How They Designed Cold-War Era New York and Berlin for Spielberg’s ‘Bridge of Spies’

How They Designed Cold-War Era New York and Berlin for Spielberg's 'Bridge of Spies'
How They Designed Cold-War Era New York and Berlin Spielberg's 'Bridge of Spies'

Bridge of Spies” is a far cry, of course, from “12 Years a Slave” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” but for production designer Adam Stockhausen the big advantage was access to real footage of the construction of the Berlin Wall, which has never been depicted before in a Hollywood movie. This was key in recreating an authentic-looking war-torn East Berlin in the Polish town of Breslau, which borders Germany, along with using the actual Glienicke Bridge in Berlin, where the titular swap of spies occurred.

“So much of the Berlin section takes place in East Berlin that it was important to get that look, which we found in Poland,” said Stockhausen, who joined the Spielberg crew for the first time and is currently designing the director’s sci-fi adventure, “Ready Player One,” about a virtual video game contest, which stars Olivia Cooke (“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) and is due December 15, 2017.

“The Wall was constructed on a large street and with a square and Checkpoint Charlie,” Stockhausen continued. “We filmed the Gary Powers Berlin sequence in the basement of the former KGB prison that is now a museum. Upstairs in the same prison is where we shot the detention cell scene with James Donovan [the Brooklyn attorney played by Tom Hanks, who craftily negotiated the exchange of Powers for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, portrayed by Mark Rylance]. It was emotionally significant to be shooting in places that were the real thing when we could.”

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The critical location was the Glienicke Bridge, which still looks great, but was a challenge because it remains a busy traffic artery. “There aren’t any other ways around it and we were there shooting for a long weekend. We completely shut it down so it took a lot of support from the local government,” Stockhausen said.
As for West Berlin, which had quickly recovered from World War II and had much of the same pop excitement as New York in the early ’60s, they shot in the interior of the Berlin Hilton and outside in front of a movie theater. “We tried to build those out as much as we could and get a real sense of West Berlin through those two scenes,” Stockhausen added.

Meanwhile, in New York, Stockhausen found the perfect home for Donovan in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park, with the right visual vocabulary for his lifestyle and family life. “This one had a very nice flow from the front door around through the living room and into the dining room and that worked for several of our scenes where you have that connection.”

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Stockhausen was duly impressed with Spielberg’s famed visual virtuosity for this compelling piece of history about “a man who stood on his principles for equal protection under the law… even for a Soviet accused spy,” according to the director. 

For example, for a suspenseful scene at Donovan’s law office (shot at the New York Bar Association on 44th Street, which is not easy to access for filming unless you have the clout of Spielberg), the director devised a Hitchcockian camera move on the fly.

“He came up with a traveling master shot and insert as they’re talking about Leipzig and a letter’s arriving… This complicated moving shot is following them across the office with all this traffic and it stops just at the perfect point when the letter comes into frame.”

Similarly, in the Abel arrest sequence in the hotel in Brooklyn, there were two cameras moving and functioning as a master shot, but then also a secondary shot or an insert or picking out a detail in a very economical way. The camera follows the FBI agents at the bed when Abel asks them to retrieve his teeth in the bathroom so he can delicately hide the paper with the codes among his paint supplies.

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Arguably, however, Stockhausen’s best work occurred during two train scenes with Donovan arriving in Berlin and then returning home. “We mirrored the passage over the Berlin Wall with Donovan’s return home on the train and seeing the kids jump over the chain link fence,” the production designer recalled. “We didn’t actually shoot on a moving train but in the New York City Transit Museum and the Berlin-Rummelsburg Betriebsbahnhof station in vintage cars.” 

For both scenes they mapped the path using camera crane trucks, and found the street they wanted with the correct height and angle. “In New York, we found a street that didn’t have power lines and things crossing so we could actually do that and then add the right beat into the backyard [using digital extensions and compositing]. We built 200 feet of set in Poland and did the same thing with the crane truck. 

“Steven’s very visceral and direct about conveying visual spaces: What kind of house does Donovan live in? And what are you conveying about the lifestyle of his family? The same for Abel: How nicotine-stained and dirty does his room need to be? It was significant that these spaces felt right. And the whole process of shooting in New York was a pattern of trying to get into these special locations,” Stockhausen observed.

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