Screenwriter Matt Charman On Spielberg's Interest In 'Bridge Of Spies': "It's Insane, Honestly"

Until very recently Matthew Charman was at home in London, successfully writing for the BBC. Then one day, a footnote in a JFK biography caught his attention, and the screenplay for Bridge Of Spies was born. A few Hollywood pitches later and Charman found himself on the phone with Steven Spielberg. Now Charman is headed to the Oscars as a Best Original Screenplay nominee. Spielberg “couldn’t have been more reassuring to me,” Charman says of the pitching experience. After being told Spielberg had a number of possible films in mind and that time was of the essence, Charman worked “20-hour days” to write the script–and the deal was done. In what seemed like no time at all, Charman was on set in Berlin with Tom Hanks speaking his words, and with Spielberg showing him a scale model of the bridge from his script. Now with the Peter Berg-directed Patriot’s Day in the works starring Mark Wahlberg, Charman’s dreams keep on coming true. Although he still has moments of disbelief, as he says, “Sometimes I wake up in the morning and there’s a moment before I remember that I wrote this film and Steven Spielberg directed it. Then I remember, and wow, it’s insane, honestly.”

What was it about that footnote that grabbed your attention enough to write a screenplay about James Donovan?

When I read the footnote, quite honestly the hairs stood up on the back of my neck, because I thought, I’ve never heard of this guy, I don’t know who he is. I don’t know why the CIA would send him. Then pretty quickly I found there wasn’t really any definitive answer to that question. There wasn’t a book. There wasn’t a movie. That led me to start digging around and piecing it together through the New York Times archives and through the Kennedy Presidential library. What I found was a man who had played an incredible part in history, a pivotal part in the Cold War, and the story had never been told.

It’s really strange. We live in a world where you think every corner has been covered and there are no stories left to tell, but there really are and they’re in the strangest places. They’re in the footnotes of books, or they’re in the corner of margins. When I found James Donovan’s story, when I researched it, and then when I met his son in New York, it was a massive moment for me. I’m very new to this business and I needed his son to know that not only was this a story that I really was passionate to tell, but that it was going to be tough, and it was something that might take time, and we would need to find the right filmmaker for it because Hollywood doesn’t make a lot of movies like this anymore.

How did you end up pitching it to Spielberg?

I did eight pitch meetings a day within five days. I talked to anyone who would stop long enough to hear this 20-minute pitch because I felt so strongly about it. It’s an incredible central character, and it’s something that’s very timely as well. A character who believes so much in due process, who believes in the Constitution, who is willing to make himself unpopular to do what’s right.

Finally DreamWorks bought the pitch and I flew home, and I had this answering machine message saying, ‘Steven Spielberg would like to hear it directly from you.’ Then you find yourself pitching it to him over the phone, which is surreal, terrifying, incredible, and all the lovely things and the scary things that come with meeting your hero over the phone. He couldn’t have been nicer to me and said, ‘I hear you’ve got a great story to tell me, shoot.’ I told him the story. We got to the end, and there was just a little moment of silence, and he said, ‘I love this. When can you write it?’

Tom Hanks Bridge Of Spies
“They don’t talk in sentences that you and I would particularly understand–they don’t need to,” Charman says of the working relationship between Spielberg and Tom Hanks
Courtesy of Disney

What was the process of working with him like for you?

It’s remarkable because you sit down with him, he’s got the script on his knee, corners turned down, notes in the margin, little Post-Its over the script. We turned every single page, every moment, every scene. Everything about going through the process with Steven Spielberg is finding as much texture and as much grayness as you can, to make as much complexity out of every situation–complexity that an audience will love and understand, not to take it away from them, but to make it more human, and deeper, and more difficult, a drama that they really can feel in every moment. For a screenwriter, that’s a dream. You don’t want the character to have easy choices.

What’s been the response of Donovan’s family to the film?

A remarkable thing happened at the premiere. We watched the movie and they brought along a photograph of their mother, of Mary, so she could watch the movie with them, which I just thought was the most amazing thing. When the lights went up afterwards, they turned around and they saw me there, and all three children were there that were in the movie. We just had a very, very big hug and they just said thank you. I think for years they knew what their father had done but no one else knew, no one really knew, and you can’t explain that to people without sitting them down for two hours. Now they don’t need to explain. Now people know.

Having someone be brought in to polish your script might have felt difficult, but in this case you were working with the Coen brothers–how was that experience?

When Steven phoned me and said ‘look, the Coens have read the script, they really want to get involved,’ there are two ways you can respond to that. I chose the response which was, ‘hold on a second, I’ve got Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and now two of the greatest screenwriters in the world to come together on the script I’ve written. These people might never be in the same room together again. This is the most incredible film school.’ What happened as a result, was they did just some remarkable work on the screenplay, picking out scenes, looking at different ways. Structurally it stayed exactly the same, but just looking at moments.

What was the day-to-day like with Spielberg and Hanks on set in Berlin?

Seeing Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg work, and seeing the language between them, they’ve got shorthand. I’ve never experienced anything like it. They’ve worked together so well before and seamlessly, that now they don’t talk in sentences that you and I would particularly understand–they don’t need to, and they can read each other so well. Very quickly they’re onto exactly what each other are thinking. They collaborate in this amazing way and it’s really thrilling to watch.

For me, sitting next to Steven Spielberg, he said when I first arrived on the set, ‘OK, you can sit here because it’s your fault we’re here.’ I sat next to him at the monitors. He talked to me about the script and emphasis on certain lines, and I thought, this is a guy who is across every element. There is no part of the process that he isn’t excited by but also completely in charge of, and to watch that is genuinely thrilling. And in all of that, he’s a lovely man. He could not have been nicer to me and couldn’t be more generous because I think he knew from some of the questions I was asking that I wasn’t just interested in my bit—I was interested in what he was doing with the camera. I was interested in him working with actors.

During a little downtime we had when Janusz Kaminski was changing the lights and there was a new set-up, he said, ‘come with me.’ He took me into a side room and he showed me a scale model of the Glienicke Bridge from the end of the movie, and he talked me through about 20 set-ups. He talked me through them for no other reason than he could tell I was interested. It was something I will never forget.

What’s happening now with Patriot’s Day?

Peter Berg is going to direct it, Mark Wahlberg is going to be in it and it’s going to shoot in March or April. It’s a really, really important project to me in terms of I’ve spent a lot of time in Boston and I’ve met a lot of the people that were involved. I’ve spent a lot of time with the Boston PD. It’s so important to get it right and to honor the people that were involved in such a traumatic, horrific moment. It’s also a story about how the city came together during and after those four days, because something really remarkable happened in Boston in terms of people coming together to help find the brothers, but also to help heal each other.

Having just done a true story, part of me wanted to make sure that it was going to have the veracity that it needed to have, so I went to Boston and spent time with people and slowly started to realize that this was something I had to do. I really felt strongly that I wanted to be involved in this story.

  1. The true story on which the screenplay is based is even better. The real James B. Donovan (the Hanks character) wrote a 1964 bestseller “Strangers on a Bridge” about the trial of the KGB spy Rudolf Abel, and the Powers exchange. Donovan was a uniquely patriotic former CIA counsel (he helped draft the original blueprint for that agency) and defended the Constitution more faithfully than many, then or now. To claim that the movie “Bridge of Spies” tells the true story that had never been told before is not only not true, it denies the man and his case their full due.

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