Bridge of Spies: Spielberg and Tom Hanks Fourth Collaboration

Bridge of Spies, Steven Spielberg’s Cold War drama, which world premiered at the New York Film Fest, open on October 16.

The movie marks the fourth collaboration between Spielberg and Tom Hanks, who stars as insurance lawyer James Donovan, who is recruited to defend an accused Soviet spy and later to help make a trade for captured American pilot Francis Gary Powers in the movie inspired by true events.

Speaking in a Q&A after the movie screened to an enthusiastic reception at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, Hanks used his experience working with the three-time Oscar-winner to reveal what the director expects from his actors.

“Steven does this incredible thing when he casts you: He empowers you with the scene,” Hanks explained. “He wants you to come in with ideas that are beyond the page, beyond the text and even I think beyond the purview of your own character … Everybody is required to come up with something. Whether you have lines in the piece or not. And when you do that, Steven becomes giddy … You think ‘Oh, man, I’m really glad I showed up on time. I’m really glad I knew the lines, and I’m really glad that I had an idea that he never saw.’ It strikes fear in your heart because you don’t want to screw up. But what he does almost instantaneously is come to you and say, ‘So whaddya got?’ And you show him what you’ve got, and he might not use it but he’s thrilled you came in with the energy. That’s what happens when you find out you’re in one of his movies.”

Even Hanks and Mark Rylance, who plays accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, the man Donovan’s asked to defend, did a lot of prep work before they stepped onto the set.

“Before we started, I cold-called Mark out of the blue and said, ‘We’re both in town. We’ve got a huge f—ing scene to shoot on Tuesday. Why don’t we go over it a little bit before we show up on the set?’ We spent a couple of hours and we just ran all of our scenes again and again and again and we got to know each other and got past that,” Hanks recalled. “It would have been really rough to have had to shoot the load that we had to shoot and honestly have only met for the first time on that day. We just got past the self-consciousness. We’d already had wonderful conversations about the work that I’d seen Mark do and vice versa, but we also began to experiment with what that relationship [between Donovan and Abel] was that starts off totally official, total legalese and did in fact evolve into a lot of personal affection between these two men.”

Cast members who don’t have nearly as many scenes or lines as Hanks and Rylance also seemed to have done extensive research into the real people they were playing.

Austin Stowell, who plays Powers said that he read Powers’ book, Operation Overflight, which covers his training, being shot down, his imprisonment and his release. “It’s an actor’s road map to how to play this man,” Stowell said of the book, adding that through Powers’ son, whom Stowell met, he was able to access additional interviews and stories about the man he was playing, including some in which Powers is laughing, Stowell said.

“He’s got a real great sense of humor about the whole thing and I think that shows that people just didn’t quite get what he went through and how could they? There was so much propaganda by the media at the time, on both sides,” the actor added. “The fact that he didn’t give up any information that they wouldn’t have already found out by the plane that crashed, that’s incredible. And he’s got this tremendous amount of inner strength, and that’s what I was trying to draw on when I was onscreen.”

Will Rogers, who plays fellow captured American Frederic Pryor, said he read another book about the incident, also called Bridge of Spies, on which the film doesn’t appear to be officially based. “I read that and listened to some podcasts about the Cold War era, and it was nice because it gave me a sense of the energy of that time and the paranoia of that time,” Rogers said.

Billy Magnussen, who plays Donovan’s associate, Doug Forrester, said that he read up on Forrester and Donovan. “Just did a lot of reading about the time,” he said. “There’s a lot more stuff about Forrester as he got older, not when he was that younger guy.”

Spielberg said that he wants his actors to find the characters themselves.  “It’s not my job to — if the actor needs help discovering something they’re stuck on, I’m there. But I try to hire actors that already come with 1,000 ideas,” Spielberg said. “Their ideas — it does create a kind of combustible moment where their ideas suggest where the camera should go.”

The film is the first screenplay from British playwright, Matt Charman.  Producer Marc Platt said that Charman had just what they were looking for. “Adam Siegel, who’s the president of my company, came to me about eight years ago and said ‘I love this story about James Donovan,’ who was kind of a footnote in history. We read about the story, we researched it but could never figure out what to do with it. And then we heard Matt Charman, the playwright, was coming to town and he had a pitch on the same subject matter,” Platt said.

Charman: First-Time Scripter

After Spielberg bought Charman’s script, Joel and Ethan Coen were brought in to do a polish on the dialogue

Spielberg didn’t seem bothered by the fact that Charman was a first-time screenwriter: “Everybody has to start somewhere. Everybody’s a first-time screenwriter. And Matt wrote a lot of plays.”

The vet director said that Charman “pulled together a story that was unknown to me. I did not know about James Donovan as an insurance lawyer who negotiated a spy swap between a Soviet spy and an American pilot. I knew nothing about this. I knew about Gary Powers being shot down.  I didn’t know how he got out. And for me, when somebody tells me a story that sort of perks up my ears and makes me want to know more and makes me want to go deep into who these characters were that made this happen, that’s probably going to be something I wind up directing.”

Although a title card at the beginning of the film says the movie is “inspired by true events,” Charman insists that he tried to adhere “really closely” to what actually happened.

“I felt the need to have a kind of veracity and truth anyway but Steven really pushes you there,” the screenwriter says. He really says, ‘Now, hang on a second, let’s look at this again.’ It’s really important to him that what an audience is seeing is thrilling, exciting but true. Especially with a movie like this, I think you can’t trick an audience. You need to be kind of straight with them and find the excitement in the truth.”

Charman said that the experience of having Spielberg direct his screenplay was and still is “incredible … surreal … and crazy.”  His advise to aspiring screenwriters is to find a story that they “love” and work hard on it.

“If it’s a true story, research the hell out of it, find the real, natural story there, find the way into that story, hone it to within an inch of its life,” Charman said. “And if you still love it, there’s a chance that a director’s going to love it. And there’s always a chance that someone like Steven will love it.  Because he loves cinema still, like he did when he was 25.”