Arts interview

The Tech talks to Steven Spielberg

Iconic director speaks about his new movie, Bridge of Spies

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Tom Hanks and director Steven Spielberg on the set of Bridge of Spies.
Disney DreamWorks Pictures

Steven Spielberg is a man with great respect for history. Early in his four-decade career, his films were archetypes of Hollywood blockbusters — the modern adventure and sci-fi genres were built upon Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, among his other works. He then sojourned into new territory, broaching humanistic themes in critically acclaimed historical dramas. His WWII-era portrayals of the struggles of two remarkable men in Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan showed that he had the skill and tenacity to recreate pivotal events in history through cinema.

Spielberg now brings the intrigue of the Cold War to the big screen in his epic drama, Bridge of Spies. The Tech participated in a college conference call in which Spielberg discussed the historical inspiration for his latest film, as well as his collaboration with actor and longtime friend Tom Hanks.

Question: How much of a role do you play as an educator when directing historical fiction?

Steven Spielberg: Well, to begin with, my imagination has always been my best friend, especially when I was younger and making all those early movies … But when I became a dad for the first time, life took a very serious turn. I just became concerned about something I was never concerned about, which was the future of my children because I didn’t [previously] have any children to be concerned about.

When I started having kids, it made me look ahead, and then that forced me to look back ’cause I’ve always loved history. I excelled in history at school — probably not much else. I was a good history student and I’ve always said to my kids, you can’t go forward unless you know where all of us collectively have been. So I’ve always had this interest in historical subjects, in biographies, but I never really turned to that until I got serious about being a parent.

Q: What was the most challenging scene that you had to film in Bridge of Spies?

SS: The most challenging [scene] for Bridge of Spies, by far, was the scene on the Glienicke Bridge. We actually shot on the real bridge where the spy swap occurred all those many decades ago, and that was the most difficult part because I’m faced with scenes that must pay off, that must culminate in the drama of everyone’s stories, especially on one location which happened to be, symbolically, a bridge ... So that was a difficult scene, not just because it was so cold and we were all freezing, but because there was a lot of weight on all of us to make that the best scene in the movie.

Q: Given that you’ve been directing for so many years, do you feel that there’s something that you’ve never done before?

SS: Quite often I do a movie like I’ve never [done before]. I do a [genre] I’ve never done before. I never did anything like Saving Private Ryan before. I never did anything like Schindler’s List before. I never made a movie like Jaws before or Raiders of the Lost Ark. I mean there were so many movies that, for me, were complete firsts. There were other movies like the sequels to the adventure movies or the sequels to the dinosaur movies that are no less challenging, but the originality and concept are not as exciting as or as dangerous as the first ones were.

So, I’m more challenged by a genre like Bridge of Spies because I’ve never done anything about spies before.

Q: What makes Hanks a uniquely talented individual to work with?

SS: I’ve been blessed with some great actors in my long career and I’ve never really had to work with an actor who I was friends with first. There was jeopardy for me in getting into the professional world with somebody who I was very close to in the personal world … My company had produced several of Tom’s movies in the 1980s, and then Tom and I met, but we stopped doing business together. We just became good friends.

So when I made my first movie with Tom, Saving Private Ryan, we were both a little bit nervous. But we worked together almost like we were sharing a brain and it [was] that way on the next three films following Saving Private Ryan. One of the happiest experiences I’ve ever had with Tom was on this last film, Bridge of Spies, and it’s simply because Tom is an honest actor, which means that he doesn’t have to act. If he understands the character, he exists in clothing and in the persona of that character without having to work very hard.

It doesn’t mean he’s not a hard worker. It just means, when Tom knows a character, he becomes that person the same way Daniel Day Lewis became Abraham Lincoln, and I’m just blessed to work with actors like that — [who] can completely drop who they are, or who we think they are, and become totally different people.

The Tech: You have a motif of ordinary people being thrown into extraordinary circumstances, like Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List and Captain John Miller in Saving Private Ryan. What draws you to these characters?

SS: Well, what draws me to the characters is the fact that they are all of them unaccustomed to the jobs they’re doing. Even Abraham Lincoln had never run into such a divided Congress as we are all experiencing [now], and the mission that Captain Miller was given [was] to go find some kid whose brothers were killed and send him home, and that was something he had never experienced before.

This insurance lawyer, [Donovan], suddenly being invited to defend the most unpopular person of his time in this country, Rudolph Abel, and subjecting his family to tremendous scrutiny and criticism and even danger — all of these stories about characters experiencing something profound and dangerous for the first time really hooks me as a filmmaker and makes me want to tell those stories.

Q: What was your approach to Bridge of Spies in using music?

SS: Well, you know, the music is really important. It’s very important to me ‘cause I’ve had a 40-year collaboration with the great John Williams, and he’s done all of my movies except two: The Color Purple and this one. He only didn’t do this one because he had a slight medical procedure right as he was supposed to write the music, and he had to take a seven-week break before coming back to finish the score for J.J. [Abrams] on Star Wars. But, I decided not to have any music for the first 35 minutes of Bridge of Spies, and I rarely do that.

I usually have a lot of wall-to-wall music in my movies ’cause I think music tells a second story. They really are able to help us perform our own emotions. You know, they are a really great way of just guiding us emotionally along with the performances and the script. So I really used that tool quite often in my films. I didn’t feel I was gonna use that tool even had John scored my movie.

The intention between John and myself was not to have music in the first half hour of this film. So, when I hired Thomas Newman to do the score, he agreed that we should see if we can allow New York City and the sounds of New York to be the musical score for the first half hour. I do that rarely, but I really enjoyed doing it this time.

Q: 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?

SS: The second we get involved in a movie, we forget all the history, and even though we all know that there was never a thermonuclear exchange between the Soviet Union and the United States — otherwise I wouldn’t have a chance to make this movie ’cause none of us would be here — a movie casts a spell. All movies cast spells. Not just my movies, but every movie casts a spell [on] 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 in the world.

You allow yourself to imagine, “Could a third World War result if Donovan’s negotiations are not successful in retrieving Gary Powers from the Soviet Union?” And that’s just the magic of audiences and how we couldn’t make movies — I couldn’t be a storyteller unless I had audiences [allowing] me to tell these stories and accepting these stories even though they know what really happened in history and we weren’t all annihilated.

Q: How do you manage to keep people’s attention without conforming to cookie-cutter style movies that are becoming big?

SS: Well, sometimes I will conform to it like when I produced a movie like Jurassic World. We’ll conform, for instance, to the first Jurassic Park and design a film which is tonally very much like the movie I directed in 1993 and sort of trade up on the nostalgic factor. But for the most part, I never compare my stories that I’m interested in directing to movies that are being made today, or even [ones] made a hundred years ago.

[Sometimes], a story speaks to me, even if it doesn’t speak to any of my collaborators or any of my partners, who look at me and scratch their heads and say, “Gee, are you sure you wanna get into that trench for a year and a half?”

I love people challenging me that way because it’s a real test about my own convictions and [whether] I can be the standing man of my own life and take a stand on a subject that may not be popular, but that I would be proud to add to the body of my work. That’s pretty much the litmus test that gets me to say, “Yeah, I’ll direct that one.”

This interview transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.