‘The Post’: Director Steven Spielberg Turned His Journalism Thriller into a Film Production Metaphor

Two-time Oscar winner Rick Carter discusses production designing "The Post" as putting a paper together circa 1971.
Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in "The Post"
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

The convergence of the micro and macro worlds of politics and journalism in “The Post” most appealed to two-time Oscar-winning production designer Carter (“Lincoln,” “Avatar”). The entry point of Liz Hannah’s script was Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) finding her voice at 54 as the new publisher of The Washington Post with the landmark publication of “The Pentagon Papers” in 1971. Director Steven Spielberg added the social context of journalists having a vital voice in search of the truth with the help of Hannah and scribe Josh Singer (“Spotlight”).

“I think that when Liz grasped the idea of Kay’s rite of passage as a road map for the rest of her life beyond raising children that she was onto something that certainly was significant,” said Carter. “So then, for me, there’s the intimate side of Juliet and Romeo being the Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee [Tom Hanks] platonic love story, where their houses were on stages next to each other. And the way their social and office lives [converge].”

Building The Post

With production fast-tracked and Carter needing help to quickly assemble a New York team, he contacted production designer Adam Stockhausen (“Ready Player One,” “Bridge of Spies”). The New York native recommended several art directors, set decorators, and prop people. Many of them were women who jumped on board to be a part of this zeitgeist-grabbing production.

They found a building in White Plains to replicate The Washington Post offices, and overhauled three floors. Happily for Carter, the Washington Post that existed in ’71 was not the same iconic newsroom depicted in “All the President’s Men” in ’76. He liked the older newsroom’s “The Front Page” vibe. “But I did keep in the grid light above because that was a strong graphic, always in the frame, and not just a bunch of clutter,” Carter said.

“The Post”

“But when you have a set that’s all in grays, it’s a way of saying this is just a work space. This is really a movie about depicting what it’s like to work and all the functional levels. You really learn about typewriters, those vacuum seals that take the writing where it goes to be edited and down to the Linotype area where it gets typeset and then actually printed. Plus the hierarchy of the executive offices on the other floor.”

Carter enjoyed “creating a work environment for Steven to show up in every morning, go up an elevator, and go to work. And everybody got into that for the first three weeks of shooting. And being very fast made it a team effort with the urgency that we were making the film like putting out a paper.”

“The Post”Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

And in a weird stroke of luck, it turned out that the only three Linotype machines still in service were in a Naval shipyard next door. “Steven went crazy looking at the process, to see this molten lead go into the type and the pieces taken out by hand, and everything is set backwards” Carter said. “The number of mechanical steps is like watching film going through all the sprockets and then put in the can and developed. And it can be ruined at any moment if light hits it. You realize there’s a jeopardy in the process of both mediums.”

It was the perfect back to analog metaphor that energized Spielberg, with the Linotype process being supplanted by the digital age “It’s the same as film, it’s a mechanical process,” said Carter. “And everything you look at in the movie is Steven showing what it is to actually be in production and under a deadline, trying to accomplish something. And both the press and the cinema being in the service of having a social discourse with people and the times that we’re in.”

Juliet and Romeo

The contrast between Graham’s high society home and Bradlee’s more modest brownstone is striking. Yet Carter reached back to his mentor, Richard Sylbert, for inspiration in the way he art-directed “The Graduate” as a “Romeo and Juliet” metaphor. But in this case, Bradlee keeps popping into Graham’s home at unexpected moments, which brings them closer together as the jeopardy escalates.

“The Post”©2017 Niko Tavernise

“We got got to look at Kay’s home and could see what the colors were and made some adjustments,” Carter said. “Her den, which she referred to as her War Room, was not the same. “It’s obviously high society up to a point, but it doesn’t go over the top where you wouldn’t be comfortable in it. There’s a warmth to who Kay Graham was in the way that her aesthetics come across. And that house is truly the way it was and her decorating style is very eclectic and we did everything we could to add to that. She seemed to be somebody who was really interested in the world.”

In the case of Bradlee’s home, it’s clear that he was always working. And even his wife, Tony (Sarah Paulson) has an artist studio. “It’s a life most people would really like, if they are writers or artists playing out their loves,” said Carter. “Even though the home has been remodeled, the space is very close to the reality and we made it as accurate as possible.”

With only three months to prep and three and a half months to shoot “The Post,” the metaphors of process and social conscience tapped Carter’s creativity in a most personal way.

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