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Alan Alda on watching Spielberg work and how best to portray war

Acting in his first Spielberg film, "Bridge of Spies" actor Alan Alda talks about the movies he made when he was a kid and how war is worse than hell (which he doesn't believe in).
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    Alan Alda, left, stars with Tom Hanks and Amy Ryan in Steven Spielberg's "Bridge o|Jaap Buitendijk

Alan Alda and Steven Spielberg have a lot in common. For one thing, they’ve both been involved in work about war that portrays it both critically and humanely. Spielberg has films like “Saving Private Ryan,” while Alda has 11 seasons of “M*A*S*H,” which he not only starred on but also sometimes directed, including its finale — still the most watched episode in television history. Alda has a small role in Spielberg’s new “Bridge of Spies,” following an American lawyer (Tom Hanks) trying to negotiate a trade for spies on both sides of the divide. But that’s fine by him. He just wanted to watch a fellow director do his magic.

Given your interests, it seems like you and Spielberg would travel in the same circles. Had you know him long?

I bumped into him a couple times socially, but we didn’t know each other really. One of the reasons I wanted to do this was I wanted to watch him work. It was really lovely to see. He’s so in command of his own work and the whole process of movie-making. You really get a view of the best kind of moviemaking at work. There’s no indecision, but there is experimentation. I’ve worked with people who could only do things one way. If the set burned down they were lost. With him it’s just an opportunity to make the most of what he has. He started shooting movies in his backyard when he was 10. So did I. But he made “E.T.” before I did.

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Can you talk about the films you made when you were a kid? You did go on to direct a number of things.

We lived in the country, north of the San Fernando Valley. I had a Bell and Howell 16mm camera that you wound up. I wanted to make a Western. It was so much fun for me to do different shots I could put together into a film. My father was in movies, so I watched movies being made. I remember watching them, trying to figure out how they got the effects they got. At an early age I was interested in cutting and lighting and creating a mood out of nothing. One of my favorite shots was in a b-movie that Dan Duryea made. I used to know the title. I don’t anymore. It was in an airplane and there was rain on the window. I knew watching it that it was shot in a studio. But there was something about it that looked like they were really in the air. That intrigued me — the way to make an illusion and get the audience into the story without going to the expense of being in a real plane. I was interested in how to create that illusion.

With a film this size, though, even Spielberg has to know how to create certain illusions in inexpensive ways.

That’s the fun of it, to be convincing. You can do anything with CGI now. But it’s not always as convincing. But in this movie it’s totally convincing. There’s hardly a shot where I could say, “They did that on a computer.” In fact, I said to Steven afterwards, “How did you get those shots of the U-2 plane taking off? It must have been CGI.” But that was a real plane. They had them left over from the old days. Isn’t that amazing?

Both you and Spielberg have portrayed — in very different tones but with the same passion — war in ways that are critical of it and also deeply humanistic.

It’s hard to ignore that. If you take a realistic view of it, there is heroism. There are people looking out for one another. But then there’s the destruction of life. It’s tragic that humans do that. If all you do is focus on the heroism, then you don’t take into account the danger to ourselves, the loss of feeling secure that you’re doing the right thing if you casually kill people you have nothing against. Somebody put up on Twitter — and I don’t remember saying this and I don’t know who wrote it — but on “M*A*S*H” someone said that war is hell. But war is worse than hell, because with hell, who goes to hell? The priest says, “The sinners, I guess.” But in a way they all get killed — the innocent, the bystanders. Most of them are bystanders who get killed. That sounds worse. War is the only thing you can experience like hell on this side of death. I personally don’t believe in hell, but war is worse than what they say war is.

RELATED: "Bridge of Spies" is a tough Spielberg with a hilariously grouchy Tom Hanks

“Bridge of Spies” recreates a period during the Cold War both you and Spielberg probably remember very well. What was it like returning to that scary time?

Some of it is Steven’s own experiences as a boy, like filling the bath tub. He told me that came from his life. It’s hard to imagine what it was like. I wasn’t a kid when you had to learn how to hide under your desk. I was older than he was. But I knew what it was like to hear about it at that time. Now it seems like so far from our experience that it’s hard to understand what it was like for those kids who thought they might be incinerated, the way the Japanese kids were only a few years earlier. The pressure was not that they’d fight in some place and die for their country, but that you might disappear in an instant, or have a long, slow, painful death. We saw those pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was a terrifying time to be in. People were building shelters in their backyard.

We still have that, though. We’re talking just after yet another shooting has occurred.

People are saying, rightly, that we’ve become numb to this. Obama used that phrase. We’re taking it as something to be expected. We’re not surprised by it anymore. That seems odd. Instead of a growing dismay, we’re accepting it. I don’t get it.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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