“The Post” is a period piece, but its production happened at warp speed. Steven Spielberg began shooting in White Plains, New York, on May 1, 2017; 12 months earlier, he had no intention of directing a film and its rookie screenwriter, Liz Hannah, hadn’t written a word of it. This week, “The Post” was named Best Film by the National Board of Review, which also gave Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks top acting honors. Now, Hannah and co-writer Josh Singer have a formidable chance of securing an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
Hannah didn’t always aspire to be a screenwriter. Following undergraduate studies at the Pratt Institute and an internship on the film “Reign Over Me,” she was admitted to the AFI Conservatory, in the producing discipline. Then she spent five years in development — long enough to realize it wasn’t what she wanted.
Photo by Martim Vian
“I thought I was going to be a creative producer; about two years into that I was like, Oh, no, no, I want to be on the other side,” Hannah said. “I had always written; I just frankly didn’t think I was a good enough writer to do that professionally.”
Around 2012, she quit her job to try. She penned a spec pilot for a producer that was sold but not made, then wrote for a web series about high schoolers called “Guidance.” “I was feeling sort of stuck,” said Hannah, who married TV writer Brian Millikin last month. He gave her a three-month challenge: “‘Write the story about Katharine Graham,'” who she “fell in love with” while reading the longtime Washington Post publisher’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography, “Personal History,” released three years prior to Graham’s death.
“I had never read a memoir where somebody was so willing to talk about their mistakes and talk about their relationships and really analyze them,” Hannah said. She also read the memoir of Hanks’s eventual character, Ben Bradlee (“A Good Life”), who served as Washington Post’s executive editor under Graham for 23 years. One 165-page draft later, Hannah had coalesced three tales: “a woman (Streep) finding her voice,” a “super team coming together,” and “the Pentagon Papers and the story of how that has defined our country.”
Hannah thought her best-case scenario with the revised script was landing an agent. With help from Star Thrower Entertainment, she sent copies to agencies during the second half of October 2016, hoping, “Maybe they’ll sign me and package it, [then] we’ll make this tiny little movie that no one will ever see.”
Then, on October 28, Hannah received a midnight, congratulatory phone call from the script’s buyer: producer Amy Pascal, the former chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Pascal’s father was a researcher at the RAND Corporation, the think tank where activist and former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) worked when he encountered America’s always-doomed involvement in the ongoing Vietnam War via the 47-volume Pentagon Papers, which he eventually photocopied and supplied to The Washington Post. In addition, Pascal’s husband, Bernard Weinraub, spent decades on staff at The New York Times, which won a Pulitzer for its exclusive Pentagon Papers coverage.
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
“It’s the greatest phone call you’ve ever gotten, and then it’s the most horrifyingly terrifying phone call you’ve ever gotten,” Hannah said. “You’re like, Oh, they want to actually make this, and I’ve never made a movie before,” a prospect that grew more daunting after her script appeared on The Black List, then Streep, Hanks, and their director — a trio with seven Oscars combined — signed on in February 2017.
“I was really depressed about the way things were happening in the world and in the country, and Liz Hannah, 31 years old, writes a spec script, gets it to Amy Pascal, who sends it to me, and suddenly my entire outlook on the future brightens,” Spielberg said Monday night during a post-screening Q&A on the Fox studio lot. “Our intended audience [is] the people who have spent basically the last 13, 14 months thirsting and starving for the truth.”
In March 2017, Spielberg’s producing partner, Kristie Macoskso Krieger, contacted Singer seeking a rewrite 10 weeks before the start of production. Singer, who earned an Oscar with Tom McCarthy for writing 2016’s Best Picture, “Spotlight,” said “The Post” was “the best spec script I’ve ever read,” even if he was “a little nervous, about going back to the journalism well.”
Yet unlike “Spotlight,” which he described as “a reporter story” and “a procedural” about investigating Catholic clergymen who molested Boston youths, Singer realized that Hannah’s screenplay was about a publisher and an editor-in-chief, thus “not so much about the reporting, it’s about the decision…’Do we risk everything to publish?'”
Despite overseeing a board of well-educated naysayers (played by the likes of Tracy Letts, Jesse Plemons, and Bradley Whitford), “It’s only Kay who actually understands the business well enough to know that publishing is the only way to go,” he said. Also, “The Post” provided an excuse to collaborate with Spielberg, the man Singer jokingly refers to as both “God” and “a Jewish guy who directed a couple films before.”
For Hannah, working with Singer was a relief. “It was like, Woofph, okay, now there’s somebody here who knows what he’s doing. And not everybody’s looking at me for all these answers.” Together, they experienced the perks of working on a Spielberg production: a cast of luminaries; a field trip to the actual Washington Post; music by John Williams; lighting by Janusz Kaminski. Even with the time crunch to finish “The Post” in the brief period before special effects were complete on Spielberg’s upcoming Warner Bros. film, “Ready Player One,” production designer Rick Carter commissioned builds of the first floors of Graham and Bradlee’s respective homes. (“Even coat rooms,” Hannah said, “which we never went into.”)