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The Women Behind The Post Discuss the Importance of Katherine Graham’s Story
Amy Pascal looks for one thing in a script: an unforgettable main character. That’s what drew the producer to a spec by Liz Hannah called The Post. “It’s the story of a woman who goes from being a mouse to a lion,” Pascal says, referring to Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, who reluctantly assumed the job after her husband’s suicide and soon found herself defying a federal injunction—and her own board—by publishing the Pentagon Papers.
It’s set nearly fifty years ago, but it’s hard not to see The Post as a mirror held up to the present. (Not long before this story went to press, the current occupant of the Oval Office was trying to halt the publication of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. Like Nixon, he succeeded only in moving a lot of copies.)
Pascal bought the script right before Election Day, and The Post hit theaters just over a year later. The quick turnaround “gave us energy and purpose, and we didn’t have time to overthink things,” says Kristie Macosko Krieger, a longtime collaborator of Steven Spielberg’s. “We were able to be really nimble. It all just really worked.”
Here, in an extended version of the interview conducted for Esquire’s 2018 Mavericks of Hollywood, producers Pascal and Krieger and screenwriter Hannah detail what it was like to see two Hollywood titans go head-to-head, the power of journalism in a chaotic political era, and why it was so important to bring Katherine Graham’s story to a mass audience.
From left: Liz Hannah, Amy Pascal, and Kristie Macosko Krieger.
What drew you to Katharine Graham’s story?
Liz Hannah (screenwriter): It was really her voice. I read Personal History a few years, ago, and I was struck—she has such an amazing, unique voice. She has such an honest way of looking at her life that is very unusual. A memoir is just a story of your life, whereas she wrote it as almost a journalist and she’d researched it with Ed Spall for almost ten years. She gathered all these interviews and she’d done all of this background research on her own life, which really informed how she looked at it. And so, I was just so fascinated by her, and I also couldn’t believe that nobody had made a movie about her yet.
Kristie Macosko Krieger (producer): When I read the script what I loved about the script was Ben Bradlee and Kay Graham’s working relationship. I hadn’t seen that on screen—a man and a woman working together as colleagues with mutual respect for each other. They drove each other to be better. I really hadn’t seen that in a film before, and I was really struck by that relationship.
Amy Pascal: “I loved the idea of a woman who felt invisible making a decision that forever changed her life, and in doing so changed the country.”
Amy Pascal (producer): When I buy a script, I look for a great main character. Because all great movies are about people and one person’s relationship with another person. That is the human condition, and that’s what interests people. I loved the idea of a woman who felt invisible—she was someone’s mother and someone’s wife and someone’s daughter, that is how she saw herself—making a decision that forever changed her life, and in doing so changed the country. You very rarely find scripts where the personal story and the journey of the main character works so beautifully as the theme of the movie as well.
This was essentially the little movie that could; the journey from purchasing the spec in October 2016 to releasing the film in January 2018 is a very short one. How did that impact daily life on the set?
AP: It was extraordinary, and I don’t think that, had it been any other filmmaker, it would have been possible. I mean, Steven [Spielberg] has a team that he works with—the best and the brightest, and he had been making a movie that was set to start shooting in Rome, and when he couldn’t cast that movie and then read our script, he diverted all of his people onto this movie, and had it not been for that, I don’t see how we could have done it.
KMK: It gave us energy and purpose, and we didn’t have time to overthink things. From the time we read the script to the time we started production, that was 11 or 12 weeks. Steven said, “I’m going to make it,” on March 3rd and we were shooting by May 30th. And we finished shooting July 28th. So, in the two months that we made the movie, it was a 45-day shoot, I believe. In the two months that we made the movie we were still working on the story. Josh and Liz were still writing the movie, and we were getting pages here and there on a daily basis, and we were able to be really nimble. It all just really worked. The energy felt palpable, and I feel like you can see it in the film. I don’t know if that answers your question.
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In what way was it different to make a film about an editor and a publisher as opposed to a ragtag band of reporters?
AP: It’s the story of a woman who goes from being a mouse to a lion. Katharine was the first woman to run a Fortune 500 company in America, in the end, which is pretty fantastic. But it’s also about the special way that the she and Ben Bradlee worked together—which is that they really respected each other, adored each other, and had a real partnership.
LH: It’s really character-based. The thing about this film is that the paper chase had already happened; The New York Times did amazing reporting, and they were able to get the actual papers and print them. So that aspect of the journalism procedural—the hunting down of the documents—that’s already been done, and so for us, the benefit for our story means that we really got to deep dive into the characters and spend time exploring them, spend time looking at the negatives and positives of everything about them. I come at everything through character; that’s what gets exciting to me. For us, being able to focus particularly on two incredibly well-known, but also amazing real-life people, and get into things that maybe people didn’t know about them—that was really exciting.
KMK: It was their dynamic between the two of them, and the reporters were there; all the reporters were baked into the story, so you kind of got the best of both worlds. You got both. But the pressure on Kay Graham to make the decisions she made, to publish those Pentagon Papers when The New York Times had already been enjoined into this lawsuit, it was a very brave decision, and really set things up for everything to come with Watergate.
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Can you compare the journalists in this story to those practicing today? Are things really all that different?
AP: It’s not as much a story about journalists as it is a story about somebody running a corporation, so there are many parallels for both Ben Bradlee and Kay Graham in terms of the way that the work had always been done for them in the worlds that they came from, and then the decision that they have to make is to do something that will be painful for people that they’ve known and loved and been in business with. They understood the way Georgetown has worked forever, yet they still had to do the right thing, and that that’s analogous to the human situation that we’re all in all the time.
LH: I think that the journalists and editors who have been breaking stories over the past year are some of the bravest people we have, because they’re informing us of things that we need to know. And they are taking risks. I met the two women who write for The New York Times and broke the Weinstein story, and it was like seeing two superheroes in real life. Hearing them tell me about their story and hearing them say how everyone told them that no one was going to read this, everyone told them they shouldn’t do it. And they kept going, and they kept going, and they kept going, and look where we are now. And, so, these people who every day are fighting to publish the truth, those are the real superheroes.
KMK: don’t think things are really that different. I mean, at that point they were coming against the First Amendment issues, and we have that same thing happening today.
Liz Hannah: “I think that the journalists and editors who have been breaking stories over the past year are some of the bravest people we have, because they’re informing us of things that we need to know.”
What was it like having two heavyweights in these roles and Spielberg in the director’s chair?
LH: When we had the premiere, somebody was asking me this, and I was said, “You know, I actually haven’t really had a moment to even consider it,” which in a good way, I haven’t freaked myself out, because the second that I stop to think about all this I’m just going to have a nervous breakdown. It’s a dream come true—that’s really the only way to say it.
I had so many pinch-me moments on this: when Amy bought the script, when Steven and Tom and Meryl signed on, when we were shooting in production. There are so many moments where, if one of those things happened in my career, I would have been thrilled and excited and it would have been a dream come true. But all of it happened on one movie, so it’s really sort of overwhelming and I feel very, very lucky.
Top: Ben Bradlee and Katherine Graham; bottom: Tom Hanks and Bradlee and Meryl Streep as Graham in ’The Post’
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KMK: It was like watching Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy work together. It was incredible to watch. You can’t believe that they hadn’t worked together before. I want to see Tom Hanks-Meryl Streep movies all the time. They work really well together and they are as professional as they come, and they both gave themselves over to this movie, and to this story. You’ve also got Liz Hannah, who wrote the script at 31; you’ve got Amy Pascal, a great studio head who’s really finding her footing as a producer; and to get Steven, Tom, and Meryl to sign on is incredible.
Steven is a seeker of knowledge. He’s always looking for something new to do. He doesn’t stick to one genre; he’s interested in many, many different areas, and so I find that pretty exciting. He’s really great at hiring the best people for their jobs and getting out of their way and allowing them to do their jobs, so I found that really inspiring and interesting. When I hire people for jobs working with Steven, we try to hire the best, and we let them do their jobs.
What did you take away from working with this group of performers and filmmakers?
LH: The thing they all have in common is that they’re very curious, and they’re constantly asking questions. They’re constantly looking for the truth, be it the truth of the script, the truth of the character, or the truth of our reality. They’re constantly looking for it, and that is something that really informs me in getting to know them and working with them.
On a sort of granular level, on a script level, I think it was in one of our very, very first meetings with Steven that he told me that there should be a surprise on every page—that it doesn’t have to be a big surprise, but that the audience should be surprised with little moments, every page. Because we were sort of making a thriller, that was hugely influential to me, and I used that bit of knowledge on the next feature that I wrote in terms of pacing. It’s not something I’d ever really considered before, but I don’t think there’s anybody in the world who understands an audience more than Steven does, so that was extremely helpful.
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What’s the relevance of this story in our current political moment?
AP: Well, when I bought the script from Liz, I think we were probably all certain that Hillary was going to end up being president, because we bought it in October 2016. And I think the movie completely stands on its own as a story, but obviously events of history are making people see it differently.
LH: Well, there’s two things, right? That the relevance of a woman finding her voice is always timely. I don’t necessarily think all that much has changed between 1971 and 2017, so in 46 years we went from one female Fortune 500 CEO to, I think only 5 percent female. So, that’s obviously something that’s in the conversation, or if it’s not it should be. With the #MeToo movement and with everything that’s happening, it’s a time that women have stopped being quiet, and it’s a time that women are starting to stand up and raise their voices. This is quite literally a film about a woman finding her voice, so that’s very exciting to see. It might have taken time for people to listen to us, but it seems like people are starting to listen.
When I wrote this movie and sold it to Amy, it was a week before the election. The idea of fake news was sort of ethereal; it was this phrase that was in the world, but it didn’t really have the power that it has now. It’s strange because we’re now living in a time where the truth is negotiable, where the north star isn’t the north star. That’s very scary, and that’s something that we need to talk about and have conversations about, and if there is something in this film that is somewhat connected to that, then I hope that people just go see the film and are able to have conversations afterwards and ask questions. Questions like: why is there a Fourth Estate Wall? he Fourth Estate is imperative for us to have a functioning government; the Fourth Estate exists in order for the people to understand the things going on behind closed doors. And it exists to keep everyone honest, so if we can continue to have those conversations, I think that will be some positive momentum.
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What did it mean to you that this film’s path to success was charted by so many women?
AP: I’m so pleased about that. It feels like the right thing for this movie, doesn’t it? It’s something to be really proud to be a part of.
LH: This movie was made by women. Amy and Kristie just put this movie on their shoulders and really carried it up the hill. It was a thrilling thing to be on set with so many women making a story about a woman, and making a story about a woman that we wanted the world to know about. That’s the only thing that I would want somebody to take away—know who Kay is and know her story, because it was pretty influential to me.
KMK: Oh my God, it means the world to me. It means we’re making strides. Think of all the women that worked behind the scenes on the film: you’ve got Ellen Lewis, you’ve got Diana Burton, our propmaster; you’ve got our two art directors, Kim Jennings and Deb Jensen. You’ve got Sarah Broshar, who edited the film now with Michael Kahn. Our UPM was a female. For me, it just means that we’re here, and we matter, and we do the job as well as or better than any man.