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Joe Russo's "Symposium Around Filmmakers"

On Sands, Marvel, and movies

The 2024 Sands International Film Festival featured a variety of big names in cinema, recognised for their work both in front of and behind the camera. Yet again, the festival’s founders made appearances beyond the Marvel cinematic universe — directors Joe and Anthony Russo. 

Joe’s daughter began attending St Andrews in 2013, when he said he “first fell in love with the university” and surrounding town. Although he said his favourite part of coming to St Andrews is visiting Aikman’s Cellar: “Having a pint there — 11 o'clock, Saturday night, classic rock playing — that’s a home run.” “It's a good town,” he mused. “You know, I wish I had gone here.”

After offering his assistance to the growth of the Department of Film Studies and having previously hosted a much smaller student film festival, Joe and Anthony decided to found Sands to “build a symposium about filmmakers.” 

Over the course of the festival’s three days, cinephiles had the opportunity to get up-close and personal with big names involved in every aspect of film production, such as this year’s Marvel star-studded lineup — actor Tom Holland, composer Alan Silvestri, and actor and filmmaker Karen Gillan via a pre-recorded interview. 

On 20 April, the Byre hosted a screening of the Russo’s Welcome to Collinwood — which consequently garnered the attention of the film’s producer Steven Soderbergh. 

Joe clarified in the post-screening discussion that the pair “got into movies because of Steven,” crediting him as the inspiration to depict their own hometown. They explained that Soderbergh’s 1989 film Sex, Lies, and Videotape — set in Baton Rouge, Louisiana — aligned with the 1990s phenomenon of cinematically depicting “random corners [of the world] outside of Hollywood.”  

Joe described Welcome to Collinwood as a “hard-luck fairytale about working class people in a down and out world” set in his and Anthony’s native Cleveland, Ohio.

“We were hoping that people would receive it in the spirit that it was made, which is, ‘Hey, we all grew up in this place that people perceive as the armpit of America. Isn't it funny, you know?’” he commented. “But there's also tragedy to that — in the fact that we didn't have the same access to the American Dream [as] people in larger cities with more economic opportunity, and that's really what the film is about.”

Growing up in Cleveland had instilled in the pair a “punk rock attitude” about filmmaking. But, as Anthony added more matter-of-factly, “We took the keys to the car Steven gave us and we crashed it.” 

The film was slammed by critics and made around $300,000 in the box office. Joe recalled the “brutal” Variety review that followed by Rob Mackie, in which he said he “was pleased when [the film] ended.”

Additionally, Joe shared that he and his brother had gotten into a dispute with the studio over the amount of days that they were permitted to film, requiring them to pay for extra days which added on to their then-substantial debt. 

When asked if he would have done anything differently given what he now knows, he joked, “Don’t give up your salary for extra days.” Yet he stood firm in his belief that “all the choices that we made led us to where we are.”

“Those were the choices that we made,” Joe admitted, “and they were painful choices, but you know, they then led us to a place where we knew we had to continue working even harder or give up the dream.”

Now, the pair has become synonymous with one of the most successful film franchises: Marvel. Their most recent (and rumoured final) Avengers instalment, Endgame, is the second highest grossing movie of all time. 

This domination over the box office, however, has led certain tenured filmmakers to resent Marvel films, arguing that they favour financial gain over good old-fashioned artistic vision. Filmmaker Martin Scorcese has sardonically coined them as “theme park films.” 

Committing to a beloved character for a multi-instalment franchise can also be a daunting prospect for actors fearing the inevitability of being typecast. During the panel, the pair shared that actor George Clooney has a singular picture in his office of himself wearing a batman mask — serving as a visual reminder to never dip his toe in the CGI-d, fan-frenzied world of superhero films. 

When Soderbergh first heard about the Russos being hired for their Marvel directorial debut in 2014 with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, he initially asked, ‘Why’? He recalled their response: this was their “dream job.” They had been avid collectors of comic books growing up — directing a Marvel film was a no-brainer. 

Soderbergh had no reason to doubt them: “You give them this opportunity, [and] they will not fail by application of hard work.” 

But Joe readily admitted that his and Anthony’s journey was a “25-year overnight success story” — not uncommon for the “very, very difficult road” taken to achieve success in the industry. 

“Only through pain can you truly understand whether that's the thing you most desire or most want,” he explained, “and only through sacrifice and discipline do you deserve to get what you want.”

Prior to Joe’s interview with The Saint, he had just had a “very interesting conversation” with a series of St Andrews student filmmakers, adding that he and Anthony felt a responsibility to give back to those looking to pursue a career in the industry given their mentorship from Soderbergh. 

“Our career narrative is that [Anthony and I] were fostered by a mentor,” he said. “And so the festival also grew out of the concept of giving back, which is why we support first and second time filmmakers — young filmmakers.” 

His number one piece of coveted advice to rookie creatives: remaining intentional. 

“No matter what goals you want to accomplish, being intentional is critical to achieving those goals,” he explained. “They have a much better chance of getting to where they want to go.”

Having a backbone and steadfast adherence to your passions can help with this, too, he added. As Soderbergh said during the panel, “I never thought about the odds. I thought, this is going to happen to somebody — why not me?”

And, obviously, they need a burning passion for film, as well. Joe and Anthony were “film geeks” growing up, often using a “common language” of movie references to communicate on set. Joe, however, cautioned that with a love for film comes the responsibility to preserve it. 

He cited the “age-old struggle between commerce and art” in reference to the recent decision to turn St Andrews’s beloved New Picture House into a commercialised sports bar. 

“Any business in town, if they wanted to, could install a projector and a screen and show movies, right?” he said. “I think that's what's required to keep theatres alive, is film fans supporting movies.” 

Although, overall, Joe was optimistic about the future of filmmaking — especially given the festival’s overwhelming support from students and local movie-fanatics alike. 

He emphasised the importance of fortifying a “community of people [...] through storytelling.” 

“If storytelling is a tent,” said Russo, [We’ve learned] how to build a bigger tent, and invite more people under that tent.”

Photo by Euan Cherry

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