Steven Spielberg (center) with Tom Hanks on the set.
Steven Spielberg (center) with Tom Hanks on the set.
Jaap Buitendijk/Dreamworks Pictures/Disney

How Steven Spielberg's Cold War Childhood Inspired 'Bridge of Spies'

"It's as close to my life as you can get," says the director of a particular bathtub scene straight from his youth in the real-life spy thriller, as he describes drawing on everything from his early fears to his father's own Russian slides to make the 1960s-set film.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Like many kids growing up during the Cold War, Steven Spielberg thought a lot about the end of the world. In fact, one day in the early 1960s — right around the time the Cuban Missile Crisis was pushing the planet to the brink of nuclear holocaust — Spielberg's father came home and discovered that his 15-year-old son had drawn hypothetical blast radiuses on a map (to see if their house would be destroyed) and filled the bathtub with water (because he'd learned from the civil defense films at school that fresh drinking water would be scarce after an atomic attack). "It was in your face," the now 68-year-old director tells THR of the apocalyptic fear that gripped America during the dark days of Mutual Assured Destruction. "It was on TV. It was in the newspaper, and the conversation that was on everyone's lips was about doomsday."

Hanks (right) says Donovan was confident he could "kick the Russians’ asses" in a negotiation.

Six decades later, the world has somehow survived, but Spielberg still is filling bathtubs. There's a scene early in Bridge of Spies — Spielberg's Cold War drama based on the 1962 spy exchange of downed American pilot Francis Gary Powers for Soviet agent Rudolf Abel, starring Tom Hanks as James Donovan, the wily New York attorney drafted by the CIA to broker the deal — in which Donovan comes home to find his teenage son drawing blast radiuses and filling tubs. "I wrote that scene," says Spielberg. "It's as close to my life as you can get."

Rylance as Abel. When cast, he reminded Spielberg that, 30 years earlier, he had turned down a part in the director’s 'Empire of the Sun' to join the National Theater. He’ll soon be doing another Spielberg film, 'The BFG.'

Of course, Spielberg has drawn on his own life before. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial was inspired by the imaginary alien friend he'd invented as a child to cope with his parents' divorce. Close Encounters of the Third Kind was born from a magical night watching a meteor shower with his father. But Bridge of Spies, despite its geopolitical backdrop, is in some ways the most personal movie he's made, touching on a part of his childhood he never before explored onscreen. "I haven't made a movie yet that is actually a mirror of my factual life, and I don't think I ever will," Spielberg has said in the past. But with this $55 million drama, he does just that, putting the words his own father said to him — "Look, Steve, I know the Russians aren't crazy, and we're not crazy, and it's never going to come to that" — into his favorite actor's mouth to re-create a precious childhood memory.

"I'm not in therapy," Spielberg joked at a Nov. 4 invitation-only screening in Los Angeles. "I use movies as my couch."

Hanks and Ryan in a scene in which Donovan is hounded by news photographers. "Spielberg made it a comment by having us walk [on the discarded flashbulbs,]" says Hanks. "He finds these little nuggets and they end up being the coolest part of the scene."

•••

"Hi. It's Steven. I hear you have a pitch for me."

Matt Charman had just returned to his London home after a trip to Los Angeles, where he'd spent four days trying to sell his idea for a movie about a Cold War hero nobody had ever heard of, when he picked up his phone and listened, astonished, to Steven Spielberg on his voicemail.

Stowell as Powers.

He had a pitch, all right. The 36-year-old British playwright had spent several years researching a screenplay about James Donovan, a long-forgotten historical figure (he died in 1970) Charman had been borderline obsessed with since he happened to notice a footnote in Robert Dallek's biography of John F. Kennedy. The footnote pointed out that the man who negotiated the release of captured Cuban expats after the Bay of Pigs was the same one who had negotiated the release of Powers after his U-2 spy plane went down in Russian air space (Powers famously declined to take the suicide capsule hidden in a silver dollar). How, Charman wondered, did an ordinary attorney find himself at the center of not one, but two of the highest-profile prisoner swaps of the Cold War? He dug deeper. He consulted with the Kennedy presidential library in Boston. He combed The New York Times archive. He even met with Donovan's now 70-year-old son, John (played in the film by 11-year-old Noah Schnapp) in a coffee shop in New York. "I looked him in the eye," Charman recounts, "and said, 'I'd love to tell your father's story.' "

Hanks (left, with Spielberg) says of the director, "Steven thinks in cinematic terms, [so] my requirement is to show up [and perform] as if it’s going to be in the movie."

Prior to that fateful call, Charman had honed a 20-minute presentation packed with the story's twists and turns, and, in September 2013, flew to L.A. for those four days of pitching. It couldn't have been an easy sell. Cold War thrillers haven't been a hot genre since the fall of the Berlin Wall (look what happened to Guy Ritchie's recent 1960s flop The Man From U.N.C.L.E.). And although Charman's meeting with then-DreamWorks executive Jonathan Eirich, over breakfast at the Griddle Cafe, was encouraging — "Slow down," Eirich told him during the pitch. "I want to remember this exactly as you're telling it, because I have a feeling Steven is going to love it." — he returned to London without any offers in hand. Then he got that voicemail. "It's nerve-wracking," Charman recalls of his phone call with Spielberg a few days later. "I had posters of his movies on my wall growing up." But when Charman finished his presentation, Spielberg said, "I love this. How fast can you write it?"

Making a movie with Spielberg is always a race against the clock — he usually has multiple potential films waiting for a slot on his schedule — but in this case, speed was especially of the essence. Spielberg had a year window before he would start back-to-back shoots on The BFG and Ready Player One. To make Bridge of Spies work, he'd need a shooting script in hand no later than fall 2014. But Charman worked quickly, pumping out a first draft in five weeks (Joel and Ethan Coen took another six for a polish and screen credit). Then Spielberg reeled in Hanks, sending the script directly to the actor. "When it goes in stealth to Tom," says DreamWorks producer Kristie Macosko Krieger, "he knows Steven means business."


The Berlin Wall, circa 1961.

Hanks, a Cold War buff, didn't require much convincing. As soon as he finished reading, he started Googling Donovan. "I needed to find the man talking," Hanks recalled at that same invitation-only Nov. 4 screening (although, he admitted, his portrayal "may have added a little extra syrup to the pancakes"). The rest of the cast — Mark Rylance as Abel, Amy Ryan as Donovan's wife, Mary, and Austin Stowell as Powers — quickly fell into place while Spielberg's production designer on the film, Adam Stockhausen, looked for a location to build Berlin in 1962. "It was really important to Steven to get Berlin right," says Stockhausen. "There's this false sense that it was really cleaned up quickly [after the war] and it just wasn't." These days, Berlin looks more like Dubai than a bombed-out ruin; the skyline has been bursting with new construction since the 1990 unification. But then Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg's longtime director of photography and a Poland native, suggested Wroclaw, a city near where he grew up that looked a bit like postwar Berlin. And it looked even more so after the production erected a three-block-long stretch of the Wall — not the imposing edifice of the 1980s, but the more primitive structure of the early Cold War. "The first version was thrown up as just concrete slabs with cinder block," says Stockhausen.

Donovan (left) and Abel (center) during Abel’s 1957 trial for espionage. “According to the Donovan children, the movie is true to Donovan and Abel and the uniqueness of their relationship,” says producer Marc Platt.

Spielberg shot the movie fast — in just 59 days — which is how he likes it. "You just get into the scrimmages, one after another until you're shooting, then you're cutting and then, finally, school's out," he describes of his process. Hanks, who has made three previous films with the director, has learned to keep up with the pace. "He's different than other directors," says the actor. "He's got the film cut in his brain long before we show up. He thinks in cinematic terms." Spielberg's longtime editor Michael Kahn (E.T. is the only movie they haven't done together since 1977) says much the same thing: "He shoots for the editing room." The editing room is oftentimes housed in a trailer next to Spielberg's, so that he and Kahn can begin cutting the dailies immediately. And it's there, at the editing bay, that Spielberg digs into the real marrow of his movies. There's a jailhouse scene in Bridge of Spies, for instance, between Hanks and Rylance. Spielberg and Kahn spliced it frame by frame, added a few beats each time the camera was on Rylance (to maximize the character's stillness) and subtracted a few when it was on Hanks (to highlight his character's jitters). "It's a subliminal thing," says the director, "but it makes all the difference."

At one point in the original script, there was a scene set in Moscow, where the Russians put Powers and the wreckage of his spy plane on display in Red Square. It was another bit of Spielberg's life being played out onscreen. Spielberg's father, Arnold, an engineer for General Electric, actually was in Moscow on an exchange trip when Powers' crash was being turned into a propaganda extravaganza (Spielberg's dad, now 98, provided research for the scene with the Kodachrome slides he took on the trip). But the cost of re-creating Red Square would have inflated the budget, so Spielberg cut it from the final draft. Still, the director says, closing the loop between film and autobiography, "I'd never forgotten that story. The second I heard Matt's pitch, I knew there was a connection between the story he had unearthed and my own experiences being a teenager during the Cold War."

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