If you need to distill the latest stage of Steven Spielberg's career into one single sequence, the first five minutes of Bridge of Spies will do nicely. Nearly wordless, and with the only soundtrack being the street noise of New York, the prologue follows the unassuming Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) as he goes about his espionage extracurriculars in 1950s Brooklyn, all while being tailed by FBI agents. It's a quiet and low-key opening, but beautifully paced and perfectly captured on celluloid. There are no extra-long tracking shots or other digital cinema trickery to amp the tension, only expert direction and old-school aesthetics from the master of old-fashioned filmmaking. Just don't tell Spielberg that.
"I wouldn't say it's old-fashioned so much as it's an artistic choice to shoot on celluloid, like when a painter makes a choice to either use watercolours or oils or acrylics," the director said in an interview with The Globe and Mail, noting that both 2011's War Horse and 2012's Lincoln were also shot on film. "I like to shoot on celluloid because it's textural and rough-hewn: I can see the grain and electronic noise. I much prefer the unpredictable effects of chemistry over the predictability of a digital image."
It's this preference for the physical and – however much he protests – the traditional that separates Spielberg from today's blockbuster-versed filmmakers. Sure, the Academy Award-winning director is familiar with digital effects (A.I., War of the Worlds, that last Indiana Jones adventure we would all like to forget), but in the past five years, he has chosen to focus more on where we've been rather than where we're going, both visually and conceptually. Lincoln, War Horse and now Bridge of Spies – which opened in cinemas on Friday – are not only exercises in old-fashioned style, but also deliberate rebukes to the current Hollywood landscape, where seemingly every movie is a property or brand designed with a franchise in mind, and hired-hand directors don't (or can't) take the time to savour the specific language that film affords.
Spielberg first embarked on this cultural offensive in 2013, when he predicted an industry "meltdown," telling University of Southern California students that "there's eventually going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that's going to change the paradigm." He has since softened the rhetoric, saying he's not against the business as a whole, but rather its specific genre obsessions.
"It's not that Hollywood was going to blow up, but just that the superhero genre was not going to have the same longevity, that it'd go something like the way of the western," he says now. "There is too much dependence on one single genre for the lifeblood of big studio movies, and it's at the expense of smaller, more personal films. I want Hollywood to finance those kind of films and encourage people to make those movies, and not be so infatuated with prebranded titles."
Spielberg alludes to this year's "big-branded meltdowns" (Fantastic Four, anyone?) as signs of a coming storm – "I can only say that as the number of these films in a row start to underperform, it's going to adjust all our thinking" – though he also admits that it's an odd prophecy coming from the man who introduced audiences to the very concept of a blockbuster. After all, his 1975 spectacle Jaws invented the summer movie season, and as a prolific producer and principal partner of DreamWorks, he's been a guiding hand on everything from the Men in Black franchise to the never-ending Transformers series (the latter of which just announced a deal for four more sequels – really). "I have to take responsibility for this, too. Jurassic World was a sequel to my franchise, so I'm a culprit, and not just a critic," he says.
(The superhero industry, for its part, has wasted no time hitting back, with Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige recently quipping, "The western lasted 40 to 50 years, and they still pop up occasionally. It's been, what, eight years since Iron Man 1? Maybe [the superhero genre] will only last another 42 years.")
If there is a way out of the current mess, Spielberg says, it may not be on the big screen. While a director such as himself may have the clout to produce films outside the franchise-friendly comfort zone (and yes, films starring Tom Hanks and directed by a multiple Oscar-winner do appear to be more difficult sells these days, however ridiculous that sounds), younger, more inexperienced directors might seek solace on the small screen, or online.
"Content is king, and there are so many media outlets that are giving young filmmakers who haven't had the same opportunity as writers or directors or producers – it's a whole new ball game," says Spielberg, who got his start in the business helming episodes of the Twilight Zone-like television series Night Gallery. "It's not just a demand for supply, but also a demand for different forms of entertainment, for every sized screen: big movie theatres, Imax, television, iPads, iPhones. There are so many opportunities to create content and give rise to different forms of artistic expression. I never had that, but I'm excited about the future."
The near-future, though, may include another troubling aspect of Hollywood: the increasingly cutthroat awards season. After Bridge of Spies debuted to a standing ovation at the New York Film Festival last week, the Cold War drama was thrust near the top of the Oscar conversation – a dialogue that more and more revolves around handicapping and campaigning rather than any discussion of artistic intent or merit. (Thank the rise of online Oscar punditry, but also a studio system hell-bent on making fewer prestige pictures, and as a result putting all their force behind just a handful.) Naturally, Spielberg can't be bothered with the process.
"Creatively, I make these movies, I tell stories on film, and that's all I think about. I don't even think about what I'm having for dinner that night," he says. "For a director, it's actually kind of nice to have a couple instances during the year where I have no control."
If Hollywood continues on its current franchise-laden path, that's a feeling even Spielberg may have to get used to.