'The Post': How Spielberg Beat a Tight Deadline to Make a Timely Newspaper Drama

Courtesy of Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox
Tom Hanks (left) plays legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee in the film directed by Steven Spielberg.

The director and stars Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep tell THR how — and why — they were racing against time to get the film made.

In late February, Steven Spielberg hit a wall. Six years after he had started work on period piece The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara — and just weeks before he was due to start filming in Italy — he couldn't find a boy to play the lead.

In need of distraction, he picked up a spec screenplay that his CAA agents had sent him, and fell in love. The Post (later briefly retitled The Papers) didn't just tell the story of The Washington Post's Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham, both of whom he knew; it also touched on one of the most relevant issues of the day: freedom of the press, and Graham's decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971, at the risk of losing her family-owned newspaper. After mulling things over, Spielberg told his longtime production partner, Kristie Macosko Krieger, that he was going to shut down Mortara and immediately jump onto the other film, which he wanted in theaters by the end of the year.

"Everybody thought that I was off my rocker," he admits. "But the great thing about having these decades-long collaborations is that the whole scrimmage swung to the left and we seriously started to prioritize the bare necessities."

"He said, 'Can we make this movie this year? Can it come out this year?'" recalls Macosko Krieger. "So I [went] to my editorial staff, my postproduction crew, and said, 'I know we can shoot it, but can we post it in time?' Because we were also in postproduction on Ready Player One, the gigantic movie at Warner Bros. We sat down and did a giant war room, and we felt pretty confident that we could make it work. But we knew it would be tight."

Back in Los Angeles, with Fox onboard to finance the $50 million-plus project alongside Amblin Partners, she and Spielberg met with screenwriter Liz Hannah and Amy Pascal, who would produce with her and Spielberg. "It was one of the more thrilling conversations I've ever had in my life," says Pascal. "And in the middle of the meeting, [President] Obama called! I thought I was going to have a heart attack."

Their first and foremost challenge was casting. But Spielberg had spoken to Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep on March 3, the day he committed to the project, and the two had agreed to play the leads, Bradlee and Graham. As the Mortara crew relocated from Rome to New York, Streep met with Spielberg — whom she barely knew — in his Tribeca outpost.

"He gave me Ben's book [A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures] and [Graham's memoir] Personal History, which I had not read, and a documentary on the Pentagon Papers," she recalls. "And we talked about the whole project. At that moment, it was much more centered on Katharine, and there were certain assumptions in the script. One was that everybody knew what the Pentagon Papers were, and I said, 'There's a whole generation of people that don't.'"

Now she immersed herself in research — sitting down with Evelyn Small — who had helped Graham with her autobiography — among others, and listening to the late publisher's audio recording of her book, which she continued to dip into, "mesmerically, almost every day. I just listened to it over and over and over."

Hanks also began an exploration, meeting Daniel Ellsberg, the RAND Corp. analyst and whistleblower who had revealed the existence of the secret Defense Department report on the Vietnam War that later became known as the Pentagon Papers. "I was present for a very long meeting with him and his wife," says the actor. "We almost had a 'Pentagon Papers 101.' I always thought this was just a guy who had seen the report and knew it existed. But no, he was key in the formation of it."

Bradlee especially intrigued Hanks, who drew on some of his own memories of the newsman. "Ben independently was very competitive and complicated," he observes. "He'd been an itinerant journalist working for Newsweek out of France. He'd nearly gotten killed a couple of times, and his life was the newspaper. But the Post was the second or third paper in Washington, D.C., always struggling, and Ben did not want to run a pretty good paper; he wanted to run the best paper in the world."

As Hanks joined Spielberg and Streep on a visit to the real Post offices, work proceeded on script revisions. Hannah, a first-time screenwriter, was joined by Spotlight's Josh Singer, whom Spielberg brought in as a proven expert on this sort of material. "Liz had done a great job with Katharine Graham, but I wanted Ben Bradlee to be as essential to the outcome," the director explains. "I also wanted to color in the editorial staff, because this was a team effort. And I wanted this thing to be enormously suspenseful. I said: 'I want this to be, if you can believe it, a chase film with journalists.'"

"I was in my early 20s when I first learned about Katharine Graham and read her memoir," recalls Hannah, speaking of a time a decade ago. "She was particularly self-aware when reflecting on her life, and very honest, not afraid of talking about the mistakes she made. And that was amazing to me."

A graduate of the American Film Institute Conservatory, Hannah pondered how to incorporate into her script some of the many aspects of Graham's life that intrigued her. "Her relationship with her parents and her husband are so complex — and she talked so much about them in her memoir," she notes. "[But] those were the biggest red herrings for me; they were influential to who she became at the moment The Post takes place, the loss of these three people, the three most important people in her life. The red herring was: Do you ever address that? Is there ever a flashback? It wasn't until a couple of years ago, [when] I was reading Bradlee's book, that I realized, 'Oh this is a two-hander between the two of them.'"

At the heart of that two-hander, Singer discovered, was an astonishing sequence of events and coincidences. "Kay [Katharine] was literally at dinner with [New York Times editor] Abe Rosenthal when he got the news that the Attorney General was going to try to shut them down," he observes. Similarly, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was at a birthday dinner for Graham at the very moment one of the Post staffers was "getting the papers from Ellsberg."

As the writers got down to rewrites, they were in a race against time, says Spielberg, not just because of the limited preproduction but also because of an anticipated writers strike: "Josh was in my office writing the last 10 pages of the second draft on the strike deadline. On an encrypted file, we [sent] the script to the Fox attorneys 15 minutes before we got an email from a colleague on the strike committee, simply saying we could go to sleep."

While Hannah and Singer rewrote, production designer Rick Carter set about finding an office space that resembled the Post headquarters. (He was able to re-create it in a building in White Plains, New York, that also allowed the production to benefit from a healthy tax break.) Carter was fortunate to escape the shadow of 1976’s All the President's Men, whose interior was reproduced in exacting detail, because that was set in a different building, after the Post changed its headquarters. "There was an older building that the Post had, and, in the early '70s, after the Pentagon Papers, they moved into the offices that you see in All the President's Men," Carter explains.

Minor discoveries made for new scenes that added flesh and blood to the movie — such as one moment when a member of the Post team, Ben Bagdikian, played by Bob Odenkirk ("I look like Ben," he quips. "He has a fairly notable proboscis, and we didn't go with that, but in every other way he looks like one of my family"), tries to make a phone call using the change in his pocket, only for it to fall and spill all over the ground. Another time, Carter and Spielberg drew on some of their art-history affinities, even playing off one celebrated image. "When [Graham's] making her decision around the table, with the men all around her, that's taken from a Norman Rockwell image," says Carter. "It was its inverse: putting her at the center of it [instead of a man]."

After 12 weeks of preproduction, a two-month shoot commenced May 30 in White Plains, where Spielberg was joined by his regular director of photography, Janusz Kaminski.

"You start with the script and then you start thinking a little bit about it," the DP notes. "In my case, occasionally I get dreams about it. And then I start thinking, 'What are the movies that I've seen that I don't want this one to look like?' The biggest decision I made was to stay away from too much of a heavy period look. I wanted this movie to feel very contemporary, just like the story. I wanted people to feel there is a [direct parallel] between what was happening in 1971 — and the Nixon administration and Washington Post — and what's happening right now with this administration and [Trump's] desire to control the press and freedom of speech." To achieve that, "I used lots of nondirectional soft light," he continues. "Normally, I like to use harder light, but for this movie my aim was to be very quiet about my work."

Kaminski was unable to deliver one of Spielberg’s wishes, to both men’s regret: the use of original 1970s film stock.

"I said to Janusz: 'Is there any 5254?,' which was the film stock of that era," says Spielberg. "And he said, 'No.' I said: 'OK, is there any 5247?' That was the next iteration of Eastman stock, and there was none. So we just shot it on the available stock. Film today is a rare commodity. And I'm hanging on to it as long as there's a lab open."

Otherwise, luck was on his and his team's side — right down to finding authentic linotype machines.

Macosko Krieger expected to fly halfway across the country to track down original machines, only to discover that two existed just a short walk from Steiner Studios in Brooklyn, where some interiors were shot. "This was three blocks away," she explains.

When the film wrapped July 28, and a dream collaboration came to an end, Spielberg and Streep exchanged gifts.

"I did a drawing of him and me and Tom, put it in a little frame. It's pen-and-ink, and I color it, and he just loved it," Streep remembers. "And he sent me the watch that Katharine Graham wore in the film. It was Cartier, this beautiful gold watch. I've never had such a wonderful watch. It says on the back, 'Oh, Kay!' I have it on my hand now. I'll never take it off."

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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