At TheWrap’s Screening Series, screenwriter Liz Hannah told the crowd at the Landmark Theater that there was a time when she was starting to doubt whether screenwriting was right for her. But she was convinced by her future husband to at least finish her last project: a spec script about Washington Post owner Kay Graham and her decision to publish the Pentagon Papers.
That film turned into “The Post,” a film featuring Steven Spielberg as director with a cast led by Meryl Streep as Graham that has been nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars. Hannah was on set rewriting her script alongside Oscar-winning “Spotlight” writer Josh Singer, and she told TheWrap’s awards editor Steve Pond that the experience of writing lines for Streep was both “an incredible gift and a terrifying reality.”
“She’s in front of you saying the lines you wrote and you think, ‘Oh, Meryl Streep you’re so great!’ and then she says it again and you’re like ‘I’m the worst writer that’s ever existed in the world.” she said. “You don’t want to give Meryl second-rate lines and have her need to make them good.”
Liz Hannah’s original spec was bought by producer Amy Pascal just a week before the 2016 presidential election, and was primarily focused on Graham’s personal journey as she learned to assert herself as the owner of the Post in a board room and corporate culture dominated by men. But after Donald Trump’s victory, Spielberg opted for a hastened production schedule, with the film’s focus subsequently shifting into the ode to journalism that has earned it critical praise. The finished film places more emphasis on the process of how the Pentagon Papers were provided to the Post by Daniel Ellsberg and published in the face of prosecution threats from the Nixon Administration.
“When Steven came on, it was urgent for all of us that the movie come out in 2017.” Hannah said. “We felt there was something about the characters and…the timeliness of it that if it went into development hell for however long it would lose some of that. The urgency really made us have some of our best ideas because we couldn’t second-guess anything.”
While the film is an Oscar contender because of its timely connections to Trump, Hannah says she still sees the film as the story of a woman learning to stand up for herself, which is what compelled her to write “The Post” in the first place after reading Graham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, “Personal History.”
“It is one of the best memoirs I have ever read because it is written entirely in her voice,” Hannah said. “I had read her book in my early 20s and there was something that I really connected to about this woman…she was in her 80s and she was still reflecting on her life with this insecurity and openness and vulnerability, and I was 22 and thought, ‘Well, I can relate to that, and if I can relate to this woman, and see that it’s okay to make mistakes and figure things out along the way…I thought that it was really universal.”
See Hannah’s thoughts on the links between “The Post” and attacks on the free press happening today in the clip above.