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 highest grossing 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 Russo-Otstot. 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."