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‘The Post’: Screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer on Revisiting History with Meryl Streep and Steven Spielberg

A brand-new screenwriter and an Oscar winner worked with the iconic director to craft a period piece that doubles as one of the timeliest movies of the year.

“The Post”

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

What Singer found most “shocking” were Spielberg’s abilities to improvise and foster an inclusive set. “We were at his shoulder the whole time,” Hannah said. “He’s so collaborative, he turns and says, ‘What do you guys think?’” Also, they said Spielberg arrived onset each day with an outline of what he wanted to do, then tossed the outline, mandating hurried rewrites (when Spielberg didn’t come up with replacement dialogue on the spot, as he was wont to do). Once they found him sitting on the floor, playing with the box that carried the Pentagon Papers. “‘Steven, what are you doing?'” Singer recalled asking. “‘I’m wondering [what it would look like] if I shoot down here and if I lift with the box, and then I reveal the faces of the reporters looking down onto the box’” for the first time.

On-set rewriting was also common since the writers were’t able to schedule time to hear the actors’ ideas beforehand. “Meryl is the smartest dramaturge you’ll ever meet,” Singer said. “She’ll say, ‘There’s an issue,’ and you’ll be like, Okay, how do we solve this issue so we can play at Meryl’s level?” Hannah picks up his train of thought: “There’s a very high bar that’s set… together, [Singer and I] could maybe graze the bar, but neither of us were at all going to come near it.”

In the months since production wrapped in July, Deadline reported that Hannah will next write MGM’s “Only Plane in the Sky,” inspired by a Politico article about President George W. Bush’s Air Force One ride after he cut short a visit to a Florida elementary school on 9/11. Meanwhile, filming is underway on Singer’s script for “First Man,” a Damien Chazelle-directed, Neil Armstrong biopic starring Ryan Gosling (Singer received a call from Buzz Aldrin during our interview); he and his wife, Laura Dave, will also adapt her novel “Hello, Sunshine” into a screenplay for Pascal.

Tom Hanks in “The Post

A few vocal New York Times veterans are unhappy that “The Post” exists. According to an article in the Columbia Journalism Review published on the day filming began, James Greenfield, the newspaper’s one-time foreign editor who coordinated Pentagon Papers coverage, and James Goodale, the Times’ attorney at the time, each christened the movie “a ripoff.” Former NYT Washington bureau chief considers it a “stupid project;” with a current senior Times employee anonymously telling CJR, “We find it annoying and silly that we are being relegated to being a minor player in what is one of the biggest moments in our journalistic history.”

“We worked very hard to give The Times their due,” Singer said. “We reached out to folks at The Times to make sure we were getting it right.” A.M. Rosenthal worked for the paper for 56 years and was executive editor during the Pentagon Papers era; his son, Andy, contributed script feedback, and visited the set to meet with Michal Stuhlbarg, who plays his father in the film. “I also think that’s a different movie,” Hannah said. “This isn’t the hunt for the Papers; this movie isn’t about the three months that they spent weeding through the Papers, which might be a very compelling story.”

Instead, she and Singer wrote what he calls “the origin [story] of this great team that then goes on to be the backbone behind Woodward and Bernstein,” the reporting duo who linked the Watergate break-in to the Nixon administration. Hannah also views their script as “an unromantic love story” between Graham and Bradlee. “It was a friendship that was so deep, it was like family,” Streep said at Q&A following the first New York screening.

Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in “The Post”

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

“It was about the working atmosphere,” Streep continued. “This is so important right now to think about: the atmosphere in which men and women can deal with each other.” Streep explained that early in the film, Graham “treats [Bradlee] like he’s the boss. And that is the way it usually works if a woman is the superior in a working relationship. There’s some accommodation to the ego of the man, not to undermine him or make him feel bad or all the things we do…To watch that evolve through the course of this challenge that’s put to the two of them together…His bravado and her bravery…it’s just kind of gorgeous.”

Read More:  Steven Spielberg’s Pentagon Papers Drama ‘The Post’ Earns Standing Ovation After First Screening

Hannah wrote the film before Hillary Clinton became the first female presidential candidate nominated by a major political party, before President Trump ever tweeted the words “fake news,” before the Women’s Marches, before The Times reported that only six percent of today’s Fortune 500 CEOs are women, and before mainstream media was inundated with stories of workplace sexual harassment and assault. Still, while Hannah’s script may be prescient, and an award winner, she’s still aware that little has changed.

“I work in a male-dominated industry,” she said. “More often than not, I’m the only woman in a room… As a woman, you are trained… to feel aware that you’re the only woman there.”

“The Post” opens in limited release on December 22. 

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