When Liz Hannah wrote the script for The Post, it wasn’t expected to sell right away. She was hoping to get some interest, but the last thing she expected was a call from Amy Pascal who would snap up the story and help steamroll the film into production. Along with Josh Singer, the film came together like lightning with Steven Spielberg in the director’s chair and a cast that includes Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. They sped the film through production and less than a year later a year later it was ready for release on Christmas Day.
I sat down with Singer and Hannah to talk about the process , and just as we wrapped the interview the National Board of Review announced their winners. The Post had been awarded Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Actor.
Singer recalled the night Spotlight won the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay and how he had an encounter with then VP Joe Biden and Spielberg that involved his pregnant wife.
Josh Singer: It’s funny because Lara is very pregnant and Tom and I are summoned to see Biden. There’s a higher platform. Biden is finishing up who he’s finishing talking to and our only fluffer is Steven Spielberg. It’s the only time Steven is the fluffer. I was just awed he knew who I was. At that point, I was just in a state of wow. Biden comes along and puts his hand on Lara’s stomach and says, “I don’t know if your people do this, but my people do this and we bless the baby.” Lara was thrilled.
Liz: It was the first story she told me.
Josh: It was relevant to this and we lined up for a photo and I said, “Are you sure you won’t consider running?” He said no, and here we are.
Here we are. So, last night I saw the film for the second time.
Josh: Was it as good the second time?
Yes, the punch of the script and story and those performances. It was so fast. I remember how fast The Post happened from writing to making it and here we are.
Liz: It’s so funny because someone asked when do we go into production and I told them the movie is out.
Well, this was fast, say compared to Spotlight. Josh, we spoke about that.
Liz: Oh gosh, yes. I wrote the first draft in June 2016. Amy bought it on Friday before Halloween. The script wasn’t necessarily for sale. I was hoping to get an agent and it was at various studios and suddenly people were interested in it. I got this call from Amy Pascal at midnight telling me not just that she bought it, but why it’s important to her that this is a story that was told and how she relates to it. We keep talking about it but it’s so true, this movie got made by the exact right people. Amy led that charge. That happened, the election happened, the inauguration happened and Steven, Tom, and Meryl all read the script at the same time over President’s Day weekend. Somehow Kay Graham was looking down on us because everyone’s schedule was free. Everyone felt this was a movie we need to make now and have come out this year. Steven signed on and suddenly we went into production.
Josh: What I love about this story is it’s a story about incredible women coming together to make a movie about an incredible woman. First, you have the best spec script I’ve ever read written by the internationally talented Liz Hannah who frames this incredibly personal narrative which makes it immediately accessible and dramatic. Then you have these two female producers, Amy Pascal and Kristie Macosko Krieger who as a team are the best producers I’ve ever worked with who come together to make this happen at a speed where I don’t know any other producers who can do that. It’s Amy with the persistence to make this happen. Kristie is the best producer no one has ever heard of in the business because she is working behind Steven, but she makes the train run. Then they bring in Ellen Lewis and she should get an Academy Award for casting. It’s not just Tom and Meryl, it’s Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, and Michael Cyril Creighton holding the box, and Carrie Coon. All the way down the line.
Liz: Sarah Paulson.
Josh: Add in Ann Roth doing the costumes and the women in this cast from Meryl on down to Sarah Paulson to Jessie Mueller doing a wonderful job.
Liz: She’s in one scene and she is talking to the boys and Steven was just telling her to improv, she lit up the room. I could have watched her all day. She was amazing.
Josh: This incredible group of women came together to tell this story and that’s how it gets done this fast. To me, that is hopefully as inspirational as the story of Kay herself. The way Liz managed to capture this story of this woman finding her voice. It’s a very personal story.
Liz: It’s about a woman overseeing the whole thing. The film was dedicated to Nora Ephron and we all revved up to make sure we lived up to her standard, and that was so important to us.
That was such a beautiful dedication.
Liz: That was from Steven, Tom, Meryl, and Amy. The night they all agreed to do it, that was the first decision they made. Amy and Meryl have made tons of movies with Nora. Tom too. Steven and Nora and Ben Bradlee all lived in a triangle up in the Hamptons. For Kay herself, the quote on the back of Personal History is by Nora Ephron. We were umbrellaed by amazing women. Everyone felt like they saw themselves in this movie. They saw a woman in a room of men trying to have a point heard.
We have all been there. How do you balance all the information out to tell Kay’s story?
Liz: For us, it was doing it through the lens of Kay and that was the compass. We wanted to make sure that that was the first story we were telling. This woman having her coming of age story and how she found her voice. Next was her relationship with Ben and their partnership and superhero team up. Then, procedurally and the umbrella of it was the publishing of the Pentagon Papers. So, I think for us, having the two engines of her voice and her relationship with Ben made it easy to streamline the perspective in that way. The way history unfolded in actuality, we couldn’t make up and we couldn’t have if we wanted to because the way it unfolds is insane. No one believes us that it happened.
Josh: When you have a strong through-line it can hold the other pieces that are juggling around it. As long as your center ring is going to hold you, you can have other attractions. If it’s The Post trying to nip at the heels of The Times and waiting to be seen as more than a local paper. You’ve got Daniel Ellsberg in Vietnam and making the decision to publish and you have Ben Bagdikian hunting him down who gets the paper and you have the chaos of the paper all around this very central through-line of this woman who is taking her company public and faced with the biggest decision in the world.
This is what happened. On Sunday, the Times published. Monday, Kay is in New York and having dinner with Abe and he realizes he’s under siege. Tuesday, they go public and that’s the day the injunction happens. Wednesday, Kay has that small dinner party with Robert McNamara right there and that’s the night that Ben gets the papers, and Thursday she has to make that decision knowing that she is in the very first week of the public offering and if the government comes after her, the bankers might pull out. Every one of those men tells her no and she has to say yes twice. All of that is quite the history. It’s such a natural through-line for Kay and Ben, and for Kay that you can juggle the characters.
You read Kay’s autobiography. It’s a great book.
Liz: It’s the best memoir I’ve ever read.
Josh: We’re shooting this Neil Armstrong film right now and the book, First Man that it’s based on is a brilliant encyclopedia. It took me three months to penetrate it. Kay’s memoir is all there.
Liz: Ben’s is great too. We were blessed because they wrote books we really cared about and were interesting enough to us and we recommend to others to read. Their books were like poetry.
Josh: They were an embarrassment of riches.
Did you think when you started writing the book that we would be where we are today?
Liz: I started writing it before the election and thought there would be parallels, but I thought it would be in a different reality. It was really strange while we were shooting the film to be making a movie about the importance of the press and the importance of the First Amendment and then having the President of the United States talking about Fake news and to feel that there is a real antagonistic feeling towards the press. So, it was very strange to be making a period piece. We didn’t change anything to comment on anything that was happening. We didn’t do anything to make any connections. It was purely, here’s what happened. History is cyclical and it’s important to learn from these mistakes.
Josh: We’re living in a challenging time for this country. You can’t not be cognizant of what’s going on. The history itself spoke volumes. Steven pulled this clip, it’s the last one we hear of Nixon talking about the Post. We liked it so much, we went back and listened to everything of him learning about the Pentagon papers and making that decision to go after the Times and you listen to those tapes and it’s eerie. It sounds like a brighter version of the guy in office. That same vindictive and paranoid nature. we made a choice early on that these should be in the movie, and let’s have Nixon play himself. The history here is so powerful and such a powerful comment on today. history is cyclical and if we can recognize where we are then maybe it can help us get out of this moment.