Meet Liz Hannah, The Post’s Breakout Female Screenwriter
Welcome to Kind of a Big Deal, a series dedicated to introducing powerful women who are breaking boundaries in their fields. You’ll meet the rising stars and get the inside scoop on how they made it, what they’re working on now, and what’s up next.
Liz Hannah’s had one hell of a 2017. The 32-year-old’s first major film script, a passion project now called The Post, was picked up by the likes of director Steven Spielberg. The movie details the groundbreaking story of The Washington Post’s first female publisher Katherine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers. And ICYMI, the film, starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, has been nominated for a total of six Golden Globes, including Hannah’s first alongside co-writer Josh Singer of Spotlight acclaim. And in the middle of it all, the fledgling screenwriter also managed to find time to get married to the man who suggested she sit down to write The Post's initial script. How's attending The Globes, airing tonight, sound as a honeymoon destination?
Hannah is proud to have her first major film be an ode to publisher Kay Graham who found her voice and learned how to use it in the early '70s. “A very high bar that has been set, but I am more than happy to spend the rest of my career trying to touch this bar again,” Hannah told InStyle. And she may exceed her dreams again sooner than she expects—the screenwriter, who says she feels like she’s earned her “post-doctorate in filmmaking” after working with this all-star cast and crew, is moving full speed ahead into new projects with another feature-film in the works and an Amazon series on the horizon.
Scroll through our interview with the exceptionally talented screenwriter below to learn how she made it, what she’s learned, and where she wants to go from here.
Why did you want to write about Katherine Graham and how did you get started?
I had read Katherine Graham’s memoir a few years ago and I fell in love with her voice. I wanted to tell her story, but I didn’t necessarily know what aspect of it to tell. I think that, with biopics, you can get really caught doing these cradle-to-grave stories that don’t always work.
How did you make yours work?
For me, the biopics that work are the ones that open a window and look into a person’s life to see the most interesting aspect of it. As a writer or filmmaker, you have the responsibility to pick that part of the person’s life. So I spent a few years researching [Katherine Graham’s] story constantly in the background while I was working on other things. And at the end of spring in 2016, I finally had three months free. Actually, my now-husband, then-boyfriend, was the one who suggested I take those three months and write this script, which I’d been talking about doing forever.
What was your writing process like?
Frankly, I was intimidated to write it, because I had grown such respect for Katherine Graham that I didn’t want to let her down. And for the initial script, I didn’t have access to anybody. I was sitting at my kitchen table with no agent. But the nice thing about writing a movie about journalists is that, nine times out of 10, they’ve already written a book about what you’re writing about. So there was a wealth of material for me to digest about this subject matter.
What was most important for you in telling Graham’s story?
In terms of the creative process, it was really about figuring out the structure of the story first and foremost, because I knew that I wanted it to be a character story. I wanted it to be about Katherine Graham finding her voice. And I wanted it to be an intimate look at this woman and this relationship between her and Ben Bradlee.
How did you dive in?
I structured the three acts around what happened in real time during the publishing of the Pentagon Papers. And through that, I figured out what Kay’s arc was and what Ben’s arc was. It was actually, I don’t want to say simple, but once the lightening bolt when on of, oh, her story follows the Pentagon Papers, then luckily history had a way of filling in the blanks.
How did Steven Spielberg jump on board?
I was developing the script with a company called Star Thrower who is also our executive producer on the film. They sent the script to some agencies to see if they’d be interested in singing me and potentially packaging the film. And in October, it sort of leaked out into the world. At midnight on Friday before Thanksgiving, Amy Pascal bought the script. She ended up getting it to Kristie [Macosko Krieger] who is Steven’s producing partner. And once Steven, and Meryl, and Tom signed on in February, we had less than three months to shoot. So we were all hands on deck.
What was it like to work with Steven Spielberg?
What happens when Steven gets on board is that you get an enormous amount of access to everybody. We had access to the Graham family. We had access to Bradlee's family. We had access to The Post. We had this influx of information that I had never had while sitting alone at my kitchen table writing the initial script. So we authenticated everything in very minute ways because you know that the journalist sitting in the room is going to vet it every time he or she watches it and also because this was the first time that Katherine Graham had ever been on screen. This was the first time that Graham and Bradlee’s relationship had ever been on screen. And we wanted to make sure that it was as authentic as possible.
How did things change when your co-writer Josh Singer signed on in mid-March as well?
He was brought on because I'd never written a feature that’d been produced, let alone a feature that’d been produced by Steven Spielberg starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep. So for me, there was an enormous amount of relief when Josh came on, not only because he’s an incredible writer, but also because his experience meant I could take a little bit of a breath and not feel such immense pressure. We all felt pressure because we wanted to live up to the standard of how we all expected this story to be, but with Josh, I had a teammate who could back me up and whom I could back up.
What was it like to work with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks?
You don’t write a movie to sit in a drawer. You write a movie to be brought to life by the hundreds of people that make movies come together. And so when you get to stand on set and see something that you’ve written be played by Tom and Meryl who are taking it to places that you never even expected, I mean, that is literally the reason you become a screenwriter.
You’ve likened this film to the “origin story of a superhero movie.” Why do you see it that way?
We wanted to tell the story of a man and a woman that wasn’t romantic because more often than not the relationships men and women have in their lives are not romantic. And these partnerships that form are really beautiful. This movie tells the origin story of this Graham-Bradlee team. Many people have said that Watergate would not have happened without the Pentagon Papers, because they allowed Kay and Ben to form this trust and then give each other the space to move on to Watergate.
What did you want to accomplish in making this film?
I think there’re two things that we are trying to have a conversation about or are hoping people have a conversation about with this movie. One is the role of a woman in power, a woman who is in a room surrounded by men and she’s supposed to be making the decisions. To me, that story is relevant in any era, because I think stories about women becoming empowered and becoming self-empowered are vital stories for us to tell. And two is the importance of the free press. I think, right now, we should constantly be having a conversation about why the free press exists. Justice Black, in his opinion paper when he ruled in favor of The New York Times and The Washington Post, said, “The press exists to represent the governed, not the governors.” I think that’s something we need to remember. I mean, it is the first Amendment. It is number one. And I don’t think a functioning society can exist without the fourth estate and the free press.
What would you say has been your favorite part of working on this film?
In an umbrella way, the collaboration process has been amazing. Look, standing two feet away from Steven Spielberg while he directs a movie is not a bad deal. The learning experience that I had on set not from Steven, the cast, Josh, Amy [Pascal], Kristie [Macosko Krieger], and from all the other amazing people who worked on this film was incredible. And what was really wonderful was that everyone was willing to pull me aside at any moment to explain something I had a question about or point out why I should be remembering a moment.
What have you learned from this experience?
I learned to constantly be curious. Not that I wasn’t curious before, but they’re constantly asking questions. They’re constantly looking for the subtext and then the subtext of the subtext. Josh called Meryl a “heat-seeking missile” of any falseness in your script. Which is true. If there is something there that rings untrue, she will find it. And at the same time they all have fun while working. Steven will be the first to say, “Well if it’s not fun, then why do it?” And it’s true. For me to start out at the beginning of my career on such a positive note was remarkable.
Going back, what got you initially interested in screenwriting?
I studied producing at the American Film Institute in L.A. and then started working in development for almost five years before I started writing professionally. While working in development, I realized that I wanted to be the one that was doing the re-writing, not talking about how to do the re-writing. And so I wrote a feature and I sent it to my boss and to my now manager who I was close to at the time, and I said, “If this is any good, let me know, and I will quit. If it’s terrible, I will stay, and I will be happy to stay.” They both told me that I should quit. So I did. That was about five years ago last month. I’m happy that I was young enough, naive enough, and that I didn’t know how drastic it was to quit your job. But it was also the best decision I ever made.
What inspires you right now?
I’m so excited about female stories getting told and seeing studios starting to realize maybe stories about women make money. Wonder Woman is something that not only was made by a female director with a female lead superhero, but it also made like a cagillion dollars at the box office. Little boys went to go see it and little boys wanted to buy the Wonder Woman action figure. That’s exciting to me. So I’m hoping that we’ll more stories about empowered women and women who are finding their empowerment, finding their voices.
What kind of challenges have you faced coming up as a woman in this industry?
I’ve been in the rooms where I’m the only woman. I’ve been in the rooms where I’m talked over or not looked at even though I’m supposed to be the one that is doing the talking. I’ve been in conversations with men where they’ve turned their back on me and acted like I didn't exist. That’s something that’s been a constant. But what’s inspiring to me now is that it seems like people are listening. People are not staying quiet anymore. And I can’t ever thank these women enough for coming forward. Our voices are being heard now, and it's time to use them.
About five weeks after we wrapped The Post, I was writing this other feature called Only Plane In the Sky and they sent me to Berlin for a week where I stayed at the Hotel am Steinplatz to write. It was amazing. Writing can be so isolating, so I’m a big believer in taking walks and going places. It was really amazing to be able to go and walk through the city in the morning and come back and write all afternoon.
What’s next for you?
I’m going into TV a little bit. I just set up a limited series at Amazon with Bradley Whitford, and Amy Pascal, and Star Thrower [Entertainment]. It’s a little bit of a rekindling of The Post. The fortunate thing right now is that there’s such a variety of media for content creators to find the right place to tell their stories. I don’t think every story is two hours long. I don’t think every story is 10 or 100 hours long. So I’m very excited to see where my projects can fit into which one of those mediums.
What’s your advice for young screenwriters?
Just keep reading. I got to read good scripts, I got to read bad scripts, I got to read mediocre scripts, but in doing that you are able to shape your voice, even if you don’t realize that’s happening.