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Interview: Matt Charman (BRIDGE OF SPIES)
As the Cold War was intensifying in 1960, James Donovan, an insurance lawyer from Brooklyn, found himself assigned to be the public defender of a KGB spy. After the trial, which ended up going all the way to the Supreme Court, the CIA tasked him to negotiate a prisoner swap for a captured American pilot.
Donovan’s story is the basis of BRIDGE OF SPIES (DreamWorks Pictures, Touchstone Pictures). Matt Charman, a highly-regarded London playwright and first-time screenwriter, conceived the project, which was directed by Steven Spielberg, stars Tom Hanks and was co-written by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen.
The WGAE spoke with Matt about how he got his start as writer, his writing process for BRIDGE OF SPIES and what it was like to have his first screenplay directed by Steven Spielberg.
How did you get your start in the industry?
I studied in London at the University College London. That put me on the doorstep of the West End. I used to go and do what you in the States call second acting. I would sneak into the second acts of shows that I couldn’t afford to buy tickets for, usually three or four times a week. Looking back, I feel pretty bad about that, but at the time I was just compelled to experience as much theater as I could.
The really interesting thing that happens when you do that is, obviously, you’re watching a show, you’re enjoying it, but you have no idea how it started. After the shows, I’d go back to my University dorm and lay in my room and dream up what I thought that first act was. Then the next morning, I’d go to the library or to the Samuel French Bookshop and take the play out and have a look at it. I’d see how close the first act I’d imagined was to the first act that I missed the night before.
I slowly realized that what I was doing was starting to understand structure and character and all the rest of it. But sitting in amongst audiences three or four nights a week was a brilliant education in how you write for an audience, how you serve an audience, how you both give them what they want and also, what they maybe didn’t know they wanted or weren’t expecting. That’s really how I started out.
What was your first writing job?
I had a bunch of crappy day jobs while I was trying to get better at my craft and work out how to be a writer. I was getting up very early in the morning to write what turned into my first play, and it was called A Night at the Dogs. It’s about a bunch of guys who form a syndicate to buy a greyhound. They’ve pinned all their hopes and dreams on this dog believing it’s going to change all their lives when it starts winning. Of course it all goes horribly wrong in the end but it was a story that I was burning to write.
I heard about something called the Verity Bargate Award, which is an award that’s run for new writers. It’s run by the Soho Theatre in London. It was a brilliant deadline for me. It was a month away and acted like a finish line. I thought, “I’m going to finish it up. I’m going to send it in for that, and at least I’ve delivered.”
What was exciting was that A Night at the Dogs got short-listed. There were 700 entries. It got short-listed down to 20. Then that went down to six of us. Then it won the Verity Bargate award. It gave the show a five-week production in London, a professional production, and that got me an agent. The National Theatre came along and watched it. Nicholas Hytner invited me in and basically said, “Okay. What do you want to write next?” That started an association with the National Theatre which was a game changer for my career.
My next three plays were on there. I was Writer-in-Residence. Again, an amazing experience being in that building. I was watching shows pretty much every night of the week. Sitting in amongst an audience, understanding what it takes to write great plays and trying to understand what it takes to write great character and great dialogue. That was a brilliant education for me.
How did BRIDGE OF SPIES come to be your first screenplay?
To be honest, it still feels like a bit of a miracle. I love that period in history, the Kennedy administration. The Cold War. I was reading a history book that Robert Dallek wrote about JFK called An Unfinished Life. In the chapter on Cuba, it mentioned a man that JFK had sent back to negotiate with Fidel Castro for the release of the1,500 servicemen that had been caught and captured after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. He was a New York lawyer, a man called James Donovan. It had a little asterisk, and at the bottom of the page, a footnote said something like ‘James Donovan first came to prominence for the part he played in the spy swap between Gary Powers and Rudolf Abel’. That was kind of it. That’s all it said. That was the only mention of him. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck because I thought, “Okay. Who is this guy? How has this man managed to be sent by JFK to negotiate with Castro? How has he been involved in this spy swap? I’ve never heard of him. I want to know more.”
I started to piece together what really, I think, is an amazing untold story of this man. The big turning point for me was meeting his son in a coffee shop in Midtown, New York. I sat with John Donovan, who is now in his seventies and we talked about his dad for a couple of hours. He talked very movingly about his father, and growing up around this remarkable man. We also talked about the fact that he had never really had his moment, despite being the center of this remarkable moment in history where he really pulled us back from the brink of something pretty terrible between the Soviets and the U.S. He hadn’t really ever had the credit he deserved.
I was very honest with him, I said “Look, I’m in the very early days of my career, but I will do my very best to tell his story.” He gave me his blessing and I pulled the jigsaw together from there. I went out to LA and started telling people about this story, BRIDGE OF SPIES.
When you were pitching, did you already have the script written?
No, it was a 20-minute verbal pitch. It was something that I was very passionate about. It worked out the pitch of the story with every twist and turn, all of the characters, all of their journeys. I pitched it seven or eight times a day, for five days in L.A., to anybody who would stop long enough for me to be able to pitch it to them.
We started to get some interest towards the end of the week, and people really started to respond to it. I pitched an executive at DreamWorks, Jonathan Eirich. I pitched him at a diner on Sunset Blvd. When I got to the end of the pitch, he gave me a big smile and said he needed to go right now and tell this story to Steven Spielberg. DreamWorks bought it, and I flew home.
I was over the moon. When I landed, I had this answering machine message saying, “Steven Spielberg would like to hear this story directly from you.” We had a phone call. I pitched the story to Steven over the phone. It was the most remarkable phone call because apart from introducing himself and saying hi he didn’t say anything until midway through. I thought maybe he’d dropped off the line or he’d hung up. The phone was silent. I said, “Can I check you’re still there, Steven?” He said, “I’m rapt. Just keep going. Just keep going.” So I got to the end. At the end, he said, “I love this. When can you write it?”
I knew then that I had a shot, I had his interest. I had an opportunity to write a screenplay that Steven Spielberg would read and at least assess whether he was interested in it beyond the pitch. I kind of killed myself to write it in five weeks. He read the first draft, and he flew me out.
Can you tell me a bit about writing that first draft?
It was brutal because I knew I had this opportunity and I didn’t want to, I wanted to do…In our business, I’ve got many writer friends, and we always talk about this. In our business, there is so much that is out of our hands, but the one thing that’s in your hands and in your grasp is that first draft. You’ve got to do the best you can. You’ve got to tell that story the best you can, hand it over to someone and see what happens. That is in your power. I wanted to make this a first draft that Steven really, really would be excited about.
I had done so much of my research to be able to pitch so I knew the story. It was about really knuckling down and doing those 20-hour days to turn this script out in five weeks and make it the best it could be. I kept reading over it and re-writing it and re-working it and trying to refine it into the best version of this story. And also building at the heart of it, a character in James Donovan that I hoped a big movie star would want to play.
I had Tom Hanks in my head while I was writing it, partly because all the research I’d done about James Donovan made me really believe that this was an everyman. It was a guy who might live next-door. You might wave at him when you go to your car in the morning. He’s also a guy that doesn’t give up. He follows his case from New York to the Supreme Court, all the way through the Berlin Wall. He does what he has to do and he never backs down. That everyman quality coupled to that grit is something that I think Tom Hanks has and so I had him in my head all the time. So yeah, I killed myself to deliver it.
What’s your writing process?
I built an outline for this because the structure was so important. I had to be able to fuse two stories. I had Rudolf Abel and James Donovan’s story then I had to find the right moment to start telling the Gary Powers story. I could switch between those two narratives and I could slowly build the Gary Powers story so that when the two worlds collided, we would feel—as an audience—that that was the most satisfying combination of those two story lines. I wanted the outline to be very, very worked out before I started writing.
Then it became about building up the layers of the story. Allowing that Donovan character to be able to breathe, to write a sketch of scenes and then to build those scenes out. To turn the movie into something that felt fleshed out and fully formed.
What kind of environment do you work in?
I prefer to be alone. I listen to music while I write, normally through headphones, just because I like to create a kind of a bit of a cocoon. I find music really useful for that. All sorts of music. Actually, movie music sometimes. Classical music. Things that are atmospheric and sometimes, weirdly, kind of ocean sounds or rain. I do find that really, really useful. It makes you feel like you’re plugging into a different world. You’re kind of stepping out of the everyday into something else.
What happened when you handed your draft to Spielberg?
I’ve got to say, I didn’t expect him to read the first draft. I really didn’t. I thought I would deliver it and I would have notes and we would work on drafts and he’d read something much later. But he read the first draft and he flew me out. A little golf cart picked me up at the gates of Universal and drove me through the lot. It drove me to Amblin and I sat in that reception like everybody does that goes to DreamWorks. You sit there and you look at the Oscars in the glass cabinets. You look at the JURASSIC PARK and JAWS memorabilia and it really dawns on you that you’re about to meet Steven Spielberg. For me, this is a guy whose posters have been on my wall since I was a kid. This was a huge moment for me. He means so much to me.
And he couldn’t have been lovelier. I was taken up to his office and he sat there with the script on his knee. He’d been annotating it. He had notes on it and lots of ideas and thoughts and he gave me a big smile and he said, “This is great. Let’s dig in.” We started to work. We spent a few hours just turning the pages, talking about every facet of the story, the characters, every transition in the movie. He had the kind of notes that, as a writer, you really crave, which is basically a director saying to you, “Can we deepen this? Can we make this more complex? Can we make this moment grayer? Can we make it more truthful?”
Every note that I ever got from Steven on this project was about excavating more and more and more. That is a dream for a writer. So often we get told to simplify or streamline. It’s lovely when you’re told the opposite, which is, “Let’s deepen this stuff. Let’s make this more complicated or more complex for an audience.” That’s great.
Were there any parts of the script that you particularly loved seeing how they transformed onto the big screen?
Oh, God, yes. So many. I’ll give one really specific example. I was very aware that I had never seen the Berlin Wall being built on screen. I felt very clearly that this was a moment of massive historical importance. And that Steven was the best director imaginable to show an audience what actually happened when a bunch of trucks and tanks rolled up and soldiers climbed out and just started to build a wall through the middle of the city.
I wrote that sequencing in the script. I was so excited and really moved to see how Steven rendered that on film. What he did was give that so much of an uncomfortable truthful honesty and veracity that it, for me, really makes it a remarkable sequence of cinema.
Another sequence, which for me, I almost stopped breathing when I first saw it was when James Donovan takes the train back from East Berlin to the Western sector and he watches a couple of people trying to get over the wall. They’re shot right in front of Donovan and us as the train passes. That, again, in the hands of a master like Steven Spielberg is a really breathtaking piece of cinema. To have those moments in a screenplay and to invest in them and dream of what they could be, and then to see them shot by someone like Steven Spielberg is, it’s a dream. It’s a real dream.
What kind of stories are you most drawn to writing?
I’m drawn to great characters. What always fascinates me about a story, be it fictional or fact-based, is a character that I feel like I can take their hand. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I like them always or sympathize with them, but somebody that compels me enough to take my hand and lead me through a story.
Next for me is another fact-based story. I’ve written a movie about the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers. It’s called PATRIOTS’ DAY. Peter Berg is going to direct with Mark Wahlberg in the lead role. Getting that story right, feeling the weight of it has been essential for me. People in Boston still so keenly feel what happened to them. They still experience it, they live it every day. Going to Boston to research it, talking to police officers, talking to people who encountered that moment, what happened to them on Patriots’ Day, I feel a huge sense of responsibility to tell that story right.
I’m also writing a heist movie for Matt Reeves at the moment and a project for Nina Jacobson at Fox 2000. They’re both fictional stories, but at the heart of them are characters that I want to know about. I want to know more about these people. I want to follow them. I want to understand them. Be it fiction or fact, it’s always the characters that lead me into a story.
What are some characters or stories from film or television that you would highly recommend to other writers?
I love—and it’s no revelation to anyone whose seen it—VEEP, Armando Iannucci’s show with Julia Louis-Dreyfus. I think that’s brilliant on so many levels. I love watching that. I also have been really enjoying MASTER OF NONE, which is a huge amount of fun.
Let me also recommend a bit of theater that’s just come to New York, A View from the Bridge. Mark Strong did it in London first. Ivo Van Hove’s the director on Broadway and he’s done this really bare, brutal, remarkable production. That’s an incredible piece of work. That feels as prescient and sort of as now as it could be for a play that was written back in 1955.
If you could go back through the history of cinema and television, for which fictional character would you like to write new dialogue?
Michael Corleone in THE GODFATHER. I think there’s something so incredible about that character’s journey through those movies. The idea of being able to write for him, for that character, to expand into more scenes with his father, with Kay, with Hyman Roth, to know more about him and see him in different situations would be fantastic. Or maybe it would totally kill the enigma of him. Actually, I’ve changed my mind, I’m leaving Michael Corleone well alone.