On a crisp October afternoon hours before his latest film, "Bridge of Spies," premiered to a standing ovation at the New York Film Festival, Steven Spielberg walked two miles through Central Park to an interview and shared a story about his father.
In 1960, Spielberg's father, Arnold, traveled to Moscow as part of a delegation of electrical engineers from Phoenix. The trip coincided with an incident that is the subject of "Bridge of Spies," a historical drama about an attorney (played by Tom Hanks) entrusted with negotiating the release of Francis Gary Powers, an American U-2 pilot shot down over the Soviet Union. While in Moscow, Spielberg's father had waited in a two-hour line to see Powers' broken plane and flight suit, which the Russian military had put on display in a show of its might.
"A military man approached my dad and his delegation and took their passports," Spielberg said, speaking in a hotel suite overlooking the park. "They escorted my dad's group to the front of the line. Once they got there, the guy in uniform started yelling, 'Look at what your country is doing to us!' I asked my dad, 'How did that feel?' He said, 'I was just watching the hand with the passports.'"
His father's anecdote is the kind of historical story that Spielberg, 68, loves as a filmmaker — one with ordinary people navigating extraordinary times. As a director, he has ping-ponged between such fact-driven tales as "Lincoln," "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan" and fantastical adventures like the Indiana Jones films, "War of the Worlds" and "E.T."
On "Bridge of Spies," which is based on a screenplay by Matt Charman, and Ethan and Joel Coen, Hanks' plain-spoken insurance attorney, James Donovan, has been hired to defend a Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, played by English stage actor Mark Rylance. Around the time Donovan is making the unpopular case for sparing Abel's life in the U.S., Powers (Austin Stowell) is shot down over Russia, setting up a prisoner exchange in Soviet-controlled East Berlin.
After opening to reviews that praised its tense tone and strong performances by Hanks and Rylance in October, "Bridge of Spies" has been one of the few adult dramas to break through at the crowded fall box office, grossing more than $66 million domestically.
Spielberg took some minor dramatic license with the story — in the movie, six bullets fly through the windows of the Donovan family home, for instance, while in reality it was only one shot fired into the house — but he said he feels most creative as a filmmaker when he is rooted in a fact-based tale. "When I do a historical drama I'm contained by the facts," Spielberg said. "In a fantasy, there is no ceiling and there's actually no floor. I really prefer to have my imagination contained because when my imagination is contained I'm able to find a way through the camera to tell a second-tier story."
On "Bridge of Spies," Spielberg and his team, including production designer Adam Stockhausen and longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, created two distinct worlds, one as Donovan and Abel travel in boisterous late 1950s New York and another as bricklayers build the Berlin Wall, shutting off Eastern Europe from the rest of the world.
"We're accustomed to seeing the wall coming down, but we don't know anything about the wall going up," Spielberg said. "It was really a wonderful exercise in creating two basic visions for the film, an American version and an Eastern European version. We discover a palette for Brooklyn, Queens, Midtown Manhattan, the stretches of legal procedural that this story begins with. And then we completely change the palette and try to re-create what it was like trapped behind the Iron Curtain in 1960."
The movie also gave Spielberg a chance to work in the spy genre, one he's loved since reading Mad magazine's Spy vs. Spy comic strip as a teenager and seeing the 1965 Cold War classic "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold."
"So much of this movie is about waiting for a phone to ring, waiting for a car on the other side of a bridge," said Hanks, who was under Spielberg's direction for the fourth time in his career on "Bridge of Spies," after making "Saving Private Ryan," "Catch Me If You Can" and "The Terminal" together. "I said to myself, 'Steven's gonna have a field day.' That's cinema in its most pure terms. It's fraught with tension."
"Even in a story as factual as 'Lincoln,' I found a way to tell a story cinematically," Spielberg said. "That was a challenge for me. I was in a very small box trying to find my way in. What is my contribution besides getting out of the way of great performances and guiding others to do their best work? I was able to use the camera."
Spielberg will continue his genre-hopping after "Bridge of Spies." He is in postproduction on "The BFG," an adaptation of a children's book by Roald Dahl about a "big friendly giant," which stars Rylance in the title role. Shots from "The BFG," which Spielberg filmed using performance capture, are pouring into his office from visual effects artists at Weta Digital just as he is preparing his next movie, an adaptation of the bestselling science-fiction novel "Ready Player One," which he's scheduled to start shooting in June.
"A deep dive into one genre gives me complete objectivity on another," Spielberg said, explaining his penchant for multitasking. "If I emerge from one and dive into the next, I suddenly have a new kind of clarity, which is wonderful because what a filmmaker fears more than anything else is loss of objectivity. If you immerse yourself you can't see it anymore, you don't know if it's good or bad."
This year has been a mighty one at the box office for Spielberg as a producer as well, with "Jurassic World," the action-driven update of the science-fiction series he launched in 1993 becoming the year's top grosser so far. ("I'm happy to concede right now to 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens,'" Spielberg said of the anticipated December movie directed by his protégé, J.J. Abrams.)
He'll also be finding a new home for his company, DreamWorks, after his distribution deal with Disney expires next July with the release of "The BFG." In all likelihood, that deal will be at Universal, on the lot where Spielberg has kept his office for decades.
"I've been living there since 1967 both unofficially and officially," Spielberg said. "It's been my ancestral home and I would love to officially come home again."