‘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.

Getty Images

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.