“Bridge of Spies” is out in theaters now and while you’re probably wanting to go see “Goosebumps” or “Crimson Peak,” there’s a distinctly legendary charm about films touched by Steven Spielberg, director of classic films such as “Jurassic Park,” “Schindler’s List,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Jaws,” “Saving Private Ryan” and countless others. “Bridge of Spies” follows James Donovan, played by Spielberg regular, Tom Hanks, as he defends and eventually negotiates a prisoner swap with a captured Russian spy. Reminiscent of Spielberg’s last period piece, “Lincoln,” it’s easy to feel familiar with “Bridge of Spies” before even seeing it, but the reality of it is that Spielberg works a magic in his films like none other. Niner Times was able to sit down with Spielberg to talk about the film over a college conference call and hearing him discuss his passion for each film he does truly fits in with his incredible reputation.
The production design is, unsurprisingly, one of the most lush, detailed instances of it in a long time. Can you describe the process that you and Adam Stockhausen went through to achieve the most realistic and aesthetically pleasing look for the sets and settings?
I can easily say that Adam is a product of copious and adamant research. Before he presented me with any of his own artistic interpretations, he showed me what life was like both here and abroad, especially in East Germany between 1957 and 1961. He made a presentation for me when I first hired him to do a picture of some tremendous photographs from not just Life Magazine, but from a lot of the German outlets as well, including a lot of pictures from the National Geographic and a lot of really great landscape photography by very well-known photographers of that period. He presented me with tremendous amount of research just because he wanted to capture the authenticity of what it was like both living in America during that justifiably paranoid time and what it was like existing in East Germany.
How much of a role do you play as an educator when directing historical fiction?
My imagination has always been my best friend, especially when I was younger and making all those early movies and then when I became a father. Science-fiction is something I love and it’s something I periodically return to. But when I became a dad for the first time life took a very sort of serious turn and I just became concerned about something I was never concerned about, which was the future of my children, because before then, I obviously didn’t have any children to be concerned about their future. It made me look ahead and that forced me to look back, because I’ve always loved history. I excelled in history at school and not much else. I was a good history student and history, I’ve always said to my kids that you can’t go forward unless you know where all of us collectively have been and so, I’ve always had this interest in historical subjects, in biographies but I never really turned on to that until I got serious about being a parent.
How do you see this film contributing to the understanding of the Cold War?
The Cold War is something that we are reminded of in the strained relations that we’ve experienced over the last seven or eight years, maybe even over a decade, with Russia. The war of words that we’re experiencing today, which is nowhere near as intense as the Cold War was in the 50’s and 60’s, is never the less, a kind of current context from which we can go back in time if we’re interested enough to see what might have led to Vladimir Putin, as he did grow up in the Cold War and he was influenced by all of the leaders in Communist Russia. I thought there was a lot of relevance. Only in the last two years since we unearthed this story for the first time and started telling it, a lot has happened that has taken us back to the life and times of the Cold War. There’s a lot of things about the movie that are relevant today. The movie is about spy craft, the art of conversation, the art of negotiation, but it’s also about spying and today, there’s tons of things going on. In the 50’s we flew U2’s over the Soviet Union and today we’re flying drones everywhere and we were spying on each other all through the 50’s and 60’s and today, we have a great deal of cyber hacking, which is a form of espionage.
Audiences know that the Cold War never turned into a real war. As a storyteller how do you keep audiences engaged when they know the history?
The second we get involved in movie we forget all the history. A movie casts a spell, all movies cast spells, not just my movies, but every movie casts a spell and all audiences, if they get involved enough in the characters and the story, they suspend their disbelief and part of that suspension of disbelief means cancelling what you know about what really happened. To allow yourself to imagine that a World War would result if Donovan’s negotiations were not successful in retrieving Gary Powers from the Soviet Union. I couldn’t be a storyteller unless I had audiences willing to allow me to tell these stories and to accept these stories, even though sometimes they know it really happened in history.
This is your 15th time working with your cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski. What are some of the biggest challenges you face for the look and feel of a film with your DP?
Well when we make a movie we find the color palate that will enhance our points of view. For instance on “Bridge of Spies,” we decided to go for a color palate that that was free and unimpressive and very American for the first hour of the film and then when the film evolves into a story that takes place behind the Iron Curtain, most notably in East Berlin, we went for grays and blues and greens for indoor fluorescent green lighting as opposed to the warmer constant lighting that we used inside law offices, or natural white sunlight that we used in law offices, or even in the courtroom scenes in America. We do this on every film, I guess now 15 films later, we’ve always tried to find a lexicon to tell the story visually that would just enhance the words the writer has written and the actors are performing.
What is it about the Coen Brothers that makes them a fit to write film?
Well, the film started with Matt Sherman, a wonderful playwright from the United Kingdom, he’s the one who found the story. I had never heard of Donovan or Abel, though I knew about Gary Powers. I knew nothing about the spy swap, or what was happening during this, this almost secret history of KGB vs. CIA in those days. This writer from England brought me the story and it took an English writer to wake this American up about a purely American story. But I wanted to go really deep into the characters and I wanted find irony, because I think there’s great irony in history and the people who do the best irony that I know are Joel and Ethan Coen. I asked them if they wanted to work on the script and they did about four or five passes on their rewrite and really, really deepened the characters and found a lot of irony and of course along with irony comes humor and every movie needs humor.
How do you define the balance between creative license and accurate portrayal when we make films like this?
Well I take at the beginning of our movie we don’t say “based on a true story,” we say “inspired by true events” and I make a distinction between a story like “Schindler’s List.” which is virtually true from cover to cover and even a film like “Lincoln” which is also virtually true from cover to cover, to a film like “Bridge of Spies,” where every single event is true and it actually happened, but in order to make it more tense and more suspenseful, I needed to take license with the order of sequences in order to truncate, or to condense a five year story into something that only feels like it’s taking place over six or seven months. It’s very obvious that the audiences that know the law, know that the Supreme Court doesn’t just take a case and put it on its docket and argue your case in the Supreme Court a couple of weeks after the lower court has ruled. That never happens and I just hope the audience understands and goes along with the fact that I do take license in scenes like that. There were other things that happened that didn’t exactly happen the way they did but everything really happened. The Supreme Court speech he gives in the end is word for word, in many regards, what he actually said. Donovan actually caught a terrible cold the second he got to East Germany and was deadly ill throughout all the negotiations. So little details like that, that actually happened, make the biggest differences. These things all happened, but nobody had tape recorders and we had pretty much to make up a lot of the dialogue, because there wasn’t a record of what people said around the dinner table for instance.
“Bridge of Spies” is now playing in theaters everywhere.