Avengers director Joe Russo: Scotland can attract more blockbusters

Joe Russo, co-director of the new Avengers films, talks to Alistair Harkness about shooting scenes in Edinburgh and how Scotland could attract more big budget Hollywood films

Saturday, 3rd June 2017, 1:00 am
Updated Sunday, 4th June 2017, 9:31 pm
Director Joe Russo on set.
Director Joe Russo on set.

“I find that stunning,” says Joe Russo. The co-director (along with his brother Anthony) of the last two Captain America films and the next two Avengers movies is referring to Edinburgh’s limited exposure as a blockbuster location. Smaller-scale films like Trainspotting 2, Filth, Sunshine on Leith and David Mackenzie’s Hallam Foe have certainly showcased Edinburgh’s versatility as a cinematic city in recent years. But a few scenes in Cloud Atlas and The DaVinci Code aside, until the Russo brothers brought Avengers: Infinity War to town in April, it’s been rare for the Scottish capital to play itself in such a high-level Hollywood production. “It’s one of the more cinematic cities I’ve seen,” says Russo. “I’m shocked that it hasn’t been over-shot, but I’m happy that we really get to show off the city in a large-scale film like Avengers. It makes the location feel very unique.”

Russo is on the phone from Durham, where he and Anthony have just finished shooting at the cathedral, wrapping the UK portion of the shoot for Infinity War before returning to Atlanta to complete the movie. They finished production in Scotland the previous week, having spent a month shooting around Edinburgh, with a few days in the Scottish Borders town of St Abbs. That they chose to concentrate the majority of the gargantuan production’s UK shoot in Scotland is a big deal, especially since Russo describes Infinity War and its yet-to-be-named sequel (which they’re shooting back-to-back with this film) as “the culmination of the last ten years of the Marvel universe” and “the two most important films that Marvel has ever made”.

That, of course, means there’s also an almost comical degree of secrecy surrounding the production. Even asking Russo to confirm which actors have been shooting in Scotland – aside from the ones already Twitter-snapped around Edinburgh (Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans) or photographed on set (Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany) – causes him to sound momentarily like a team of lawyers might be monitoring the call. For the record: Robert Downey Jr wasn’t slated to shoot in the UK, but Scarlett Johansson was and she did some filming in Scotland.

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Director Anthony Russo, and Chris Evans (Captain America) on set.

Needless to say, Russo can’t talk about what brings the Avengers to Edinburgh, nor can he confirm a) how much screen time the city will have b) whether any of the footage will be used in the sequel or c) whether the film’s much-speculated-upon $500m budget is in any way accurate. But he is happy to talk about why he and his brother wanted to shoot here.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to Edinburgh a few times over the last few years and I just loved the city,” he says. “I find it one of the more beautiful cities in Europe. It’s amazingly well-preserved, the architecture is stunning and we had an idea for a sequence that we thought would pair very well with the city.”

The “sequence” in question is an action one – that much he can confirm – which immediately raises the question of how “well-preserved” Edinburgh will remain given the amount of city levelling chaos normally found in a Marvel movie. Again, Russo can’t give specifics, but after writing Edinburgh into the script they approached it the way they do all their action sequences. “We tend to intensely scout an area and then use our imaginations to make the best use of the geography.”

Shooting around The Royal Mile, Waverley Station and Cockburn Street, the Russo brothers certainly chose some of Edinburgh’s most iconic spots. “These are large-scale movies and these were large-scale locations,” Russo says. “It provided a really gorgeous backdrop. For a city as cinematic as Edinburgh, but one that hasn’t had a tonne of production in it, it was incredibly organised.”

Trucks, cranes, lights and police boxes on the Royal Mile for filming of The Avengers movie

So it lived up to expectations?

“Without question,” he confirms. “The crew absolutely loved it. The town couldn’t have been friendlier and the look and the production value we got out of the city were top-notch.”

Indeed, the one thing that could have made shooting here even better would have been a dedicated studio with soundstages. Russo reckons some form of permanent studio would be “invaluable” for attracting future big-budget productions. “Because of the UK tax rebate and because of the look you can achieve – which is difficult to find elsewhere: the geography is quite beautiful and quite complex and you can get a varied number of looks within a short travel distance – I think that Scotland is uniquely positioned to attract quite a large amount of work if they were to open soundstages. In fact, we probably would have done a lot more work here in Scotland had there been facilities to support our stage work.”

Russo has formed strong links with Scotland of late. He’s “a big Gleneagles fan” and insists some of his favourite restaurants and bars in the world right now are in Edinburgh (he reels off a list that includes The Table, Panda & Sons and Hoot the Redeemer). He also sponsors a film studies scholarship program at the University of St Andrews and has lectured the students there.

Director Anthony Russo, and Chris Evans (Captain America) on set.

His and Anthony’s careers are certainly an inspiring one for budding filmmakers with no Hollywood connections. Catching the tail end of the 1990s American indie film boom, the Russo brothers (Joe is the youngest by a year) were in their early 20s when they shot their credit-card-funded debut, Pieces (1997), in their home city of Cleveland. Spotted by Steven Soderbergh, they parlayed his interest into their George Clooney-starring follow-up Welcome to Collinwood (2002) and worked for a decade on TV shows such as Arrested Development and Community, helping shape the current golden age of American television before Marvel tapped them to further expand the golden age of superhero cinema.

“We’re still telling the same kind of stories that we were telling then,” reflects Russo on his and Anthony’s transition from DIY filmmakers to being in charge of one of the biggest productions in Hollywood history. “The scale goes up and the money goes up, but being on set doesn’t change.” Still, he does concede there is more pressure now. “But you have to ignore that pressure and focus on the storytelling.” n

Avengers: Infinity War is released on 27 April 2018.

Trucks, cranes, lights and police boxes on the Royal Mile for filming of The Avengers movie