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

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.

Liz Hannah

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.

“The Post”

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?'”

“Spotlight” writers Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer with their Best Original Screenplay Oscars in 2016

David Fisher/REX/Shutterstock

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.”)

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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