Check the Gate is a column where we go one-on-one with directors in an effort to uncover the reasoning behind their creative decisions. Why that subject? Why that shot? In this edition, we chat with director Anthony Russo (one-half of the Russo brothers) and discuss how they balanced tone in Cherry.
Books are not movies. Movies are not books. They’re two totally separate narrative delivery systems with their own special set of skills. Stealing a story from one medium and jamming it into another requires critical thought and purpose. Why should Cherry be a movie when the book already exists?
With the herculean double-feature billion-dollar behemoth known as Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame behind them, directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo could have plunged into any cinematic arena as their follow-up. They chose to adapt Nico Walker‘s semi-autobiographical novel exploring his chaotic descent from Iraq War soldier to drug addict to bank robber to convict. Strapping Tom Holland to the lead might maintain some of their Marvel Studios fanbase, but the material challenges those merely checking in for a good time.
Cherry is a bonkers tonal bombardment. Seeking to replicate the nightmare tumble their hero takes from high school to prison yard, the Russos embraced genre-mashing. Comedy, horror, action, melodrama, oh my. No life is one thing. We live through many experiences. There’s no reason why a film should be so crushingly singular.
The Russos want you to know that Cherry is their most personal film to date. It’s a saga of their hometown, Cleveland. It’s an examination of the opioid crisis that’s torn through their friends and neighbors. They brought on their sister, Angela Russo-Otstot, to co-write the script alongside Jessica Goldberg. The brothers were determined to translate Walker’s book properly, but they refused to travel the usual bland path of adaptation. In Cherry‘s case, going buck wild was the only road to authenticity.
Chatting with Anthony Russo, it’s obvious that the brothers connected with the source material on a profound level. It struck more than a nerve; it ruptured a damn artery. While they were filming their mighty Avengers, the Russos were also trying to crack Walker’s text. The book binds its reader to its titular protagonist. There’s no escaping Cherry’s perspective, and duplicating that effect through some tired narration device felt cheap.
“Like Catcher in the Rye,” says Anthony during our conversation, “You’re dealing with a character who’s got a very involved inner life. That’s told through an inner monologue throughout the book. That inner monologue and that inner life are incongruous with his external experiences, and that’s where the fun of the storytelling comes from.”
During the screenplay phase, the Russos and their writers partook in experimentation. Voice-over was one tool, but not their only tool. Their lead could also break the fourth wall and address the camera and the eyes beyond it.
“It was motivated by this idea of wanting to tell the entire movie through Cherry’s point of view,” Anthony continues. “We want everything in the film to literally be filtered through the inner psychology and the inner emotional state of this character. That’s how we built out the entire narrative structure.”
Cherry tracks eighteen years. The Russos chop that time into six chapters featuring six very different vibes. We find young love in the realm of magical realism. Cherry’s Bootcamp introduction could only be explained through absurdity. His time in Iraq is depicted through the harshest lens of realism. The bumbling introduction of opioids begins in comedy before plummeting into the gnarliest trenches of horror.
“It’s this massive Odyssean arc that he goes through,” says Anthony. “Every segment of that journey seemed so rich and complicated that we wanted to give it its own due. We started to think of them as chapters. They’re almost all their own mini-movies. The vastness of that experience led us to focus on each chapter as its own narrative and as its own movie with its own style.”
Crafting six chapters as six distinct films invites emotional whiplash. Every filmmaker wants to deliver on the full range of the human condition, the fabled movie that will make you laugh and cry throughout its runtime. However, stitching six mini-movies into one fabric is an act of faith and a creative endeavor that demands reevaluation during every step of construction.
“Finding tone is very difficult,” he says. “There’s a filmmaking adage that Joe and I really love, which says you make a movie three times: when you write it; when you shoot it; and when you edit it. That’s the process we’ve always followed. When you’re done with the screenwriting phase, you want a script that’s perfect. But when you get to shooting it, things change because, all of a sudden, you’re adding new collaborators into the process. You’re physicalizing the movie on a level you couldn’t necessarily envision from the screenwriting phase.”
Writing a film is building a puzzle. Shooting a film is smashing that puzzle. Editing a film is assembling a new puzzle with the old puzzle in mind. Each stage starts in a state filled with passion and anxiety, an elixir Anthony Russo lives to swim within.
“Then you bring all that stuff you shot into the edit room,” he says. “All bets are off. Whatever you thought you were doing on set, you have to be open to rediscovering what it is you actually shot and what can be made of what you actually shot. Which perhaps you couldn’t even guess while you were shooting it.”
The Russos told their editor, Jeff Groth, to tear it up. What came before is not sacred. It’s a swarm of ideas that crave understanding. When bouncing through genres, Anthony and Joe knew computation and adjustment were unavoidable. The chapters gel only after every option is engaged.
“We were really trying things,” Anthony says. “It would fall flat, and things felt too linear, then not linear enough. It would be too funny or not supporting the seriousness of a section of the movie. So, we had to tone down the silliness a bit to allow that section a more truthful flow. It’s really just calibrating on that level, how it feels moment to moment.”
The edit room is never scary. Not only does Groth have their back, but the actors do as well. While balancing tone is a concern at the script stage and during the edit, it’s mostly secured through performance. As the leads, Tom Holland and Ciara Bravo are tasked with conserving the film’s reality by locking their characters down. Once they know and understand the humans they inhabit, the Russos can throw whatever genre they want at them.
“They know how to build a character and hold the core,” Anthony explains. “If you lose that center, you lose the character. It’s all based upon them always having a constancy in terms of how they think and behave and function as a character.”
Preserving the core allows the situations themselves to fluctuate ridiculously in tone. Cherry must always be Cherry, whether he’s navigating a flirtatious encounter at a party or attempting to crack a safe given to him by a drug dealer. The directors can tinker with what they capture on film, but if Holland or Bravo don’t cement their people, then the celluloid around them melts.
“Those are two radically different life experiences that provide the actor with a different way of approaching them,” Anthony continues. “Especially since, in the example of the safe, the characters are already addicts, and their sole agenda is to get high. Their whole thinking changes.”
The thinking can change, but the souls can’t. Cherry can change. He can grow, he can crumble, but he must always be Cherry. He can’t ever wander into feeling like another character. The Russos’ film rests on Holland’s consistency.
“The way we explore tone,” says Anthony, “is framing the circumstances differently for the actors. Then, you allow them to react to those circumstances because they maintain the truthfulness of who they are, but you’re giving them challenges that force them to behave in a different way.”
Cherry is not a xerox of the book. It uses cinema to approximate the author’s tilt-a-whirl chronicle, never settling in a particular trope or mood for too long. Just as you get settled, it’s racing away from you.
No life remains a drama. It’s a restless hand on a channel changer, continuously hopping from program to program. On Monday you’re a comedy. On Tuesday, a horror. On Friday, a crime caper. We only need to find a way for the Russo brothers to lend their calibrations to our fumblings and help us make sense of our madness.
Cherry is now playing in select theaters and will premiere globally on Apple TV+ on March 12th.