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Matt Charman: Writing His Own Script

Matt Charman

My family, on my dad's side, has lived in Southwater for about 180 years at Great House Farm. My uncle, Barry still farms there. We moved to nearby Dragons Green when I was four, but there was so much work to be done to the house when we bought it. My parents, Clive and Caroline, slaved away and made it a beautiful home and I enjoyed the freedom of that rural upbringing.

There is no history of writing in my family, but my mum's father, Laurie Apted - who we always refer to as 'Panga' - used to direct the Southwater Horticultural Society's annual pantomime.

I went to school in Southwater, and from a very early age I was involved in these plays. There were many gags and in-jokes about local residents and people would pay £5 for a ticket with fish and chips supper. One year I was a Dame, another year the villain, and everyone mixed in to make costumes and build sets.

At Forest School, the drama teacher, Mrs Joseph was incredibly supportive as she realised that I was passionate for the subject. I wasn't certain of what I wanted to do as a career, but I knew that what I most enjoyed was bringing everybody together to physically create a production, be it a devised work or a new play. Mrs Joseph let me use the school hall and would stay late so that the cast could rehearse. This helped me develop my understanding of stage and lighting equipment.

I had a small team of friends around me and we would stage various productions. There was one about the poet Shelley, because of the local link, and we performed The King and I and My Fair Lady whilst I was at Forest. We needed girls so we combined with Millais too. Gradually, we became more ambitious, even writing to companies for sponsorship. A lot of people contributed very early on to this idea in my head that perhaps I could do this as a career.

I wrote a new musical, Falling For Eve, with Jamie Salisbury writing the music. We performed it at Horsham Arts Centre and it felt like we had stepped up a level. I was proud of all of the plays, at the time, but the minute they were done I moved on to the next project. It was always the potential and possibilities of staging a new show that
excited me.

I went to Collyer's for A' levels and carried on creating productions. Sometimes, the entire cast would camp out in my parents' garden so we could rehearse. The first time that I realised the need to produce a proper play - in terms of set design, costumes and promotion – was with A View from the Bridge, an Arthur Miller play. We filmed a trailer for the production and used empty units in Swan Walk to display our posters. When you reach 16 or 17, you want to be taken more seriously, and that was a big moment.

There is a point where people stop supporting the young lad dreaming of the West End, and reach a point where they think 'I'm giving up an evening to watch this, so it ought to be good.' I still feel that acutely, even after three plays at the National Theatre. I see people arrive at the theatre, grab a gin and tonic and sit down, and I am aware that most of them have been at work all day and have probably had to pay for a meal out and perhaps a taxi and babysitter too. You've tapped them on the shoulder and said 'Come and see something I've written.' So it had better be worth it. Perhaps more so because I'm not from a showbiz background, I've always felt the need to give people their money's worth.

Studying at University College London was a great experience, because it provided access to the West End. My parents were amazing, but we only really went to the theatre once a year and that was normally to see a big musical show. So to suddenly have everything so close was incredible. I was watching the country's best actors in plays by our best writers, drinking it all in and understanding how the industry worked.

At that time, security in London was very different. I used to wait for the interval, when everybody came out for a cigarette, then follow them back in and sit in an empty seat when the lights went down. I would sit through the Second Act of a play, three or four times a week! Then I'd try and imagine what the First Act must have been like and piece it all together. I didn't realise it then, but that was a brilliant experiment in structure and writing, because you are starving yourself of half the story.

When I was younger, I had taken on acting roles, but gradually I moved away from that. At University, I worked with actors who are now fine television actors. When you are looking at someone with phenomenal stage presence and ability, you can see what proper acting is. I wanted to write something great for such people, rather than fooling myself that I was as good as them.

Life after University is tough. It is so hard to get your foot in the door, but it is a test of how much you want something. I knew I wanted to write, but I had to survive and pay my rent too, so I took awful jobs. One
summer, along with some friends all dressed in tuxedos, I sold bottled water outside the Royal Albert Hall. But it was lukewarm so nobody bought any! I would do anything that would provide me with some money to keep writing, as I wanted desperately to be a professional playwright.

The breakthrough came from an unlikely place. My brother found me work at a crash repair centre, A&B Autos in Kingsfold, where I would wash and valet cars. It was an interesting experience, because I was surrounded by very funny guys and fascinating characters. I kept jotting down notes about various incidents and people I met, and creating stories. In the cars, a certain book or a cassette tape would make me think about the driver and I would go on an imaginative journey. My first proper play was based on this experience.

It was called A Night at the Dogs. I entered it for the Verity Bargate Award, a competition for new writers held by Soho Theatre. Out of 700 submissions, it won, and I was given a professional production for five weeks. Suddenly, I had a play in London, which people were going to see and critics would be writing about.

A huge part of this business is perseverance and honing your craft. Luckily, with that script, it all came together at the right moment. The play had a fantastic response and it put me on the radar. The Literary Manager at The National Theatre contacted me and gave me a room in an attachment to the National, specifically for developing shows and writers. I was desperate to write them a play to reward their faith in me. That play was 'The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder' which was then staged at The National. This was a remarkable moment for me, as some of the best actors ever to grace the stage have been in the building at some point. For them to want one of my plays felt good!

The play was well received but I knew I could do better. I could see parts that didn't work or were too long, or where I hadn't expressed myself properly. My third play, The Observer was directed by Richard Eyre and was about a woman overseeing an election in a West African country. With good intentions, she manipulates the result and the play is about the consequences. The Observer was the first time that I felt I had written a play that did exactly what I wanted it to do. I was telling it when to be funny, when to be moving, when to make noise and when to be quiet.

Being critically reviewed is a horrible experience. To begin with, I was naive and read every review. But you realise that you are just opening yourself up - in such an artificial way - to criticism and it's not healthy. You have to think 'Why am I doing this?' and it's not to make a handful of people at national newspapers happy. It is to connect with the 500 people watching every night. I find it better to stand at the bar during the interval and listen to what the audience is saying. You'll hear far more constructive feedback. Sometimes I hear something and think 'That's a great idea!' and have made changes for the next show.

I had a very lucky break when Roland Emmerich, the director of Independence Day, contacted me after reading The Five Wives of Maurice Pinder. It blew my mind that the director of The Day After Tomorrow and Godzilla - massive films where the world keeps blowing up - wanted to meet me. I did what is known as a 'script polish' where an existing script needs a bit of fairy dust. Roland flew me out to Los Angeles for five days, and every morning I went to his house and we tweaked the script for a film called 2012, which then made about $900million.

It is a dream scenario. I have a play about a guy in Lewisham with five wives and this Hollywood director wants me to tweak a movie about the end of the world. It doesn't seem to fit, but he must have seen something in my play that made him believe I was the right man. I'm very grateful he did.

Looking back, things did progress quickly, but by the same token, a play can easily take up two years of your life and you want things to happen faster! But, things have happened at a good, organic pace that has allowed me to improve my craft and ensure that every play was a big step forward.

I was involved in a collaborative project at The National called Greenland, which had an environmental theme, before I had a play in New York for the first time. It was called Regrets and was staged by the Manhattan Theatre Club. I worked with a great guy straight out of drama school called Ansel Elgort, who stars in The Fault in Our Stars and has the world at his feet.

I then co-wrote a movie called Sweet Francaise, with director Saul Dibb, which was released last summer. Saul had written the first draft, but felt it wasn't quite working and wanted to meet some writers to discuss it. I read the book and gave him my version of his script, and although I was the least experienced of the writers he spoke to, Saul was pleased with the changes and took a punt on me. Michelle Williams and Kristin Scott Thomas signed up and before long we were shooting in Belgium.

My first experience of being on a big film set was with '2012' as Roland flew me in for a couple of days. But filming for Suite Francaise was the first time that I was wearing headphones and standing by the director. I went to the premiere in Paris with my wife, Anwen.

Writing for film is a different craft. Play writing tends to live in dialogue, but a film script, for anyone who's ever read one, is very technical and more like a blueprint. You can read a play and have an entire sense of everything that happens, but a screenplay for a good film will not do the film justice. What happens on camera, with actors and with the innovation of a director, can't be described on the page. As a screenwriter, you can only set down the best blueprint. Be as specific as you can, but create room for the director's own vision.

I was being invited to write episodes for various TV programmes, which was flattering, but I was keen to deliver
something that was entirely mine. I met with Big Talk and they sent me to see June Mottershead, the daughter of George Mottershead, the founder of Chester Zoo. I met this remarkable woman, who sadly passed away recently, and she told me the incredible story of her dad and the zoo. The more she talked, the more I thought that it was a beautiful family story.

My brother Greg, who lives in Horsham, often said that I should write something he could watch with his children all together on the sofa. So I wrote a six part drama called Our Zoo with them in mind, but unfortunately it was broadcast at 9pm! Still, I've very proud of Our Zoo and we had five million people watching every week on BBC1.

It's funny; you can write as many plays as you like, but people still feel you're messing around a bit. Then you write something that's on the cover of Radio Times and you start receiving emails from people you haven't heard from in 20 years. But I understand! They're all happy that things are working out for you, as they know there are tough years where you struggle to make ends meet.

Bridge of Spies is another game changer for me, career-wise.

I'm a big history buff and love reading about the Cold War and the Kennedy administration. I came across a tiny
footnote in a book, and after some digging around found out more about this remarkable real-life story. It revolves around an American lawyer called James Donovan, who was dropped into Germany and made his way across the Berlin Wall to negotiate the exchange of a Russian spy for an American spy. It is the story of an ordinary lawyer doing an extraordinary thing when the world was on the brink of nuclear war.

I was in LA for some general meetings and started telling people about the idea that would become Bridge of Spies. By the end of the week, DreamWorks had bought it from a 12 minute pitch. When I returned home there was an answer machine message, telling me that Steven Spielberg would like to hear the idea directly from me. Hours later, we were speaking on the phone. He said 'How quickly can you write it?' I almost killed myself writing for 18 to 20 hours a day, and delivered the first draft in six weeks.

I flew to LA and met Steven Spielberg for the first time. He gave me the best notes you can imagine on how to make the script even better. I came home, worked on it for two more weeks and sent it back to Spielberg. At this point, he said 'I'm going to share this with an actor friend of mine and see what he thinks.' That actor friend was Tom Hanks.

The next thing I know, someone calls me to say 'This is going to be Steven Spielberg's next film.'

I've had some very fortunate and incredible experiences in my life, but that phone call was unbelievable. I have had an ET poster on my wall since I was seven, and this to me is everything that I've ever wanted to be.

They wanted to make the film quickly. Obviously, I'm a bit of an unknown quantity in Hollywood terms, so the Coen brothers (Fargo, No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski) came on board to work on the screenplay too, as it was important to complete this stage as quickly as possible. After they re-worked my original script, I was in the strange position of reviewing their changes! It was an interesting baton-passing exercise between me and the Coen brothers. Needless to say, working on this film has been a huge learning curve.

You do have to 'get over' and deal with the fact that others are going to rework your script. A movie is a director's vision and as a screenwriter you have to realise that there is way too much at stake for your own vanity to get in the way. Obviously, the idea that somebody is going to tweak your work is going to put you out, in any walk of life, and in most instances you'd think 'Well, hang on a minute!' But movies are huge enterprises, employing thousands of people with millions of dollars at stake, and no stone can be left unturned. Every aspect of the script must be as good as it possibly can be. If Steven Spielberg says 'I like your script, but I'm going to ask the Coens to look at it too' then hey, that's not the worst problem in the world, is it?

I have met Tom Hanks on set in New York and Berlin, where I was lucky enough to sit alongside Steven Spielberg during a night time shoot. Tom is everything you'd hope he would be, in that he's very friendly and funny, but when the cameras roll he is 100% focused.

I've written a three part ITV thriller called Black Work, with Sheridan Smith in the lead role. Watching Sheridan working and Tom Hanks working, you can see that in very different ways they are both mining for new possibilities all of the time. Every single time they shoot a scene, they find something else, in that they hang a word differently or express the line with a different emotion. They are constantly working for the best outcome, and I think that is what makes a great actor.

As well as Black Work, I have just written a movie about the Boston Marathon bombing and the manhunt that followed. We hope that Mark Wahlberg will play the lead role and we are looking for the right director.

I recently became a father for the second time. Ruth is now three and a half weeks old, and my little boy, Jim, is two. I'm based in London now and whilst I visit the film shoots for a day or two, part of the big dream for me is to be a proper dad. My day job is exciting, but I want to be around for my children, like my dad was for me. I see no reason why you can't have fun at work and pursue a dream and also be a decent dad and husband.

My mum still keeps a scrapbook of my cuttings. They still live in Dragons Green and I come back quite often, as my brother and grandparents live in Horsham too. Both my parents stood by me, and were always quietly very supportive. They never forced me to do anything as they wanted me to find my own way, and I think that's important.