This Is What Every Aspiring Screenwriter Should Learn From Steven Spielberg and 'Bridge of Spies' Screenwriter Matt Charman

Sitting opposite Steven Spielberg, while he turns the pages of your script and talks about each scene as he goes, is about the best film school you can get. I learnt so much that it's hard to boil it down, but here's one thing: he wanted me to embrace complexity and the grey areas in characters.
01/28/2016 04:34 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2017

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Answers by Matt Charman, Screenwriter, Bridge of Spies (Academy Award nominee, Best Original Screenplay), on Quora.

A: Sitting opposite Steven Spielberg, while he turns the pages of your script and talks about each scene as he goes, is about the best film school you can get. I learnt so much that it's hard to boil it down, but here's one thing: he wanted me to embrace complexity and the grey areas in characters. That is a gift of a note to a writer, because it means that you can create roles that actors will truly want to inhabit, roles that have both good and bad qualities to them. And audiences love to be compelled by watching those kind of characters too. Steven pushed me to do that, the total opposite of streamlining and dumbing down.

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A: I spent time on set in New York and Berlin sitting next to Steven Spielberg while he worked, which was the biggest thrill of my life. Seeing him direct Tom Hanks, or block a scene with Mark Rylance or get the lighting just right was mind blowing and I just kept thinking "you've got to remember as much of this as you can."

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A: I found a footnote about James Donovan and the part he played in this spy swap in a biography of JFK. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck and I was desperate to know more. I pieced the story together through articles and archives but it wasn't until I met James Donovan's son that the enormity of this story really landed with me. Sitting opposite John Donovan and seeing the emotion in his eyes when he spoke about not only his father, but what the family had endured being regarded as traitors or friends of the communist cause, made me realise just how important it was to tell this story right and do justice to everyone involved. I wanted the Donovan family to watch the movie and be able to recognise their father up there on screen. When I sat behind them at the premiere in New York I was obviously nervous, but their reaction was the most wonderful review you could ever get and I feel proud we put the real man up there. It takes work to plot a course that is both thrilling and truthful, but it's worth it.

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A: I honestly didn't know. I just desperately wanted to see this movie on screen and I had to hope that if I wanted to see it, then maybe other people would too. The fact it has taken me on this remarkable journey, collaborating with Steven Spielberg, is testimony to how remarkable James Donovan's story is. I just feel privileged that I got to be the person to tell it.

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