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Writing for Spielberg: Matt Charman Honors a Real-Life Hero in ‘Bridge of Spies’

Writing for Spielberg: Matt Charman Honors a Real-Life Hero in 'Bridge of Spies'

Londoner Matt Charman had written some Brit TV series as well as “Suite Francaise,” an ill-fated literary adaptation that didn’t get the royal treatment from The Weinstein Co. Then DreamWorks bought his pitch for “Bridge of Spies.”

He remembers flying back to London to find a message on his answering machine saying that Spielberg wanted to hear the pitch directly from him. They set a phone call, and the flustered screenwriter told Spielberg the story. The call was quiet. Was he still there? “I’m rapt, keep going, I love this,” Spielberg told him. “When can you write it? This is emotionally connecting with me.”

“That was the first moment when I thought, ‘maybe I got an outside shot here,'” Charman told me in a phone interview. “It’s Spielberg, it’s early in my career, to get his interest like this was a huge thing for me.”

He wrote the first draft in five weeks. Spielberg read it and flew the writer to LA, sending a cart to pick him up at the Universal Studios entrance and drive him through the lot to his Amblin compound. “My script was on his lap,” Charman said. “‘Let’s talk about this movie you just wrote.’ This was becoming something very real.”
Cold War history buff Charman originally found the public domain true story in a footnote in “An Unfinished Life,” about JFK’s presidency. Kennedy sent James Donovan to negotiate with Castro about releasing men captured during the Bay of Pigs. In a footnote Donovan was identified as the lawyer who negotiated the exchange of an American-held Russian Spy and downed U2 pilot Gary Powers. “Hang on,” Charman thought. “Who is this guy negotiating with Castro and swapping spies, he sounds amazing.” He dug around: there had never been a definitive story about James Donovan. He pieced it together from the New York Times archive, presidential libraries, and magazine articles.

And he met Donovan’s son in New York to talk about his Dad. “It was very emotional, he was very proud of his father,” said Charman. “While he was also aware that he was a quiet hero, he did what was asked of him and didn’t make a fuss. He slipped into obscurity. I faced the family as someone who wanted to tell his story, looked them in the eye and said ‘I think your father’s a hero, an inspiration,’ then brought out a 20-minute pitch to LA.”

When Charman first met with Spielberg, the filmmaker slipped right into his memories of that “duck and cover” era. His father had gone to Moscow; he saw the remains of Gary Powers’ downed U2 plane put on display there, “to show the world they had one up on Americans, we caught this guy,” said Charman. After Spielberg agreed to direct the film, he showed Charman his father’s Kodachrome slides. “He was full of stories and memories of growing up in that time, which I wanted to access and make real for a modern audience.”
Charman never considered this material for television; he immediately saw the Donovan spy swap as a movie with “all the best ingredients of a Le Carre cold war thriller with the beating heart of a man trying to do the right thing. That was a movie, through and through.”
Structurally, in the film Donovan “takes our hand and we follow him through the story,” said Charman. “It’s a fascinating moment when Gary Powers is being shot down. We needed to find the way to introduce him to an audience with the right level of intrigue, so we cut back to him as we wonder where it’s leading, how he’s doing. I worked hard on the fusion of those stories, with crosscutting between the two.”
It was rare in the 60s for someone like Donovan to see this top KGB spy as someone who was doing his job for his country. As an insurance lawyer he was able to see that keeping him alive was an insurance policy that might one day be called in. “That was the way his brain works,” said Charman. “He wanted to keep him alive; there was nothing to be gained by giving him the chair. All his arguments were grounded in the law. He was trying to keep this guy from the chair using everything he knew.”
Charman was moved by what Donovan accomplished with intelligence and tenacity: “I could imagine seeing this movie as a 15 or 16 year old, having it make me want to be a lawyer, to do what that guy does. It feels good to say what about this guy he does right.”
Of course everyman star Tom Hanks was perfect casting for Donovan. But, Charman points out, “if you look at ‘Captain Phillips,’ he’s got bullishness and grit. You believe that this guy can dig deep—he’s a man who might live next door and a guy who just won’t back down.”
While massaging and compressing timelines is inevitable for a two-hour movie, Charman fought to “stay truthful to the relationships, get the temperature of how these people felt about one another, so as the changes came—if you need event momentum to carry you into a piece of action—where you lose the audience is if they think you’re faking the way people acted toward one another or publicly or the truth of arguments. I had to look the Donovan family in the eye, so I could hand on heart say, ‘this guy believed that, he felt a strong bond with Rudolph Abel.’ After he went back to the Soviet Union, Donovan tried to see him one last time. It was all set. At the last minute Soviet authorities wouldn’t let it happen, and he came back to America. That moment on the bridge at the end was beyond friendship, it was something else. What you see on the bridge at the end I wanted desperately to be on screen.”
Of course Spielberg brought his touch. “It’s a Spielberg film in every way,” Charman said, “from the way he shot the home life with dinner plates going down on the table, to his sense of style and cinema. He inhabits every element of the story as a filmmaker.” Spielberg and Charman set the Berlin sequences just as the Wall was being built. “The temperature in Berlin was changing hugely,” he said. “I wanted the audience to feel the fact that the world was spinning, turning, in a dangerous direction, and the stakes were being raised the whole time. Also, putting the Berlin Wall on screen was an important historical moment. As we just celebrated 25 years of that wall coming down, younger people realize that when the tanks and trucks arrive they started building a wall through the middle of the city. It’s an important collective memory to have reflected in movie like this.”
As for the Coen brothers coming in for polishes, Charman considers himself lucky. “They’re the greatest living screenwriters,” he said, “it was like film school for me. They could contribute and punch up the negotiation stuff at the back of the movie and then the baton came back to me, writing into production, sitting on set watching words I’d written come out of Hanks. It was a collaboration you would kill for, an amazing experience.”
How did they improve his script? “It’s a sense of moving the story on, pick it up and move forward, every scene reaching the point of feeling natural and alive so the stakes feel right and the characters. It’s a process, writing movies is always upping the ante, every time you get it back you do an even better job.”
Next up, Charman is delighted that his ITV limited series, “Black Work,’ will arrives in the U.S. via Acorn TV on Nov. 2. And his script “Patriots Day,” about Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis’s 2013 manhunt for the marathon bombers, has gotten a green light with director Peter Berg and star Mark Wahlberg. Charman’s executive producing his pitch for a 1946 prison escape drama, “The Battle of Alcatraz,” which Paramount scooped up in a bidding war. He also sold a pitch, “Wilderness,” to Fox 2000 for producer Nina Jacobson. A pilot for CBS Films has been sold to the CBS network, and another TV series pitch will go out shortly.

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