Spec Spotlight: Liz Hannah, Writer of “The Post”
The publishing of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 represents a crucial turning point in modern U.S. history. So it’s no surprise that Pascal Pictures was eager to acquire Liz Hannah’s spec script The Post, which explores the Washington Post’s role in exposing the secret Department of Defense study of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee fought the government in court for the right to publish the Pentagon Papers in what is now the seminal legal case concerning freedom of the press.
But for Hannah, this monumental event—which paved the way for Watergate—wasn’t the main attraction. She was hooked by the remarkable story of Katharine Graham. ”I really come at every project through characters. I’m not somebody who can look at a plot and figure out all the twists and turns. I’m never going to write Independence Day, although my agents would probably love me to do that. But I come at things through character, and Katharine Graham is an amazing woman and an amazing character for me to explore. And not just her, but Ben Bradlee is also stunning on his own and had his own incredible life.”
Cradle-to-grave biopics, in Hannah’s experience, don’t pack as much power as spotlights on a pivotal window of time in someone’s life. Graham led an incredible life, but publishing the Pentagon Papers was monumental in shaping not only U.S. history, but Graham’s own identity. “She was a woman who had a voice,” marvels Hannah, her voice lighting up whenever she speaks of Graham. “She stepped up and became the kind of person she would be for the rest of her life.
“Really, the movie is not a whistleblower film,” Hannah asserts. “The movie is not about, necessarily, the Pentagon Papers. It’s about this woman and how this event ended up being what changed her.”
Hannah views The Post as a kind of coming-of-age film. “The time that the movie takes place, she’s in her mid-50s, and that time in a woman’s life is really fundamental, regardless of if you’re the head of a newspaper or if you’re a stay-at-home mom. And I think that time in a woman’s life is not talked about a lot.”
As one might expect, an enormous amount of research went into this script. Hannah watched every documentary and read every book and memoir she could get her hands on, including a good portion of the Pentagon Papers’ 7,000 pages. But the development process for The Post was quite different from that of most specs. She pitched her original idea to Star Thrower Entertainment, who then helped develop the concept with her but also gave her plenty of latitude to shape and write the screenplay on her own. The script went out in October and was picked up on Halloween.
“At that point, The Post was out to a couple of studios and was starting to get a buzz. Suddenly people knew what my name was, which, three weeks earlier, nobody had ever heard of me.”
Production and development work early in Hannah’s career offered ample opportunity to read scripts and mold her tastes. It’s important to “constantly be reading and constantly know what’s out there, good and bad,” she advises. Hannah has also been fortunate to be surrounded by strong female role models and supporters. “The first three years that I was there it was all women in the office, which was awesome. Super, badass women.” Such strong women in her professional and personal life naturally lead Hannah toward stories centering on dynamic female characters.
Production taught her the practical side of filmmaking as well. “It’s nice to be able to walk on a set and know what everyone’s job is and not be intimidated by a budget, or understand how a DP works and a grip works. It’s unfortunate, Hannah laments, that so many writers never get the chance to walk onto a set until their first production, often years after actually writing the script. “As a writer, it’s so important to just try and get there because it’s also really easy to just sit and stare at your computer and not know what it all looks like or what goes into making it.”
Hannah is still interested in producing, acknowledging the benefits to maintaining greater control over one’s projects as a producer. But she cautions newer writers with little experience not to take on too much. “That’s a lot of weight to put on your shoulders and a lot of job titles to fully deal with right from the get-go.” For herself, she’s focusing on writing for the time being and will add directing somewhere down the line.
Her advice to other screenwriters? “Constantly keep writing. It’s the only thing you have control over. It’s really, really easy to get overwhelmed by not selling something, or by things not working out the way that you thought they would. Writing is the only thing you have control over. And it’s a powerful thing to have control over because, at the end of the day, material really does stand out.”
Hannah adds, “Find a group of people who will listen to you when you didn’t make that sale. Get people that you trust, who are going to be honest with you, and who make you a better writer. It’s really easy to just sit in your own bubble and stare at a computer all day.”
For now, Liz Hannah is staring down another massive stack of books and government papers as she digs into another momentous true story. “It’s really important to look at history and look at things that maybe we don’t want to be repeated. Not necessarily historic stories, but important stories are what I feel like I should be doing right now.”
Screenwriter / Playwright / Reader / Festival Screener
Asmara Bhattacharya is a produced screenwriter/playwright, script reader, and festival screener, with multiple placements at Final Draft, Nicholl, Austin Film Festival, and other competitions. A trusted sounding board and consultant for industry professionals, dedicated fans also caught her in “Independence Day: Resurgence” and NBC’s “The Night Shift” – for one glorious half-second each. Check out her website at dickflicks.net or tweet her at @hotpinkstreak.