This feature is Part 1 of 2 on WTOP. Stay tuned for a review of the movie on Friday.
WASHINGTON — They’re undeniably the most famous director, actress and actor of our time.
Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks recently visited The Washington Post with Bob Odenkirk and Bradley Whitford for a Q&A on “The Post,” which opens nationwide on Friday.
“This could not have been a more relevant story for our time that made me look back and say, ‘My god, how does history repeat itself?'” Spielberg said. “One of the imperatives was getting this thing out while the conversation was still ripe. … But our intention was a character story about principally two people, Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee. … That was my full focus.”
Set in 1971, the film serves as a prequel to the investigative journalism of “All the President’s Men” (1976). Before Watergate, The Post was a mere regional newspaper run by publisher Graham (Streep) and editor Bradlee (Hanks). After The New York Times is sued by President Richard Nixon, the duo faces a moral dilemma over whether to publish the Pentagon Papers, a series of top-secret government files detailing U.S. involvement in Vietnam from 1945-1967.
“The main thing I was concerned about was that everybody knows Watergate, but nobody knows the Pentagon Papers,” Spielberg said. “Nobody knows that the Pentagon Papers were the precedent that allowed The Washington Post the courage [to] even pursue, through Woodward & Bernstein, the money trail leading up to Nixon’s impeachment and resignation.”
Spielberg said he initially wasn’t interested, but changed his mind upon reading the script.
“I got a call from Stacey Snider and Amy Pascal, who suggested I read a script from a brand-new writer who’d never sold anything in her life — Liz Hannah, 31 years old — who had written a story about Katharine Graham,” Spielberg said. “I was reluctant to read the script, but Stacey and Amy said, ‘I think you’ll change your mind once you get to page 30.’ And I did.”
Next, Spielberg did his due diligence in research, watching a rough cut of Ken Burns’ new documentary “The Vietnam War” and meeting with real-life whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg.
“I said, ‘What was the moment you decided to take the papers?’ He said, ‘When I was asked by Robert McNamara [if] the war was any better or worse. I said, ‘It’s about the same.’ McNamara flew out of his chair and yelled at this Nixon appointee. … ‘Ellsberg says it’s no better! That means it’s worse!’ Then, he comes off the plane, goes up to the press corps and says, ‘The war couldn’t be going any better.’ That’s what snapped in Ellsberg. That had to go in the movie.”
Thus, Hannah rewrote the script with Josh Singer of the Oscar-winning “Spotlight” (2015).
“There was no Daniel Ellsberg in the original screenplay; the Pentagon Papers were just a place holder,” Hanks said. “Then, Josh Singer came on [and] we got new pages every day. In fact, 200 days ago, when we visited [The Post], we got a little nugget that ended up in the movie. … They said the presses were in the basement and you felt the entire building shake.”
While Singer and Hannah rewrote the script, Spielberg brainstormed his ideal cast.
“I started reading it and, by page 30, I started to say, ‘OK, Ben Bradlee will be Tom Hanks, Katharine Graham will be Meryl Streep,'” Spielberg said. “This is my fifth film with Tom, but I’ve never worked with Meryl except for 30 minutes playing the voice of the blue fairy on ‘A.I.'”
Streep was pleasantly surprised by her first real experience with Spielberg.
“What surprised me was how collaborative, free and open it was,” Streep said. “Someone with this amount of veneration, huge line of masterpieces in our culture, markers of decades in my life, I felt this would be a machine, well-oiled, exclusionary boy’s club. I thought, ‘That’ll help you.’ … I wasn’t prepared for the openness. … I told my husband, ‘I can’t wait to go to work!'”
As for Hanks, he had the tricky task of tackling an iconic role that already won Jason Robards an Oscar in “All the President’s Men” (1976). Thus, Hanks found his own take on Bradlee.
“I was lucky in that I had met both guys,” Hanks said. “I do not have the same countenance as Jason, so I was going to have to find another way into the character that had nothing to do with me doing an imitation of Jason or an imitation of Ben. It was a matter of finding another way of walking into a room barrel-chested and filled with a confidence that I do not have.”
Helping to inform the performances was the visual design by a team of expert collaborators.
“It’s not just the director; it’s who the director surrounds himself with,” Spielberg said. “Meryl introduced me to Ann Roth, one of the great costume designers in history, who created an entire color palette that compelled me to shoot wider. When I saw what she had done with the costumes, it got my camera back to create group shots. Rick Carter [put] on every single desk [the] exact news of the day. … And Janusz Kaminski with his amazing way he uses light.”
When it came time to shoot, Spielberg kept things moving and limited the number of takes.
“That’s how I make movies,” Spielberg said. “I have to keep myself seeing the movie. If I take too long with a shot or do too many takes, I lose track of the story. I’m just O.C.D., focused on one thing I think I can get perfect by take 20. I find with most actors, if you have to go past five takes, it’s only because you’ve gotten new ideas based on the first four. … I like shooting fast.”
The cast was impressed to see such a humble approach by such a legendary master.
“It was refreshing to see the fear,” Whitford said. “He’s really worried he’s not going to get this right. There’s no sense of entitlement or mastery. … Steven is conscious of the value of being in the moment. Not coming with 30 storyboards, but really being innocent to the moment.”
Whitford joins a deep supporting cast of Odenkirk, Sarah Paulson, Carrie Coon, Tracy Letts, Bruce Greenwood, Alison Brie and Matthew Rhys. All of them play real-life figures, except for Whitford, who is a combination of various board members pressuring Graham not to publish.
“I am an amalgamation of legitimate business interests and unconscious sexism,” Whitford said. “When Kay is facing this decision, she is putting at risk the entire enterprise. She is giving me the message that she’s not sure she’s up to this. It’s very interesting in terms of feminism. This is not through a contemporary lens; it reminds me of my mother, who was exactly her age and fighting to find her voice and had been trapped in a culture that did not respect it.”
The modern-day parallels are obvious in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sex scandal.
“I see it leading straight to a backlash, then a reckoning with that, and out of that will come something really good,” Streep said. “I don’t think we move in an easy trajectory toward an enlightened future. We go two steps forward, one back. We’re going to hit the wall soon. But I think young people read these events differently than older people — and that’s the hope.”
Spielberg said the recent tsunami of allegations has rocked Hollywood’s power structure.
“It’s a national reckoning that creates a great deal of accountability on the part of men to do some deep diving,” Spielberg said. “It’s gotten a lot of men to search their memories. Are they the next ones to be called out on national television? And not just in showbiz. … If it filters down to Main Street and gets people questioning their values and if they’re behaving like those in the news. When that starts to ripple out, that’s when we’ll see real movement.”
Gender equality is just one of the many timely themes that are as relevant in 2018 as in 1971.
“This was the week that Katharine Graham became Katharine Graham,” Hanks said. “That alone is a fascinating, fascinating story to watch. Add the rest of it, and you hit the trifecta: Vietnam, the First Amendment — boom, you have it! That’s the big three right there.”
Above all, “The Post” champions a free press, defending the public against the powerful.
“I see it as an extremely patriotic film,” Streep said. “It isolates this moment in time where Nixon was defending only his ability to defend a lie. All of these administrations — Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson — lied about Vietnam for which so many people continued to be fed into the furnace for nothing. … The reason the war was fought was 10 percent for the Vietnamese, 20 percent to contain China, 70 percent to save face. … That’s breathtaking!”
Still, for all the film’s social themes, it’s also a good old-fashioned piece of entertainment.
“There’s a lot of talk about the relevance and issues the film brings up,” Odenkirk said. “But really, I was thrilled at the way Steven made it a fun story. When I’d see him set up the shots, you’d picture it and think, ‘Man, that’s going to be fun to watch.’ It makes it dynamic and throws relief on the story that makes it a rip-roaring tale. … It’s a fun movie to watch!”
Whitford thinks this audience pathos helps distinguish Spielberg from other filmmakers.
“Steven is an impatient showman in the best way,” Whitford said. “I don’t want to serve the audience civic vegetables. I want to take them emotionally and give them characters. There’s a collision of showmanship with material that could otherwise be very preachy and dry.”
Few can capture an audience like Spielberg, who worries that moviegoing habits are changing.
“You have to distinguish between going to the movies and the living room,” Spielberg said. “I feel very strongly that if we’re going to make a movie, we’ve got to call it a movie. If we’re going to make a TV movie, we’ve got to call it a TV movie. One has an Emmy; one has an Oscar. You can’t parse, spin or fool us into thinking a TV movie is a theatrical motion picture.”
Not to be mistaken, Spielberg insists there’s plenty of great work being done on TV.
“There are more places now where stories can be told than in the history of our medium: Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, all these different places,” Spielberg said. “I want to watch ‘The Crown,’ ‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘The Handmaid’s Tale.’ I want to watch 20 hours of that. There’s places for the big sagas, then there’s places for the message, drama and action of a film like ‘The Post.'”
Odenkirk has a unique perspective, having made his career largely on TV.
“I’ve been part of ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Better Call Saul’ and I’m still optimistic about features,” Odenkirk said. “This streaming thing came as a fairly recent phenomenon and everyone got all excited. A lot of people describe it as a 10-hour movie. It’s not. It’s a different experience; we just don’t have the words yet. We haven’t dialed in yet how it’s different, but we will.”
For Streep, it’s the magic communal experience of watching larger-than-life figures.
“Size matters,” Streep joked. “The Greeks put the actors on Cothurni to make them bigger. The bigger image affects us differently than one where you can pause, take a phone call, go eat something, rewind, ‘Where were we?’ … You want to get out of your house and [feel] other people. Even if they’re annoying, there’s a moment in a movie theater where everybody goes quiet and everybody’s watching the same thing. That’s when you know you have a movie.”
What would Katharine Graham make of the changing moviegoing landscape?
“I met Katharine the last day she walked the earth,” Hanks said. “I was waxing eloquently about what the future is going to be: ‘It’s going to be great! We can have stories that go on for 13 hours! Everybody will have a great TV and great speakers and be able to choose anything they want to watch!’ … And she said, ‘Oh, but people will always want to go to the movies.'”
“Right again,” Streep smiled.
Listen to the full Q&A with Spielberg, Streep, Hanks, Odenkirk and Whitford below:
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