Los Angeles Times

THE ‘CHERRY’ ON TOP OF SUC­CESS

The di­rect­ing Russo broth­ers take a break from su­per­heroes for a per­sonal indie film.

- BY MICHAEL ORDOÑA Arts · Filmmaking · The Avengers · Netherlands · Marvel Cinematic Universe · Arrested Development · Arrested Development · Timely Marvel Comics · Joseph Heller · Catch-22 · Movies · Anthony Russo · Joe Russo · Russo brothers · Avengers: Endgame · Apple TV+ · Tom Holland · Ciara Bravo · Steven Soderbergh

THE EL­DEST brother refers to theirs as a “tra­di­tional Ital­ian Amer­i­can up­bring­ing” in Cleve­land. Ex­tended fam­ily mem­bers, he says, were “al­ways form­ing busi­nesses to­gether and run­ning them to­gether ... sort of the im­mi­grant-fam­ily kind of dy­namic.”

So, of course, when An­thony Russo and his younger brother, Joe Russo, de­cided to be­come film­mak­ers, they worked to­gether. More than two decades later, the Russo broth­ers have done well enough (in­clud­ing di­rect­ing “Avengers: Endgame,” the high­est­gross­ing film to date) that they’ve launched their own stu­dio, AGBO.

Now they’re telling a story with some dis­turb­ing themes close to their hearts, set in the city where they were raised, and mak­ing bold, stylis­tic choices that wouldn’t have been pos­si­ble in a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar fran­chise. “Cherry,” which opens the­atri­cally this week and streams on Ap­ple TV+ in March, is essen­tially a larger-bud­get indie. But to make it even more per­sonal, the script was cowrit­ten (with Jes­sica Gold­berg) by a Russo sis­ter: An­gela Rus­soOt­stot. It’s her first fea­ture-writ­ing credit after a num­ber of TV episodes, but it wasn’t en­tirely alien for her.

“When we read the book, we had a short­hand be­cause of our shared ex­pe­ri­ences grow­ing up in Cleve­land. Though we may not have ex­pe­ri­enced the ma­jor­ity of what the char­ac­ter does, the world in which he op­er­ates and the peo­ple with which he in­ter­acts feel so in­ti­mately fa­mil­iar,” says Russo-Ot­stot, who is sev­eral years younger than her sib­lings (they also have an­other sis­ter).

“You be­come pro­tec­tive of those peo­ple and places, be­cause they’re em­blem­atic to some de­gree of the same peo­ple and places who have shaped us at our core. Col­lec­tively, those de­tails say some­thing pro­found about the city in which we were raised.”

“Cherry” isn’t ex­actly a love let­ter to Cleve­land. Based on Nico Walker’s 2018 semi­au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel, writ­ten while the au­thor was in prison for bank rob­bery, the story fol­lows a young man (un­named, but called “Cherry” in the script and played by Tom Hol­land on the screen) who falls in love, re­sponds to heart­break by join­ing the Army as a medic and comes home haunted by his war ex­pe­ri­ences. He re­unites with his love, Emily (played by Ciara Bravo), only for them to de­scend into hard­core opi­oid ad­dic­tion, which he funds by rob­bing banks.

The film’s ex­treme di­rec­to­rial choices may shake view­ers who know the Russo broth­ers only from their Mar­vel Cin­e­matic Uni­verse work or their runs with “Ar­rested De­vel­op­ment” or “Com­mu­nity.”

“We came from in­de­pen­dent film­mak­ing,” says Joe Russo. “We made an art film in the mid-’90s [the un­re­leased ‘Pieces’] that only Steven Soder­bergh re­sponded to. He took us un­der his wing and taught us about the busi­ness. He used to have this motto: ‘One for you, one for them.’ Show peo­ple you can make some money and then use that brand lever­age to make some­thing

dif­fi­cult. With Mar­vel, we did four big movies. So we felt we had a big ‘one for you’ com­ing.”

An­thony adds, “We know peo­ple, we have peo­ple in our fam­ily, who have suf­fered and died from opi­oid ad­dic­tion. It’s a per­sonal is­sue. The place where we come from is a bit of a ground zero for the opi­oid epi­demic.”

“For the peo­ple out there who do iden­tify with those strug­gles,” says Russo-Os­tot, “I hope this film gives them a chance to feel seen and heard and also pro­vides some sort of op­por­tu­nity for them to feel a sense of cathar­sis.”

Joe adds, “Em­pa­thy seems to be in short sup­ply in the world to­day, and we wanted to tell the story em­pa­thet­i­cally. We wanted peo­ple to re­late.”

The film­mak­ing it­self is very struc­tured. An­thony breaks it down. “The movie is im­pres­sion­is­tic. Its in­tent is to strongly root you in Cherry’s point of view so that you go through the same strug­gle that he goes through.

It’s bro­ken into six chap­ters, which en­cap­su­late a life cy­cle for the char­ac­ter — 15 years — and each chap­ter is unique in its ex­pres­sion.

“The first chap­ter is mag­i­cal re­al­ism. The sec­ond has ab­sur­dism. The pro­duc­tion de­sign is dif­fer­ent. The be­hav­ior, act­ing choices, color pal­ette are dif­fer­ent ... to root you in these strong psy­cho­log­i­cal shifts.”

The chap­ters cor­re­spond to large move­ments within Cherry’s life, such as go­ing from a young man in love to a soldier, to an ad­dict, to a crim­i­nal.

“Chap­ter 1 is shot with im­pres­sion­is­tic lenses,” says Joe, pick­ing up the dis­sec­tion of the film­mak­ing. “There’s a lens called the Pet­z­val that soft­ens fo­cus around the cen­ter sub­ject and cre­ates this ro­man­tic qual­ity when he’s fall­ing in love with the girl of his dreams.

“When he goes to ba­sic train­ing, the as­pect ra­tio col­lapses in to cre­ate a square frame to help ac­cen­tu­ate the sin­gle wide lens that we use through­out the en­tire se­quence. It has a bit of warp­ing to it, so it height­ens the car­toon­ish na­ture of ba­sic train­ing for him. It’s ab­sur­dism, very Heller-es­que in its point of view to­ward the mil­i­tary and train­ing,” he says, ref­er­enc­ing Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.”

An­thony adds, “Then we move into the war­fare sec­tion of the film, and we crash into hard­core re­al­ism. As de­tached as Cherry may have been from his en­vi­ron­ment, you get to the ex­pe­ri­ence of war, and all that goes away. War­fare and vi­o­lence clears ev­ery­thing else out of the equa­tion.”

But, notes Joe, “that’s one of the most in­ter­est­ing para­doxes in the char­ac­ter: He de­cides to go to war. He’s de­cides to rob banks. He makes these very ag­gres­sive de­ci­sions that in­volve vi­o­lence. He de­cides to take drugs in a way that can de­stroy his body.”

Be­sides fi­nally getting their “one for us” in and se­ri­ously ex­plor­ing themes that mat­ter to them, the Rus­sos cher­ished the fam­ily as­pect of the pro­duc­tion.

“We would do read-throughs to­gether; it was such a mean­ing­ful ex­pe­ri­ence for me. We would laugh a lot. There were points where we cried read­ing through this to­gether,” says Russo-Ot­stot.

“One day, two of my neph­ews were here at the of­fices ... they were part of the readthroug­h with us,” she adds. “To bring it back to where we started this con­ver­sa­tion — an Ital­ian Amer­i­can house­hold — we’re quite used to work­ing to­gether as fam­ily mem­bers and start­ing our own busi­nesses. One of my neph­ews said after, ‘This is re­ally what I want to do.’ And so, well, there you go.”

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 ?? Mel Mel­con Los Angeles Times ?? AN­GELA Russo-Ot­stot, who cowrote “Cherry,” is f lanked by her broth­ers An­thony Russo, left, and Joe. Their fam­ily is not un­fa­mil­iar with the prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with the opi­oid epi­demic.
Mel Mel­con Los Angeles Times AN­GELA Russo-Ot­stot, who cowrote “Cherry,” is f lanked by her broth­ers An­thony Russo, left, and Joe. Their fam­ily is not un­fa­mil­iar with the prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with the opi­oid epi­demic.

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