The screen fell dark after the May 2018 premiere of BlacKkKlansman at the Cannes Film Festival, and the audience erupted into a standing ovation. At the afterparty, writer and coproducer Charlie Wachtel snuck a peek at his phone and discovered “overwhelmingly positive” reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. (The film—based on the memoir of the first African American detective in the Colorado Springs police department, who infiltrated the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s—is holding steady at 96 percent on the Tomatometer.)
“That was the first indication to us that we had something special on our hands,” Wachtel says.
BlacKkKlansman’s legacy was set in the 24-karat gold plating of an Academy Awards statuette in February with the Oscar for best adapted screenplay. After a rousing speech from director Spike Lee, Wachtel hoisted his 13.5-inch, sword-wielding trophy in the air then walked backstage with Lee, fellow writers David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott, and presenters Samuel L. Jackson and Brie Larson. He hasn’t stopped moving since.
Capitalizing on the heat of their first hit, Wachtel and Rabinowitz, childhood friends from East Brunswick, New Jersey, are working on a feature-length adaptation of a book about Boston mob enforcer Joe “The Animal” Barboza, and developing two pilots: Madness, a drama about the dark underbelly of college basketball, and an as-yet-untitled spy series on Operation Mongoose, the US government’s effort to overthrow Fidel Castro.
Evaluating projects and being courted by managers has been a new—but welcome—experience for Wachtel, who started his career as an unpaid intern at Warner Brothers in 2009. “I don’t know why Hollywood has to function in a way that’s so closed off to everybody unless they are able to be a part of a successful launch of a film,” he says. “I guess that’s how it works, but it makes you wonder: Why weren’t these doors open for me sooner?”
His window of opportunity is now wide open, but Wachtel remains grounded. He and Rabinowitz understand that in Hollywood, one hit doesn’t a career make. “We know we’re not invincible,” Wachtel says. “Everything we’ve done, we’ve had to work hard for and we’re gonna continue just grinding it out.”