The Post is the story of Katharine Graham, the first-ever woman publisher of a national American newspaper*, whose tenure happened to land during the release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971—when journalists were able to expose the lies the US government was feeding the public about the Vietnam War. Further, it’s a journey through Graham’s decision of whether or not to permit Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), executive editor of the Post at the time, to actually publish the Papers after acquiring them from the New York Times, then midway through a legal battle with the US government for printing them in the first place. Beyond all that, it’s the story of Graham learning how to use her voice in the newsroom, having seldom done so prior to that.
The film was nominated for six Golden Globes, two Academy Awards and several other local film critics awards–and that’s in large part because of Liz Hannah. Hannah, 32-year-old first-time screenwriter (!!!), came face-to-face with Graham’s story via her biography, Personal History. Compelled by Graham’s layered and honest character, Hannah took pen to paper to cinematically amplify this crucial time in her life. She spoke to Jezebel on the phone and via email about how she sold her first screenplay and why she chose to focus her biopic on Kay’s big decision. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: Why Katharine Graham? Why this story?
LIZ HANNAH: She just had such a unique way of looking at her life. She was very honest about mistakes she’d made, honest about... choices she’d made. It was just sort of this refreshing perspective that I hadn’t necessarily read before. She was also very honest about her insecurities and that was something that you know—I think I read her book for the first time when I was in my early 20s, and I was horrifically insecure in my early 20s as I think most people are—and so reading the words of someone who was much older than me but still had the same feelings about their life was very relatable and very comforting to me. I wanted to tell her story and get it out to the world.
So, how did you develop the story for a screenplay, and for an audience that may not be familiar with her?
Well, the hardest part was figuring out the time [period]. Figuring out what the structure of a movie is when you’re telling the story of a person’s life, and I knew from the very beginning I didn’t want to do a a sort of cradle-to-grave biopic story of her. It was really about narrowing down the window of her life that was the moment where she... had her coming-of-age story, almost. After doing a bunch of research and also reading Ben Bradlee’s book [A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures], I realized it was this moment—where she had to make this choice and it really came down to her own belief of what she thought was right and what she thought was wrong.
I thought that was remarkable and universal—the idea of having to stand on your own two feet, essentially. Luckily, in terms of the structure, history has a great way of helping you fill in the holes. So it was really about breaking down the timeline of what happened in real life during the ten days surrounding the Pentagon Papers’ release, and tracking her character arc through it. Fortunately, all of this happened in real life. Yes, some of these conversations, I obviously wasn’t there… but we were able to have such amazing access to the Graham family and to the Bradlee family and to the Washington Post that we were able to get the real idea of what was happening in the room when these conversations were happening.
When you were in the conversations with the Post and the New York Times, did you still feel that sense of rivalry or any remnants of that time? Was there tension in the room?
Our relationship was really focused on the story of Katharine Graham. The Pentagon Pagers were just the vehicle to tell that story, so I didn’t really get into that.
How did the team go about nailing Katharine Graham’s mannerisms and attitude?
Much of that came from research about Kay, both reading and watching videos about her but also talking to her family and the people who knew her... We met with [the Graham family] a number of times during the pre-production process when we were doing new drafts of the script. To have their trust and help in bringing their mother’s story to the screen is something I feel indebted to.
You did focus on Katharine, but there were different things you could get from the movie depending on which cap you had on at the moment. As a journalist, it was about freedom of the press. As a woman, it was about a woman finding her voice. What did you want viewers to take from it?
More conversations. The conversation of women in power, and why is the woman who’s running the company surrounded by a board of old men who aren’t listening to her? I think those are conversations that are, for me, relevant not just in 1971 or 2017 but constantly relevant and constantly conversations we should have. You know, only five percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, which is not a drastic change from 1971. That’s a conversation that I would love for people to have.
And then there are definitely conversations that we have in this film about the importance of free press. I believe that this country cannot function without a functioning free press/free state. I think that it’s vital for our country to have people be in the room that we as a public cannot necessarily be in to tell us about what is happening in those rooms with our governors.
Can you walk me through the process of having your first screenplay made into a Steven Spielberg-directed, Oscar-nominated film?
I sold the script to Amy Pascal at the end of October. I didn’t have an agent and had sent it to a couple of agencies to see if I could get signed, and then the script leaked out. Midnight on Friday night Amy bought it, and if a movie is a train, Amy is like the engine of this movie. She has been pushing this rock uphill the entire time. She’s the one that got it to Kristie Macosko Krieger, Steven’s producer, who then stood side by side, shoulder to shoulder with Amy and pushed this boulder uphill. Once Steven, Meryl [Streep] and Tom [Hanks] signed on, I think we were shooting within 10 weeks.
Right. And how much of the writing was yours and how much was Josh Singer, who came along later?
It’s hard to parse anything because it was such a collaborative experience. I had written the spec and so the script that was sold was what I had written on my own; when Josh came on it was very much a two-hander between the two of us of pushing it up from a script to a movie.
It’s very surreal. It’s one of those things where you do have to pinch yourself constantly and remind yourself that this is reality. It’s also really sort of a remarkable experience to spend time with these people who are so incredibly—not only incredibly good at their jobs—but extremely wonderful people who really did take me under their wing and show me the ropes as it were. And so it has left an incredibly incredibly, incredibly high bar for my next project but at the same time it was an incredible experience and continues to be an incredible experience working with people who also truly care about this story, truly cared about Kay Graham.
So now that you mention it, what are some of your expectations for the future?
I’m trying to sort of live expectation-less because I feel like if I raise the bar of this then there’s a threat of me being disappointed, and so I’m trying to just see what’s coming and go from there. I just finished a draft of a film for MGM called Only Plane in the Sky, which is an adaptation of a Politico article called “We’re the Only Plane in the Sky,” an oral history of Air Force One on 9/11. And then I recently set up a limited series at Amazon called The Mercury 13. I have a couple more TV things percolating that I’m not ready to talk about yet but I’m just really excited about the opportunities that have coming along and I’m hoping to continue to see what’s out there.
So, I have to say, there was a lack of diversity in The Post. Was that something you noticed? Was that just a reflection of the times?
Well, it was 1971 and so the fact that there were any women in the newsroom was remarkable. Ben Bradlee was actually very well known for constantly trying to hire women and people of color to work in the newsroom and so yes, I think that was a reflection and it was something we were aware of. That is what that newsroom looked like and that’s what most newsrooms looked like. Luckily newsrooms don’t look like that anymore, but that is what they looked like then.
The Post overtly, and seemingly intentionally, elevates the women in the room—whether carrying a box of notes or going through the journey of finding her voice. How do you plan on continuing to highlight women in your future work, especially when the plot doesn’t revolve around them?
I think it’s important to have stories about real people out there in the world. Life and people are messy, regardless of gender, and it’s important to have those depictions out there. I’m looking forward to the day when we don’t have to call them “female stories” anymore—they’re just “stories.”
*Correction: A previous version erroneously called Graham the first woman publisher of an American newspaper.