With a body of work that even the most celebrated directors might envy, Hollywood legend Steven Spielberg shows no signs of slowing down. His blockbuster days may be behind him, but he continually finds new and interesting stories to tell, the latest of which – Bridge of Spies regarding the U2 spy plane incident and the subsequent fallout – opened today to rave reviews and the expected Oscar talk. In a recent press conference for the film, he spoke to the media about what he found so compelling in the material, and how it fits into our current troubled times.
Question: How did you get involved with this and why do you think it’s taken so long to tell this story?
Steven Spielberg: I knew nothing about this story two years go. I knew about Gary Powers because that was big news and it was national news when he was shot down and taken prisoner in the Soviet Union. But I knew nothing about how he got out of the Soviet Union. I knew nothing about Rudolf Abel. I knew nothing about James B. Donovan. That all came to me, as all good stories come to us, in a surprise package. There was no brand preceding Bridge of Spies. It was simply a piece of history that was so compelling personally for me. A man who stood on his principles and defied everybody hating his family for what he thought he needed to do – equal protection under the law for even an alien in this country, even for a Soviet accused spy – that was, to me, a righteous reason to tell this story.
I was meeting with the Donovan family, the two daughters and the son, this morning. I found out something I never knew. In 1965 Gregory Peck came after the story. He got Alec Guinness to agree to play Abel. Gregory Peck was going to play Donovan and they got Stirling Silliphant to try and write the script. Then MGM, at the time, said, “No, I don’t think we’re going to tell this story.” I didn’t even know that until a couple of hours ago. We weren’t the first.
Q: Do you know why they didn’t want to tell the story? Was it still politically difficult?
SS: It was 1965 and Bay of Pigs had happened. The Cuban Missile Crisis had been averted like a year and a half before and the tensions were too taut between the Soviets and United States of America for MGM to get into the politics of the story.
Q: You’ve done a lot of movies about fictional heroes and then you’ve done a lot of movies about real heroes. Which do you find more challenging or compelling?
SS: I don’t really distinguish between a fictional hero and a real-life hero as a basis for any comparison. To me, a hero is a hero. I like making pictures about people who have a personal mission in life or at least in the life of a story who start out with certain low expectations and then over achieve our highest expectations for them. That’s the kind of character arc I love dabbling in as a director, as a filmmaker.
Q: Were you able to talk to Abel’s family from the other side?
SS: No, not at all. Abel went behind the iron curtain. He sort of went into the obscurity of that. At one point towards the end Donovan’s life, he went to Russia with the hope of meeting Abel again and wasn’t able to find him and get into contact with him. I think there was little help. There was some obfuscation going on at the time. He was hoping to have one more moment with him but never had that moment.
Q: What lessons do you think Donovan and Berlin have for us today and what impact would you hope this movie has on the national conversation?
SS: It’s interesting about the national conversation, it keeps changing every day. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make the national conversation your priority. It just doesn’t work that way. You make a movie that is relevant to our times because the Cold War seems to be coming back. I wouldn’t call what’s happening between Vladimir Putin and the Obama administration a Cold War but there’s certainly a frost in the air. With the recent encroachment into Crimea and ambitions further into Ukraine and what’s happening right now in Syria, it seems like history is repeating itself. That was not the case when we first set up to tell this story. Those headlines hadn’t been written because those infringements hadn’t taken place yet. There’s so much relevance between the story in 1960 and the story today. The whole idea that spying has reached a technological apogee of almost open season for anybody that knows how to operate an operating system and knows how to get into somebody else’s operating system. The cyber hacking that’s going on today is just like the spying that went on then. A lot of hacking is sports cyber hacking. It’s not even with any goal in sight, it’s just pick through a rubbish heap to see if there’s any actionable information or something that can be bartered with. There are just so many eyes on all of us and we have eyes on all of them. What started then, almost in a polite context – the Cold War was almost polite in terms of the in the way that we were spying on each other – today you just don’t know that when you’re watching television, is television actually watching you? You don’t know that.
Q: Those wonderful scenes in East Berlin, especially as the train goes over while they’re building the Berlin wall, was that just a really big set, or was it a practical location somewhere and if it was the latter, how difficult was it to shoot there?
SS: We shot that on the border of Poland and Germany in a town called Wroclaw. There’s a Polish name for it, but when the Germans invaded Poland they changed the name. There are still bullet holes in all the buildings from WWII there. They never repaired it. We went to the area to the closest to East Berlin that looked just like East Berlin for those two specific scenes that you mentioned. We actually built that wall. A wonderful production designer Adam Stockhausen who does all of Wes Anderson’s movies and he did 12 Years a Slave—won his first Oscar for that – he did our movie and did an incredible, exceptional job really making a modern scenic look exactly the way it looked all those years ago.
Q: Two years ago you predicted the implosion of the film industry and I’m wondering two years later where your thoughts are on that now.
SS: To clarify, I didn’t predict the implosion of the film industry at all, I simply predicted that a number of blockbusters in one summer, those big sort of tent-pole superhero movies, there was going to come a time where two or three or four of them in a row didn’t work. That’s really all I said. I didn’t say the film industry was ever going to end because of it. I was simply saying that I felt that that particular genre doesn’t have the legs or longevity of the Western, which was around since the beginning of film and only started to wither and shrivel in the 60s. I was also trying to make the point that there was room for every kind of movie today because there seems to be an audience for everything. Even five years ago there wasn’t an audience for everything. But now, these little movies just squeezing in and finding a birth next to these huge Queen Mary-type movies and their able to find an audience, enough of an audience to encourage the distributor and the film companies to finance more of them, these are not just films like Bridge of Spies, it’s independent movies as well.
Q: This film has a very distinct Coen brothers flare. How did their style affect your direction?
SS: They’re not here to speak for themselves, so I’m just going to hazard a guess, that this was a genre that they were very compelled by, from their early years as lovers of movies and genres, like the spy genre. I know that they reached out to us because they heard about the story and they expressed their interest in the story. I think when they reached out to us they thought that we just had a treatment and didn’t even have a script yet and were wondering if I wanted to meet with them. I let them know that we did have a wonderful script by Matt Charman, but I was going to go deep with all the characters and deeper with story and deeper with the research and they threw their hats in the ring. They really came to us and stepped on board because this is a genre that really piqued their interest. We’re very lucky to have them. That was the script that Tom first read and that Mark first read. They made a huge contribution while always acknowledging the heavy lifting that Matt Charman did when he found this story and put it all together in a manageable, very taut drama.