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Silver Screen Storyteller

Matthew Michael Carnahan scripts tales of politics, drama and international intrigue.

Matthew Michael Carnahan (B.A., international relations, '95) is a screenwriter in Arlington, Va. Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan.
Matthew Michael Carnahan (B.A., international relations, '95) is a screenwriter in Arlington, Va. Photo by Jeffrey MacMillan.

Banging out scripts from his home office in Arlington, Va., Matthew Michael Carnahan finds that real-world stories drive his creativity.

One night while searching for a USC Trojans football game on television, a blip of news planted the seed for a narrative that would become the basis of Lions for Lambs, the 2007 film he penned starring Robert Redford, Meryl Streep and Tom Cruise.

The story that scrolled along in the news ticker at the bottom of the screen reported that two soldiers in Iraq drowned after their Humvee flipped off of the road. Carnahan was fascinated by the dissociated news bite coupled with his observation of how removed the general public is from the United States’ operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I started to think about writing something however small or insignificant,” he said. “I realized it was the thing I could do to weigh in.”

Carnahan considers his experience as an international relations major in USC Dornsife instrumental in fostering a deep-rooted interest in the world around him.

“It was this perfect storm,” he said. “The Rodney King riots happened during my first year at USC. I saw this wide world that was far beyond me for the first time. I was blown away.”

As a junior, Carnahan participated in a Washington, D.C., summer internship that allowed him to see firsthand how Hillary Clinton’s health care reform plan was playing out.

After graduating in 1995, Carnahan worked as a legal researcher in San Francisco before heading back to D.C. to serve as a public speaker for The Advisory Board. He travelled across the country interpreting research findings to hospitals.

All the while, Carnahan wrote. “Every flight I was on, I was writing. Be it in a journal, or a short story,” he said.

Politics and international relations are a running theme throughout Carnahan’s work. Other cinematic features he has written include The Kingdom (2007), with Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner, and State of Play (2009), featuring Russell Crowe and Helen Mirren, which he adapted as part of a team.

Stories with a hook in reality continue to pull Carnahan in — even if they are rather fantastic. For his latest project, he is adapting the popular zombie-outbreak novel World War Z.

“What really drew me to the project is how the book uses zombies as a stand in for any number of natural or man-made disasters and extrapolates what governments would do were they faced with something as abominable as a zombie outbreak,” he said. “I just found it fascinating.”

Now, on to capture that delicate balance between fantasy and reality for the big screen.


Read more articles from USC Dornsife Magazine's Spring/Summer 2011 issue