In The Gray Man, now streaming on Netflix, the Russo Brothers take movie spy traditions and ramp up the adrenalin to the power of 11. The directors, who turned super-sized popcorn entertainment into a fine art, talk about constructing the movie's nine setpieces, working with Dhanush and balancing ambition with pragmatism:
I want to begin by asking you about the art of the blockbuster. It is such a difficult thing to do, to wrestle massive budgets and stars and action and emotion and put it into a narrative that then talks to a billion people around the world. And you do this again and again, and even though your roots were in indie cinema. What have you understood, in these years, about the DNA of commercial film making?
AR: Our process to understand what to put out there in a movie really comes from a process of Joe and I looking inside of us. I think we are speaking to that part of ourselves with every movie. In our indie films, we could speak to a part of ourselves that is a little bit mischievous and contrary–
AR: Whereas when we are making cinema that we want to reach wider audiences, because that's the design of the narrative and the production. We are speaking to the part of ourselves that wants –
AR: Wants to be entertained, wants fun, wants a spectacle. And, we say it ad nauseam, but the way we access who we are as filmmakers is based on who we were as film fans growing up. We loved French new wave, we loved Star Wars, we loved anime. We go down the list of massive pop culture content, and we ran the gamut. And we really just calibrate the part of ourselves depending on which film we are currently engaged in.
What do you specifically like about Dhanush as an actor and how hard was it to write him in?
AR: Dhanush has an immense amount of screen presence. You see it in his energy. He has a calmness, a focus and simplicity to him that allows him to ground himself to what is really essential in any given moment. And that has the power to affect the screen. He is almost like a force around which everything revolves, because he is so centred.
JR: He is a very still performer. His movements are so precise. I think that's why I am so attracted to him. Because everything is moving in the frame, he is still. Spiritually still.
AR: That's what we appreciated about him as a performer prior to working with him. And then we were really thrilled to use that in the movie. There's so many moving parts in the film, there are so many people after the gray man, but he is the one who has this stillness and focus. It's always exciting when you can figure out how you can use the qualities of an actor you most love, in a character, in a film.
The action sequences are just staggering. Especially that one in Prague. I kept thinking, 'Okay, they are not going to top this.' And then it keeps going and going. When you design something like that, how do you do it?
JR: It's painstaking. You are building a house. You are building it one brick at a time, and a sequence like that is exhausting, because you are constantly trying to wrangle it, make sure that the action doesn't get away from the character. The brain can only handle 30 seconds of unstructured chaos and then it starts to shut down, makes you think about what you want to have for dinner, the fact that you have to do your laundry, and you've lost your audience. So, you have to keep checking in with the character and you are also trying to manage tone. How intense and serious is it supposed to get? How's the lead character responding to it? And it's tricky because you are in an action film where these mercenaries are shooting up the city and killing police officers, and how is the gray man reacting to that? He has a moral code. There are moments of Ryan wincing as there are moments of people shooting cars. So, you are tracking a lot of things throughout that sequence. But the tone does shift to a point where he is running down the top of a tram from a gun battle to this very spectacle event, stunt. And you to manage the tone without losing track of him. That is about as hard as it gets. It's made up of so many small shots.
That sequence is large and it draws attention because of its scope. But it's really powerful on a character level, because we've been introduced to the character of the gray man in the movie. He is a character that lives in the shadows, that people don't know about, he has no records. He is a very un-know-able, ghost like figure. All of a sudden, this sequence begins by him being handcuffed to a bench in Prague, where the city police are looking at him. There's teams of assassins looking at him. There are people on the other side of the world through surveillance equipment looking at him. All eyes are on the gray man. That's the inversion of what his process has been. In many ways, it's the biggest task on an action level.
I read this interview in which you were talking about a film you were making, and you kept pushing for more, 'little better, little better'. And the DoP just finally shook his head and said, 'The greed of the Russos!'
JR: Yes, we do push our crews.
Tell me more about the greed of the Russos. What do you most want to accomplish when you are making a film?
AR: We are uniquely positioned. When you are a director, you are working with an amazing team of collaborators, and it's your job to continue to push for more truth, to reach further, to challenge yourself further, and you know you are in good place creatively when you are a little scared and there is a little risk involved. So, I think the greed is just us trying to create scenarios where we are all feeling the risk, and we are reaching further than we think we are capable of in order to find something new, and discover and create something new. For me, that's the heart of the greed, I don't know if you would define it differently.
JR: Instead of six action sequences, nine. Maybe that's the excess of the Russos.
Kevin Feige described you both as equally visionaries and pragmatists. Is that right?
JR: I think that's pretty accurate. We have a level of pragmatism too, we are existentialists. There is no point in being too precious about anything. I don't know if you saw the images of the Webb telescope but we are amoebas against the scale of the universe. That's where the pragmatism comes in, and it informs the way we work. We're efficient, we're practical, we try to be as nice as possible, to keep everyone involved, there's no stress. We're not so driven that we are going to push our crews to the brink of breaking. That's the pragmatic side of us. We're like, what can we accomplish realistically and humanely? The visionary side is ambition I think, and then there is scale to it. But we like things that are familiar, but also have strange elements squished into them.
The Gray Man is very familiar territory, but it's got a very modern hero who does not want to be a spy. He's completely un-glamorous, he rejects the idea of being a spy, reacts against patriarchy, the traditional agency, Mi6 and CIA, which are completely corrupt. There's a strong female lead, zero romantic relationships. Dhanush and all the diversity. We are just calibrating things in a way that still keeps them accessible. We still allow you to grab onto that comfort food genre, but twist it enough that it has more modern connection to the audience. That's how we marry our pragmatism and vision.