Brockley. Brixton and Tooting. It’s not every day you hear these London towns mentioned in LA, but Matt Charman is in town to promote his latest film, Bridge of Spies. The British screenwriter has had a meteoric rise to stardom, his first Hollywood film is directed by Steven Spielberg and stars Tom Hanks. Even before its premiere at the New York Film Festival, the film was already receiving Oscar Buzz. I met Charman at the Standard Hotel in Hollywood to find out how he went from writing for the BBC to writing for Spielberg.
We start talking about history and how (John) Le Carre certainly had an influence when it came to writing the spy thriller, Bridge of Spies.
Awards Daily: How did Bridge of Spies happen?
Matt Charman: I feel like it’s a bit of a miracle in my life. I’m a bit of a history buff, especially for the Cold War and Kennedy Administration. I was reading a brilliant book by Robert Dallek called ‘An Unfinished Life’, it was a book about J.F.K and his first 1000 days, and it is an amazing book. There was a footnote on the page in the Cuba section, about this guy, James Donovan who was sent to negotiate with Fidel Castro to try to get back this serviceman who had been captured when the Bay of Pigs disaster happened. I remember thinking, there’s this American lawyer who’s been sent to negotiate with Castro, like, “Who is he?” Why would you send an American lawyer, why wouldn’t you send a diplomat?. I thought maybe there’s a story here. The more I dug around, the more I realized the story wasn’t in him negotiating with Castro, it was the reason he came to prominence, and the reason why J.F.K learnt about him in the first place, and that was because he had defended a Russian spy. A case nobody wanted. He got this guy off the death penalty, and had effectively made himself credible to the Russians. So when Gary Powers was shot down, the Russians reached out to him and said we want to organize a spy swap. They showed the correspondence to the CIA, it was completely bona-fide, they said, we want you to do this, but as a private citizen and not as anything to do with the American government. So he had to accept this mission, but had it gone wrong, they would have disavowed any knowledge of him.
He would have been an American business man found dead or disappeared in East Berlin. The more I pieced it together through the various sources, the more I thought this story is incredible, I can’t believe it’s never been told.
AD: I’d never heard about him, and all of a sudden we’re watching a film about him.
MC: Yeah, exactly. We’re also not just watching a film, we’re watching a Steven Spielberg film with Tom Hanks playing him. When I met the family when I was researching it, it was a really interesting moment. They loved their father, and knew what an incredible man he was, and what a patriot he was, and they knew he hadn’t had his moment really. No one knew about him, and he was a bit of a secret as far as the world was concerned. I looked them in the eye and told them I was going to do the best I can to really honor what your dad did. That I was going to get out the truth of how difficult it was, and know how bloody minded James Donovan was. This was a guy who believed something so strongly that he followed it all the way down the line.
That was an amazing moment, getting to look them in the eye, and have them say, “Yes, please, tell our dad’s story.
AD: Wow! Have they seen the film?
MC: They have seen the film. It was in New York at the premiere and it was very emotional. They were sat in front of me, and I didn’t say anything beforehand. I didn’t want them to be self-conscious, as the lights went down, I turned to my wife and told her that was the family. After the lights came up, there was a really beautiful standing ovation. They turned around and spotted me. They gave me the biggest hug and said Thank you. Even thinking about it now, I get emotional about it. They’re in their 60’s and 70’s, their dad is a figure for them. One of the daughter’s – Jan, brought a photo of their mother along so their mother could watch it as well.
AD: That’s a great tribute for them.
MC: Yes. I believe when you put a story like that in the hands of someone like Spielberg, what he does is he looks at that man and he really gives the audience who that man was. He doesn’t cut corners, he doesn’t make it easy. All of the notes he gave me were, let’s really think about what it must have been like to be him. Not knowing whether you’re going to get out of this situation. All you’ve got is your wits and your ability as a lawyer, and the minute you stop thinking about it as a movie, and start thinking about it as a real life jeopardy situation, it just makes it a Steven Spielberg film.
AD : How did it even get to Spielberg?
MC: I was putting this story together, did all the research and put it into this pitch. I came out to LA and started talking to people about it. I did eight pitch meetings a day. It was a 20-minute verbal pitch. I took them all the way through the story from start to end with all the twists and turns. By the end of the first day my agent had a lot of phone calls with people saying they loved it and couldn’t believe the story had never been told. Towards the end of the week, the way the scheduling of the meetings happened, an executive from Dreamworks – Jonathan Eirich heard it in The Griddle Cafe and said it was amazing. It was half seven in the morning, we talked about it, he got to the end of it , he had this big smile on his face and he said, “Listen, I’ve got to go tell this story to Steven.” Very quickly Dreamworks bought it, and I was walking on air.
I landed (back in London), went back home to our place in London. I had a message saying Steven Spielberg would like to hear this story directly from you. So, this call was set. I was so nervous, I got hot and bothered. He for me, his movies, he’s a movie God. They call, it’s Steven. That sentence alone makes you giddy. He says, “Tell me the story.” About halfway through he’s in total silence, and I thought, Oh God! He’s dropped off the call, he’s hung up. I said, “Are you still there?” He said, “I’m absolutely rapt, just keep going.” I got to the end, and he asked when I could write it.
So, I killed myself to write it in five weeks. He read the first draft, which I couldn’t believe. He flew me out. A golf buggy picked me up at the entrance to Universal, brought me to reception. You’ve got Oscars, Jaws memorabilia, a Schindler’s List poster. I sat there pinching myself thinking, “What is going on?”
He took me up to his office. I sat there, the doors open and he gave me the biggest smile and a handshake. That started this wonderful journey of a film school of basically having a script that had promise and for me, the biggest director in the world really fired up.
AD: What a brilliant teacher to have.
MC: He was amazing because every single note from him was about making it richer and more complex. It wasn’t about making it clearer and easier, it was about pushing it further. I think a lot of people’s film’s experience is very different. It’s about neatening things up and about effectively making it straighter and clearer, and every script needs clarity, but what he’s interested in is mining the grey areas, and that’s a dream for a writer.
AD: It’s something that comes across in the film and almost very intense.
MC: I’m so pleased you say that because that’s something that I really wanted to get across, that this guy was living on his wits, this was something that was not destined to go right. Everything was going against this.
AD: Well, you don’t know where it’s going to go next because we don’t really know who James Donovan is.
MC: It’s not really not a world we know of that well, the world between the Soviets and the East Germans. That actually people can get lost in the system, that they can fall between those two stalls and disappear. It’s almost like the bureaucracy of those guys can end up killing you as well. I was really excited, I loved that line when Hanks says, “The problem with your countries is the names are too long.”
You’re looking at the different systems of government and trying to work out, “Well, you’re in charge of that, and you’re in charge of that guy. This belongs to them.”
AD: So, did you always have Tom Hanks in mind when you were writing this?
MC: It’s the strangest thing. I really did. It became really clear to me that when I was researching the Donovan character that what we needed was a guy who was a lawyer, a father and someone who took his job seriously, but that he was someone who carried people with him. He was able to look someone in the eye and say, “We’re going to get you out, we’re going to get you justice.” When you think about what Tom Hanks does, is he takes you to some very dark places by doing the kind of guy that you are willing to follow into some very dark places. For me that was what James Donovan was.
Also, I have to say, when you watch a movie like Captain Phillips, Tom Hanks is a wonderful man, and a great energy, but in a role like Captain Phillips, he’s pretty badass as well. He digs in. He’s got this strength of character, but sometimes you think, I don’t know how this is going to go. If this guy doesn’t back down, it might not end well.
AD: It’s true. He’s perfect in the film, you don’t even see Tom Hanks in this film, you see Donovan.
MC: I love him in the film. For me, it’s the most effortless he’s ever been and I totally agree with you. When I was on set, in Berlin, watching him work with Spielberg, it’s an amazing thing. They have a friendship, but they also have this real thing where they have this shorthand ability to talk in a way that makes that performance happen.
AD: How close was the finished product to the script?
MC: What’s amazing with these things is, I wrote this script that Steven greenlit. He said he was going to get his actor friend involved. Tom Hanks came on board. Then it went into production. Now bear in mind, from me pitching it, to the first day of principal production, was eleven months.
I did a second draft that took me about ten days. The brilliant thing about Steven is he’s able to pick up the phone to anyone and ask them for help and then they’ll help. So, because Hanks has this relationship with the Coens, they got involved and made an amazing contribution, and an amazing energy. They served him up, conching some of the negotiation scenes on the back end. They had a great ability to serve Hanks up some fast balls because they know him. Then that script came back to me and Steven said do some work. Suddenly we’re in production and I’m sitting on set with Tom Hanks speaking words I had written. It was really surreal with that calibre of talent.
AD: It’s crazy. You’re sitting there on set with Spielberg and Tom Hanks. The year before that, what were you doing?
MC: The year before that I was a playwright in London, I was really happy, learning my craft and dreaming about the movie business. It was a dream.
AD: What were some of the challenges in making this film?
MC: I think some of the challenges were those you find when telling a true story, the real art to a true story is, not what you put in, but what you leave out. There are so many side stories to Donovan’s life, so many intrigues and relationships and things that happened to him in this period that you could have had a five-hour long movie. So, whenever you approach this, you’ve got to be thinking, that is a great scene that doesn’t earn its place. So, it’s sticking to that, what are we leaving out to make this story fast and intense.
AD: It draws you in and because there’s so much unfolding, you find yourself wanting more.
MC: What I love about the story is it just keeps opening up. You start at this courtroom in Brooklyn, you go to the Supreme Court and suddenly you’re in Berlin. The world is your stage and the stakes are so high, but it’s the same man who’s led you there.
AD: You take on a great burden when you tell a true story.
MC: I didn’t see it as a burden. I saw it as an honor. I felt like I had found this man who had done a remarkable thing and nobody knew about him. I thought people need to know about this man. Honestly, I watched that movie, Steven flew in from LA and screened it for me in London. I was told to watch it on my own. I watched the film and felt inspired by that man. By the end of that film, I thought if I were 16 again, that film might make me want to become a lawyer. I want to do what he does and win arguments with words and I want to make the world a better place by fighting for it.
AD: You filmed in Berlin?
MD: We did. We filmed in the real Stasi prison in East Germany which was really quite spooky. It was an atmospheric place. A place where so many people suffered. So there was a real feeling of weight to the night. I sat next to Steven through the night, and he was talking me through the shots and why he was doing certain things, and why he was putting the camera where he was. Honestly Jazz, I was just pinching myself. It was the most remarkable thing.
AD: You’ve had a meteoric rise in a sense, going from playwriting to writing for the BBC and now Spielberg. You’ve got some projects, such as the Nina Jacobson one.
MC: Yeah, I’ve got a new project with Nina which I’m really excited about with Fox 2000. I’m not really allowed to talk about it. I love her. To be working with the producer of The Hunger Games is pretty crazy.
I’ve got a movie that I’ve written that Peter Berg with Mark Walhberg that’s about the Boston Marathon bombers. It’s a remarkable story.
I’m really excited about our take on it. It’s the Boston Police Commissioner, a guy called Ed Davis who is a remarkable man. He led the manhunt for these guys, and it took 108 hours to catch them. So that’s really exciting for me.
Then I’ve got another show for the BBC and I’ve got another show where I’ve just sold a pilot to CBS. It’s a really exciting time.
AD: Do you have writing schedule especially as you have two young children ?
MC: Yes. I think because my mum and dad aren’t from the business. I didn’t come from the business. They just worked very very hard. For me writing is a passion, it’s also something you need to dedicate yourself too. I split my day into two. I write on one project in the morning for about five hours, then I have a lunch break and work on another project for another five hours. So the days are really long, but I’m moving things forward the whole time. You get a lot done that way.
AD: What’s your writing process?
MC: With most stories you need to walk the ground out. What are the parameters with which I’m telling the story in. In order that when you get to a scene, the scene can be fun and feel alive, but it can know its purpose and know its shape, and also not be too rangy. We’ve all watched movies that are brilliant and a little bit out of control. I think the discipline of writing screenplays is really grabbing the audience and not letting them go. Every scene has to feel it has a direction and purpose, and feeds and grows. Outlines really help make that possible.
AD: How does writing for the BBC differ to writing a script for Spielberg?
MC: It really doesn’t. The thing that differs is the story you’re telling and therefore the style and genre in which you’re telling the story. That’s the only thing that really differs. I think you have to approach everything in the same way. I always look for the truth in something, even if it’s comedy. We laugh the hardest when something is truthful. The same applies for drama, we’re going to feel the most, we’re going to feel the stakes the most, so you look for the truth in everything.
AD: Who are your inspirations?
MC: When I was studying we were right by the West End, I would go to plays. I would wait for the interval, see a spare see and I’d watch the second act. So I’d watch 4 or 5 shows a week.
AD: You can’t do that anymore.
MC: You can’t. But, what was really interesting about it was you’d come out not knowing what the hell had gone on in the first act. I’d come home, lie in bed and try to figure out what had gone on in the first act. This guy was married to her, that’s his son. Or whatever. Then the next day, I’d go to the library or Samuel French and I’d read the play. I’d be like, I got this right, that wrong. It was a great lesson in learning structure and understanding what that first act needs to be to land the second act.
A lot of the influence for me in playwriting was Arthur Miller. I watched his plays fresh and raw. He changed everything for me. He was writing truthful characters with painful precision and putting people on stage that I knew. They weren’t just characters, these were people who were suffering.
Through him I found, Tennessee Williams through to Mamet.
AD: What was it like watching the finished product for the first time watching it alone?
MC: My brother said the sweetest thing to me, that this makes sense, watching it alone because it started with you alone, a blank page and a bunch of research and a story you wanted to tell. It ends with you watching the story you wanted to tell. It was a lovely way of looking at it. The whole experience of watching it was very emotional. Partly because I just got swept up in it and forgot what was going to happen. I was thinking, “Is he going to get out of here?”
AD: What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into writing?
MC: I honestly believe you get a moment. It might not be the moment you’re expecting, or the moment you plan for, or with the person you thought it would be with, but the key would be to be ready for that moment with the story you really want to tell.
I really really wanted to tell this story. When I came to LA to pitch it, I was ready. I made sure it was drilled and that it was exciting, that it had something for people to hold on to. That for me, although I didn’t know it at the time, that was a moment. I had a window. Had the pitch not been as well honed or not been as passionate, it might be a story that never landed or never got made.That would have been such a shame. My advice, I guess would be, be ready for that moment.
Bridge of Spies is on wide release. Watch the trailer below: