DEADLINE: When you watched the audience at that Slamdance screening, what was it like being evaluated?
ANTHONY RUSSO: What sticks with me is, because the movie was so experimental, the reactions of people who only would watch the movie because they had a personal relationship with us. This was the kind of movie that only like a hardcore cinephile would end up stumbling upon. It wasn’t a general audience movie, so I always remember any time we had a general audience-type person watch the film, and usually that kind of person would watch the film simply because they knew us, and I always remember that when the movie ends, that slight look of bewilderment in their eye, and a slight half smile on their face. It was the kind of movie that really only appealed to certain types of people for sure.
DEADLINE: After that screening, did you guys look at each other and say, we’re in, or, we’re screwed?
JOE RUSSO: I don’t think we said either. We just thought, well, this isn’t really turning out like we thought. What’s next? Like, we have to figure out plan B, you know, but I don’t think we were demoralized by it. There was definitely a sense of disappointment that plan A didn’t work, but I don’t think we were demoralized by having to figure out a plan B.
DEADLINE: Fast forward to now. You just wrapped back to back sequels to The Avengers, and you are starting your own studio that will have to financing to make whatever pictures and TV series that you’re passionate about. For the people here at Sundance or Slamdance hoping their movie will get them a career, any advice?
ANTHONY RUSSO: Know that it’s a risky endeavor, one made harder if you have a significant other, or children. It can get very complicated and risky. Some people have that level of motivation and passion to sort of jump off the cliff, and figure it out as they go. The thing I always loved about the movie business is it is really a cowboy industry in the sense that there’s no prescribed road into it or through it. And no requirements for entry whatsoever, other than being able to do some interesting work, show it to people and hope they respond. There are a million roads to get there. We knew people in Cleveland who had been making movies for 20 years that nobody sees. Every couple of years they make a little small movie on their own and it goes to some minor festivals and that’s it. Four years later they do it again. That’s a fulfilling life for some filmmakers and they’re happy to work that way. They keep making movies. Others work in the heart of the commercial business. It’s hard to give specific advice because there’s so many different types of animals. In making movies, you just have to figure out what type of animal you are and then find the road.
DEADLINE: What’s the best approach to borrow large sums of money off family members?
ANTHONY RUSSO: You have to really show them how much you’re suffering for your art. That can sometimes engender respect. At one point, we got some money together and we were getting closer to production. We needed like another five thousand dollars or something like that, and we just got stuck. It wasn’t something we were anticipating, and we were in a real jam. A year earlier, we had asked our dad for some money and he said, no. After he kind of watched us for a year, putting this whole beast together and be ready to actually execute it after so much trial and effort…he gave us the money because he saw we were serious. We didn’t even have to ask him again for it. It was kind of cool, seeing him appreciate our passion. I think he still thought it was going to be fruitless, but he at least respected our passion. I think he felt we were wasting our time and that once we got it out of our system, we’d have to figure out what else to do with our lives. Eventually, he became our biggest supporter.