Richard Madden and Priyanka Chopra Jonas in Prime Video's Citadel.
Citadel's World Wide Web
As they launch a global espionage franchise with original IP, the Russos expand the concept of world domination in Prime Video's Citadel.
Dateline: Culver City, California. 2021. An elite cadre of powerful men and women from all corners of the world arrive at a compound for an important and highly classified meeting of the minds. The topic at hand? World domination, obviously.
Okay, fine: world domination of television programming. But all the international producers and executives involved in the brand new entity known as Citadel who gathered for several days at Amazon Studios' headquarters did hash out a plan that could result in a sweeping game-changer for the medium. After all, what would you expect from Joe and Anthony Russo's AGBO, the independent film and television studio that helped produce two Avengers movies?
"We had a fantastic summit," says Angela Russo-Otstot, chief creative officer of AGBO and a Citadel executive producer (and the brothers' youngest sibling). "Amazon has given us access to the best creatives from across the globe to understand how they approach story and production. For all of us to sit together and discuss our various approaches and merge them into something even more magnificent was really rewarding."
But even an interconnected, globe-spanning journey must start with Step One. Enter Prime Video's Citadel, a thriller centered on two elite agents, Mason Kane (Richard Madden) and Nadia Sinh (Priyanka Chopra Jonas), who used to be members of the titular independent global spy agency — described in the pilot as "the last line of defense for good in the world." In the opening sequence, they narrowly escape a train wreck in the Italian Alps caused by operatives of an evil syndicate known as Manticore. That crash leads to Citadel's dismantling.
Eight years later, the pair is reeled back in, and Manticore is now hell-bent on destroying the world. Over the course of six episodes, the two spies — whose memories were wiped clean after the accident — crisscross the globe in a bid to stop Manticore and figure out which ex-Citadel member is the sinister mole who caused all the havoc.
Here's how executive producer Joe Russo describes it: "There's a duality to the characters because they're in conflict with themselves. They were proficient top spies when their memories were wiped, and they established new lives. Now they're challenged because they must forgo their new relationships for a higher purpose." Asked about inevitable comparisons to a certain set of Marvel superheroes (the brothers also codirected the last two Avengers films), he replies, "I don't know if you can compare it. This is not an ensemble; it's an elegant co-lead with a very strong female character."
Still, more spies are primed to pounce. Subsequent Citadel series, locally created, produced and filmed in regions such as India and Italy, will ultimately form a global franchise available to stream in 240 countries and territories. "One of the advantages of a narrative is that it can reach people everywhere," Joe says. "It's become a priority for us to sell stories that bring artists and audiences together in ways that are special and unified."
Of course, there's one other key difference between Citadel and a Marvel project. Or Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Star Wars and Real Housewives, for that matter. This is a fresh idea without an IP history to draw on.
The Russos aren't concerned. "Audiences are craving new IP and want original stories," Joe says. "And Amazon is the perfect partner, because they will take the risk and financially support the ambition of the idea and this grand experience."
Amazon Studios chief Jennifer Salke, in fact, conceived the idea. "She wanted to launch a series that would introduce a collection of interconnected shows around the globe," Russo-Otstot explains. Salke then contacted the Russo brothers, whose television experience includes such diverse shows as Community, Happy Endings and the MGM+ mystery series From. "I was blown away," Joe says. "We've done series comedy and drama and film at the highest scale, so for the unique place where we're at in our careers, we want to foster and strengthen relationships between different regions."
The brothers envisioned placing the series in the spy world and attached AGBO. Working closely with the production company Midnight Radio, AGBO helped develop "the idea of Citadel being an organization that was created to safeguard all countries of the world," Russo-Otstot says.
David Weil, upstart creator of the studio's Nazi-pursuing fantasy Hunters, eventually joined as showrunner and executive producer; he hashed out a clear exposition to go along with the action. "It's a delicate balance but I saw it more as an opportunity than a challenge," he says. "I wanted it to be 100 percent action and character at all times, so the narrative needed to move at the clip of a bullet train."
Finding the secret agents to pull it all off also happened in a flash. The Russos had seen Game of Thrones vet Madden in the 2018 British series Bodyguard and, per Joe, became "obsessed" by his physicality in portraying such a complicated character.
A meeting was in order, and it occurred at AGBO HQ pre-pandemic. "We said, 'Listen, we're going to find something to work on together,'" Joe says. "As we broke Citadel, we broke it for him." Madden recalls, "I didn't know them personally. But they reached out to me and we had this conversation about this huge show that was going to span the globe."
Chopra Jonas was recruited by her good friend, who happens to run the studio. "Jen said to me, 'You know, we're planning this really global show, and I'd love for you to help helm it,'" she recalls. The actress, just emerging from the ABC thriller series Quantico (2015–18), was hesitant. "I had just come out of network TV, so I was like, 'Well, how many episodes is it?' But as she explained the concept to me and that Anthony and Joe were helping her, I thought it was so audacious and bold. I loved that the cross-pollination would pull in audiences. I was just taken."
The actors — who confirm with a case of the giggles during their joint interview that they had met just once a few years earlier, at a group dinner in Cannes — eventually went into training for their intense fight scenes. "These spies are supposed to be at the top of their craft, so we have to be super-fit," Madden says. "We're not just doing this fight sequence once; we're doing it over five days. You need to be able to keep going." His female counterpart says she walked around with a knife — "just flipping it around and having conversations with a knife in my hand because she uses them a lot."
Not that they're complaining. "Sometimes you're like, 'Yeah, wouldn't it be nice to just do a family drama where we sit around a table and talk,'" Madden says. Chopra Jonas interrupts: "You'd be bored. So would I." He immediately agrees, adding, "It would be easier to do that kind of show, but there's a different challenge to that, too. That's why Citadel appealed to me. We can do this huge action thing and have a dramatic element. There's commitment to both."
After nearly two years in development, Citadel's eight-month production finally began in April 2021 in Atlanta. That's where the opening set piece, that train wreck in the Italian Alps, was filmed. Same for the interiors in Valencia, Spain, where Mason tracks down Nadia in episode two. The behind-the-scenes team could have theoretically green-screened every other exotic locale in Georgia (especially during the pandemic), but instead the cast and crew descended upon spots in England, Spain, Florida and Wyoming, as well as various locales in Eastern Europe.
"A big part of the process when you're prepping a show is figuring out what you travel for, because it's very expensive," Anthony explains. "So it becomes a value judgment. But it goes back to the narrative. Citadel is a global organization, and the battle is being fought everywhere." His brother adds, "The upside is huge. It's important to have that authenticity. And you're inviting different parts of the world to participate with the story."
As executive producers, the Russos say they had a "boots on the ground" philosophy. Their actors still, um, marvel at their multitasking abilities.
"They have an incredible ability to be hyper-focused in the conversation they're having and still do a million things," Chopra Jonas says. She singles out the time she approached Joe in the set's video village to ask a creative question. "He was looking at his laptop to do postproduction on Extraction and was also working preproduction on The Gray Man and yet he answered me with complete clarity. I remember walking away, like, '#goals.'"
Plus, she says pointedly, they provided excellent Atlanta restaurant recommendations.
The Russos used to rely on old-fashioned data to determine if their projects were a success. Now they use a more complicated science: congratulatory texts and emails from friends and industry peers are a must. Beyond that, Joe says, "All the companies have different metrics. It helps if a show brings awareness to a company and enhances a brand."
For Citadel in particular, Anthony adds, "Success means if you love the work and have a continuing passion for it. Do you have a drive to explore more ideas? And for Amazon, it falls to, 'Do we also believe you have that passion?' At some point, there's a meeting between those things, and that dictates how the show evolves and grows."
On that front, mission accomplished. Production on the Italian branch of the series, starring Matilda De Angelis (The Undoing), has already wrapped. (Alessandro Fabbri, creator of The Trial, is head writer.) The Indian franchise, helmed by Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D.K. — collectively known as Raj & DK (The Family Man) — is currently in production with Bollywood star Varun Dhawan in the lead role. Meanwhile, the U.S. series has been renewed for a second season.
Weil serves as the overall creative liaison and meets with the writers on a weekly basis. "We're all sort of holding hands and creating mythologies with the histories of these characters and where they cross over and what their origins are and what their futures may be," he says. "So the characters you see throughout the first season of our series have reverberations in the Italy and India series." Still, he's quick to add, "You can just watch one of the shows and leave feeling incredibly satisfied."
If nothing else, Chopra Jonas isn't wrong when she proclaims, "There's really nothing like it on TV" — even amid today's expansive streaming landscape. "Think about the scale of it, the drama and the action and connecting the worlds," she says. "As a concept, it's very disruptive."
Executive producers for Citadel are showrunner David Weil, Anthony Russo, Joe Russo, Mike Larocca, Angela Russo-Otstot, Scott Nemes, Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, Newton Thomas Sigel and Patrick Moran. The series is produced by Amazon Studios and the Russo Brothers' AGBO.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #5, 2023, under the title "World Wide Web."
The interview for this story was completed before the start of the WGA strike on May 2.