Director Steven Spielberg followed up the 2012 success of Lincoln with another true life story in Bridge of Spies. Taking place at the height of the Cold War attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is tasked with defending accused Russian operative Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). He then later negotiates a swap for an American pilot that was captured by the Soviet Union for the same spy he defended. All in a day’s work right?
Spielberg teamed up with longtime friend and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski to lens the practical location-driven narrative, which found itself in parts of New York, Germany and Poland. The gripping story is racked with wonderfully paced dialogue from start to finish and was recorded by production sound mixer Drew Kunin. A first generation mixer, Kunin started off booming student and indie films before catching a break on Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984).
Since, he’s worked with Jarmusch on more than a dozen films and with other directors like Ang Lee, David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Todd Haynes, Sofia Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Spike Jones, but this was his first with Spielberg. “Steven’s go-to mixer is usually Ron Judkins, a guy I have a lot of respect for, so it was important to me that I live up to those standards,” said Kunin. “I actually gave Ron a call during prep to see what he could clue me in on about working with Steven.”
When production started in New York, Kunin being a native had the advantage of knowing how to record in the noisy city. “It’s hard to battle against a modern New York when you’re capturing dialogue for a period piece – there’s heavy traffic and urban sounds to contend with. It was quite challenging getting clean, isolated tracks, but Steven was invested in doing so,” said Kunin. “Luckily I was able to have my boom operator Michael Scott for the entire film.”
Kaminski elected a 2.35:1 frame using ARRI film cameras (35mm Kodak) with Hawk V-Lite, V‑Lite Vintage’74 and V-Plus lenses. “Steven and Janusz have this relationship about them that works so well. They did use two cameras sparingly, but in a clever way, framing quickly with lighting that was boom friendly,” noted Kunin. The shorthand between the director and cinematographer allowed four and five pages to be recorded a day.
“We had some big set pieces to deal with too. The district court and Supreme Court sets being some of the toughest,” said the mixer. “With the help from prop master Sandy Hamilton we were able to plant mics and place one in the podium for the judge. We also wired for safety and ran booms overhead. We knew going in there was going to be wide shots, and with Steven, he isn’t necessarily going to give you tighter coverage. He focuses on the important moments in a scene and then moves the camera, so we made sure things were in place before we started rolling.”
The larger production days came one after another with Wroclaw, Poland standing in for the sequences that showed the Berlin Wall being constructed. “We were in a very period-correct place. The entire three or four blocks were somewhat rebuilt, but much of it was still intact since the end of World War II. It was pretty shot up and rough, but it worked really well,” noted Kunin. “We brought in Benjamin Dunker who was a really fantastic guy as our second boom.”
For the climactic ending that involved an exchange between the U.S. and Soviets, filming took place on the Glienicke Bridge that connects Potsdam to Berlin. “Those scenes were some of the least dialogue driven days, but it was difficult in part because it was bloody cold and there was no place for us to hide,” he said. “We had to figure out places we could reach without being exposed in terms of the elements but also within our wireless range. What helped the interference was the fact that there’s so much more open bandwidth in Europe compared to the U.S. What became more of a concern was all the logistical planning involved with each camera movement.”
Each day production sound tried to minimize the need to loop in post and Kunin recognized early on Spielberg desired the same. “Steven is very energetic and is always paying attention. If we needed a wild line he was very understanding, which is great when you have cooperation like that from the top.”
When rerecording mixer Andy Nelson grabbed hold of Kunin’s tracks he was pleasantly surprised. “I wasn’t able to speak with Drew before production but I knew there would be location issues in New York and Germany. But his tracks sounded terrific. They gave them all the flexibility I needed, and generally speaking, all his recordings made it into the film.”
Nelson’s main concern was making sure the dialogue had clarity. “I wanted to give a warm, rich feeling to it. Similar to an older movie where you really feel the dialogue is front and center. I am big believer of playing something or not. In a film like this we didn’t pay attention to anything that wasn’t part of the story. You really have to follow closely in this movie so we didn’t want the audience to be distracted by off stage conversation. With that said, we did add color to scenes, but never played it very strong to not interrupt the flow of the story.”
That flow starts with Spielberg’s strong sense of storytelling that presents the audience with a very clear frame. “I’ve worked with Steven on 15 films and you never have to search for things in a story,” said Nelson. “The thing I liked about this film is it’s not big in terms of effects and explosions. It’s very gentle in a way. It’s all about the written word, the way Steven shows it cut, and making sure the performance is front and center. I want to make sure every articulate moment is there and the audience can slip into each scene comfortably.”
In order to further enhance those softer nuances, post payed particularly close attention to character subtleties, especially for Rudolf Abel. “Before Rudolf gets taken by the FBI he does all these involuntary sniffs and lip smacks that’s pure character. We didn’t want to miss those from a sound point of view because it’s key to his character,” Nelson noted. “It’s a sign of a great actor when they rely on those things just as much as the spoken word.”
When sound effects impacted the story, Gary Rydstrom implemented them so they furthered the emotion to the story. “When you see that beautiful tracking shot of people and the bricks of the Berlin Wall going in, Steven wanted to hear them clunk front and center. It was a very powerful way to portray that moment,” recalled Nelson. “Gary really goes into depth when it comes to his research and doesn’t miss a beat.”
The music took the understated route as well, spotting very sparsely in the film. After the opening sequence when we meet Rudolf, there’s only a handful of placements of the score from Thomas Newman leading up to the climatic ending. “From a sound point of view, Gary had to create that opening scene with normality to it. There’s a lot of tension, but what’s great is that it’s surrounded by everyday life. The subway noises, the little snippets of conversations. Steven wanted to hear those things as the FBI is trying to track Rudolf down. He wanted him to elude them being part of this crowd,” said Nelson. “What Thomas Newman brought had a lovely conflicted sense about it. The story is fascinating in that you really don’t know who the real heroes and villains are in any of this. It’s like when James says in the court room, ‘Does doing my job make me a traitor?’ Thom did a great job capturing that feeling.”