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Building “Bridge Of Spies” – An Interview With Production Designer Adam Stockhausen

By: Marjorie Galas

Director Steven Spielberg was multi-tasking during the early preparation for recent release “Bridge of Spies.”  His upcoming, effects heavy feature had also begun a very long prep phase, pulling frequent collaborator and Oscar winning production designer Rick Carter away.   The vacancy gave production designer Adam Stockhausen an opportunity to jump onboard.

“I read the script and spoke with Steven and (EP/first assistant director) Adam Somner,” said Stockhausen.  “I was a good fit with the rest of the team.”

Team work proved to be a crucial ingredient in all aspects of production design in the Cold War thriller.  Noting the shoot would take place in New York and Germany, Stockhausen’s first course of action was creating a script breakdown with location manager Jason Farrar.  Starting with the New York locations, Stockhausen, Farrar and the U.S. based location team hit the road to find the best spots.  In addition to securing some very tricky clearances and permits, Stockhausen also had to ensure each location would structurally allow for the geometry of the shot, such as windows facing angles where required background material would be visible.  Working with a European based location crew, Stockhausen went through a similar process in Germany.  Finding proper locations in this setting was much trickier: Germany has retained little of its 60s architectural aesthetic.  The location team found western towns and cities of Poland offered suitable substitutes.

Visual effects commonly comes into play to extend backgrounds in period films, and “Bridge of Spies” was no exception.  Despite some needed extensions (and subtractions), an equal amount of physical manipulation were needed on the practical locations.  In addition to builds required to modify location interiors, Stockhausen and his team would manually build out building exteriors.  For example, when a major character rides a bike through a German square, the entire scene was captured exclusively in camera, requiring Stockhausen to ensure every facet of the city-scape had the correct visual aesthetics.

Weather also played a crucial aspect in the authenticity of the scenes.  Working closely with Somner and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, the shoot schedule was carefully plotted to maximize foliage and weather conditions.  Additionally, a time table was created that monitored weather patterns, helping the team utilizing sunny days and overcast skies.

“For the cat and mouse-style chase scene in Brooklyn, we manufactured rain, that was planned,” said Stockhausen.  “We planned for overcast days later in the schedule.  We always had a backup set ready in case (the weather worked against the shot), you never want to be caught without anything to shoot.”

The builds for interiors ranged to some rooms being completely fabricated, such as the upstairs bedrooms and bathroom in the Donovan’s home, Abel’s painting studio and hotel rooms.  Other locations, such as the Supreme Court, required extensive custom made elements.  Utilizing the Federal Hall National Monument; a historical monument whose stipulations required the shoot to occur during closed hours, Stockhausen and his team loaded in custom made benches and transformed the space during a tight, late night schedule. To ensure all details of each location’s transformation were met, Stockhausen turned to set decorators Rena DeAngelo who handled the US portion, and Bernard Henrich for the German locations.  Stockhausen met Germany-based Henrich while working on location for “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (which earned Henrich his first Oscar win for production design) and felt the set decorator would make a natural choice.  His connection to DeAngelo went back to the 2007 feature “Across the Universe.”

“Rena and I met when we were both assistants.  We always wanted to work together, but never had the chance before this,” said Stockhausen.

Color played as crucial a role in “Bridge of Spies” as period accuracy.  From the earliest discussions Stockhausen had with Spielberg, the idea of emphasizing a cold quality was stressed.  In addition to shifting from warmer tones in New York to cool, muted tones in Germany, attention to warm and cool palettes was equally important in all interior structures.  The Donovan’s household was bathed in the warmer side of the spectrum, where government offices, such as the CIA office, were muted with dark wood and wood panels.  Some locations, such as the Berlin Hilton, had to straddle a line, remaining inviting while not fully indulging in a warm palette.  To ensure color choices were met completely, Stockhausen worked closely with costume designer Kasia Walicka-Maimone, ensuring the outfits naturally blended with each location.  He also relied on Kaminski’s camera tests to ensure every detail, from paints, wallpaper and fabrics had the proper balance.

“It was a total collaborative process,” said Stockhausen.  “As we got closer to shooting we zeroing in, getting more detailed.  If something jumped out, we made changes.”

Looking back at the process, Stockhausen marvels at Spielberg’s efficiency when working on set. Recalling a scene where Abel walks out of his studio and down the street begin completely captured within an hour and a half, Stockhausen couldn’t help noting the amount of time spent prepping the production compared to the time actually capturing it on film.

“One thing about the process that really impressed me was how fast Steven shoots. We go quickly through the material and work efficiently,” said Stockhausen.  “I learned how to balance time and not overdue certain sections.”