EXCLUSIVE: For a couple of guys whose summer entry Avengers: Infinity War became only the fourth ever to top $2 billion in worldwide ticket sales, and — at least until their sequel next summer — wiped out a good portion of the signature characters of the Marvel universe, Joe and Anthony Russo have been extreme multi-taskers, moving in overdrive to get their AGBO studio up and running. They’ve just firmed with Netflix plans for an India and Thailand shoot for Dhaka, a kidnap extraction drama that will star Chris Hemsworth — whose Thor character is central to the two Avengers films — and marks the feature directorial debut of Sam Hargrave. He has graduated from being Chris Evans’ stunt double in Captain America: The Winter Soldier to fight and stunt coordinator in Captain America: Civil War, to holding those jobs plus some second unit directing in Avengers: Infinity War. Dhaka is a script written by Joe Russo and he’s producing with his brother, AGBO’s Mike Larocca, Thematic Entertainment’s Hemsworth, Eric Gitter and Ben Grayson.
Dhaka is an action film in which Hemsworth has to liberate a kidnapped Indian boy who is being hidden in Dhaka. Physically brave but an emotional coward, the man has to come to terms with his identity and sense of self.
This comes right after AGBO — up against several major studios — won a bidding battle for the buzzy Nico Walker novel Cherry, with a $1 million outright buy landing a first novel based on the author’s story of returning from his Iraq stint as Army medic with raging PTSD that sent him into a raging opioid addiction that manifested itself in a short career as a bank robber, for which he is still serving time. The Russos intend to make it the first film they direct post-Avengers, and they’ve hired Jessica Goldberg to write it, based on the job she did adapting the Mohsin Hamid novel Exit West for The Imitation Game’s Morten Tyldum to direct.
As Assassination Nation takes its place at the upcoming Toronto Film Festival before Neon releases it September 21– AGBO teamed with Neon on the $10M-plus worldwide deal after the film’s splashy Sundance premiere — AGBO is exploding in both movie and television projects.
Their very first major deal was to buy the next film by the directing team known as The Daniels — Dan Kwan & Daniel Scheinert — after seeing their offbeat directing debut Swiss Army Man. That project, an inter-dimension action film, now has a title, Everything Everywhere All At Once, with talks underway with Awkwafina and Michelle Yeoh, both coming off the hit Crazy Rich Asians, for a spring start.
They also this summer bought the John Brancato pitch Neanderthal for Terry Notary to direct, and teamed with Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman and STX on the thriller 17 Bridges that got a strong rewrite of the Adam Mervis script by Matthew Carnahan and starts production in three weeks. This to go with an arsenal of projects that includes Andy & Barbara Muscietti — the team behind the monster Stephen King hit It and its evil clown-encrusted sequel — to turn the Simon Stålenhag scifi novel The Electric Slate into a potential tent pole feature.
They’ve got a major deal with Amazon Studios on what at TCA was called a groundbreaking international event series, on which Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol’s Josh Appelbaum & Andre Nemec are negotiating to become show runners with Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle‘s Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg, through the quartet’s Midnight Radio banner. No details are being provided about the concept beyond what Amazon offered at TCA, that the origin mother ship series will function as a fire-starter to ignite the creation of multiple original local-language and local production series. All of the local series are meant to enhance the entire entertainment experience and will be available for the viewer to deep dive into an imagined layered world.
Mind you, the Russos created all this forward motion while directing back to back two of the biggest budget films this side of the Avatar sequels, with additional production shooting is getting underway on their final Avengers effort to open May 3, 2019 — and while they are building expansive production headquarters in the downtown artists district of Los Angeles. And Joe Russo is opening his first ever restaurant, Simone, an eatery spearheaded by James Beard-winning chef Jessica Largey and specializing in fresh Northern California cuisine in a space that is the ground floor of Bullitt, the commercial production company they partner in with Justin Lin. How is all this productivity possible?
“I don’t know if it is high functioning ADD or what, but having spent the last 10 years as television producers and then making four Marvel movies in six and one-half years, I think we’ve really honed our efficiency skills and yeah, we’ve been able to work at a high volume.”
They benefit from having ample private money that frees them from having to get permission from a studio sponsor, and the Russos have a brain trust that gets a lot done in a short time. Alongside COO Todd Makurath and production president Mike Larocca, the Russos last March set their Captain America and Avengers scribes Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely to become co-presidents of Story for AGBO. While they are all busy fine tuning that final Avengers installment, the duo is creatively shepherding these projects with the Russos, and they will write their own tent pole vehicles for AGBO. The Russos initially toyed with the notion of setting up shop at Fox, but decided instead to pact piecemeal on projects with distributors, to give themselves room to place projects where they fit best.
The Russos were particularly sparked by prevailing in the Cherry auction, one that had rival bids from Sony Pictures, as well as Warner Bros, which bid for James Franco to direct. They tragic story of the book touched them and took them full circle to their own Cleveland roots. Where they stayed off the streets by watching arthouse films before they maxed out credit cards on their debut Pieces, an avant garde film that premiered at Slamdance but never got released because they cut the film to popular songs they had no rights to use, tunes that were hopelessly too expensive to secure. The only person of note who saw it was Steven Soderbergh, who recognized a kindred spirit and became their godfather. His maverick spirit in many ways informs what the Russos are doing now. Cherry was a bold play and a way for them to reconnect with Cleveland and tell a meaningful story about the ravages of the opioid epidemic that is ravaging Cleveland and other working class cities across the country.
“It is a really special book for both Joe and I, a piece of material that felt epic but personal, and it hit a sweet spot for us,” Anthony Russo told Deadline. “In part, it’s setting. We grew up in the exact area where the story begins and saw many elements that hit home. It’s rare that we are so moved that way by a piece of material. It’s funny, some people reference our Marvel work and some reference our television comedies. But the thing Joe and I have have about film making is that we can go in any direction at any time, and we love the eclectic output.”
It was Joe Russo who got on the phone with the author — once Walker earned a new allotment of phone minutes that go to each inmate, something that slowed the pace of the fevered auction. This after they plugged in with the book’s brokers, UTA and Matthew Johnson, the owner of Fat Possum Records and Tyrant Books, who read about Walker and encouraged the inmate to write a book based on his story. Making movie deals with felons are always complicated, even though Walker reportedly will not be subjected to Son of Sam statute limitations because he was a non-violent felon in pulling off his robberies. Walker will use some of the money to fund the restitution that came as part of his sentence so he will likely have a clean slate when he walks out of prison in 2020.
“It’s an important part of the narrative, the idea of moving forward with redemption and finding ways to make restitution,” Joe Russo said. “He understood what happened to him, but where does the blame lie here? It certainly lies with the individual who walked in the bank and robbed it, but it also lies with the drug makers, with the heroin dealers and the government and its broken system that isn’t doing a very good job of curtailing this epidemic because at the heart of that is greed. As much as he created victims, he also has been victimized by the system.
“It was hard to engage in a story that has such tragedy at the heart of it, as the guy who is in prison and who spent years of his life as an addict robbing banks,” Joe Russo said. “There is a message behind this movie that is so powerful and so important to us, and there is a love story in there at the heart of it. I cried a few times while I was reading that book and for a number of reasons, it’s a very personal issue to us.”
Russo acknowledged that some of the people he grew up close to have been caught in the opioid epidemic, though he would not be specific. “Soderbergh told us very early on when we got into the business and when we learned a lot of important lessons from him, he said, ‘You have to have a very zen attitude about the things you want to do, the ones you’re meant to do, which you will do, and the ones you’re not meant to do, which you won’t do. It sounds like a simplistic way to frame it, but it’s proven very true for us.” Cherry, he said, fell strongly into the first category. AGBO’s Larocca will be producer on that with Johnson serving as exec producer.
Before they direct Cherry, the Russos will first have to conclude their Avengers saga, the first installment of which ended with a high number of superhero regulars simply vanishing as Josh Brolin’s Thanos character oversaw a genocide that shocked the Marvel faithful. Basically, a majority of the MCU that has provided Hollywood’s steadiest stream of billion dollar blockbusters, is hanging in the balance.
“We’ve worked on the edit all summer and we’re excited to finally get these missing pieces in the film and then we expect to be in post through the fall and winter,” Anthony Russo said. “We hope to be done by March. It was so gratifying that in a movie with this scope and scale and that wide of an audience, that we were able to end with a gut punch and yet the audience stayed with us and found value and kept coming back. It’s a rare thing to find in commercial filmmaking and we know it had a lot to do with the the capital that’s been built up around these characters for the last ten years of Marvel filmmaking. The audience is so invested in these characters that they’re willing to stick with them even through the hard stuff. It has been out great pleasure as storytellers to take them through that hard stuff and have it be a cathartic and even entertaining experience at times.”
Asked what the most surprising reaction they received, Joe Russo quickly answered.
“It was probably when a 10-year old boy at a Q&A was crying as he asked us why we killed Spider-Man.”
What was the best reaction to the daring storytelling?
“The best reaction was probably that 10-year old kid crying and asking us why we killed Spider-Man. From the time we came to Marvel, our goal was to surprise the audience and not give them the same thing but rather to challenge them,” Joe Russo said. “That was our view on Captain America: Winter Soldier, and Civil War was also very controversial internally with the powers that be in turning Iron Man into the antagonist and severing the relationship between Cap and Tony Stark. Every Marvel film we’ve created had this controversy, like are we pushing this rabid audience too far? Are we making movies that could perhaps be too emotionally complex for the genre? That the audience has shown up wanting more is a testament to the hard work everybody has put in over those last ten years of films.”
Hemsworth is repped by CAA, Fourward and Morrissey Management; Hargrave is WME; Awkwafina is UTA and Artists First, and Yeoh is Artists International Group.