‘The Post’ screenwriters on why Katharine Graham made a smart business decision in publishing the Pentagon Papers

This week, MarketWatch and Dow Jones Media Group hosted an exclusive advance screening of Steven Spielberg’s 20th Century Fox film, “The Post,” and afterward held a Q&A with screenwriters Liz Hannah and Josh Singer. Hannah, 32, had nearly given up writing when she decided to write a script on spec about Katharine Graham, a longtime favorite subject, which ended up in the hands of “The Post” producer Amy Pascal, who bought the rights immediately. Singer previously wrote “The Fifth Estate” and “Spotlight,” and won an Oscar for best screenplay for the latter — After Pascal and Steven Spielberg were attached to the film, Singer was brought on to co-write revisions with Hannah. At the private screening, the two writers discussed the urgency of the film’s production, how “The Post” remains timely and relevant in unexpected ways, and how they balanced the story’s two angles of business and journalism.

“The Post” explores Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers after the government blocked the New York Times series. This was happening at the same time she planned to take her company public. Meryl Streep stars as Graham and Tom Hanks plays editor Ben Bradlee. The film won National Board of Review awards for best film, best actor and best actress, and it opens nationwide Friday, Jan. 12.

Below is a transcript of the post-screening Q&A with Hannah and Singer, edited for length.

MarketWatch: What was the seed for this screenplay?

Hannah: I had been trying to write professionally for about five years. I had worked in development before that and had left to write full-time and naively thought it would be something that was very easy. It turned out not to be. I had the story about Katharine Graham that I wanted to tell. I wanted her story out in the world. I didn’t really know what the movie was yet. I was frankly very intimidated by her and her legacy. I didn’t want to mess it up. I just avoided writing it for a really long time.

Last summer, I had just worked on this not-great job, and I was kind of thinking maybe this was it. Maybe I’ll go teach or I’ll do something. The grind of writing is hard when you’re not doing what you actually want to do. My husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, was like, “Why don’t you just write the Katharine Graham movie?” So I took three months, the summer, and I was like, “okay, I’m going to write it.” And luckily what had been happening in those five years of me reading Kay’s book and reading Ben Bradlee’s book and reading all of this other stuff, was that the movie was in my head. It was there. 90% of writing is actually not writing, it’s about cleaning your house and procrastinating, and then the rest of it is about structuring it in your head so you can actually articulate it onto paper. That was sort of what I had been doing. So I wrote the first draft in three months and I didn’t have an agent. So it got sent to the agencies to see if maybe they would want to sign me. Then it leaked out to a couple of studios and it ended up on Amy Pascal’s desk. She read it and she called me at midnight and said that she had bought it, which we now know is not that uncommon of an Amy thing to do. She had these three things: Her father had worked with Rand and shared an office with Daniel Ellsberg. Her husband had worked with the New York Times for a long time. And I think Amy knows a thing or two about being in a room with a bunch of guys that don’t listen to her. So we really were both drawn to this story about this woman who was searching for her voice, who was just trying to get heard, who had been told her whole life she hadn’t been heard. That was where it started, and then the Big Three read it all in one weekend and I’m still going to wake up at some point.

Josh, when did you get attached and how did you two revise the script?

Singer: So, not too long after Steven had signed on board, I got a call from Kristie Macosko Krieger, who is his producing partner, and she said “Do you want to help out?” I actually had a fair amount of trepidation as I had written not one, but two movies about journalism prior to this. I wrote “The Fifth Estate” and I wrote “Spotlight.” If it had just been “The Fifth Estate” it wouldn’t have been a problem because nobody saw “The Fifth Estate,” but a couple people saw “Spotlight” so I was nervous about going back to the journalism well. But then I read Liz’s script, which was the best spec script I had ever read.

From left: Josh Singer, Steven Spielberg, Liz Hannah, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep attend the 29th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival Opening Night Screening of “The Post” on Jan. 4.

There were two things that really moved me. One is, at this moment when the press is under siege, very much wanting to say something as a citizen about the role of the press and how important that is. Even more importantly, what was clear in Liz’s script, which didn’t change much at all, was that this was a story about a woman finding her voice and a woman becoming a leader. Very different story from “Spotlight,” which is a procedural about reporters. This is about a woman who is running a company. How many movies do we have about strong, good female leaders? I was looking down the list of movies that have made a lot of money and I came up with “Hunger Games.” There’s “Hunger Games” and Princess Leia in “Star Wars.” In terms of real strong female leaders, I don’t think there are many movies about them. Moreover, Kay Graham was the first Fortune 500 CEO who was a woman. There still are only 5% or 6% of Fortune 500 CEOs that are female. I don’t know why that is. We certainly haven’t had many, if any, strong movies about Fortune 500 CEOs and the good work they do, not only for the company but for the country. So I just was incredibly compelled by that story and what it helped tell.

One of the unique aspects of the film is that it focuses so much on the business of running the paper. Not many journalism films have the publisher as the hero — it’s usually the reporter, the editor or the source. Was it challenging to keep the business aspect compelling?

Hannah: Well yeah, because you kind of at a certain point have to put in a lot of jargon about IPOs that only Josh understood. Luckily, he has a business — what is it called?

Singer: I don’t like to lead with this. I got a JD/MBA and I worked at McKinsey right after college for two years in their analyst program. I very quickly realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do for a living, although I loved the people there because there are great, intelligent people there. One of them, a fellow by the name of Jeremy Levine, who is a partner at Bessemer and has been on the Midas List a couple of times. So when we dug into the IPO stuff we called up Jeremy. I said, “Explain to me–”

Hannah: Like, any part of this.

Singer: Exactly! I said, I don’t understand because there’s a price on the stock and there’s a different price that was announced. So all of that nitty-gritty, which actually turned out to be good drama, he was able to walk us through and we were able to use. There were great stakes there.

Hannah: That’s the thing. What was important about that, and this goes back to the entirety of what the movie was, it was about her character. It was this IPO sale, all of that were stakes for her character. They were stakes for whether or not she was making the right choice. That she was going to continue the legacy of her father and her husband. So when you have the ability to use something that’s that direct and specific and procedural and plot-based, and use it to give the character an arc, and give the character more flesh and blood, that’s an amazing opportunity for us. And, it was all true, also.

Once Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks were attached to play these roles, did you tailor the words to fit them? Did they improvise?

Hannah: Meryl is a heat-seeking missile. She will read and find the falseness in everything. By them becoming attached, they raise the bar exponentially. So we had to struggle every day to maybe graze the bar. Luckily, because there were two of us, we could maybe stand on top of each other’s shoulders and hopefully touch it. It was about just making it up to their standards. These are two people who have been working in this industry for a very long time. They make good movies and they know what they’re doing. They don’t want to do something that feels false and they don’t want to do something that feels easy. So it wasn’t tailoring to their voices, as tailoring to their expectations.

Singer: All good scripts are iterative. One of the challenges we faced here was just time. Liz had written a great script but when you’re writing for spec versus when you’re writing for a shooting draft, you’ve got a different set of actors. We had 10 weeks to get this script ready to shoot and then 8 weeks to shoot it. We quickly did a revised draft, it took us about 5 weeks, just to put it more in terms of what Steven was looking for. Then we gave it to Meryl and Tom and we got a raft of notes, which were very helpful. At the same time we sent back to Jeremy Levine the business scenes. “Does this sound right? Does this make sense?”

Hannah: The Graham family.

Singer: We sent to the Graham family and had session after session with Don Graham and Lally Graham. We sent to Dan Ellsberg, Len Downie who took over for the paper after Ben Bradlee. We sent to Ben Bradlee Jr., and the folks on the Spotlight team to help get it accurate in terms of newspapers. We were getting all this input, and then on set we would be working with Tom and Meryl and all the other actors day to day as they had notes.

Hannah: You actually think that Meryl and Tom are terrifying, and then Tracy Letts walks into the set.

Singer: He’s won a Pulitzer Prize,

Hannah: And the writers haven’t. Which is not a really good way to be the dropping off point. He wrote “August, Osage County,” which is one of the most amazing plays of the 20th century. He came up to us on set and said, “do you guys mind if I just do something?” We were like, “Please take this away. Whatever you would like. Would you like the laptop? You can go from the beginning.”

It’s so collaborative, even if it’s not quite writing by committee.

Hannah: I think so much of that is Steven, who is incredibly collaborative. It was the time. We didn’t have time to not be collaborative, because it was literally all hands on deck. Because it’s an ensemble in so many ways, because it’s about journalism and about this team, there was this very teamlike nature. Steven was coaching us all and we were just trying to play our parts.

It’s eery how relevant it is today. Just last week, the White House sent a cease and desist letter to Henry Holt before publishing the Michael Wolff book, “Fire and Fury,” excerpts of which were published in The Guardian. You wrote this script about a year ago, but do the words keep coming back to you?

Hannah: I definitely never thought that was going to be relevant. I thought when I wrote this, and I sold it 10 days before the election, I really thought that what we were having a conversation about was that we were going to make a movie about a powerful woman, when a powerful woman had just become president of the United States. That didn’t happen. So what then happened was we were like okay, let’s make this movie about a powerful woman because we need to get these stories out there in the world. A story about a woman finding her voice, a story about anyone finding their voice, feeling like the underdog, feeling like you’re a misfit or looked past, if you felt that way, that was always relevant to me. Then the attacks against the press started happening. They were kicked out of the Oval Office. All of these things just started to happen that were very eery and relevant. Something we added into the film that Steven wanted to do were the Nixon tapes — that wasn’t in the original script — because there’s not really an antagonist in the film. Bradley Whitford’s character is sort of an antagonist but the White House is really the antagonist of the film. So, we were listening to these tapes and it was a little strange.

Singer: Steven had originally kept playing this tape that’s at the end of the film, about Nixon railing against the Post. He said, this is how I want to end the film. So we were like, well that’s interesting. But then we went back and you can read all the transcripts of these tapes online. We started reading the transcripts and listening to the tapes and we were like, well this is uncanny. This sounds vaguely familiar. What if we just use these tapes in the film, to talk about how this happens. This is how you go from the executive in the Oval, down through Mitchell, the Attorney General, and suddenly you have the press under siege, and what do you do? One thing Lawrence O’Donnell Jr., a good friend of mine from “West Wing,” which I worked on back when I was younger, said which knocked me out was, “You have to understand these people were in outer space.” Five years, seven years prior, Phil Graham would have called up L.B.J. or J.F.K. and said, “should we publish?” Whereas here, you’ve got a president who’s already shut down the New York Times and it’s not a small conversation with the Oval Office. Suddenly, you need to make a decision. You’re in totally uncharted territory. Again, to have a woman leader step up and become not only a leader for her company and know what’s best for that company, that paper, but also to become a moral leader for the country. That felt remarkable so really getting the sense of how far we were in outer space at the time, and sadly it seems we’re back there now to some extent, we thought that was really interesting.

(audience question) Was Katharine Graham reluctant to take that position after her husband committed suicide? Did she enjoy it after that?

Hannah: Don and others have said she always had ink in her veins. She was raised as a journalist. That was what she wanted to do and she couldn’t ever do it. I think it was trepidation because she was terrified of letting them down. Really, she thought she was a seat filler until Don could take over. That was her whole intention, to be the Queen Regent, and just sit there, warm the seat, make sure that nothing got super messed up, and then let him come in. It really wasn’t until this moment that she embraced it and she became a publisher. The thing that we have gone back to is, so many people have said Watergate wouldn’t have happened if this hadn’t happened because it formed the bond between Kay and Ben, and it formed the trust. I think it also committed her to the paper in a way that she hadn’t been before because now she embraced the decision-making that she had to do.

Singer: As Liz touched on, something that I found very interesting and started diving in, she was very comfortable on the journalism side of things. So much so that very early on in her tenure, I think ‘65, she got rid of Al Friendly, who was the editor but not really taking the paper in any directions, basically pushed him out faster than he would have been pushed out, and brought in Ben Bradlee, who was at Newsweek. Ben was clearly this young, up-and-comer —

Hannah: Who also had told her, “I’m coming.”

Singer: Right! But this was a bold choice. When she stuck by him it was probably one of the best decisions she made. She knew what she was doing on the journalism side. The business side was what she was really terrified of, what she felt very uncomfortable with. It’s why I keep saying, having gone to business school, this is the best business school case I’ve ever seen because she makes a decision which all of her business advisors with their fancy HBS degrees are telling her is a bad business decision. But it’s the best business decision because she understands her business. She understands that my business is journalism. My business is not making those people who are investing in the IPO happy. To me, it’s such a great leadership case and one of those cases where doing good is doing well, which I find very inspiring.

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