Cherry, starring Tom Holland and Ciara Bravo, was the first film deal announced in the formation of the Russo Brother’s production company, AGBO, when they acquired the rights to the 2018 novel of the same name by Nico Walker. The story follows a soldier who struggles with PTSD and an Opioid addiction, falling into robbing banks to pay for his struggles. “A profoundly dark and stylistically engaging film”, this is the first project post-Avengers: Endgame directed by the Russo Brothers.
The film, however, features an absolutely stellar screenplay by Angela Russo-Ostot and Jessica Goldberg. Spanning 16 years of the titular character’s life (with no name, let’s just call him Cherry), the structure and pacing of the film is consistency excellent, and is a brilliant adaptation of the novel. While the movie is a big step up from their previous experience predominantly writing TV, Russo-Ostot on The Shield and Goldberg on The Path, they manage to adapt fantastically. We were lucky enough to sit down and speak with the duo on the difficulties with bringing this adaptation to screen, why they chose such a unique structure for the film, and what it was like working with superstar Tom Holland.
This story is based on a novel by Nico Walker, which was in part inspired by his life and in other parts fictional. How did you approach carrying that over to the screen? Did you have a lot of discussions with him, or did you want to sort of keep it slightly separate?
Angela Russo-Ostot: That was an interesting process because, at the time that we were writing, Nico Walker was in prison, so we had very limited access to him. It was so limited that even in the beginning when Anthony and Joe were first trying to acquire the rights of the book, it went on for quite some time because they would have to wait until Nico had minutes available on the telephone to speak with them. And then sometimes they would get cut off. I remember one time they tried to three-way conference call in, and apparently, you cannot three-way with a prison phone and then the phone cut off. Then they had to wait another two weeks to be able to speak to him again. So the contact was fairly limited.
Although we did have contact with him in the beginning – Jessica specifically, through email mostly. Because he released the work as a book of fiction, we tried to treat it as such, and we sort of took everything that he had put on the page as everything that he had put forth from his heart and soul. That’s what we drew upon mostly. That said, we did end up needing to speak with many individuals who could guide us through some of these experiences and the reality of them. With the emotions that accompany them, we felt a high degree of responsibility to tell those aspects of the story responsibly.
So the film more so than almost any other has very clearly defined acts, during which we see very different periods in Cherry’s life. How did you go about deciding what specific acts to break the movie into? And how many to break up into?
Jessica Goldberg: I think those chapters were there from the beginning. Yeah, some of them are there, the book is sort of broken down into, you know, dope life and etc, right? So we sort of pulled that from the book, and then it just becomes about like, how do you tell a very satisfying story? You have to set up who this character is, you have to set up this love story, you have to set up his heartbreak. So the chapters sort of, I think, become about what needs to be in them.
Angela Russo-Ostot: And then I think as we tracked Cherry’s story through each chapter, his perception of the world shifts and changes, with each new experience that he’s introduced to and that very organically lent itself towards the shifting genre and tone. So we took that as a launching pad to dig deeper and implement more narrative techniques that support that in terms of rhythm and pacing and, you know, narration and breaking the fourth wall, flashbacks.
At what stage did Tom [Holland] come on board the project? Did you write with him in mind? Or were you just writing for a more general type of actor?
Jessica Goldberg: Tom came on quite early, like two months into our process. And it really helped focus on who that character was for us.
Was there much dialogue between you and him in terms of, did he have much input or was that quite separate?
Anglea Russo-Ostot: He did, yeah. Later in the process, he was really lovely, in terms of just very patiently waiting for us to work through the drafts and refine them to the point where we felt ready for pre-production and prep. Then during those months when I was in Cleveland, we did a very intensive page turn of the script and walked through it together with him and Ciara [Bravo].
That was really nice, just breaking down the scenes and working through some of the emotional moments in the dialogue. And then really, what came out of that, for me that felt so important, was the perspective that he shared. Ciara as well, based on their conversations with individuals who have shared these experiences and talking with veterans, Ciara talking with family members of veterans who had suffered from PTSD, both of them talking with people who had challenges with substance abuse disorder.
Hearing about those conversations and the stories that were shared with them, a lot of that ended up informing the script as well. So that was a time to go back through and really honor some of those smaller details throughout, whether it’s the moment where Emily comes home from school and she’s really angry because she’s sh*tting her pants. That’s just one that comes to mind in terms of something that came out of those, there are obviously much more profound moments as well.
I was actually also wondering about the fact that we follow this story over a very long period of time. A lot of time has passed across Cherry’s army service to when he’s addicted to dope. How much did you guys look to fill in those gaps to have a wider idea of the story? Was there a huge timeline written out?
Angela Russo-Ostot: The story, I think, spans 16 years overall. That was something that we really went back and tracked, to be honest, just to make sure that we had been accurate to some degree about where he was, and that was much more supportive in production needs. But I think for the most part, Cherry’s story really naturally unfolds in a pretty truncated period of time. We start when he’s 18 and a freshman in college, and then he drops out, goes right into basic training and the war, and comes home. It’s all very successive in terms of sequencing. So it feels like he’s traveled such a great distance. But really, it’s only been a matter of three years by the time he’s robbing banks. The majority of the time span of the film takes place towards the end when he’s in prison.