Gray Man, The: Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo

Everything Everywhere,’ ‘The Gray Man’ and Working With Netflix: “Nobody Bothers You”

The directors talk about their Netflix spy thriller, plans for their AGBO shingle, and Disney’s next decade: “You’re going to get all the ‘Star Wars’ and all the Marvel you can handle.”

(L-R) Ryan Gosling, Ana de Armas, and Chris Evans attend the World Premiere of Netflix's "The Gray Man" at TCL Chinese Theatre on July 13, 2022 in Hollywood, California.

Ryan Gosling attends the World Premiere of Netflix's "The Gray Man" at TCL Chinese Theatre on July 13, 2022 in Hollywood, California.


Journey to making The Gray Man?

JOE RUSSO One thing Soderbergh taught us–he was our mentor early on in our careers–was: “One for you. One for them.” You have to figure out how to make people money. Once you do, you can take some swings. AGBO is really built off of that concept.

We started developing The Gray Man while we were making Winter Soldier, not knowing whether we’d continue working with Marvel. We did 4 Marvel films. Once we came out the other side, we pulled the project out of Sony.


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Winter Soldier is an anti-government film,” says Joe Russo, photographed June 22 at the AGBO office in Los Angeles. “It’s a movie about standing up for what you believe is right versus being told by a government body what they believe is right. That’s an explosive message in certain parts of the world, and we were told that by fans.” PHOTOGRAPHED BY BIRDIE THOMPSON

Theatrical release before streaming?

ANTHONY: This is big cinema. We made it for a theater. That’s how we shot it, how we styled it and, on a technical level, how we supported it. But we like working with new partners. There’s something very energizing about bringing a movie like this out with Netflix. They think about ways of reaching audiences differently.

JOE They’re easier to work with than traditional studio.

How so?

JOE Their mentality is of a tech company rather than studio. They’re very hands-off. Nobody bothers you. They have a different approach to how they control the budget on the movie. It’s not as stressful as it is at a studio. There are a lot of positives to working with them. I think digital distribution has fostered more diversity in the past 5 years than Hollywood has in 100. Because they’re regionally supported, they need to foster connection and talent in those regional markets. Of course, everything’s always driven by money — but that’s an important byproduct of a company like Netflix. Anthony and I are fairly disciplined in being agnostic about presentation. Extraction was watched 100 million times [on Netflix]. That’s the equivalent of a $2 billion movie in theatrical.

When we worked with Marvel, we traveled the world for decade. What that allows you is an understanding that goes beyond a Hollywood-centric point of view of how to create content. We’re agnostic about delivery. You know what might make everybody happy is Netflix starts doing 45-day windows and they have their giant digital distribution platform. Everybody wins. That feels like where it’s going.

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The name AGBO comes from the Russos’ college years. They released sketch comedy show and wanted to pen a fake review in the student newspaper to “lacerate” it as a way to drum up interest. “We needed a name to ascribe to this review so we flipped through the Cleveland phonebook and just found Gozie Agbo,” remembers Anthony Russo, here, photographed June 22 at the AGBO office in Los Angeles. PHOTOGRAPHED BY BIRDIE THOMPSON

ANTHONY We designed ABGO to be completely independent so that as things change, we can take any project anywhere, at any time. We have no investment in any of those models.

The woes Netflix is going through right now?


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The Russos’ sprawling DTLA complex includes artifacts from film history (backlit celluloid strips from famous films hang at the entrance) PHOTOGRAPHED BY BIRDIE THOMPSON

JOE I don’t think so. They still make billions of dollars. It’s OK for a company that was flush with cash during the tech spec boom to now be challenged to reconsider its model. And at some point, they have to start moving into what we’re doing — larger IP that can be turned into games and merchandising to build ancillary revenue and build legacy wealth. That’s taking a page out of Disney’s book. But I also think, too, that Disney’s gone very conservative. Post-Bob Iger, they seem to be in IP management mode. You’re going to get all the Star Wars and all the Marvel you can handle for the next decade. They’re all changing. It’s either a reinforced conservative approach from your traditional studios or it’s forcing a tech company like Netflix to rethink its entire model.

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The Russos’ sprawling DTLA complex includes artifacts from their career (the script book from feature debut Welcome to Collinwood) PHOTOGRAPHED BY BIRDIE THOMPSON

ANTHONY There’s so much content spread over so many creators and providers that it almost doesn’t matter. If part of the model weakens, there are other parts of the model. [Top Gun: Maverick] is ready and waiting to benefit.

JOE One thing we have never seen before in this business is Apple and Amazon, which are two trillion-dollar companies that are so wealthy that their investment in entertainment is a rounding error. You have had traditional corporations that look for strategic alliances, like Sony. But these were not companies that had limitless funds. [With them] you’ll probably see the greatest change, but they’re slow moving. Netflix’s survival depends on the amount of content it produces. Apple and Amazon want brand enhancement without brand damage.

AGBO released Everything Everywhere All at Once

JOE We were the seed capital. I fell in love with Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s 2016 Swiss Army Man. Part of what AGBO does, outside of giant IP, is pay back that karmic debt that we owe the universe. It’s highly experimental and has level of absurdism married to emotion that I hadn’t seen in a while. We thought that if we could help them calibrate it for slightly wider audience, there could be something really explosive there.

ANTHONY There aren’t a lot of people that could have gotten that movie through the system in the way we did. That was basically Joe and I believing — and this goes back to our very early conversations with the Daniels — that there may be a film model for them that had more commercial dimension to it.

JOE The Daniels are very disciplined filmmakers. They were able to pull that movie off for the kind of budget that I don’t even think that Anthony and I, with 30 years in the business, could figure out how to execute.

Success of Everything Everywhere?

ANTHONY The adventurousness of it.

JOE The miracle of Everything Everywhere is they spent 5 years working on that film and it’s highly inventive, highly personal expression, and really interesting use of the two-hour narrative format. But, fuck, there’s not a lot of those left.  It’s not an easy kind of film to make. We make movies like The Gray Man so that we can help the Daniels make Everything Everywhere All at Once. The way Soderbergh made Ocean’s 11 so he could help us make Welcome to Collinwood. You can use business-focused content to support more personal projects.

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Dolls made in their likeness: “Mine looks exactly like J.J. Abrams,’” says Anthony. “And mine looks like Joe Pesci,” adds Joe. PHOTOGRAPHED BY BIRDIE THOMPSON

Marvel has been set up as industry foil

ANTHONY The overwhelming success of those movies has caused them to represent something that has become “other,” or maybe not attainable to some others for whatever reason. Not every movie has to be liked globally.

JOE When I was 19, I used to love U2. And then they started getting some commercial success, beyond their MTV early days, where they were the biggest band in the world. And I was like, “I hate U2. I’m sick of U2. They’re so ubiquitous!” That was just my ego trying to define myself against the masses. Then, 10 years later, I was like, “I love U2. Why did I do that?” I outgrew it. It feels like a very juvenile conversation. The whole thing feels sad and cynical and pessimistic. You’re talking about movies that 10-year-olds are weeping over and begging to go see. They’ll remember for decades that they were there with their grandfather. Like, give me a fucking break.

Industry in post-Pandemic?

ANTHONY Everything changed. I hate to be juvenile on that level. We love everything about classic cinema, but we’ve never been precious about that in any way, shape, or form. What has always excited us most is how do you move it forward? This is part of our philosophy in terms of not being precious about theatrical distribution. How do you get away from the old models? How do you reach audiences that haven’t been engaged before?

JOE Auteur filmmaking is 50 years old at this point. It was conceived in the ’70s. We grew up on that. We were kids, it was really important to us. But we’re also aware that the world needs to change and the more that we try to prevent it from changing the more chaos we create. It’s not anyone’s place to reject the next generation’s ideas. We’re in crisis right now because everyone’s at war with each other. It’s sad to see, as guys who grew up loving film. A thing to remember, too, is it’s an elitist notion to be able to go to a theater. It’s very fucking expensive. So, this idea that was created — that we hang on to — that the theater is a sacred space, is bullshit. And it rejects the idea of allowing everyone in under the tent. Where digital distribution is valuable, other than how it pushed diversity, is that people can share accounts; they can get 40 stories for the cost of one story. But having some kind of culture war about whether there’s value in that or not is fucking bananas to us.