The experience of directing an Avengers sequel was so grueling that Joss Whedon said it left him feeling “raggedy” and wiped out, and he ultimately did not return for the third Avengers movie, Infinity WarInstead the film and its upcoming sequel, Avengers 4, are directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, who previously helmed Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War. And if the Russos are feeling raggedy, they’re doing a heck of a job hiding it — which is good because their job is barely half done at this point.

When I talked to the Russos the weekend before Infinity War launches into thousands of theaters around the world (and before basically anyone outside the film’s tight inner circle had seen it) they sound surprisingly chill. They’re friendly and funny; they do not act like they’re running the last mile of a marathon and about to proceed directly into a second marathon (once their Infinity War publicity duties are done, they head back to the editing room to put Avengers 4 together).

Only days away from Infinity War’s release, the Russos are still more secretive about their work than Nick Fury; you’d have an easier time lifting Mjolnir than prying any concrete information about the film and its sequel out of them. Still, our conversation did reveal how much of this movie has been planned since the early days of the MCU, what makes this a “Russo brothers movie,” and whether the phenomenal success of Black Panther reshaped any of Avengers: Infinity War.

How much of what happens in Infinity War has been planned since Captain America: The Winter Soldier?

Anthony: Oh my gosh, very little. Almost nothing to be honest with you, other than the idea of Thanos, which has been floating out there for a while now in the MCU.

Marvel has a process that we greatly admire that we discovered on Winter Soldier. They have a one-movie-at-a-time process. Which I think is maybe surprising because part of the value of what is being done here is serialized storytelling. But they don’t get too ahead of themselves. They may have some ideas about where things may go down the road. But they’re more like possibilities than something clear that you’re driving at, because you really need to give movies space to explore and become what they want to be without too much baggage.

That process is very healthy and I think that’s part of the key to their success; they’ve been able to make several very unique expressions with the individual movies that audiences really respond to and are excited by because they are getting different flavors from different movies in a very strong way — different points of view, different styles, different tones. And I think that’s part of the richness of what the series has become. So yeah, when we made Winter Soldier it was just about Winter Soldier.

Still, Infinity War is the culmination of some stories that have been going on for 10 years. To a certain extent you’re bound by the choices that have been made in the previous 18 movies — this Infinity Stone is here, these characters are doing this. When you guys sat down to make this movie, where there any past decisions that you found particularly tricky to incorporate or work around that had you going “Ugh, why did they do this?”

Anthony: That’s actually a really good question. We certainly did have moments like that where we were like struggling with canon that had been laid down. It took a while to figure it out. I can’t think of any examples — can you think of specific examples?

Joe: I can’t think of specific ones.

Anthony: I remember once or twice having moments like you’re describing.

Joe: That is part of the fun and the challenge of what I think has been an unprecedented experiment in filmmaking: 10 years of this Marvel interconnected universe. You’ve never seen this many interconnected franchises all successful being combined into one film. That’s what appealed to my brother and I and [screenwriters Christopher] Markus & [Stephen] McFeely, our main collaborators on our four Marvel films.

So that is part of the fun of it. The fact that it is a blank slate going into the room with the four of us, sitting there for weeks on end with literally magnets on a board of every character that exists in the Marvel Universe, all the Infinity Stones and their potential locations, and reams and reams of information that we’re assessing and then pulling a narrative out of it. It’s about as hard as it gets from a storytelling standpoint but really rewarding.

Anthony: I guess I would analogize it to if you were working on a historical picture or a biographical picture and you have to have a level of fidelity to what your source is. I think it’s a very similar process. We have to have a level of fidelity to what has been laid down, to what preexists in the Marvel movies and that’s our jumping off point for going forward.

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You mentioned a board with every Marvel character on it, and fans are quite understandably curious how many heroes are in this movie. I’ve read interviews with members of the cast who don’t even know the final total. Now that the movie is done and coming out can the final number be revealed?

Anthony: Here’s the thing: There is a final total. We ourselves don’t put a number to it any longer.

Joe: We haven’t sat down and really counted it.

Anthony: Yeah, and our experience of it is on a character level as opposed to a number level. Everyone will know the number soon enough.

Joe: I’m staring at a poster here with 23 heroes on it but I do know that there are a few missing. And that’s not counting Thanos or the Black Order, or a lot of other potential surprises in the film.

In a movie called Infinity War, there’s certain things that would be in it — Thanos, the Infinity Stones — no matter who directed it. What are some things that are in Infinity War only because it is a Russo brothers movie?

Anthony: Well I think that the one constant in all of our films that we’ve done for Marvel — and I think this will be more apparent when people have seen all four movies — is emotional realism is very important to us. Whether the characters be in a dramatic situation or a comedic situation, there is a level of emotional truth and emotional realism to their interaction.

We grew up loving comic books and deconstructed heroes. Winter Soldier and Civil War are a complete deconstruction of Captain America. We tend to deconstruct things and pick them apart before we put them back together — for instance, Civil War is a divorce of an Avengers family. That was an interesting concept to us leading into Avengers: Infinity War, when the greatest threat you’re going to face you have to face divided. So you’re adding emotional complexity on top of a more traditional hero versus villain plot.

It’s hard to speak to this without giving anything away. When audiences see the film and view it in respect to Winter Soldier and Civil War they’ll understand a very clear trajectory and authorship that we have as filmmakers and a very specific voice that we’re bringing to the Marvel Universe and these characters.

You guys did an interview with our site for Civil War, and at that time you compared the secrecy around Marvel movies to “working for the CIA.” What’s the craziest length you have gone to to protect the secrets of this movie?

Anthony: We’ve become the CIA on this one. [laughs] We’ve been more stringent than anyone regarding the secrets of this film and in fact, as we’ve talked about at length, we distributed fake scripts to the actors. Nobody knows the true story of the movie. Very very few people — we can count on two hands — the people who’ve actually seen the finished film. It’s part of the reason that we refused to screen it on our international press tour. And we’re very happy because nothing has leaked up until this point.

This is the culmination of 10 years of filmmaking. And a lot of people — I’m talking about fans — have invested time, energy, effort, passion, emotion into these characters and these stories. Infinity War is the big finale, and the last thing anyone wants after 10 years of committment is to have the ending spoiled for them. So we’ve gone to incredible lengths to preserve that and outside of myself, [the producers], Markus & McFeely, very few people actually know the story of this film.

Where are you guys at with the next Avengers movie? Is it 50 percent done? Is it 90 percent done?

Joe: It’s mostly shot but we haven’t begun the editing process at all on that film. We’ve had to stay very focused on this first movie because the release date was coming. So we have the next year now to continue to edit that movie and finish up shooting on that film.

I’m curious how flexible things are on that movie to change things based on the reaction to this movie. If people love a particular character or group of characters can you add more?

Anthony: Oh absolutely. We are always in a constant state of revision in terms of how we’re executing. The movie is constantly evolving. Certainly we knew that we wouldn’t really understand what Infinity War was and what it meant to audiences until it was released. So we knew this was going to be a big moment for us as storytellers and filmmakers to understand our road forward.

It’s not as simple as what people like or laugh at or what’s popular. It’s really how the story is processed and appreciated on an emotional level by audiences. And then that helps inform the story as we push it forward into the final film.

On a similar level, obviously you shot your film before Black Panther, but did that movie’s incredible success affect or change any of Infinity War during the editing process?

Joe: We were picture locked when Panther came out. We have an incredible appreciation for Panther and Wakanda. We had already integrated them in a large way into the storytelling. It was not something we needed to adjust.

Anthony: For us, introducing Black Panther in Civil War, it was a story that we were very tuned in to, and we knew how the story was going to evolve in Black Panther even though it was before it was executed. So we were able to tell Panther’s story and Wakanda’s story in our film even though Black Panther had not yet been made.

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