The Post screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer chat about their once in a lifetime opportunity to work with Steven Spielberg and how they plotted out the wild ride of The Washington Post’s publishing of the Pentagon Papers.
Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of this article from Backstory Issue 30 for your reading pleasure:
Imagine walking onto the set of your first produced film and watching Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks act out your dialogue as they are given direction by Steven Spielberg. A pipe dream, right? Not to Liz Hannah, whose drama The Post went from a simple spec script to, at press time, six Golden Globe nominations and likely Oscar nods in less than a calendar year. When Hannah first had the idea for the film, she wasn’t repped. In fact, she wasn’t even expecting to sell the script at all. “I really just wanted to write something that would show off my voice. I was hoping to tell a story I thought needed to be told, and my bar really was to just get an agent.”
The story she felt compelled to tell was that of Katharine “Kay” Graham, the first female publisher of the Washington Post. In 1971, Graham became embroiled in a seminal moment in journalism as she and dogged editor Ben Bradlee decided to print the Pentagon Papers, incriminating but classified documents detailing decades of misinformation on the Vietnam War that the government never intended for the public. The White House threatened to sue any paper that published them—and did so with the New York Times—but the Post’s move despite that threat resulted in an elevation of the paper’s stature that remains to this day. Hannah had heard of the publisher and the back and forth over the Pentagon Papers but didn’t realize their significance until several years ago, when she read Graham’s 1997 autobiography, Personal History, which won a Pulitzer Prize. “I was just so stunned there wasn’t a movie about her or that her story wasn’t out in the world,” Hannah says. “I spent a few years trying to figure out what the movie was, because she really lived 10 different lives and any number of those moments could have been a film. But this moment at the Post was really where she found her voice and where she became the person she was going to be for the rest of her life. I found that incredibly relatable. I think that as a woman it doesn’t matter what you do or what age you are, you’re always struggling to get your voice out there, and 99 percent of industries are male industries. So it’s an uphill battle. I came at it that way.”
Hannah penned a draft in just three months, finishing over Labor Day weekend in 2016. Her managers sent it around to prospective agents in October, and it eventually made its way to producer Amy Pascal, former head of Sony Pictures, who read and bought it within 24 hours. Then as Hollywood fairy tales would have, it came to the attention of Spielberg, whose 2017 schedule had opened up due to a casting hiccup on his planned next film, and he wanted to fast track The Post. The mega-director felt strongly that Hannah’s storyline about freedom of the press resonated in this day and age. Once Spielberg was attached, the big names followed: Streep to play Kay and Hanks to play Post editor in-chief Bradlee. Spielberg wanted to keep Hannah on as a writer, but because the film was being rushed to production in just 10 weeks, he brought aboard Josh Singer, a recent Oscar winner for 2015’s Spotlight, to co-write. “I had a little bit of trepidation going back to the journalism well,” Singer says, since Spotlight also focused on a massive story by a newspaper. “But I read Liz’s script, and I was just blown away by the story. I was blown away by how she had framed it. There are a lot of heavier issues, but she framed them within this very personal story of Kay finding her voice. And I just thought that was brilliant. I was really excited to jump in and try to help.”