Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is in theaters today.
Francis Gary Powers was a controversial figure to some during the height of the Cold War. Despite rising to the rank of captain in the U.S. Air Force by 1956 and then leaving that service to pilot covert U-2 spy missions for the CIA, the politics of the time initially judged him harshly for being captured by the Soviet Union when his plane was shot down in 1960—as well as for not utilizing the agency’s patented “poisoned pill” (it was more like a shellfish syringe).
In 1965, Powers was belatedly awarded the CIA’s Intelligence Star, but it was not until 2000 (23 years after his 1977 death) that the CIA and U.S. Armed Forces fully recognized his contributions with posthumous decorations like the Prisoner of War Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the National Defense Service Medal.
Fifty-five years after the famed crash, Steven Spielberg has attempted to tell Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 story in the context of a much larger web of espionage in his new thriller, Bridge of Spies. This includes the delicate work of James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), who negotiated Powers’ path out of Russia.
Within that film, Austin Stowell of Whiplash and TNT’s Public Morals plays the downed CIA pilot who found himself on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. The role offered him the chance to work with Spielberg, Hanks, and a screenplay with the Coen Brothers’ touch (Joel and Ethan Coen wrote the final draft of a script that was begun by Matt Charman). The role also required a dizzyingly spectacular set-piece of special effects work to capture Powers’ fateful descent over Sverdiovsk.
Austin Stowell was kind enough to sit down with us for a phone interview earlier this week.
What was your familiarity with this story and what did you know about Francis Gary Powers before hearing about this movie?
Nothing, I did not know who Francis Gary Powers was, which is a shame, because he really is a hero and someone who deserves to be celebrated. I’m so happy that his story is out there now.
Immediately, I got busy researching him. I read his book right away and then was able to get in touch with Francis Gary Powers Jr., who had all kinds of interviews, recorded interviews, so I was able to listen to hours of Powers talking. And listening to him recount the crash, the imprisonment, and the entire ordeal.
Could you talk a little bit about the audition process for Bridge of Spies?
I was doing a Steven Spielberg show called Public Morals, which he is the executive producer of, and he saw what I was doing in the show and chose me from there to join Bridge of Spies, which at the time was called “St. James Place.” That turned out to just be a Monopoly property; that’s all they were referring to.
Did you see the script before the Coen Brothers came aboard?
Yeah, I did it before they came on. So, it’s a lot of fun to see them come in and do their thing that they’re known for so much, and add all that witty banter. Not to say the script wasn’t already great. Obviously if you get the attention of somebody like Steven Spielberg, you’re cooking with gas already. But to have them come in and add so much, it just took the story to the next level. It was a joy to see.
Steven and Tom both talked about that [during the press conference]. Can you remember anything specifically that they both added to your character’s journey?
Yeah, they added quite a bit actually. One scene being his confession that the Russians made him say—where he was being filmed at a Soviet TV station—he read their statement where he said, basically, that he was sorry for his involvement. Unfortunately, it didn’t make the cut as you saw, but who knows? Maybe it’ll make it onto the DVD extras.
One of the best sequences in the movie was when your plane goes down over the Soviet Union. I thought it was just a brilliant, classic Spielberg set-piece. Could you talk about how it was filmed, the effects work on it, and what you did to prepare for it?
We shot it in [Tegel Airport, in Berlin] inside one of the hangars there. And they had built a hydraulic arm with the cockpit attached to it, so Steven could be in complete control. He could go up, down, around, twists, vibrate—it was incredible. They had 70 miles an hour fans pointed at me from the ceiling, and there I was hanging from wires from the ceiling, and I had a wire on my back as well with four stuntmen pulling me away from the plane to get that effect of me falling.
But all that stuff where you see me climbing in and using the air hose, and then the back of the seat, and reaching toward the button? It was hard work, it absolutely was. When you see those shots of me getting thrown against the side of the plane that’s all real. Obviously, we weren’t up in the air, but the cockpit and what you see me doing is all real stuff that we did, and the team of special effects guys that we have who built that arm for us, it was perfect.
I’m so happy that people—I keep getting asked about it—and I’m so glad people are into it, because they worked so hard on creating that thing, so that it could be as lifelike as possible and move in a way that made the intensity and the violence of the situation appear as real as possible. And it came out just amazingly.
It was a terrific sequence. Thank you for talking to me today.
Thank you very much.