The 5 Essential Things About ‘BRIDGE OF SPIES’ You Didn’t Know

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Director Steven Spielberg gifts audiences with a different kind of genre film we’re used to seeing with BRIDGE OF SPIES. Not only is it a solid adult drama, it approaches spy movies in a alternate, deeply engrossing fashion. In the film, Tom Hanks plays James Donovan, an insurance lawyer in Brooklyn who’s been tasked to do the seemingly impossible – defend Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) during the height of the Cold War. Donovan faced public scrutiny, death threats and lots of opposition, but his steadfast dedication to upholding Constitutional laws never wavered – not even when he’s sent to negotiate a swap in East Berlin.

At the film’s recent press day in New York, Hanks, Rylance and Spielberg spoke about everything from who was supposed to play James B. Donovan, to the modern tech Hanks used to research his character, to what film of Spielberg’s Rylance was considered for.

Gregory Peck was going to play James Donovan. Watching the film, it’s easy to see Hanks’ role is very much inspired by Peck’s most famous role as ‘Atticus Finch’ in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. However, it was only recently that Spielberg learned of the film’s connection to Peck. He said, “In 1965, Gregory Peck came after the story. And Gregory Peck got Alec Guinness to agree to play Abel. Gregory Peck was gonna play Donovan. And they got a very good – they got Stirling Silliphant to try to write the script. MGM at the time said, ‘No, I don’t think we’re gonna tell this story.’” The material was too politically charged for the studio to take on. Spielberg put into historical context, “it was 1965, and it was – it was – the 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 Soviet Union and the United States of America, for MGM to get into the politics of the story.”

Steven Spielberg wanted Mark Rylance in EMPIRE OF THE SUN. Rylance talked about how he came to be cast in this movie and let slip Spielberg had attempted to work with him back in the 80’s. “We had met each other back in the 80s, and I’d not been able to take part in a wonderful film he made called EMPIRE OF THE SUN. I was very, very delighted that he came to me again and asked me to take part in this. It was a no brainer.”

Tom Hanks googled James Donovan as research. Hanks explained, “After I read the screenplay, I did what everybody does; you just Google the guy you’re gonna play. You just Google James Donovan.” But it was a YouTube video that impressed him the most. “I came across a piece on YouTube in which the real Donovan, when he was defending Abel, was interviewed at the courthouse. And he said, he literally stated the reason why he took the case, and the reason why he carried it all the way to the extremes of the Supreme Court.”

Joel and Ethan Coen had reached out to Spielberg to help write BRIDGE OF SPIES. He said, “This was a genre they were very compelled by – the spy genre. They reached out to us, because they heard about the story and expressed their interest. 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. Then I let them know that we did have a script, but I was going to go deep with all the characters, and deeper with the story, and deeper with our research. They threw their hats in the ring. They really stepped on board because this was a genre that really piqued their interest. We’re very lucky to have them. That was the script that Tom first read, that Mark first read. They made a huge contribution – a huge contribution, while always acknowledging the heavy lifting that Matt Charman did when he first found the story, and put it all together in a manageable, very taut drama.”

The East Berlin Wall was built by Wes Anderson’s favorite production designer, Adam Stockhausen. Spielberg illuminated when they shot the East Berlin segment, they utilized Wroclaw’s landscape. “There’s still bullet holes in all the buildings from World War II there and they never repaired it. We went to the area closest to the east of Berlin, that looked just like East Berlin, for those specific scenes and we actually built that wall. That wall was [built by] the great – I mean, a wonderful production designer, Adam Stockhausen. He did an incredible, exceptional job, really making a modern, scenic, look exactly the way it looked all those years ago.”

BRIDGE OF SPIES opens on October 16. Check out our reviews here and here.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.