Novice Screenwriter on Selling His First Script to Steven Spielberg: 'Exhilarating and Nerve-Racking'
This story first appeared in the Aug. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Steven Spielberg typically works only with the most in-demand writers— from Tony Kushner to David Koepp. But don't tell British playwright Matt Charman, 35, whose first screenplay is the director's next film. Charman, whose credits include two scripts for the Brit TV series Man Stroke Woman, impressed with an untitled Cold War pitch that follows the true story of lawyer James Donovan, recruited by the CIA to help rescue an American pilot detained in the Soviet Union. The Tom Hanks-led film now is casting for a fall start (Joel and Ethan Coen did a polish for Hanks' dialogue). Charman, who lives in London with his wife and 18-month-old son, talked to THR about his improbable move from pitch to production in less than a year and being part of Hollywood's most exclusive inner circles.
What was the genesis of this screenplay?
I love the Kennedy administration and that period in American history. I found a footnote in a history book. It referred to James Donovan and the fact that he was a lawyer whom JFK had sent in to negotiate with Castro. There was a little asterisk, and down at the bottom of the page, it mentioned that he was also responsible for the prisoner exchange of Francis Gary Powers [an American pilot whose spy plane was shot down] for [Soviet spy] Rudolf Abel. And I thought, "This guy's a lawyer, right, and how does that work?"
When did it come to Hollywood?
I pitched it to DreamWorks [senior vp production] Jonathan Eirich in October. I met him in a waffle shop in Los Angeles. He said, "Look, I'm going to go in right now and repeat as much of this as I can for Steven Spielberg because I think he'll love this." And by the time I landed back in the U.K., I had an amazing phone message saying, "Steven Spielberg would like to talk to you."
Describe that feeling?
It was the most exhilarating and nerve‑racking experience in my life. Suddenly, his voice is there on the phone: "Matt, I heard you've got a great story to tell me. Shoot." I gave him the pitch, and I talked him through the whole story. I got to the end of it, and he said, "How fast can you write it? Because I'd love to direct it."
How fast were you able to write it?
I turned the first draft around in about eight weeks. Next thing I know, I'm at lunch with Steven Spielberg, and he gave me these unbelievable notes — the kind you dream of as a writer.
I've got an original series for the BBC titled Our Zoo [September]. I adapted an amazing novel — a wartime love story — titled Suite Francaise [starring Margot Robbie, Michelle Williams and Kristin Scott Thomas]. I'm working on a 10‑part TV series for the States with [Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy director] Tomas Alfredson. And I've got a heist movie pitch. I'm coming out to L.A. in September to find the right home for that.