June 3, 2023

About five years ago, Amazon Studios head Jennifer Salke called Anthony and Joe Russo with an idea for a different kind of franchise. It would start with an American-made show and eventually grow into multiple other series, set in other countries and filmed in other languages, all connected within the same storytelling universe on Prime Video.

The Russo Brothers were intrigued. As the linchpin of the Marvel empire, having directed two Avengers movies and two Captain America movies, they knew all about international reach; After all, Marvel reaps much of its massive profits overseas. And they soon came up with the right vehicle: a fast-paced spy thriller that flies around the world, as such stories often do.

The result, or at least the first step, is the six-part first season of “Citadel,” which debuts Friday. The lively, often violent action drama centers on a global espionage network, also known as the Citadel, tasked with keeping the world’s peace, often by unsatisfactory means. At the center are two agents and smoldering former lovers, Nadia Sinh (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) and Mason Kane (Richard Madden), who must fight to save the organization after a nefarious enemy espionage group known as Manticore nearly knocks Citadel off the map. swept. .

But the flagship of the American series is just the beginning: the production of the Italian “Citadel”, starring Matilda De Angelis (“The Undoing”), is already underway, and the Indian “Citadel”, with the Bollywood star Varun Dhawan, is already underway. For the Russo brothers, who are executive producers of all three series, the franchise was the logical next step in their world-building (and globe-spanning) vision.

“We’ve been lucky enough to be able to tell stories that travel the world, and we’ve seen the effect that can have on audiences,” said Anthony Russo, who sat next to his brother during a video interview from London last week. “But those were Hollywood-centric stories that traveled. The idea that we could create a story that not only traveled the world, but was created all over the world, seemed like a really exciting step forward.”

It’s a bold ambitious plan, a game of global influence that the warring spies of “Citadel” might recognize. Some of the manufacturing challenges are already apparent.

“It really is like riding a bucking bronco,” said Joe Russo. “New ideas are always developing because Italy and India are in different timelines of production.” As the other two productions come out with new ideas, he added, “it’s important for us to adapt and make sure our Easter eggs and our plot threads are all properly fed into future stories.”

David Weil (“Hunters”) replaced original showrunner, Josh Applebaum, during production. (The Indian and Italian productions have different showrunners.) According to The Hollywood Reporter, reshoots pushed the cost of “Citadel” to more than $200 million, making it one of the most expensive series ever. (Amazon did not respond to multiple questions about the show’s budget.)

The international ambitions of the franchise become immediately apparent in the first installments of the American production. Shooting locations abroad for the first season include London, Morocco and Valencia, Spain. Within the first 10 minutes of the series, Chopra Jonas and Madden squabble and squabble in Mandarin, Italian, Spanish and German, a multilingual way of immediately indicating that these characters have a past.

Casting was also a crucial part of the international equation. Chopra Jonas is one of India’s most famous actresses and she has also made a name for herself in the United States (including in the ABC drama “Quantico”). Madden, who played Robb Stark in ‘Game of Thrones,’ is Scottish. British actress Lesley Manville (“The Crown,” “Phantom Thread”) plays Manticore’s ruthless chieftain, Dahlia Archer, who also happens to be the British ambassador to the United States.

The global orientation was a big part of the appeal for Chopra Jonas.

“As someone who worked in the Indian film industry, I always wanted our films in Hindi to cross borders and go to other diasporas,” she said in a video interview last week. “You want your movies to travel all the time.”

She added, “‘Citadel’ gives filmmakers around the world the chance to play in the same sandbox and get the same opportunities to tell their stories.”

Like ‘The Bourne Identity’ (2002), the first installment in the long-running film series based on Robert Ludlum’s novels, ‘Citadel’ revolves around a case of amnesia. When Mason and Nadia nearly die in a fiery train crash in the pilot, their biting handler, Bernard (Stanley Tucci), stops them and wipes their memories clean. Mason then spends the next eight years as a different person, Kyle, with a wife (played by Australian actress Ashleigh Cummings) and young daughter (Caoilinn Springall) and cannot remember his life as a superspy.

Kyle is a nice guy. Bricklayer, not so much. When circumstances conspire to force Mason back to Citadel, the reverse transition makes for a thorny process.

“They share a soul,” Madden said. “Mason is inherently selfish and damaged. Kyle is the opposite of that. He is surrounded by love. As the show progresses, you get to see more of Mason and how much he actually craves love and intimacy with someone.

Again, the inherent qualities of the espionage genre provided opportunities for deeper exploration. After all, spies don’t have a set identity: they are many different things to many different people. “Citadel” adds a wrinkle to these already fuzzy lines, creating characters whose divided selves go beyond convenient aliases and multiple passports.

Chopra Jonas enjoyed the identity questions the premise raised, “How are you going to come to terms with everything that happened in those eight years?” she said. “Who are you now as a person? A highlight of both? What kind of humanity do you keep? What about your moral compass? It really is a wonderful unpacking of character.”

With multiple productions in multiple countries and a narrative universe that thrives on complexity, the “Citadel” project has no shortage of moving parts. It can all get dizzying and requires careful management to keep everything cohesive and on track. This, Tucci said, is an area in which the Russo brothers excel.

“They’re probably the most efficient filmmakers I’ve ever worked with,” says Tucci, who also stars in the Russian-directed sci-fi adventure film “The Electric State,” due out on Netflix next year. “They know exactly what they want. You come in, and you do it, and they work together. Then you say, ‘OK, 6 o’clock. Time to go home. Did we get everything?’ And they have everything. That just doesn’t happen.”

If the opening salvos resonate with the audience, the “Citadel” team hopes to add even more countries and more storylines to the project. If all goes according to plan, “Citadel” could reach a range and scope that matches the spy network of the same name.

It wouldn’t feel right for Madden otherwise.

“If we’re trying to make a show about a spy agency that we say exists in every country in the world,” he said, “it only makes sense to have versions of this show from as many countries as possible.”