At the end of 2015, Première met Steven Spielberg to discuss the creation of the Spy Bridge . We are sharing this interview again when the film was broadcast on Sunday evening on W9.
Premiere: There are several hiatuses in your career, like after Hook or Indiana Jones 4 , two of your least accomplished films, followed by a radical “reinvention” three years later. This time is different: several years have passed since Lincoln , but Le Pont des espions is clearly an extension of it.
Steven Spielberg: Yes but remember, there were also three years after Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, the two films for which I received my Oscars… No, there is no rule or established scheme. The reasons for these “hiatus” are simple. First, there are periods when no project keeps me awake at night, or enough nights in a row for me to end up realizing it just to be able to sleep a little … The second is my seven children. Whenever I make a film, it separates me from them, they no longer see their father as much as they should. So these kinds of “breaks” have often been deliberate. During these periods, when I find projects that I could possiblyto realize, I postpone them, just to spend time raising my children. But there it is again, I work like crazy. My last born just started college. The seventh. We find ourselves at home facing what is called an “empty nest” – I don’t know if you have an equivalent expression in French.
It is said that the children “leave the nest”, yes.
Here. We have this very evocative image of the “empty nest”. A good time to get back to work… And luckily, I had the chance to find two or three very good films to make. Good scripts to feed me and keep me busy.
As in Lincoln , we find in The Bridge of Spies this arithmetic typical of your point of view on the world: one man can represent humanity – or embody all the values of America.
Yes. This is the story of a guy who believed that everyone, even an “enemy”, deserves equal protection before the law. He had such respect for the Constitution and the Declaration of Human Rights that he agreed to defend Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy. He could have dropped several times and returned to his super-lucrative job as an insurance attorney, but no. To defend him, he went all the way and more – a few more yards if you excuse this football analogy. He did so on principle, and because he believed that everyone deserves to be treated fairly by the courts. He pushed this attitude so far that the CIA asked him to act “privately” in East Berlin – not as a government official but as an individual – and to
“I love the term” spielbergien “
We are close to Private Ryan , where we must find a man, erected to the rank of symbol or Schindler , when the title character collapses because he should have saved “more” Jews. It’s very Spielbergian. Do you know the term “Spielbergian”?
Ahah, yes, of course I know him! It has been used so much in my favor and against me over the years, that yes, believe me, I understand its meaning very well.
Are you flattered? Are you upset?
Oh, I love it, I take it as an honor. I remember using the term “Hitchcockian” constantly when I was younger. To perpetuate the tradition of the suffix “-ien” behind my name makes me very happy.
Donovan, played by Tom Hanks, becomes the embodiment of America and its ideals, but America turns against him.
Yes. You have to understand the context, it was dangerous to get near or far from anyone who was linked to the Soviet system. Donovan represents the best of us, which has not stopped most of us from turning on him and his family, until a bullet is fired in the window of his house. Well, in the film, I put six balls. But it was only one.
Six is better than one?
That’s why we say “inspired by a true story”. All the events are real, but the details are up to the cinema. They are “arranged” for considerations of dramaturgy, tension or rhythm. In reality, this story took five years. I condensed everything for the sake of efficiency.
It’s an almost intimate film. But the demands of contemporary spectacle impose some “epic” sequences. Usually, you determine more clearly the scale of the film. Here we are a bit in between.
In my mind, it was an intimate film, the only scenes with high production values are that of the downed plane and that where guys are killed while trying to cross the Wall, moments that are a little timpani shots in a story which, if not, makes me rather think of an air of flute. I don’t know why, when I think of Abel and Donovan, I hear a flute … It’s a film played by light woodwinds, with occasional heavy percussion. And that was the idea from the start. Completely wanted.
John Williams sick at the time of production, it is a film that looks like Spielberg but that does not sound quite like Spielberg …
Obviously. Already, there is not a musical note during the first thirty five minutes … And that, I believe that I had never done it. I even thought of not putting music at all, since there was no John, but hey, it would have been an exaggeration. Fortunately, he is fine now, everyone is reassured.
“I try to create my own genres”
Your last three films seem to be turning their backs on the blockbuster, the fantastic, the teenage audience… Is it a decision?
No, it was never planned that I would do several historical dramas one behind the other (War Horse , Lincoln and the Spy Bridge ). It is above all a question of opportunity. Lincoln , I was on it for eleven years, and all of a sudden, the film started because Daniel Day Lewis agreed to do it. Next June, I’m going to release the Big Fat Giant , adapted from Roald Dahl, a great film for children, and I’m leaving right after shooting Ready Player One, a story of adventure and pursuit happening in the future. Believe me, these two films are the opposite of the last three, and I didn’t plan that either. The good big giant arrived in my life by surprise and Ready Player One , it was Warner who sent me the book by Ernest Cline, whose look on the future of technology fascinated me. In short, there is no reasoned process. Sometimes the films seem to follow one another logically, they give the impression that I am pursuing something very thoughtful, but I promise you that this is not the case. I don’t finish Lincoln by saying to myself “quickly, I need another historic drama”. Never done that in my life.
It feels like you don’t care about genres.
And that’s true.
Almost all American filmmakers think in terms of genres, but you have never been.
I try to create my own genres. Lincoln was probably the originator of a new bio-historical genus – it was such a box, that no one had seen coming. But in general, I like that films are out of category and that people come out of it saying “it was an experience, which I did not know before seeing the film”.
You are probably the only living director who is not influenced by Steven Spielberg!
AHAHAH (laughs)! And it’s also true, I’m not influenced by myself.
Without laughing, you have just linked three films that go back to the cinema before Spielberg, and you are the only one who can afford it. It’s a bit like Bob Dylan, the only rock star who is allowed to ignore Bob Dylan to dialogue with music as it was before it revolutionized it in the 60s.
First of all thank you, it’s a huge compliment, and I take great pleasure in hearing you say that. Besides, I’m a big fan of Dylan. We are close in age, I’m 68, he must be a little over 70, but he had a very big influence on me. He even opened my eyes to the Beatles. Without my passion for Dylan, I would have missed them. Growing up, I was more into jazz and classical, a little dropped on rock ‘n’ roll. But I was not dropped on Dylan and he was my gateway to everything else. So there you have it, I’m not sure what to answer, except that it’s an interesting observation. If, all the same: when people know your work and hope for a certain type of film from you, it is never easy to tackle with full knowledge of a project which we know will disappoint them. You only win that after making a hell of a bunch of movies. Today, I am quieter on this. At this stage, I consider that the public suspects that there is a chance that each of my films will be different from the previous one.
So you don’t try to be “Spielbergian”.
Oh no, rather the reverse. I’m trying to get away from things that are too obvious, things that I have already done, plans that I have been able to shoot in the past, which have taken on an iconic dimension and which could divert your attention from history that I’m trying to tell by taking you back to a film from thirty years ago … Sometimes it’s stronger than me, of course – and sometimes I can’t help it. A few days ago, a journalist said to me “I found elements of ET in the Spy Bridge “. I say to him “But where that, finally !! ?? And he tells me about a scene located in East Berlin where guys deliver mail by bicycle. And the bikes have baskets. I say to him: “OK… so what? Well, that made him think of ET , because according to him, ET could have been in one of those baskets! Sometimes it’s too obscure for me, sorry. And needless to say, it never crossed my mind.