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NYFF: How the Coen Brothers Added Their Own Special Touch to Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’ Historic ‘Bridge of Spies’

NYFF: How the Coen Brothers Added Their Own Special Touch to Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks' Historic 'Bridge of Spies'

READ MORE: PODCAST: Is Steven Spielberg’s ‘Bridge of Spies’ a Major Oscar Contender?

Several hours before the New York Film Festival’s world premiere screening of “Bridge of Spies,” Steven Spielberg and his star-studded cast — Tom Hanks, Amy Ryan, Mark Rylance and Alan Alda — joined members of the press to discuss the making and timeless message of the long-gestating awards contender. 

The drama stars Hanks as Brooklyn insurance lawyer James B. Donovan and is a beautifully crafted drama from Spielberg. The first half centers on Donovan’s crusade for justice in defending an alleged Soviet spy named Rudolph Abel (a standout Rylance), while the second relocates the lawyer to Berlin for a taut thriller about negotiating the exchange between Abel and an American POW in Soviet imprisonment. 

From revealing the film’s surprising origins to showering both Donovan and and the screenwriting Coen brothers with the upmost praise, read the highlights from the “Bridge of Spies” press conference below.

Spielberg hadn’t known the true story, but it had all the elements of what he loves most as a director.

Spielberg revealed he new nothing about the story two years. Aside from remembering Gary Power’s imprisonement in the Soviet Union, which made national news when he was a teenager, Spielberg wasn’t familiar with the lives of James B. Donovan and Rudolph Abel, but they ended up being so “compellingly personal” that he had no choice but to take to the director’s chair.

“It all came to me as all good stories come to us: In a surprise package…To know that something like this, this man who stood on his principles and defied everyone hating him and his family for what he thought he needed to do — equal protection under the law, even for an alien, even for a Soviet accused spy — that was, to me, a righteous reason to tell this story,” he said.

While addressing the difference between fictional and real life heroes, Spielberg continued, “To me, a hero is a hero. I like making pictures about people who have a personal mission in life…who start out with certain low expectations and then overachieve our highest expectations for them — that’s the kind of character arc I love dabbling in as a director.” Donovan more than capably fit the bill. 

The film could’ve been made in 1965 with Gregory Peck and Obi Wan Kanobi. 

According to Spielberg, Gregory Peck wanted to tackle the same story for MGM back in 1965, with himself and a pre-Obi Wan Kanobi Alec Guinness starring in the Donovan and Abel roles, respectively. Considering just how much Donovan resembles an Atticus Finch-like hero, Peck’s interest in the project makes complete sense. The studio ultimately balked at the idea, however, due to the political climate of the time. The Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis had put tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union at a boiling point, and “tensions were too high for MGM to get into the politics of the story.”

Hanks and Ryan found much to admire about Donovan’s pursuit for justice.

Like Spielberg, Hanks knew nothing about the real-life Donovan before reading the script, but the chance to play a “guy who is an awfully good insurance lawyer” and who “ends up being part of such a momentous six days in history” was too good to be true. “I’m a selfish actor,” he said. “I’ll lunge at that opportunity regardless of anything else I’ve done prior.”

“You look for some degree of superstructure for who it is,” the actor said about taking the part. “You look for something in the past, and that he was a prosecutor in the Nuremberg war crimes, that means he wasn’t the type of solider who wanted to kill as many Nazis as possible, he was a guy who wanted to nail as many Nazis as possible using the letter of the law. That’s a different kind of man.”

“What’s so fascinating is this is a happily married couple — both devoted to their family,” added Ryan, “yet here’s a man, even loving his family, [who] can still set forth for the greater good, has the foresight, [and] can push apart fear that the majority of the country is feeling at this time.”

Spielberg didn’t predict the film’s release would be so timely.

“It’s interesting about the national conversation, it keeps changing every day. You can lead us a horse to water, but you can’t make the national conversaiton you’re priority, it just doesn’t work that way,” he said. “You make a movie that is relevant to our time because the Cold War seems to be coming back. I wouldn’t call what’s happening right now between Putin and the Obama administration a Cold War, but there’s certainly a frost in the air…It seems like history is repeating itself.”

“That was not the case when we first set out to tell this story. Those headlines hadn’t been written…but there’s so much relevance between the story in 1960 and the story today. The whole idea that spying has reached a technological apogee —  it’s just almost open season for anyone that knows how to operate an operating system and can get into anyone else’s operating system,” Spielberg said. “The cyber hacking that’s going on today is just like the spying that went on then.”

The Coen brothers acted as the screenplay’s masseuses.

When asked about the Coen brothers’ contribution to the screenplay, Spielberg said the Ocar winners had approached him to write the film after they heard about the story. According to Spielberg, it was a “genre they were very compelled by from their early years as lovers of movies and genres.” While the script had already been written by Matt Charman, Spielberg was looking to go deeper with the story and the research, and fortunately the Coens “threw their hats into the ring.”
“I took the job on the first script, and it was absolutely fascinating to then see what the Coen brothers’ imagination does to a script,” said Rylance. “My image for it is going to a very good masseur and you feel that all the blood and energy has got right to the finger tips and the core blood — the theme of the piece — was suddenly into all the extremities and details of the story. It wasn’t a different story than what Matt had created — it was Matt’s body — but they had just kind of really got the spine in place and massaged it and clicked a few things. It felt even more alive and whole I suppose.”

“Their dialogue scans. It ends up devolving into almost like a percussion-given take. It’s different than other motion picture dialogue in which it is mostly text as opposed to subtext,” added Hanks, who last worked with the pair on “The Ladykillers.” “I don’t want to put too many roses on what they do, but there is a cadence that is individual to each character that the dialogue scans in a way.”

“A lot of times you read in the screenplays that one very specific thing is happening in the scene and both characters sound the same after awhile — they just lock into the antagonist/protagonist thing,” Hanks continued. “That just never happens with this. It seems as though somebody is walking back on their heels in a Coen brothers’ scene, while another person is making arguments that you could never begin to imagine, and it’s pretty cool when you get to wrap your heads around that.”

Hanks fully believes in Donovan’s lesson of what America is really about.

After taking the part, Hanks went to YouTube to find any clips he could on Donovan, and he found one in which the lawyer was being interviewed outside of the courthouse during the Abel case. “[Abel] said, ‘You can’t accuse this man of treason. He’s not a traitor. He’s actually a patriot to his cause. Only an American can be a traitor, only an American can commit treason against their own country. He’s just a man doing his job in the same way we have men doing their jobs.'”

“As soon as you start assassinating — and let’s extrapolate — as soon as you start torturing the people that we have, well, then you give the other side permission and cause to do the same exact thing, and that’s not what America stands for…As soon as you start executing anybody you think has gone against your country, then you’re not that far removed from the KGB, and that’s just not what America is about. That’s what Donovan took with him from that get go,” Hanks continued.

“Bridge of Spies” opens in theaters nationwide October 16.

READ MORE: Watch: Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg Fight the Cold War in ‘Bridge of Spies’ Trailer

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