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Joe Russo: why film studies will help me become a filmmaker

From left to right, Joe Russo with Film Studies students, Kit Klass, Sam Mills and Fi Pollock after their discussion on stage at the Byre Theatre.

From left to right, Joe Russo with Film Studies students, Kit Klass, Sam Mills and Fi Pollock after their discussion on stage at the Byre Theatre.

For those of you who don’t know, Joe Russo is a big name in Hollywood. Alongside his brother, he has worked on several hit TV series, most notably Arrested Development (for which he won an Emmy) and Community, as well as directing the blockbuster Marvel film Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), in which, through their creative vision, Cap was transformed from the “Square” of the superheroes, to a character of darker, deeper, and infinitely more intriguing complexities. Currently working on the sequel Captain America: Civil War (2016), the Russo brothers are also in pre-production for the two Avengers: Infinity War films.

After I got over my initial (though by no means passing) awe that the Joe Russo—creator of a TV show whose humour I shamelessly try to emulate in my own writing/daily conversations with less than perfect results—was coming to St. Andrews to speak to a group of film students, I started to wonder what it would be like. Well, I can now categorize my experience into two distinct reactions.

First: anticipation. Listening to Joe describe the frenetic energy of a film’s creative process ignited that feeling of almost unbearable anticipation for the future—the kind that makes it hard to sit still because all of a sudden you feel like there is absolutely no time to waste. That intoxicating blend of fear, ambition, and a (somehow fully formed) expectation for success that is familiar to people who have known exactly what they want to do for a long time, and now are on the brink of actually having to go and do it. This acute impatience for the now in favour of the future can be sparked by any number of things. But listening to Joe candidly answer questions, crack jokes about Robert Downey Jr., and describe the relentless hours of brainpower necessary to create a film, took that anticipation and strapped a battery pack to it. Sitting in a chair on an otherwise pretty bare stage, Joe Russo talked, giving us what felt like an intimate glimpse into a very exclusive, very exciting world, that lots of people hypothesize about, but few get the virtual-guest pass that we all felt like we were riding on. With movies in both post- and pre-production, I highly doubt Mr. Russo has lots of time to spare. But there he was, telling us not to give up. Because while it may be really hard to break into the industry, it is possible. And that was everything. He had done it himself, and now it was our turn to go and do it too.

However, he reminded me why I am here (Second: confidence). Why I am studying Film Studies at St. Andrews instead of running around L.A. pitching sitcoms to anyone who looks like they will listen. When Professor Burgoyne put up stills from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and asked Mr. Russo to critically deconstruct them for us, I felt my brain (and 3 ½ years of higher education) click into gear. And for the first time I became fully aware the true extent of what I have learned about film at University. Now we can understand why we got the impression we did from the scene, and also how to do it ourselves. Four years ago, the Shoot the Piano Player references and discussions of cinéma vérité would have gone straight over my head, a head that, in all probability, would be wondering the appropriate number of questions I could ask about Chris Evans. Yet now, as a fourth year student, I was thinking about Chris and delighting over the agility with which I was able to follow Mr. Russo from auteur reference, to technical reference, to film reference, and back again (no brain muscles pulled in the process). Sitting not twenty feet away, was one of the biggest names in the U.S. television and film industry, and I was understanding (!) his inspirations! Yes, I do stand by my inter-sentence exclamatory mark, because the realization that my Film Studies degree turned out to be a very practical choice was heady enough to transcend the constraints of conventional punctuation.

As much as I would like to take full credit for this, I obviously cannot.   In four years of Film Studies you become something akin to “filmlingual.” You can pick apart, read, analyze, theorize, adore, and reconstruct a film from countless different standpoints. Hearing Russo talk about his own academic background, I saw why the blockbuster product was successful, in no small way, to seriously academic/critical behind the scenes work. How having a strong understanding of the evolution of film through history can fuel, shape, and twist the raw material of a Captain America comic book, into an aesthetically complex, narratively stimulating, and visually arresting Marvel action film. Popular is not necessarily divorced from academic. And sometimes the academic can become the very base that makes the creative and popular possible. And it was really, really, unbelievably cool to hear this from someone whose work is as unquestionably popular as Joe Russo’s.

I credit Mr. Russo with abolishing my fear that I’ve been thinking too much and doing too little. He reminded me why I chose to study film studies first, at the same time that he showed me all the larger-than-life things one can hope to do with it after. For many, these skills will lead to careers beyond film, but crucially the tools we learn here to take a film apart element for element, the way we familiarize ourselves with a variety of films, cultures, genres and global industries, and learn over the course of screenings, discussions, and assessments to be media literate and to analyze a film—all these things can also help us become the filmmakers we aspire to be. Believing in the merit of the program here and a degree in the study of film, Mr. Russo honored us with a visit that to him probably felt like just another day in the life, but for me, was an all around game-changer. And I know it’s not something I am going to forget. In fact, if you run into me in the next ten years, and we happen upon a conversational pause greater than 15-25 seconds, I will probably bring this up.

Grace Shaffer, 4th year student (December 2015)