The Gray Man directors Anthony and Joe Russo distinctly remember the first big action sequence they ever directed.
They were on a bridge in Cleveland shooting what Anthony describes as an “immensely complicated” section of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the first of four Marvel movies the brothers would eventually direct. The large crew had two full units, and once you added in caterers, extras, and movie stars including Scarlett Johansson, there were about 1,000 people on set each day. “It was really overwhelming,” Anthony adds.
But the directing duo could take some solace in the fact that they were in their hometown. And beneath the bridge where all of this intensely choreographed action was taking place, the two had once filmed a bank robbery sequence for their first feature, 1997’s Pieces. The Pieces shoot had been so scrappy that the production had failed to get a permit, and once the police caught wind of blanks being fired off, the shoot was promptly shut down.
The Russos are working on a much larger scale now. With a reported $200 million budget, their new film, The Gray Man, is Netflix’s most expensive original production to date. The Gray Man cinematographer Stephen F. Lindon has lensed seven Fast & Furious films, and even he was impressed by the scale, calling the sets built in old Boeing C-17 hangars “some of the biggest” he’s ever shot. But the Russos have a stellar record with big-budget filmmaking.
Extraction, which they produced in 2020 from a screenplay by Joe, is Netflix’s most streamed original film. And Avengers: Endgame, their fourth Marvel movie, is the second-highest grossing film ever after Avatar. Endgame pulled in $2.8 billion globally. But whether making blockbusters or scrappy films like Pieces, Welcome to Collinwood and last year’s Cherry, the core of a Russo brothers film remains the same: They frame action through their characters.
In the case of The Gray Man, those characters are played by some of the biggest movie stars on Earth. Ryan Gosling is back in his first role since portraying Neil Armstrong in Damien Chazelle’s First Man. Ana de Armas joins him after also playing a spy in last year’s No Time to Die. Anthony says you might not have necessarily noticed Gosling’s extended absence, which is actually to Gosling’s credit.
“Even though he had been away for a bit, it doesn’t necessarily feel like that, because the performances he’s given have been so lasting and iconic that they continue to live beyond the window of the movie,” he says.
“What’s amazing about Ryan is that he has incredible physical control. And that started in his childhood as a dancer,” Joe adds from the Atlanta set of Citadel, a new Amazon series that he and Anthony are producing and directing.
Gosling’s mix of control and charisma is especially important to an action movie like The Gray Man.
“To be an action star requires an immense physicality, but it also requires being able to execute stunts, punches and kicks in a very balletic interplay with some of the top stunt players in the world, without hurting each other,” Joe says. “And he has that ability to convey fierce physicality believably on screen through really complex stunt choreography.”
In The Gray Man, Gosling plays an off-the-books government assassin who has a proper name, Court Gentry, but is usually referred to by his codename: Sierra Six. A top assassin like Sierra Six must be ready for conflict at any moment.
“One of the choices Ryan made early on in playing this character was that he didn’t want to waste any energy in terms of how he behaved,” Anthony says. “You can even see it in the way he breathes in the movie, which is remarkable, because he may need to pull on that energy at any point in a way that he can’t anticipate,” he continues. “So his behavior is very controlled and very calculated, even in seemingly casual situations.”
Anthony was amazed by a discovery made in post-production. While fine-tuning the sound mix in May, he noticed that Gosling’s voice was “slightly softer, because of the way he’s controlling his breathing.”
Gosling’s voice needed to be boosted slightly in the mix.
“It definitely feeds into his character in a strong, interesting way,” Anthony observes.
Sometimes when lead characters are so skilled at their job, there’s a risk that they won’t feel vulnerable to viewers. But Sierra Six has a worthy foil. Enter the devilish Lloyd Hansen, played by the former Captain America himself, Russo regular Chris Evans. Hansen is a mustachioed psychopath hired by the U.S. government to track down and terminate Sierra Six. His anarchic methods leave lots of fires, literal and figurative, for the government to put out.
“We wanted to take our time in setting up each character individually before they meet,” Anthony says. “That way you really understood who each character was, what they were capable of, and also how the narrative was putting them on an ethical crash course in the film.”
“They’re compelling characters because they’re diametrically opposed,” Joe adds.
The Gray Man is filled with shootouts, car chases, plane crashes, big explosions – just about everything you want in a popcorn movie. (You don’t become Netflix’s most expensive production by having two friends talk over dinner.) But the Russos hope their movie also explores deeper issues.
“They’re both trained killers, but Gosling has a code. Interestingly enough, he’s a victim of violence, whereas Evans’ character likes to victimize others,” Joe says. “But it’s really about two dueling philosophies that are competing in the film for primacy. We look at the spy world as this petri dish for good versus evil. And what defines good in a person and what defines evil?”
“Each time we have a showdown, it’s really Ant and I, in a dramatic way, trying to answer a question about where the world belongs today,” Joe continues. “Is it going to be controlled by sociopathy or benevolence?”
The Gray Man opened in theaters on July 15 and begins streaming on Netflix on July 22.
Main Image: Ryan Gosling as Six in The Gray Mandirected by the Russo brothers. Courtesy of Netflix.
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2022 print issue of MovieMaker Magazine.