With both cinematic blockbusters and streaming megahits under their belts, Anthony and Joe Russo have branched out and lent their producing power to a wide variety of projects. In particular, the upcoming Mosul arrives on Netflix November 26 and shares the true story of Iraqi police fighting to rid their home of ISIS.
Based on a 2017 New Yorker article, Mosul brings together an all-Arab cast to honor a fight that many audiences in the West may not even be aware of. Not only is the film from the perspective of Iraqi residents themselves, without Americans in the mix, but it’s also told entirely in Arabic. It’s an ambitious effort for anyone, but the minds behind Avengers: Endgame were not daunted by the challenge.
During a recent press event, the Russo brothers spoke with Screen Rant and several other outlets about their experience producing Mosul and their admiration for writer-director Matthew Carnahan’s passion. They covered many important topics, from the need to tell the story of the Nineveh SWAT team authentically to the lessons they themselves carried into the project as artists in their own right.
I’m curious to know about the process of choosing your projects. With the groundbreaking success of Avengers, a lot of studios are beating down on your doors, hoping you’ll direct or produce the next great superhero franchise. But instead, you’ve chosen to produce a film in a foreign language that does feature superheroes, as far as I’m concerned. I can’t help but think that is a high priority for you to use that clout to get stories like Mosul told. Would that be true?
Joe Russo: That’s very true. We came into the business through Soderbergh and Clooney, they were our mentor. Steven Soderbergh discovered us out of Cleveland, Ohio, just two kids who picked up a camera and made a movie, and he was about the only person that responded to it. So, we feel like we owe a karmic debt to the universe to help other people tell their stories and find their ways into the business as well.
And I think, coming off Marvel, one thing that Steven and George taught us was the “one for you, one for them” mentality. We did a big one – I would say it’s for us as well, but – you do a big one for them, and doing eight years of work for Marvel, there’s opportunity that affords you to help tell stories. I think we have a responsibility as storytellers to tell more unique stories than Hollywood stories or Anglocentric stories. We’ve been fortunate enough to travel the world because of the work we did with Marvel, and we have seen amazing regional voices that don’t have the same representation that our voices do. And it’s critical. You look at the performance of someone like Suhail in the film; he’s every bit as good as it’s Tom Hanks at his best. And this is someone that the world hasn’t seen on a scale like this before.
It is an emotional mission of ours, to make sure that as we continue to tell big stories that can drive box office and drive business, we then use the grand capital you get from that to help tell stories of underrepresented cultures.
You both have written and directed as well as produced. How has that experience helped you guide Matthew, who is directing his own work for the first time?
Anthony Russo: It’s a great question. I think this goes back to our origin as filmmakers that Joe was speaking about, in the sense that we came up through and were sort of recognized and championed by a fellow filmmaker. It wasn’t somebody who was working within the commercial filmmaking system; it was somebody who was approaching us as a fellow filmmaker and artist, Steven Soderbergh.
I think sometimes artists have the ability to recognize in one another, and in one another’s work, something special or something of value that sometimes the commercial filmmaking system won’t recognize and won’t necessarily foster – because it doesn’t fit cleanly into what it is. And I think that this goes back to your original question as well, that we look at it as our responsibility to use our unique sensibilities to look at other artists, to look at other stories that we can identify as special and needing to be told or needing to be supported. And sort of put our energy into that.
I think it does come from the fact that we are fellow artists, and we know what they’re going through. We can see when there’s some part of their work that is extremely special and unique, even if the totality of their work isn’t at a level that makes their vision accessible to audiences. So, it allows us sometimes to be able to help support and mentor and grow those people as filmmakers or develop those stories into something that becomes accessible to audiences.
We got to play that role in this movie, because even though Matthew Carnahan is one of the most accomplished screenwriters in the business, he had never directed before. This is his directorial debut, and that’s a big step. It’s hard to find an opportunity to make that step, but we had such a fantastic working relationship with him. We knew how talented he was, and we knew how passionate he was about this story in particular, so we felt very confident that we could help support him. As producers, we could help bring other collaborators to the table like [Mohamed Al-Daradji], but also those from all of our craft positions: cinematographer, production designer, etc. We’re able to support Matthew in a way that, whatever he didn’t know as a director, his collaborative team could support him on.
So, yeah. I do think we are in a unique position to do that kind of thing, and we really enjoy it. We feed off it, creatively.
On behalf of the indigenous Assyrian and Babylonian population of Iraq, how come the Assyrian people were never mentioned in the film? Mosul is built on top of Nineveh, and the Nineveh SWAT team is named after the ancient civilization’s capital, and the people are still there with their churches being burnt down.
Anthony Russo: The stories that you’re bringing up right now are massively important, and those are the kinds of things we respond most strongly to: those stories that aren’t being told. The thing about this film, in terms of Mosul, is that there are hundreds of movies that can be made about what happened in Mosul. And there should be that number of movies made, because it’s the kind of human experience that deserves that kind of exploration.
Even the article, even if you go back to the original article from the New Yorker that this movie is based upon, you can make dozens of movies from simply that article – or more. The objective of the movie wasn’t to provide a comprehensive analysis of what Mosul is. There’s a lot of complicated ethnic groups and traditions that make up the stew of what modern day Mosul is, and those groups have all had their own unique experiences in the trauma that’s happened there in that country. I can just say that the story of the people you’re talking about is a story that needs to be told, even if it wasn’t told in this film.
Joe Russo: There was no intentional exclusion, yeah.
Your production company already have built up a reputation for tackling different genres, with Assassination Nation, Relic, Extraction, and Mosul. Was it a conscious decision for you to branch out and tackle as many different genres and projects as possible after spending so many years in the studio system, or is it just picking the best filmmakers with the best ideas and giving them a platform?
Joe Russo: We grew up on genre; we were genre junkies as kids. 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. 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.
I think if you look at the way that Relic deals with Alzheimer’s, 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. Same with Mosul, we’re trying to tell a story about an underrepresented culture using genre techniques like you see in traditional war films. This is all true, but if it makes it compulsively watchable for 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.
I think that we don’t have a conscious agenda outside of, as you mentioned: are we excited by the project? Are we excited by the filmmaker behind the project? Are we excited by what it is trying to say? And each of those movies that you mentioned, in their own right, have their own political agendas and thematic agendas regarding issues that we feel are important or underserviced.
As producers, you have to find films that you’re really passionate about, to give you that motivation to go from start to finish. What was it about Matthew’s vision that made you really invested in wanting to produce this film?
Joe Russo: Matthew is a very passionate, very emotional artist. When he gets excited about something, or passionate about it, he can’t let it go. He’s also very politically-minded; thematics are incredibly important to him. And this was a story that made me cry when I read The New Yorker, made my brother cry, and it made Matthew cry. And the three of us said, “This is something that we have to use our lifeline to help get made.”
Like any artist, 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 them. And Matthew is a very gracious engine, including another filmmaker like Mohamed, who has some very profound things to say about the film and about his experience as a filmmaker in Iraq and the experience of the cast, the crew and the movie. He was very gracious and collaborative and humble, in 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, and it’s something that we would encourage, that we tell each other stories, because it gives us insight into each other. And I think that’s in really short supply in the world at the moment. 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 that we had a limited understanding of prior to making this movie.
Any good filmmaker knows that their craft is a continual learning experience. Did Mosul change your perspective in any way about moviemaking? Have you applied those lessons to any future project you’re working on, or an upcoming production like Cherry with Tom Holland?
Anthony Russo: Yeah, it’s a great question. I think part of the reason why we do seek to work in areas that we’ve never experienced before is because, number one, we think there’s valuable stories to be found everywhere that need to be told. But on a more personal, self-serving level, it really motivates us as artists and pushes us as artists; it’s nice to be taken out of your comfort zone. Because you can’t rely on your same old tricks, your same old techniques, you have to really think about new and innovative ways to both understand and translate what you’re trying to do. And that is a really exciting place for an artist to be. We love it, there’s no better places as an artists than when you’re when your answer is, “I don’t know.” That’s when you know you’re in a really good place, because you’re forcing yourself to figure something out that you don’t quite understand yourself yet.
So, this was an amazing experience. And I can answer the question in so many different ways, but I think just at a simple level, one thing that really resonated with me was the number of cast members – that main group that played the SWAT team – the number of them that would tell us during production that, “You don’t understand how important this is to us. Literally, I haven’t played a non-terrorist in my career.” For as crazy as it sounds, it’s real. The idea that the opportunity that they had to play protagonists, people who are the heroes in the story, was such a rare opportunity and so incredibly valuable and profound to them. Both on a personal level, and I think for what it meant for the culture that they were a part of.
I think that’s something we sort of knew instinctively as outsiders; we understood that idea. But to see how it affects somebody on a personal level was really profound and something you never forget. And I think that really helps propel us forward, in terms of understanding the importance of being a part of the narrative to every culture around the world. And every people around the world, especially those cultures that are often excluded or ignored. So, that’s something that will always stay with me moving forward from this experience.
The primary accent used in the film is the Iraqi dialect, especially from Baghdad. With the cast being international, how difficult was it when a shot came out beautifully, but then you realize the wrong accent is being used? Did you have to go back and reshoot that entire scene, or would you dub it over with the Iraqi accent?
Joe Russo: We made the choice to use the Baghdad accent, because it was easier for all the actors to get that dialect. We were pulling from the diaspora, so there were actors coming from all over the world. It was easiest, in the time that we had, to get them to do the Baghdad accent. But we had a lot of people on set, including a dialect coach from Iraq and Mohamed, paying very close attention to the way that people spoke. And it’s like anything, if you’re trying to get an American actor to do an English accent or vice versa, there are going to be moments where they don’t do it exactly the way that they should.
We wouldn’t reshoot, we would loop. We did go back and do some looping throughout the film to try to get it to stay as cohesive as possible. That was really important to everyone involved and hopefully, knock on wood, we did a good enough job.
Anthony Russo: We knew, at the end of the day, we wanted the movie to hold up to an ear like yours; to somebody who understood the subtleties of that, we really wanted the movie to hold up. We’ve spent an immense amount of time and effort on that, to be honest with you, all the way through the process. From rehearsals onward, through the post process.
More: Writer-Director Matthew Michael Carnahan Previews Mosul
Mosul will be available on Netflix November 26.
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