Slamdance honors the Russos with award
Filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo have gone full circle with Slamdance.
During the 1997 Slamdance Film Festival, the brothers premiered their black comedy “Pieces,” which Anthony described as “a fever dream that was about everything you loved and hated about movies.” This year, the siblings are are working on their big-budget, blockbuster projects, “Avengers: Infinity War” and the, yet, untitled sequel.
In between the cracks, the Russos have also directed and produced TV comedies.
Earlier this year the Russo brothers also announced a fellowship that they plan to award to one lucky Slamdance filmmaker this year.
The fellowship will include a $25,000 cash award and the opportunity for the filmmaker to be mentored by the Russos.
For all their works and support, Slamdance recognized the Russo brothers with its highest honor, the Founders Award, during a ceremony and panel discussion at the Treasure Mountain Inn on Saturday.
The award was first presented in 2015 to Christopher Nolan, director of “Inception,” “Dunkirk” and the Dark Knight trilogy.
Slamdance President and cofounder Peter Baxter said he appreciated Joe and Anthony Russo’s love and support for Slamdance.
“They’ve always remembered the time and opportunities the festival and our filmmakers gave to them that they may not have otherwise had if they hadn’t been here in Park City in 1997,” Baxter said. “But isn’t that what mentorship is really about? That’s what Anthony and Joe have done. The have been a founding cornerstone of Slamdance and we’re really grateful for the award they are giving.”
“I think the world is kind of at war between a sense of community and individualism,” Joe said while he and his brother received the awards. “We support community and Slamdance has been an amazing community for us and we wouldn’t have been here without them.”
Before the awards and panel discussion, Baxter addressed the audience and said he remembered when the Russos premiered “Pieces.”
“Twenty years ago, two young brothers, Anthony and Joe Russo, walked down the hallway and into this room and I learned three things about them quite quickly,” he said. “The first one was the entire Russo family could fill this theater. The second is that marriages are really made at Slamdance.”
Anthony met his wife Ann at Slamdance.
“And the third one was, of course, Anthony and Joe were determined to succeed, Baxter said.”
Filmmaker Stephen Soderbergh, known for his Sundance film “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” was also at the screening and became the brothers’ mentor.
Joe told the story during a panel moderated by Sandra Bertalanffy.
“We had applied to film school so we could use the equipment to finish the film,” he said. “So when Soderbergh called, I figured this has got to be one of the students in my class [messing] with me.”
But it wasn’t, and after seeing the film, Soderbergh wanted to help the brothers distribute the film.
“Even though the movie was very radically anti-commercial, it never occurred to us that it would never get distribution,” Anthony said. “Stephen initially wanted to help us with that, but we ran into some issues.”
The Russos specifically cut “Pieces” to music. They had shot it for $37,000, but racked up “a million-dollar music budget,” Joe said.
“We didn’t have enough money to develop the film, so it sat in our refrigerator in our garage undeveloped for months,” he said. “When we finally developed it, we screened it for the first time on our garage door.”
Still, cutting the film taught the two how to make a movie, and for various reasons, Soderbergh told them to look forward to their next project.
“Stephen said the best thing for us to do was write another script,” Anthony said.
That script became 2002’s “Welcome to Collinwood,” which starred George Clooney.
“We took three years writing scripts. At the end of those three years, Stephen formed a production company called Section Eight, with George Clooney, when they were making ‘Oceans 11,’” Joe said. “We were shocked that he was going to go the commercial route, but we learned that there was a way to do personal storytelling with commercial conscience. And that was part of the process we had to go through. We had to realign our brains to think commercially in order to forge a career in the business.”
From there, Anthony and Joe turned to TV and became Emmy Award-winning directors for the critically acclaimed comedies, “Arrested Development,” “Community” and “Happy Endings.”
But the transition wasn’t without its speed bumps.
The first project they worked on was a pilot for a new series called “Lucky.”
“‘Lucky’ is about a gambling addict and it’s a dark story,” Anthony said. “His wife committed suicide and he’s struggling to pay his in-laws back for the funeral, but it’s a comedy.”
While the pilot never got picked up, it did lead the duo to Academy Award-winning filmmaker Ron Howard, the executive director of “Arrested Development.”
Event though ‘Lucky’ didn’t work on the network, the pilot was much loved and “
“Ron said, ‘We need to reinvent television comedy,’ because reality TV was eating all the spots on primetime,” Joe said. “So, again, we brought [our] independent approach to it.”
Their relentless work led the Russos to their Marvel Studios directorial debut with the 2014 blockbuster “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”
Their follow-up, “Captain America: Civil War” in 2016, was not only registered as the fifth-highest weekend gross in domestic box office history, but also had the highest worldwide gross of that year.
“We found we do our best work when we’re emotionally invested in the project,” Joe said. “We grew up on comic books, so we had strong emotional connection to superheroes and the mythology behind them.”
The success of those films solidified the deal for the brothers to direct the two upcoming “Avengers” films.
“People ask us about the ‘Infinity War’ films if [they] were hard because they are big and very expensive,” Joe said. “But they are no different than shooting an episode of ‘Arrested Development’ or shooting ‘Pieces.’ There’s a camera, there are actors, lights and you have to cultivate an emotional truthful performance out of the actors.”
Slamdance Film Festival will run through Thursday, Jan. 25. For information, visit http://www.slamdance.com.
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