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'Bridge of Spies' screenwriter wanted to take James Donovan from footnote to big screen

'Bridge of Spies' screenwriter wanted to take James Donovan from footnote to big screen
Writer Matt Charman's journey to "Bridge of Spies" included reading a JFK biography, meeting James Donovan's son, and talking on the phone with Steven Spielberg. (Rosie Hallam / DreamWorks)

History owes a lot to footnotes. In coming up with the script for "Bridge of Spies," I do too.

I was reading a biography of JFK by Robert Dallek, "An Unfinished Life," and in a section on Cuba, he described Kennedy's attempts to secure the return of more than 1,000 U.S.-backed invaders who'd been captured after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Kennedy decided to send a guy named James Donovan to negotiate with Fidel Castro. Donovan wasn't from the State Department or CIA. He was a civilian, an insurance lawyer. Why send him?

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The footnote intrigued me even more: Donovan had come to prominence by first orchestrating an audacious spy swap in East Berlin exchanging Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy working on American soil for 15 years, and Francis Gary Powers, the U2 spy plane pilot shot down over the USSR. All this from an insurance lawyer I'd never heard of. The hairs were standing up on the back of my neck. I had to know more about this guy.

I started to dig around and slowly pieced together Donovan's story. He was on the prosecution team at the Nuremberg trials after World War II, but had retreated from public life and was partner at a mid-scale insurance firm in New York when he was tapped for the thankless task of defending the hated spy Rudolf Abel.

But what really brought his story home to me was when I met Donovan's son, John, now in his 60s, in a midtown diner in New York. It was an emotional meeting I'll never forget. John was so proud of his father and believed, as I did, that he played a major part in pulling the U.S. and Soviet Union from the brink during the Cold War, but history had forgotten him. I wanted desperately to honor his father's story, and John gave me his blessing to try.

Cut to me in L.A. soon after, and with a week of back-to-back general meetings ahead of me I found myself unable to stop thinking about this remarkable man and a story that felt so cinematic and at the same time so relevant to our world right now with America and Russia facing off again, and with diplomacy changing beyond recognition.

So I started pitching Donovan's story. Studio execs showed up expecting a gentle chat, but they got a 20-minute version of "Bridge of Spies" instead. On the Thursday of that week, with my voice now more than a little hoarse, I met Jonathan Eirich of DreamWorks in the Griddle Cafe on Sunset Boulevard. He listened and instantly said this was something Steven Spielberg might be excited by.

DreamWorks bought the pitch but it wasn't until I was back home in London that I pitched Spielberg himself, this time over the phone. After I finished, I waited nervously for the verdict. There was silence and then the most exciting few minutes of conversation I've ever had in my life. Steven clearly knew that period of history well — he'd lived it as a boy growing up in Arizona — but he'd never heard of James Donovan or this spy swap, and he was fascinated.

He asked me when I would be able to write it and I killed myself to deliver the first draft in five weeks. I flew back to L.A. and met Steven in person for the first time. The amazing thing about working with him on every stage of the script was his drive to bring out the richness, complexity and nuance as much as possible. I knew from the start that the script had to have historical veracity, but Spielberg pushed me further; he was laser-focused on getting to the truth of the story and the characters at every turn.

I feel like I got lucky so many times on this project. From pitching the idea to Spielberg through to the first day of production was just 11 months. I always had Tom Hanks in my mind when I was writing the script — I knew he could convey not only Donovan's principles but the fact that he was a badass who wouldn't back down. Then the Coen brothers come on board — what a film school for a rookie writer, passing the baton back and forth with Joel and Ethan and finally writing into production and finding myself on set beside Spielberg watching Tom Hanks bringing James Donovan back to life in front of my eyes.

It was an incredible experience for me, but I know it meant even more to John and his sisters when they attended the premiere of "Bridge of Spies" in New York. Their father, an unheralded American hero, was no longer just a footnote.

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