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Steven Spielberg on Bridge of Spies: A thriller burning with old childhood fears

‘… the world was about to come to an end’

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Jaap Buitendijk

Steven Spielberg remembers looking up a lot when he was a kid.

At night in Phoenix, the clear desert sky made him hopeful for what might live beyond the stars. That wonder later inspired such films as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.

But in the daytime, he was terrified by the warplanes lifting off from surrounding Air Force bases. That memory has always been more disturbing than inspiring.

“The sky was a crisscross of contrails during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I could just assume these were B-52s going to their fail-safe points,” the filmmaker tells EW in an exclusive sit-down about his new film, Bridge of Spies. “It just exacerbated my deepest fears that the world was about to come to an end.”

That happened in 1962, when Spielberg, now 70, was in his early teens. His father, Arnold, an engineer with General Electric, had visited the Soviet Union years a few years earlier as part of a peace program and tried to reassure the boy. “I remember what it felt like to fear something so much you hate what causes the fear. So I hated the Soviet Union,” Spielberg says.

“My dad always said, ‘Don’t worry about this, there’s never going to be a war, nobody is that insane.’ But I never believed it. I actually felt that everybody was insane when I was a kid. And I felt that grown-ups were the most insane people on the planet and would do something as stupid and evil as start a thermonuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. And as we all know now from history, it was narrowly averted.”

Those old nerves were struck again when he first heard playwright Matt Charman’s pitch for Bridge of Spies, which hits theaters Oct. 16. Also co-written by No Country For Old Men Oscar winners Joel and Ethan Coen, the movie is based on the true story of the American lawyer who defended a captured Soviet spy in 1957, and later arranged a swap with the U.S.S.R. for American reconnaissance pilot Francis Gary Powers, who was shot down in his U-2 spyplane over the enemy country in 1960.

Pretty much every kid who grew up during the Cold War learned about Powers in history class, but the rest of the story involving the spy swap is far lesser know, even though, as Spielberg puts it, “it sounds like a movie.”

SPYCRAFT AND BRIDGE BUILDING

“I had no idea that there was a Soviet spy named Rudolf Abel who had been working for over a decade in this country for the Soviet Union,” Spielberg says. “I had no idea that there was a man named James B. Donovan, who was an insurance attorney but formerly an associate prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, who was called into service to show the world that we represent everybody. Everybody gets a fair shake. Those moral themes resonated with me, especially having come off Lincoln.”

We’re sitting in his office at Amblin Entertainment, in a conference room decorated with original Norman Rockwell paintings and the only surviving Rosebud sled from Citizen Kane, which hangs between two windows inside a glass case. While we talk, we turn through a folder of hundreds of photographs from the movie.

Spielberg says he decided to make Bridge of Spies his next film after 2012’s Lincoln because it felt connected to the same “theme about a single person doing the right thing, or attempting to do the right thing, despite all the obstacles he faces.” He liked that this historical drama takes place a full century later, showing that the good fight is never truly won — it’s just picked up again by different people in different times.

That’s a perspective the director says he didn’t have back when he was a kid, living through these events. “I was just a teenager, I was in high school, I was terrified of the bomb. Jack Kennedy got assassinated, and then Martin Luther King, and it was a time where America was on thin ice. It felt unsafe; despite a safe home environment,” he says. “I saw Communist Russia as the enemy, and my father saw Communist Russia as human beings, who were just as scared of us as we were of them — that’s what my father always said.”

With Tom Hanks as Donovan and Mark Rylance as Abel, Spielberg set out to tell a story that finally proved his father right: that some people involved in the decades-long clash between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. stood strong against those hellbent on war and destruction at all costs.

STANDING MAN

Jaap Buitendijk

“Tom Hanks is one of the best parts of my life,” says Spielberg, tapping a still of the actor as Donovan, standing beside an airplane on location at the former Berlin airport Tempelhof. He directed Hanks previously in Saving Private Ryan, The Terminal, and Catch Me If You Can and has had produced three TV miniseries with him. “We’ve been in business together and in life together for many decades.”

Hanks was the right choice for Donovan because the lawyer “had to be a superb diplomat and negotiator, and he also had to be a fish out of water,” Spielberg says. “The integrity comes with it, because Tom has what we call the integrity of the common man. It’s honest, it’s authentic, and he wouldn’t have to act that.”

Who would be the star if Spielberg were making this movie shortly after 1962, when it actually happened? Spielberg leans back in his chair, thinking. “Well, the story takes place in the ’60s, so let’s say I was making this movie over 50 years ago,” he says. “Who would I have cast as Donovan… ”

Then it comes to him: “William Holden,” he says with a smile.

I suggest James Stewart — an actor Hanks is often compared to, but Spielberg shakes his head. “No, I probably would have cast William Holden over 50 years ago. He’s also got that common-man integrity.”

IN PLAIN SIGHT

Jaap Buitendijk

Bridge of Spies opens with this scene: Rylance’s Rudolf Abel on a train, headed to the riverside to paint a portrait of a bridge — but really he’s on a mission to retrieve a dead-drop of information.

The FBI, somewhat haplessly, tries to trail him on the train, but he eludes them — either through master tradecraft or by simple, unassuming luck. The audience never knows just how shrewd and calculating Abel really is, even after that luck runs out. “And you’re not supposed to,” Spielberg says.

“He answers the phone, he goes to a location. He gets a coin, which is stuck to the underside of a park bench, and inside the coin is a cipher,” the director says, riffling through the images on the table in front of him like a flip-book. “He’s clearly a spy. And he’s the kind of spy you don’t even notice on the subway. So I wanted to cast somebody who would not call attention to himself. And yet, I wanted to cast somebody who would even be in the scenes he’s not in.”

Although most of the movie belongs to Hanks, the prisoner (and bargaining chip) haunts the picture from off screen. “Mark’s such a strong presence that I feel him in scenes he doesn’t take part in, throughout the whole story,” Spielberg says.

Rylance, a two time Tony-winner, got along so well with Spielberg that he will turn up onscreen again in the director’s next film, playing the eponymous big, friendly giant in an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG.

In this film, “friendly” isn’t exactly the right word for the man he plays.

NEXT PAGE: Spielberg opens up about discovering his father’s Soviet mission …

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FRIEND AND FOE

One key to Bridge of Spies was giving audiences a character in Rudolf Abel they could sympathize with, if not root for. He had to be human, not a monster — someone deserving of fairness, not a person filled with hate.

“He doesn’t do the Khrushchev ‘we will bury you’ speech. He simply is doing a job for his country,” Spielberg says. “Donovan comes to understand that. He’s a soldier of the Cold War.”

Jaap Buitendijk

Exactly who he is, what he believes, and whether he is deserving of what Donovan is doing for him is kept mysterious until the very end. Even then, it’s up for debate.

“Mark played it with inscrutable ease,” Spielberg says. “He invites you to look deeply into him to try to discover his secrets. And we get inexorably drawn into his character. Then we’re left with a decision based on our own core or moral values: do we want to like him, or will we prevent ourselves from liking him too much?”

Like Donovan, the movie doesn’t worry about what Abel deserves. It’s more about how we protect ourselves without losing who we are.

HOME FRONT

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In films set in the era of Bridge of Spies, when wives were less welcome in their husband’s business, the role of the spouse can often be a minimal one. They tend to turn up in as the film’s conscience.

Amy Ryan, who co-stars as Donovan’s wife, has more shadows in this one. Mary is not the quiet voice at home urging him to do the right thing. Instead, she questions whether her husband’s fair defense of a Soviet spy is a stand worth making — especially after he is scorned in the press and a vigilante shoots a gun into their house in the middle of the night. 

“You know, he fulfilled the mandate to give this man, in the eyes of the world, a fair trial,” Spielberg says. “In our story, both his boss and his wife were basically saying to him, ‘Okay, you can stop now, you don’t have to go any further.’”

It’s another family member’s fear that actually pushes him to continue the job.

BOMB SCARE

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In this shot, one of Donovan’s children watches a civil defense film about the Soviet threat of nuclear war.

“That was a real film we used,” Spielberg says. “Bert the Turtle was the turtle that ducked and covered.” He recalls seeing similar reels as a child, although they’re not things he recalls with any warmth.

“I think they did more harm than good,” he says. “They created a level of fear that led to a kind of blind anger.”

Spielberg said he was so sure nuclear war was imminent that he would fill up the family’s sinks and bathtub with reserves of water. “I just assumed that when the end came, the water supply would be cut off, and the electricity would be cut off, and gas would go, and there would be nothing,” Spielberg says. “So my parents were off at a big dinner party, and they came home to find every single sink and our one bathtub filled up with water.”

It’s a scene he recreates in Bridge of Spies between Hanks’ Donovan and his son, whose terror helps motivate him to prove that people can end conflicts without blowing up cities or telling children to hide beneath desks.

In real life, Spielberg’s parents were not thrilled with his preparations for the end of the world. “I panicked when my dad just rolled up his sleeve and reached his hand in and pulled the plug out of the drain. I watched all of our resources going down — I watched all of our precious bodily fluids going down the drain!” he says citing a line from another film from that era, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

Spielberg’s smile doesn’t last long. The fear from those days may be long ago, but it doesn’t feel far away. “That was not a happy day in my life,” he says.

IRON CURTAIN

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In this shot, Hanks is waiting to cross over from West Berlin to the Soviet-controlled eastern sector as part of his mission to negotiate a swap of Abel for Powers and a young American student detained by East German authorities.

Suddenly, he is confronted with less-than-friendly checkpoint guards, who confiscate his papers. In real life, Spielberg’s father had a similar encounter during his trip to Russia.

“Gary Powers had just been shot down when my dad was there, and he was standing in line with a bunch of other engineers to see the remains of the U-2 and Powers’ flight suit, which was all on display,” Spielberg says. “All of a sudden, a fully decorated colonel and a bunch of plainclothes — I assume KGB personnel — went up to my dad and his associates and asked to see their papers. They presented the colonel with their papers.”

The colonel became furious, gesturing at Spielberg’s father and his group as he shouted, “Look what your country is doing to us!”

“[My father] was just hoping that they were going to give them their passports back — which they did,” says Spielberg, who didn’t hear this story when he was young. He only learned it from his father, who is still living, about a year and a half ago.

“When he heard I was making this movie, he said, ‘Oh, Steve, you’ve got to hear this,’” says the director — whose father may be one of the few people on the planet who still call him “Steve.” “Then he comes up with the pictures he took of the remains of the U-2.”

Occasionally, seemingly ordinary dads have their own secret histories. “I don’t think they were secret lives,” Spielberg says. “My father just didn’t think I would find it very interesting.”

Maybe that’s also a bit of “common-man integrity.”

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