On 19 and 20 November in the Byre Theatre, the film studies department led a tripartite, interactive opportunity for students to engage with film and television director Joe Russo about contemporary filmmaking. The event included a discussion with Russo about his career, a master class to discuss a scene from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and a more personal conference meeting between Russo and film students.
Although St Andrews sees its fair share of talented individuals, it is not every day that such a celebrated Hollywood figure devotes hours to discussion with fans—especially a man as involved with Marvel Studios (a corporation known for their secrecy) as Russo is. However, Russo spoke candidly with students about his early struggles to establish himself within the business, the importance of academia and what to expect from his upcoming Marvel pictures.
Russo is one half of the directing team known as the ‘Russo brothers.’ He and his brother Anthony were the creative minds behind some of Community’s quirkiest and highest rated episodes and helped raise Arrested Development from cult status to one of the most beloved shows of the decade. However, Russo was nothing but humble as he spoke to students on the stage of the Byre. Within the first few minutes, he opened up about his failed first film, Pieces, which was never released due to the $1 million budget they used solely on music, before copyright. An unglamorous debut that he was willing to laugh at.
“My brother and I say that we never made anyone any money until Captain America,” Russo joked, referring to his last feature film release, The Winter Soldier, which raked in almost $715 million worldwide. Yet financial performance, he admitted, is not something he prioritises. Instead, he values the input of the fans most, even reading internet forums for potential story arcs. This is especially pertinent to his upcoming Marvel features, and Russo hinted that those who fret over that controversial Black Widow and Hulk romance in Avengers: Age of Ultron may have reason to be hopeful.
“We create what is best for the story. Continuity is not something that we are bound to. Marvel is very free-spirited,” Russo told his audience. Captain America may also be re-envisioned: Russo deems the character “too moral,” and says that as the world he avenges gets darker, he “moves away from everything he has believed in in the first film.” He briefly mentions the more “aggressive” action sequences that fans can expect (particularly two Black Widow scenes that were positively received in private screenings), but he emphasises the “emotional realism” that he wants to bring to even his sillier projects: “It is important for the work to not become too abstract. It’ll lose its heart.”
Russo’s affable personality was apparent throughout, but it was his sincere passion for his craft that bubbled to the surface, particularly when he offered advice to budding filmmakers. One that he could not emphasize enough, was the need to practice your art. “Become a multi-hyphenate. Whether it is directing, shooting, writing, do not limit yourself,” advised Russo. If you want to fully submerge yourself in your craft, relocate to where there are more opportunities. “If you want to learn how to make cars, you go to Detroit. If you want to learn how to make movies, you need to go to LA,” he continued.
Above all else, however, Russo advises to value your academic career. “I don’t know if I’d be in film without my academic background,” he said plainly, citing his studies as giving him a better appreciation of past work that later influenced his directing style.
His constant film references showed his avid, inner fanboy: He referred to the bank robbery scene from Heat several times, calling director Michael Mann a prominent idol, and described Community’s Dungeons and Dragons episode as very Percy Jackson-esque and the paintball episodes reminiscent of Star Wars.
“Events like [meeting Russo] make our dreams seem more tangible,” said School President of film studies and music, Kit Klaes, who interviewed Russo directly. “I read many scripts and work on my own pieces, but I also now plan to use [academic] analysis to broaden my interests with the industry.” Klaes feels encouraged, she says, to indulge more in her admiration for film, after finding Russo does the same.
The bittersweet part about meeting such a creative man, especially for students, is that we may feel inspired to achieve things larger than ourselves, but we often do not know where to begin. We can sometimes see ourselves trapped in that awkward stage of adulthood, where we are too old to remain apathetic but too young to truly make a difference. According to Russo, holding back a passion benefits no one. Not all projects can turn out like Winter Soldier, particularly when we’re just starting out. Sometimes we have to create a few Pieces-style disasters before we truly find our niche.