Bridge of Spies: From Page to Screen

When London-based playwright and television writer Matt Charman stumbled upon a footnote in a biography on John F. Kennedy that referenced an American lawyer whom the President had sent to Cuba to negotiate the release of 1,113 prisoners, his curiosity was piqued.

Quick research yielded a name he did not recognize, that of James Donovan, a successful insurance claims lawyer from Brooklyn. But it was the story of what took place several years earlier which he found most interesting. Donovan had defended a Soviet agent accused of espionage during the Cold War, and while he specialized in insurance law and had not practiced criminal law for some time, was then asked to negotiate one of the most high-profile prisoner exchanges in history.

Charman had little knowledge of the inner-workings of the film industry. Nevertheless, he flew to Hollywood in hopes of convincing a studio to greenlight a film based on Donovan’s remarkable true story. While Donovan’s role was not well known in the annals of Cold War history, Charman pitched DreamWorks Pictures a gripping tale of an idealistic man navigating the world of national security and subterfuge. The executives at DreamWorks were immediately intrigued.

“When I heard the story, it knocked my socks off,” says producer Kristie Macosko Krieger, who was a co-producer on “Lincoln” and is based at DreamWorks. “Not many people know the story of James Donovan and what he accomplished during this period of U.S. history, but it sounded like something that was right up Steven’s alley.”

Producer Marc Platt, whose credits include “Into the Woods,” “Drive” and the upcoming “The Girl on the Train,” was familiar with Donovan’s story and was also aware of director Steven Spielberg’s interest in the Cold War—and history in general—and felt it was ideally suited for the director’s sensibilities. “As a filmmaker, Steven has studied some great iconic characters and can re-create history in an extraordinarily cinematic way. He’s the perfect filmmaker to tell a story like this.”

And they were both right. The story was part legal drama, part thriller and part historical epic, and Spielberg was riveted. But it was the character of James Donovan that he found most appealing. The story of a well-respected lawyer living the life of a typical family man in the ‘50s who took on a dangerous assignment and prevailed through sheer instinct and conviction of principle, had enormous cinematic potential.

“As a youngster growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, I had a tremendous amount of awareness of what was happening during the Cold War, but I didn’t know anything about the exchange of Rudolf Abel for Francis Gary Powers,” says Spielberg. “I knew about Powers because growing up everyone had heard that his U-2 spy plane had been shot down and that he had been put on public display at a very public trial, but the story kind of ended with a spectacular shoot down. I didn’t realize that something had happened subsequent to his capture, which was this very backroom exchange, this spy swap between Abel, a Soviet spy, and Powers, the American spy pilot. So there was a lot to this story that really pulled me in.”

Charman returned to London to start writing, and within six weeks delivered a thought-provoking, well-crafted script that generated a wonderful feeling of suspense between the multiple stories. Says Spielberg, “Matt did a good job of connecting the Powers story with the Abel-Donovan story.”

It was a clever, and important, juxtaposition because Powers was technically doing the same thing Abel was arrested for, only from the air, and Charman knew that structurally he needed to make all of the different stories speak to one another. Platt agreed, saying, “Matt did a fantastic job, and once he was finished, we brought his draft to the Coen brothers, who write with a tone which is real yet has a particular edge to it, which was perfect for this story.”

The Coen brothers, whose impressive filmography includes titles like “No Country for Old Men,” “The Big Lebowski” and “Fargo,” immediately dove in, immersing themselves in the language of the period.  They incorporated Tom Hanks’ persona into the character of Donovan, expertly interweaving this remarkable experience in his life into a powerful story that captured the essence of the man.

“Joel and Ethan got us very, very deep into the characters,” says Spielberg. “They really instilled a sense of irony and a little bit of absurd humor, not absurd in the sense that movies can take license and be absurd, but that real life is absurd. They are great observers of real life, as we all know from their great august body of work, and were able to bring that to the story.”

Spies Looking like Everyone Else

One theme woven throughout the texture and framework of the Coen brothers’ screenplay which struck a chord with the director was the notion that spies looked like everyone else. He explains, “It wasn’t just shadows and light and spies in a stereotypical way, but it was spies as people that we wouldn’t even think twice about, we wouldn’t even notice them to begin with, let alone figure out that they’re here to do a mission against our national security. Between Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen, I was in the hands of three wonderful storytellers.”

Once a finished screenplay was in hand, plans to make the film quickly accelerated. A stellar production team was soon in place, including: two-time Academy Award® winner Janusz Kaminski as director of photography; Oscar® winner Adam Stockhausen as production designer; Kasia Walicka Maimone as costume designer; three-time Academy Award winner Michael Kahn, A.C.E. as editor; and 12-time Oscar nominee Thomas Newman as composer.

“Steven loves authenticity,” says Macosko Krieger, “and we assembled an amazing group of artists to work with him…some of whom we had worked with before, and some who were new to us.”