For their first film since directing four blockbuster Marvel movies—including Avengers: Endgame, the highest-grossing movie of all time—Anthony and Joe Russo wanted to return to their indie roots to tell a story, one that hit particularly close to home.
Having loved and lost people who struggled with opioid addiction, especially in their hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, the Russo brothers were tasked with bringing Nico Walker’s semi-autobiographical novel, Cherry, about an Army vet’s descent into drugs and crime to the big screen. After their production company AGBO secured the movie rights to Walker’s debut novel in August 2018, the brothers enlisted the help of their younger sister, Angela Russo-Otstot, and her former collaborator, Jessica Goldberg, to write the screenplay.
A riveting—and at times, terrifying—depiction of the harsh realities of war and drug use, the new crime drama follows a young man named Cherry (Tom Holland) who, after serving as an Army medic in the Iraq War, suffers from undiagnosed PTSD and spirals into an addiction to opioids. In the process, he endangers the life of his one true love, Emily (Ciara Bravo), and turns to robbing banks to fund his addiction with a group of depraved misfits.
In a recent video interview with Observer, Anthony Russo reflects on the invaluable role the city of Cleveland plays in his film, the decision to cast Holland and Bravo as the two leads, and the key to his family’s success in the film industry—which has quickly evolved into one of the most successful producing partnerships of the 21st century.
Observer: Cleveland is an integral part of this film. As clichéd as it may sound, it truly acts as a third main character. Why was it so important to you and Joe to highlight the duality that exists in Cleveland and what perceptions did you want to highlight through this film?
Anthony Russo: Cleveland is a complicated place because on one level, it’s a healthy city in the United States of America and there’s a limit to how bad things can get there. But that being said, it has had a difficult economic road for many decades now, as has the entire industrial Midwest. As the entire industry has declined in this country, the economies in those cities—Cleveland, Detroit, etc.—have just fallen apart and haven’t had a lot to replace them. We loved and grew up right in the city. But when you grow up in a city watching jobs and people leave the city by the tens of thousands, you’re watching neighborhoods around you decay and completely disappear. It has a strong impact on you to see that and how it affects people.
When you grow up in a city watching jobs and people leave the city by the tens of thousands, you’re watching neighborhoods around you decay and completely disappear.
We know at the heart of this opioid crisis that the country’s been having over the course of two decades now, there’s a sense of existential crisis; there’s an anxiety of [how] the future doesn’t hold as much promise as it once did. I think that’s why places like Cleveland have been ground zero in many ways for the opioid crisis. The crisis took place in places like the industrial Midwest first, and I think the crisis has raged more severely there, and it’s still raging. This past year has seen the highest number of deaths from opioid overdoses yet.
Now, there’s a completely different other side of the duality that you were talking about with Cleveland. When you grow up in a place like that where you have a sense of adversity, your inclination is to push back against it, and a lot of the ways that you end up doing that is with the other people who are also experiencing that adversity. So, on the upside, everybody that’s from Cleveland loves [the city] because it does have this very strong sense of community and identity.
That is part of why I think the city fed the story so well because that’s basically what Cherry is looking for—a sense of connection. He starts the movie off feeling very alienated, he’s a sensitive soul, he doesn’t really have a connection, he meets this woman where he feels something for the first time. That ends up not seeming like what he wants it to be and, feeling lost again, he joins the army in an act of desperation. The irony, of course, is that he did find that sense of connection with that woman—there is a moment on their part where they both make bad decisions [after Cherry comes back from the war] because she comes from a similar place of trauma with her background. So, the duality there is: 1) how do you deal with trauma? and 2) how do you find connection while still dealing with that trauma? And that’s sort of where Cleveland lines up with the characters and the story in this movie.
You and Joe have both gotten to know Tom really well in the last few years with the Marvel movies, but at what point did you ask him to play the lead in a movie that is unlike anything that he has ever done before? Why was he your first choice?
Tom came in so early [that] we weren’t even really making the movie yet. We’ve developed a really deep connection with Tom over time. You can imagine casting him as Spider-Man was a very involved process, and from the second we saw his audition [for Captain America: Civil War] and started working with him—first to get him the role and secondly through those three films that we made with him—we just developed a very deep personal connection with him, both creatively and as friends.
I think it’s the basis of that relationship that allowed us to reach out to him early because when we read the book, the book is dark and it’s challenging. [We were] thinking, How do we translate this to a film in a way that’s gonna make the story accessible to people? There’s something important to be said in this movie—we truly believed that—but it only works if people can actually watch the film, get past the darkness and the difficulty, and find a way to engage in the movie at a positive level.
We started thinking about Tom really early on, right when Joe and I were debating whether or not we could actually convert this book to a film, and Tom broke it all open for us. Once we started seeing him as the character, the movie blossomed in our minds, because he is so charismatic and likable. He’s such a phenomenal actor; he’s gonna take audiences with him on a journey that not a lot of actors can. That really was the first cornerstone of how we started thinking about bringing this great story to screen.
This movie goes through so many different tonal shifts, which we’ll talk about in a little bit, but the through-line in each section of the movie is Cherry’s relationship with Emily. When did you decide that Ciara would be the perfect actor to play Emily?
Ciara came much later; she came in after the movie had been conceived. Part of the fun of this movie is that the novel is so thoroughly rooted in Cherry’s point of view. He has an inner life, an inner monologue in the book that is incongruous with his exterior experiences, and that’s where the whole charm, fun and verve of the book comes from. We wanted to maintain that as we translated to film, so we thought of a lot of techniques, including breaking the fourth wall.
The movie is designed around the concept of, How do we color the entire journey, the entire experience of this film, through how Cherry is seeing it? What is his inner emotional and psychological state? And how do we color that exterior world around him from that perspective? We were so grounded in Cherry’s perspective, as you can imagine, that it’s challenging to think about Emily, who needs to be his equal in the movie. The whole movie is based on this relationship between the two characters, even if we’re only seeing it from Cherry’s point of view.
That role was very challenging in the screenwriting phase and we needed a very special actor for that role because that actor was going to have to build out a really deep complex character that the script was only giving the tip of the iceberg for. Ciara came into that audition and she had built a really complex, fascinating character that we felt like we were only getting a hint of, and that’s when we knew we had the actor for Emily. She brought such a rich inner life to that audition, and that was really her job for the film—to bring a life beyond the page to that character.
The chapters were designed around this epic journey—this Odyssean journey that the character goes through.
You and Joe had to walk a very fine line with the tone of this movie, which is a little all over the place with the six contrasting “chapters” or sections of the movie and the use of different colors, lenses and aspect ratios. Why was red such a big color in the film and how did you decide on the distinctive looks of the chapters?
I’ll talk about the red issue first. One interesting character trait about Cherry is that he’s colorblind, and the other interesting thing about him is that he, again, has this inner life that is slightly detached from a more objective reality. We really liked that aspect of him and we wanted to play with this idea that he sees and feels things differently. Red just had this sort of thematic value, from his name to the brutality of war, to the fact that he served as a medic, to his drug addiction. The color sort of seemed to permeate his experiences in a way that felt like he could have an unbalanced relationship to that color in the movie.
The chapters were designed around this epic journey—this Odyssean journey that the character goes through. It’s an 18-year span of his life that includes being an innocent kid and feeling slightly disconnected from school or friends, to this period of falling in love, to this period of joining the army, training to be a soldier and the experience of that aggressive, toxic masculinity that comes with that. Then, the experience of warfare where life and death are around you at every moment, the experience of dealing with trauma that comes from the experience of violence and turning to drugs as a way to deaden that pain, and then the addiction that flows from that. Then, once one gets lost in that level of addiction, the singular need to feed that addiction that can lead to all kinds of self-destructive choices, like the destruction of people around you, the criminality, etc. Then, finally, him having the will and the strength to walk away from all of that and give himself an opportunity at redemption.
His journey seemed so epic, so vast, and every one of those roads along that journey required its own focus—it was like its own story. The patterning of those chapters really flowed from and reflected that giant, epic narrative that the character goes through.
This project is truly a family affair as you got to collaborate with your sister again. How special was it to work with both your immediate and your professional families on this film and to what do you attribute your success as collaborators?
Yeah, I don’t know. (Laughs.) It’s hard for me to put my finger on what to attribute it all to, but what I will say that we grew up very close. We grew up a million miles away from the film business, but we sort of found this road together. We have a strong pattern in our family of working together—that immigrant family mentality that everyone helps each other and bonds together.
We’ve had the opportunity to work with our sister on a number of things, but this is certainly the most ambitious and the most special experience that we’ve had with her yet. We were so grateful for this opportunity, and I think part of the reason why it lined up the way it did with this one is like you were saying. A lot of our motivation for making this movie has to do with our history in Cleveland with our family and friends, and part of that history includes dealing with the opioid crisis as addicts and as loved ones of addicts, where people are suffering from it, people are struggling through recovery or people have even died from it. I think it’s that shared family history that we have with Angela that spoke so strongly to the motivation to tell this movie in the first place, which is how we all started working on it together. It was an amazing creative and life experience for all of us to be able to make this together.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Cherry is in theaters and will be available to stream globally on Apple TV+ starting March 12.