Matt Charman Q&A: ‘Bridge of Spies’ writer
“It’s the strangest feeling in the world, because I’ve always loved the Oscars,” admits Matt Charman as we chat via webcam about his nomination for penning the original screenplay of “Bridge of Spies.” He recalls how he and the woman who'd eventually become his wife used to see the ceremony at a friend’s house in London, with the eight-hour time difference causing them to catch the broadcast in the wee small hours. “They’d hide a key under the mat, we’d let ourselves in, and we’d watch the Oscars.” Talk about devotion. “I’ve always loved it,” he adds, “and now I get to go.”
Set during the Cold War, "Bridge of Spies" tells the true story of James Donovan (Tom Hanks), a lawyer who must negotiate the trade of a Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) for two captured Americans. Charman first came across the little-known story while reading a biography of John F. Kennedy. “There was a footnote in the book that mentioned James Donovan in a really fleeting way,” he explains. “I said to myself, this is amazing. This is incredible. Who is this guy? I don’t know anything about him.”
He continues, “The hairs stood up on the back of my neck, and that is what happens to me when I know there’s a story there that I want to pursue, and a character I want to pursue, but there was nothing around about him. I couldn’t find any definitive source. So I started to piece it together through the New York Times archives, through the Kennedy presidential library, through loads of different sources, and finally through James Donovan’s family.”
Once his research was finished, his pitch to Dreamworks caught the attention of Steven Spielberg, who wanted to fit the project into his busy schedule. Of course, that meant speeding up the usual writing process. “Immediately people from Dreamworks phoned me, and they were really honest,” admits Charman. “They said, ‘Look, he’s got a lot of other projects that he’s looking at. He want to direct a movie, it sounds like he’s really keen on this. You need to write it in about five weeks to stay in the race. And this was over Christmas.”
Clearly, the results paid off. Charman shares this nomination with four-time Oscar champs Joel and Ethan Coen. The trio are also competing at BATFA and the Writer’s Guild.