Steven Spielberg is known as the director of fantasy like E.T., Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones. However, he is also an acclaimed filmmaker of historical drama like Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Amistad and Lincoln. His latest movie is a historical drama of only late in the last century.
The Post stars Meryl Streep as Kay Graham, publisher of the Washington Post. Tom Hanks plays Post editor Ben Bradlee, whose staff broke the news of the Pentagon Papers while Richard Nixon was busy fighting the New York Times over it. The three presented the film to awards voters at an early screening and dreameGGs was there for the Q&A with three legends. The Post opens February 12.
Q: There’s a scene where the women excuse themselves from political discussion. How did the era shape Katharine Graham as a leader?
MS: That was customary. In certain circles of powerful people, there’s a scene just like it in the film I made about Margaret Thatcher. Same thing happened, habitually. People would have a dinner party and when the important topics came up, the women would excuse themselves and go talk about handbags, or whatever, in Margaret Thatcher’s case. Yeah, that’s the way it was. In fact, this is based on a real thing that happened. We didn’t put it in the film ultimately but she went to a dinner at Joe Alsop’s house who was a famous columnist and very well connected across the aisle with very powerful people. That moment came up when the women were supposed to leave. She went to Joe and she said, “You know, I think I’m going to go home now because I don’t really want to do that.” He said, “How can you do that?” He was very offended. She just said, “I’m going to leave.” She went home and that ended the practice in Washington. Word traveled around the city and they stopped doing it. The women got to stay. So that was a very tiny revolt that she made.
Q: How did it shape how you performed her?
MS: She was very uncertain and it’s in her book. She talks a lot about that. Her son, who I spoke with, Don Graham, and her daughter. They almost talk about nothing else because how you are at home too, you reveal yourself maybe more to your kids. But it worked. She had so much, so many people thinking she didn’t deserve to be where she was. We know what a brilliant woman she turned out to be and a brilliant businesswoman and a leader, first head of a Fortune 500 company who was female. So she earned her bona fides on her own, but oh man. What the world was like, I try to tell young women who weren’t alive then, how different it was very recently. Very recently, and it still is in those leadership circles. We filled up the bottom of the pyramid but right here, where it all gets decided, we don’t have parity. We’re not even close. We’re still at 17% major boards and every other thing. Yeah, it’s relevant to today, this movie.
Q: Tom, you spoke to people who knew Bradlee including his widow. What did you learn that was helpful?
TH: Well, I actually had had dinner and lunch a couple times with Ben in the ‘90s. I met him and Sally through Nora Ephron. He was still Ben Bradlee, very much so. He had dementia in the later years of his life but at that time, he was the man. There was just no doubt about it. Sally was a seasoned veteran of Washington circles and journalism almost as much as he was. The command that he had of a room and the ability — the man I met, he was curious. He was interested in what was going on and what you had to say. A conversation with him flew by and jumped from topic to topic. He didn’t pontificate. He didn’t tell war stories. If you asked him a question about who was Deep Throat he’d, “Ah, well, you know, it could’ve been So and So. I don’t know, maybe it was, I don’t know, Mark Felt. Who knows? But you know, Tom, la la la la la.” So you get onto something else. Because I had known him, I heard him speak when I read his book, A Good Life. To see all the video that had been sent to me, that I was able to find, I was extremely familiar with this vigor and gusto he had for the job of being a reporter. He would talk about running a small newspaper in New England when he was first starting out with as much verve and as much alacrity as he was talking about in his battles trying to turn the Washington Post into the number one newspaper in Washington. Because in fact, the Washington Star was a much bigger newspaper than The Post was, bigger circulation, bigger ad revenue, what have you. I was lucky that I had this brush with the man and had a concept of his countenance. As Anne Roth noted and a few other people said, that man owned the room when he walked in. Whatever room it was, that man owned the room because he was not the guy in charge but he was the most interested person at the table, in the office, in the boardroom. He said one great thing, “Well, you know, the job got to be harder when they made that movie, you know, because the first thing anybody says, ‘Well, you don’t look like Jason Robards.’” Even that, there was a complete understanding that he proved himself a member of the fourth estate with every single day and every single story. What happened before didn’t matter, was gonna happen come after. You had to get the story right because otherwise “if you’re wrong, you have to eat it for 24 hours and it doesn’t taste good.”
Q: How did you decide to play the scene on the phone where Katharine makes her decision?
MS: Well, the boys were all in a little tent off set. They were not in character. I came in to shoot the scene and they’re all in there having a fabulous time, like a little sweat lodge or something. It was really sort of nasty in there. I didn’t think they realized the seriousness of what I was going to have to be doing. They were hilarious. But, Steven, you had said originally, “I think I’m going to shoot this…” The thing about you that really surprised me was how improvisatory and spontaneous and living the process of making the movie is. I’d never worked with Steven and Tom had obviously like 150 times. In a way, there was a boy story and a girl story in this. I felt a little bit isolated and out of the fun, out of the sweat lodge. I wasn’t invited to the pie, like Katharine Graham. I guess that was manipulative of you.
SS: My method for you.
MS: Yes. But I was so impressed with how free you were. Anyway, originally you said you were going to shoot that all — he said, “I’m just going to shoot it on your face. The whole thing, the whole thing on your face.” And I said, “Oh, God. 20 years ago, maybe.” But then the voices, he wanted to see them living and he wanted to orchestrate it differently. So it changed. Where the camera was, I never knew where it was going to be. He’s coming at it from here, he’s here, he’s all around, he’s moving. It was kind of thrilling. I’m so old and jaded, but I got so excited coming to work every day. I really did.
Q: Why does The Post feel like it was not only set in the ‘70s but shot in the ‘70s?
SS: Well, look, there wasn’t a lot of time to storyboard or previs or all these things we usually do with bigger movies. There was really only enough time for Rick to present all of us with locations that were authentic to the period. Anne Roth’s costumes, the hair design, the makeup, everything else contributed to the look of the styles of the ‘70s. We were all shooting from the hip. That was what was interesting and spontaneous about making the movie. I didn’t have a shot list. I had a great script. I had a great cast. Every single morning, I just found ways to keep it moving, keep it tense and taut. I knew this was a thriller. Not just a story about investigative journalists and the morality of the truth, but it was a really, really newsroom adventure story and I wanted to keep the pacing going so I could create a level of suspense leading up to the two huge decisions that Katharine Graham had to make. The look, okay, I used a zoom lens, okay? That’s a 1970s tool. I zoomed. Every once in a while I zoomed. That was it. I don’t get kudos for that.
TH: So it had all the sophistication of an episode of The Name of the Game.
SS: I zoomed in that too.
TH: Bracken’s World, one of the shows from the ‘70s.
Q: Where did you find a printing press and how did you decide to shoot it?
SS: That is a linotype facility in White Plains, NY. When you go to New York and you see a play and you get your playbill, when you open the playbill up, those were the machines that print all your playbills in New York City, all of them in this one facility. We were able to go in there and get super macro closeups of the whole process. When they first showed me how this worked, I couldn’t believe it. I said, “How long have you been doing this?” “Oh, 400 years. We used wood before tin type” and probably stone and a little axe before that. This was one of the oldest means of putting print on surfaces. I couldn’t get enough of it. As a matter of fact, what you saw in the movie is only about 1/3 of what I shot. I was obsessed with that machine, but I’ve got a really good outtake reel if anybody wants to see it. When the DVD comes out, I’ll put it on the outtake reel.
Photos by Niko Tavernise – © 2017 TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX