In and out of the shadows with ‘Bridge of Spies’ cinematographer Janusz Kaminski

Janusz Kaminski works with Marky Rylance on “Bridge of Spies”
Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, a two-time Oscar winner, works with actor Mark Rylance on the set of “Bridge of Spies.”
(Jaap Buitendijk / DreamWorks)

For Polish-born cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, shooting the Cold War thriller “Bridge of Spies” marked a return to a very recognizable landscape.

“The aesthetics were shaped by growing up in Poland, by a certain grayness and bleakness,” he said. “When you look at the story that takes place in East Berlin, there is a bleakness of the images, but they are still to some degree a little bit lyrical. The colors are muted, the colors are beautiful, the light is soft and foggy. There’s a certain texture to the atmosphere, to the images. So I’m very familiar with what that part of the world should look like, should feel like emotionally.”

Based on true events, Kaminski’s 14th project with director Steven Spielberg follows insurance lawyer James Donovan, tapped to defend Soviet spy Rudolf Abel in American courts, then to exchange him for an American prisoner.


How did you create contrast among New York, West Berlin and East Berlin?

When you think about the New York part, which is more golden, our perception of the period tends to be a little bit warmer, because it is in the past, so we tend to romanticize those images. And also, the United States during that time was slightly more innocent, so the light and the color reflect that innocence to some degree. And then actually progressing through the film and going to West Berlin, [this] is still colorful, but not as colorful as New York. And subsequently when you move to East Germany, there is a total void of color. It becomes not black and white, but desaturated and more bluish. And you achieve that by exposing the film a certain way, not putting color gels on the lights, but lighting with bluish and white light.

What inspired the first meeting scene between Donovan and CIA agent Hoffman?

That’s a classical film noir scene. [Donovan is] a rather traditional guy with a traditional family, and he’s forced into a situation where he has to deal with all sorts of shadowy figures. So we wanted to create a little bit of suspense to misdirect the audience into thinking that he’s in danger, that he’s in some kind of jeopardy, and yet he’s not. Actually, he realizes he’s simply being introduced to the world of espionage through Hoffman, who wants to introduce himself and who perhaps wants to slightly intimidate him. So we use very traditional ways of film noir, which are a shadowy world, rain, umbrellas, people coming out of the shadows, people following his footsteps.


Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks in “Bridge of Spies”
Cinematographer Janusz Kaminksi says the first meeting between Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, left) and James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is bright so it's hard to see who they are. But as their friendship grows, "the light gets slightly more delicate."
(Jaap Buitendijk / DreamWorks)

How did you convey the developing friendship between Donovan (Tom Hanks) and Abel (Mark Rylance)?

You’ve got Donovan, who’s going to represent Abel, and they don’t know each other. They need to assess each other, so the light is not as friendly and comforting as it is later on when they become friends. The light is rather bright, and there’s smoke in it. So when you’re looking at the image, you’re having a little bit of a hard time seeing who these people are. They are a little bit silhouetted occasionally against the window. As their friendship progresses, then the light gets slightly more delicate. The windows are not as burned out. The images are not as stark. There’s less smoke, there are less shadows, there’s less discomfort, and that is reflected in my work as a cinematographer to the point that when we go finally to the bridge, there isn’t really much mystery between those two guys.

The bridge is basically, besides being just the spy exchange, also the goodbye moment for these two guys. There’s really no need to make that moment overly dramatic. There’s no need to make it too dark. So my choice was to go rather bright. There are still shadows, but the shadows are more on the other side of the bridge where the communists are. The American side is brightly lit, because there’s no ambiguity. They represent the American spirit, represent what we are as a nation — openness and forthcoming and friendliness — whereas the east part represents shadowy characters, deceit, darkness, unknown.

Was there a specific moment when you first realized you wanted to be a cinematographer?

There was a moment in film school around ’83 in Chicago. I went to Columbia College in Chicago. I started my first 101 filmmaking class. Each participant in the group, four of us, we had to choose what we were going to do. And we literally pulled sticks, and I got the stick with the camera. I’d never taken pictures. The power of getting those images was so stimulating. And there was an instructor in the school named Chris Swieder, and he looked at the little 100 feet of film that I shot, and he said, “Well, you’ve got talent. You should continue with that.” That was the most determining factor, because I came from a rather slightly tough upbringing, and this was the first time an adult told me I was good at anything, and I just took it to the level that I took it. Positive reinforcement has very amazing power.

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