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‘Avengers’ Director Joe Russo Breaks Down The Star-Studded Superhero Fantasy Football League And Talks The Future Of Movies

Talking about your fantasy football league is a tough sell for someone not in it, but when that league involves trash talking guys like Ryan Reynolds and Chris Evans, people tend to be more willing to listen. This was why Joe Russo and I spent an afternoon on a Zoom call talking about Reynolds’ strong fantasy season ending in disappointment thanks to Chris Pratt.

AGBO, the film production company led by brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, sponsored a Superhero League with some of the biggest movie stars on the planet to raise money for charity through FanDuel. The 14-team league includes the biggest stars of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and also ESPN fantasy football expert Matthew Berry. But despite having an expert among Avengers, it was Pratt who wound up on top after Week 16 of the NFL season wrapped up.

“Reynolds was hot all year but he lost in the first round to Pratt,” Russo said, going through rosters and breaking down what went wrong for a team that drafted Alvin Kamara and went 11-2 in the regular season.

Pratt was the eight seed, he explained, but he’d been “on a run,” beating Reynolds, then Chris Evans and later Simu Liu in the finals to claim the title. We didn’t talk about just fantasy football, of course, but his excitement for the Cleveland Browns and fantasy football was clear. Russo also spoke to us about the future of the MCU and Star Wars universe and what life has been like in Hollywood during a pandemic.

Uproxx: I wanted to start with a football question and I know you’re from Cleveland but you’ve been in California for a long time, but are you a Browns fan?

Joe Russo: I’m a huge Browns fan!

OK, then I have to ask how you’re feeling about this season and their postseason chances.

I’m ecstatic. I think all Browns fans have a bit of PTSD because we’re used to — or all Cleveland sports fans, frankly until the Cavs won a couple of years back. We’re used to losing in the most dramatic possible ways. So I think I’m cautiously optimistic.

This is where I’ll reveal I’m a Bills fan so I share your pain. There are actually a few Browns fans on staff here at Uproxx and we’re all convinced the Bills and Browns are destined to meet in the postseason.

That would be incredible. I’m worried, because I think the Bills are probably the hottest team right now in the AFC. They look really good. But, I mean, that would be amazing. Talk about shaking up the traditional playoff landscape. You get the Browns and the Bills playing each other in a meaningful game in the postseason, it feels like bizarro world.

Yeah we’re used to 8-0 games in the snow and 6-3 games where there are more punts than first downs. This is a new year, for sure.

Without question, they do look great. And I gotta tell you, Cole Beasley has been a huge help for me on my fantasy teams.

I wanted to ask about your teams and just what was your draft strategy heading into this year. It was obviously going to be complicated with coronavirus and schedule changes. Did you do anything different to prep for this?

It was hard because you can’t, you just had to be ready to go on the waiver wire. My draft strategy, I had the good fortune to be friends with Matthew Berry, who is a good friend of mine. So I usually call him in August and ask, “What’s the draft strategy this year?”

He was really high on the top two or three tight ends going early, and waiting on a QB. Which I did in most leagues, I tried to vary up my strategy because I play in five leagues, because if you wind up with very similar teams and you have a catastrophic injury, all your teams are done. So I tried to vary up my rosters significantly from league to league. And I was fortunate enough to make it to two championships this year, though I will say I’m an underdog in both leagues, I’d say. But Cole Beasley and Myles Gaskin were two waiver wire pickups that were big for me this year.

I was going to say, that’s a lot of leagues to be involved in. But the league you run through AGBO involving Berry and a lot of Marvel actors is probably the highest profile one anyone can imagine. Is it different because so many people pay attention to it?

One, it’s amazing because it’s for charity and there are a lot of great charities people are playing for. And FanDuel really stepped up this year and put $1.25 million in the pot, which is incredible. So, that’s probably the league that’s closest to my heart for that reason.

And also working with a lot of those actors for almost a decade, they’ve become so close to me and my family. And it’s good to be able to rib and roast each other every year, we get a lot of laughs out of it and it keeps everyone in contact with one another.

Yeah, I was watching some of the videos and saw that there were moms involved, a lot of smack talk and people seem to really enjoy it. I’ve never really found that to be the appeal of fantasy football, but is that one of the aspects you really enjoy?

It’s not the focus for me, I really love watching football, I love the strategy of playing fantasy football. But when you have this many funny and talented people in the league it just seemed like a very natural concept to roast each other for charity. So it felt like a good way to bring attention to the league and the charities.

I have to say I saw Matt Berry went 8-5. It must be a pretty great feeling to beat a fantasy football guy at fantasy football. Like, we don’t get to out-act an Avenger in a movie or anything like that. So it must be pretty satisfying to do that.

I think so. I think the people definitely consider that a feather in their cap when they beat Matthew. He certainly has an inside track to pickups on the waiver wire because he gets that information ahead of everyone. It’s nice being friends with Matthew, he’ll get a hot tip on a player who may be injured and pick up their backup in the superhero league and then text me to pick up that player in my other leagues that he doesn’t play with me in.

With the Avengers and all the movies you’ve done, you’ve been around these guys a decade. What’s maybe the most fun conversation you’ve had on set while working on these films?

Oh boy. I mean, there’s been a lot of laughs. A lot of times we gather around the monitor and tell stories. They’re long days, so a lot of times we’re trying to keep each other’s spirits up. I’m trying to think of the funniest things. A lot of pranks get played.

One of the sweetest things is Robert Downey actually bought … Robert likes to restore old cars. It’s a hobby of his. And during Endgame he gifted Chris Evans a beautiful blue restored, I believe it was a Camaro. For playing opposite of him for all those years. That was a really touching moment because it really showed how connected everyone’s become and Robert’s generosity and the fact that this family who spent 12 hours a day together was going to be leaving one another. That’s probably one of the more touching moments on set.

It’s kind of an interesting period for Marvel and the new phase they’re headed with storytelling. You’ve been involved in so much of it, but maybe not as much as they get involved in TV and expanding into new shows. Is it kind of weird not to have the same level of involvement as you take on other projects?

We’re fans, so I love it. I just love being surprised by what’s coming next. We talk to Kevin (Feige) a bit, we text. We’re all really close. But I want to be a fan and just be surprised when I go to the theater or watch something on Disney+ the same way I was with The Mandalorian and was surprised at the end of Season 2 with everybody else.

I texted (Jon) Favreau after I watched the ending and said, “That’s one of the best moments of the last 10 years as a fan for me. Thank you.” So it’s good to, as fun as it was to work in the Marvel universe, it’s equally as fun to be on the outside and getting as excited as everyone else about what’s coming.

Earlier in the month Disney announced a bunch of new shows and projects in the Marvel and Star Wars universes. Some have framed it as an attempt to do to Star Wars what Marvel has created with the MCU. Do you think that that’s accurate, and if so what are some of the challenges that lay ahead to making that a reality?

I think it’s getting more complicated, certainly because there’s more material now. They have all the Disney+ shows and movies now. But Kevin has built an incredible team at that company of amazing creatives and they’ve got a great system for quality control so the expectation is that they’re all be working together like the ’90s Bulls. This is finely-honed machine that’s going to produce some great content.

The challenges are always how do you keep, as it gets bigger and bigger, how do you keep it all connected? And how do you make sure it feels organic? But I think they’re going to be fine.

Obviously this is a tough year to create anything, it’s not fun. But some people have found ways to be creative in this time. Have you found a way to be creative or has it been tougher just to do anything with all the added safety concerns and stress and cost to do basically anything in 2020?

What’s been unique about it is that we’ve been especially conservative, my family and I. It’s good because we’ve spent a lot of time together, growing as a family. And I do find that, look, certainly stimulation helps with creativity. And there’s a lack of stimulation from the outside world. But I’ve found it to be productive in that one, I’m just generally happier because I get to spend more time with my kids. And two, all the drive time, especially in Los Angeles, has disappeared from my work day. And I just have more time to be productive.

Again, if there’s any silver linings that come out of this tragedy it’s that it may change the way that we work in the future which allows for more family time because we’ve been forced to mass adopt technology that allows us to work remotely.

Speaking of that, I know that you directed the Dungeons and Dragons episode of Community and I wanted to see if you were doing any games like that remotely to pass the time like I have.

Oh, that’s great. I have not, I haven’t played D&D in probably 20 years. It was a big influence in my brother and I growing up so I wanted to do that episode, but I have not. How’s it been playing remotely? Are you playing over Zoom?

Yeah, playing over Zoom with a document camera and using a lot of websites and all that. It’s possible, it just takes a little longer. Everything does.

One person rolling for all of you or you all roll yourselves?

We all roll individually, and if you don’t believe someone’s roll you make them move the camera to prove it.

There’s a lot of trust involved.

That’s right. Anyway, you spoke earlier in the year about the challenges facing movie theaters. And as someone who misses going to movies and detaching from reality for a bit, I was wondering if there was anything else you’re missing right now or are eager to get back to on the other side of this?

Certainly going to the movies. I think the sense of community that you get going into a theater with a group of people that you don’t know and then having a collective emotional experience is almost impossible to replicate outside of a theatrical space. So I think that’s the primary one for me that I miss the most. I think my kids probably miss being able to play sports and socializing with friends but, like I said, there have been other positives. Which is getting closer and bonding with each other at home.

I know you probably can’t say much about The Gray Man, but it’s a really big endeavor and Netflix seems to have high hopes for a potential franchise. It’s something you’re familiar with as far as the stakes involved, but how exciting is it to take that project on?

We love it. It’s certainly a genre that we adored and grew up in. Our father, those were his favorite movies, spy films and thrillers. And we shared a lot of experiences with him watching those.

Look, it’s a dream job, getting to be a filmmaker. It really is. Getting to use your imagination to tell stories and hopefully impact people the way that you were as a kid. And we love this particular project because it’s a thrilling project but it also has some real modern thematics in it that can make it relevant and ask a lot of questions about what’s going on in the world today. Which I think is why you make genre movies: you want to use the compulsive nature of stories to also introduce interesting thematics to an audience that maybe doesn’t want to deal with those issues outside of a fictional space.

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