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How The Russo Brothers Are Working To Change Genre Films

Now that filmmakers Joe Russo and Anthony Russo have reached the pinnacle of the superhero genre with the success of their films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the acclaimed brothers are looking to help reshape other genres with their unique brand of moviemaking.

The Russos, of course, hold the distinction of directing the all-time highest grossing film worldwide with Avengers: Endgame and its titanic take of $2.79 billion. Without question, one of the main reasons the film was largely embraced by fans and critics is the way the Russos layered heartfelt human emotion throughout the narrative — an element not always so prominent in the superhero genre.

But since the Russos are continually striving to learn and improve their craft, they're making it a point to redefine genre films, whether it be as the producers of horror mysteries like Relic, action thrillers including Extraction, or the new Iraq War drama Mosul.

Looper recently attended a roundtable interview for Mosul, during which the Russos cited examples of what they are doing to reshape — and effectively elevate — genre films.

"We grew up on genre. We were genre junkies as kids," says Joe Russo. "And I think that there's a way that you can Trojan Horse ideas into genre in a way that you can't with other types of storytelling, because people are compelled to watch because of the genre elements of it. So, I think elevated genre is something that we aspire to because you can infuse it with thematics or politics, or issues that people wouldn't want to normally address outside of a story."

Highlighting difficult realities, underrepresented cultures

Joe Russo specifically points to Relic as a gateway for audiences to broach the heartbreaking realities about one of the most devastating forms of dementia.

"I think if you look at the way that Relic deals with Alzheimer's," he says, "you can sit and have a conversation with someone about Alzheimer's, that may be more uncomfortable than the way that film can convey to you a profound message about losing the ones that you love with dignity and grace."

As for redefining the way war stories are told, Joe Russo says Mosul is his and his brother's way of "trying to tell a story about an underrepresented culture using genre techniques like you see in traditional war films."

Mosul tells the true-life story of the fearless group of the Nineveh SWAT team, a group of policemen who risk their lives to carry out the daunting task of battling the ISIS militants who have ravaged the northern Iraq city. The film is made all the more authentic in that it features international actors, and the dialogue is completely spoken in Arabic with English subtitles.

"If it makes it compulsively watchable to Western audiences so that they can empathize with and become part of that story and understand that story, then all the better if it gets more people to watch it and understand it," Joe Russo explains. "I think that we don't have a conscious agenda outside of... 'Are we excited by the project? Are we excited by the filmmaker behind the project?' We're excited by what it is trying to say."

Similar passions helped elevate Mosul

Mosul is written and directed by Matthew Michael Carnahan, who brought the film's source material — journalist Luke Mogelson's 2016 New Yorker article "The Desperate Battle to Destroy ISIS" — to pitch to the Russos as a film project. Carnahan was already established in the film business as the screenwriter of such films as Lions for Lambs, World War Z, and The Kingdom, and the brothers were so confident in the scribe's abilities that they granted his request to direct Mosul as well.

"Matthew is a very passionate, very emotional artist," Joe Russo says, "and when he gets excited about something or passionate about it, he can't let it go. He's also very politically minded ... [it's] incredibly important to him. And this was the story that made me cry when I read it in the New Yorker. When my brother cried, it made Matthew cry. And the three of us said, 'This is something that we have to use our lifeline to help get made.'"

He went on to explain how the name recognition he and his brother have earned from their Marvel work can help get other projects of the ground. "Like any artists, we respond to other artists who are passionate because it's next to impossible to get a film made and someone has to be the engine behind that. And Matthew was a very gracious engine, including another filmmaker like Mohamed [Al Daradji]."

Al Daradji produced Mosul along with the Russo brothers, and Joe Russo says his collaborative effort with Carnahan ensured the authenticity of Mosul, effectively elevating it as a genre film.

"[Carnahan] was very gracious and collaborative and humble and trying to tell the story in the most realistic and authentic way possible by working directly with Mohamed, the former SWAT members and an all Iraqi cast to do that, and I think it is important," Joe Russo tells the roundtable. "I think something that we would encourage is that we tell each other's stories because it gives us insight into each other. I think that's in really short supply in the world at the moment. And this was an incredible experience for Anthony and I and for Matthew, and we learned an incredible amount about a part of the world that we had a limited understanding of prior to making this movie."

Mosul is now playing on Netflix.