The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of The Post.
What was the process of making this film?
Meryl Streep: It came together very quickly because Steven Spielberg was making another film with everything ready to go in Italy, except the lead wasn’t cast yet. Somebody passed him Liz Hannah’s script and he loved it, so he decided to make it. Within three weeks, he relocated his entire crew, started building sets, and brought in Josh Singer to enhance the script. We started shooting in May, finished in July, and had a cut two weeks later. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.
Tom Hanks: Well there’s no special effects, so there’s no green screen or pre-visualization. There were no shots that had to be constructed after the fact. Spielberg’s requirement of what the script needed was that he wanted to know what was in the Pentagon Papers. Liz Hannah wrote about this thing you knew was important, but didn’t know what was in it. From that, reading about Daniel Ellsberg and finding the particulars of how the story was broken, it was a script in constant flux until shooting. It became a more dense, concrete, and authenticated story of the Pentagon Papers.
Bob Odenkirk: It was amazing that everything Liz found in the original script was still there watching the movie. Her ideas survived reimagining the journey of it.
“I feel like Ben Bagdikian knew that this was the story of his life.”
Where do you think Kay Graham is, mentally, when we first meet her in this story and do you feel that she changes during in the events of publishing the Pentagon Papers?
Streep: I knew of Kay Graham in her fully formed importance in culture. I didn’t know anything about who she was for the first fifty years of her life. That was the revelation. I saw her as someone socially adept as moving easily within power echelons of society. I didn’t know the degrees of her insecurity and where she sat. She lived in a particular time as she was a housewife in Washington, D.C. and a hostess brought up in private education to be a woman that raised money for good causes, acted like a good wife, and supported the husband. Then, unexpectedly, delivered onto her lap was the responsibility for this company, which at the time The Washington Post was not as respected as it is now. She helped shape The Washington Post to be what it is today. And she did that by virtue of a trial by fire, which started with this and went on through Watergate, where she then became the person that opportunity afforded her to become.
For Ben Bradlee, how much did you know about him coming into the film?
Hanks: I had met him and had a number of social dinners with Ben. I had a first-hand experience of how he was the Jupiter among planets. When he was in a room, he pulled you towards him and he was insatiably curious. He was a great person to have a conversation with because he shared the requisite stories and wisdom, but he was much more interested in what you had to say about whatever the topic was on hand. His concept of being naturally cynical, but not letting that cynicism control you, is the job of a journalist. It’s so important because you can’t believe what everyone is saying, yet you have to divine the truth out of various sources. He has this wonderful saying: “You have to get it right because if you’re not right, then you have to eat it for twenty-four hours and it doesn’t taste good.” To me, this permeates every moment of the movie.
The core friendship between Kay and Ben is such an important thread through the movie. How did you craft this relationship and how do you think it was significant to the story?
Streep: I thought the story was so unusual in showing a friendship and working relationship between a man and a woman that was as intense as love yet as respectful and contentious as a relationship could be without romantic notions. The underlying working relationship is that Kay is Ben’s boss yet she treats him like he’s her boss and that negotiation for women during that time — necessary to get along with powerful men — was very interesting to me. It was great how their mutual respect grew through the crucible of this experience and only grew as time went on so much so that one of the most tragic things is watching Ben at Kay’s funeral.
Hanks: I remember talking to Sally Quinn and she said that Ben loved Kay. He only said it once at Kay’s funeral. He was aware of the burden on his boss and knew that it was not her paper first. It was her father’s, then her husband’s, and it came to her in the most tragic of circumstances imaginable. He knew that had a weight on her and up through the Pentagon Papers where she solely had the decision to publish or not, solidified a degree of respect bordering on awe that he was in the right place with the right boss. And he thanked his lucky stars that he answered to Katherine Graham.
It’s very powerful when your character first discovers the Pentagon Papers and realizes what he has as a journalist. What was it like filming that scene?
Odenkirk: I feel like Ben Bagdikian knew that this was the story of his life. He had been in the business a long time at that point. He just knew that this only happens once in your life when you get information of this scale and it was a great experience for him. Being on set and watching Spielberg discover the shots on the day of shooting was fun. How many times do you get to watch one of the greats at work?