It’s not every day a man gets the chance to see his work brought to life by the likes of Spielberg and Hanks. We delve into how men are responding to the film, advice for aspiring screenwriters and more …
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Matt Charman, screenwriter of Bridge of Spies, now available on blu-ray, DVD, and digital download. Matt is a British playwright who became fascinated with the story of James Donovan, a U.S. attorney who is thrust into the center of the Cold War when the CIA sends him on a high-stakes mission to negotiate the release of a captured American U-2 pilot.
Check our exclusive interview after the clip!
GMP: Congratulations on the Oscar nominations for Bridge of Spies (including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay).
MC: Thank you so much. Yes, it’s a huge thing, especially at this point in my career. This is my first original screenplay, and getting to work with Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks has been a remarkable experience.
GMP: How did you first learn about the story of Jim Donovan?
MC: I came across it in Robert Dallek’s book An Unfinished Life, which is a biography of JFK. I’ve always been interested in this period in history, especially the Kennedy Administration that’s covered in the book. It mentioned JFK’s negotiation with Fidel Castro to get back over a thousand people who were caught and captured after the Bay of Pigs invasion.
The book mentioned that they sent a lawyer named James Donovan to negotiate. One of the footnotes said that Donovan first came to prominence for the part he played in the spy swap between Gary Powers and Rudolf Abel. That was it, just a mention—nothing more than that. And the hair really stood up on the back of my neck because I was looking at a man who had been involved in two remarkable moments in history—not only in the negotiation with Castro but also in this spy swap. I didn’t know anything about him.
I started to piece together the story and realized there wasn’t a definitive account of it. I started to piece together—through the New York Times archives, the Kennedy presidential library, magazines and articles—the story of James Donovan and what he had done in this period, how he defended Rudolf Abel, and how he put himself in this position.
Crucially, the big moment to me was meeting James Donovan’s son, John Donovan, in New York. John He’s now in his 60’s, and John was very emotional telling me about his father. It was a meeting I’ll never forget because. As a family, they had gone through this huge moment together. He’s in the movie as a child and he vividly remembers what happened to his father, and what was going on around him.
After James Donovan returned home from, he went back to his ordinary life and job, and didn’t make a big fuss or fanfare. So in a way, history kind of got him. I had done a lot of research, and was fascinated by his father. I said, I really want to tell your Dad’s story, and John gave me his blessing even though I was in the early days of my career.
As a result, I put a pitch together and went out to LA. I started pitching people this story that I loved and thought could be a fantastic movie.
GMP: That’s quite a story.
MC: Yeah, it’s been an amazing journey, from reading that footnote through researching the story and meeting John Donovan. I pitched the story to everyone in LA—anyone who would stand long enough for me to tell the story. I gave Dreamworks a 20-minute verbal pitch and they got very excited about it.
I flew home to London feeling very ecstatic, and I had a phone machine message saying that Steven Spielberg would like to hear this story directly from me. That was the most exciting phone message I’ve ever had, obviously. I got very nervous and excited.
I had grown up with posters of his movies on my wall. I loved his movies through adolescence and also as an adult, seeing every film Steven has ever made. I can remember where I was when I saw them, the friends I was with, and what was going on in my life.
Spielberg has been a huge figure in my life. Then suddenly he’s on the phone, “Hey Matt, Steve here. I hear you’ve got a story to tell me.” It was pretty wild.
GMP: As you were writing the script, were there any particular qualities of Jim Donovan that you wanted to draw out in the story?
MC: So many qualities. I’d just become a father a few months before I started writing. I thought of his relationship to his children and his sense of duty towards his family, wanting to make the world a safer place, and trying to pull us back from the brink of something catastrophic. All this made me test myself a bit, and made me think about what I would have done in those circumstances. Would I have been brave enough to go and do this thing, to put myself on the front line, and try to negotiate for this spy swap that was going to walk us back from the brink?
James Donovan was a remarkable human being and American, and a really incredible man. When you’re looking at what you try to do as a writer, you try to see the world through the character’s eyes. When you to do it with a guy like Jim Donovan, you can’t help but be really inspired by the decisions he made, the choices he took along the way, and the values he stood for. So many people would have chosen a different path because it was so hard to defend a Russian spy in the era of the Cold War. It was a hugely unpopular, dangerous thing to do. He never flinched, and that’s inspiring.
GMP: How have men responded to Bridge of Spies?
MC: Here’s something that I loved and got really excited about. Much of the time, we are told as men that our heroes and idols need to be guys with guns, or people conducting themselves in a sexy spy-like way, along with all the spoils that come with that kind of life. What I’ve found so thrilling is that James Donovan is not a spy, had no training by the CIA, and no weapon on him. All he had was his own wits, his own bravery, and his own intelligence to negotiate. So many men who had watched the movie have loved that about him.
They see themselves in him. They know they’re not going to be able to do something unrealistic like strangle someone with a shoelace or jump out of a window and make a parachute out of a dinner jacket. But what they do know is this: when they’re given an opportunity to stand for something that’s good, maybe they would measure up to that, too.
James Donovan feels like the kind of the best of us—the best of the kind of ordinary and extraordinary man.
GMP: Do you see a difference between men of Jim Donovan’s era and men in today’s world?
MC: That’s such a great question, and a big question. Intrinsically, no. When you look at the key tenets of the decision that James Donovan made, he made it on a bunch of different fronts—as a lawyer through principles that he had learned at law school and carried with him his whole life, and tested at the Nuremberg trials against the Nazis.
He carried those principles through to this late professional life, so they had been fire-tested many times. Those principles had never failed him.
We still have those principles today. They still count. People still value and treasure those. James Donovan talks passionately about the Constitution in the movie—it’s something that affords Rudolph Abel his defense and something that’s worth standing by.
I still think the American Constitution is one of the most beautiful documents ever written. There is a power in reminding ourselves why it’s valuable, and that we can test ourselves by the measure it gives us.
James Donovan was a father, he had a wife, he had colleagues … we still have all of those things. Everything he was going through, everything that was testing him, we have right now. It’s the connective tissue to all the decisions he made, and it can feel as relevant now as it would to the men in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
GMP: What is one piece of advice you have for aspiring screenwriters?
MC: Don’t be in a hurry. If you feel like you haven’t grasped the craft of it, it’s OK because it’s a marathon, not a sprint. It takes time to hone your craft and to really understand what directors need when they read a script, what audiences want when they watch certain genres of movies, and what you want to bring into the world and contribute as a creator.
I spent a long time learning my craft as a playwright and having those plays staged in London, and developing an understanding of how to write for an audience. So often today, if people aren’t an overnight success, they feel like they’ve failed and nothing is happening.
Screenwriting takes a long time, and you must pledge yourself to it. The best thing is to take your time and remember that you’re going to get there.
I want to thank Matt Charman for taking the time to speak with me, and for sharing so many insights and wisdom. We wish him much continued success!
In addition, I want to thank several others for making this interview possible: Wilhelm Cortez, (Executive Editor at GMP), Ryan Smith (Click Communications), and Jennifer Malone (Walt Disney Studios).
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