The director and stars Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep tell THR how — and why — they were racing against time to get the film made.
In late February, Steven Spielberg hit a wall. Six years after he had started work on period piece The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara — and just weeks before he was due to start filming in Italy — he couldn’t find a boy to play the lead.
In need of distraction, he picked up a spec screenplay that his CAA agents had sent him, and fell in love. The Papers, as the script was then called, didn’t just tell the story of The Washington Post‘s Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham, both of whom he knew; it also touched on one of the most relevant issues of the day: freedom of the press, and Graham’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971, at the risk of losing her family-owned newspaper. After mulling things over, Spielberg told his longtime production partner, Kristie Macosko Krieger, that he was going to shut down Mortara and immediately jump onto the other film, which he wanted in theaters by the end of the year.
“Everybody thought that I was off my rocker,” he admits. “But the great thing about having these decades-long collaborations is that the whole scrimmage swung to the left and we seriously started to prioritize the bare necessities.”
“He said, ‘Can we make this movie this year? Can it come out this year?'” recalls Macosko Krieger. “So I [went] to my editorial staff, my postproduction crew, and said, ‘I know we can shoot it, but can we post it in time?’ Because we were also in postproduction on Ready Player One, the gigantic movie at Warner Bros. We sat down and did a giant war room, and we felt pretty confident that we could make it work. But we knew it would be tight.”
Back in Los Angeles, with Fox onboard to finance the $50 million-plus project alongside Amblin Partners, she and Spielberg met with screenwriter Liz Hannah and Amy Pascal, who would produce with her and Spielberg. “It was one of the more thrilling conversations I’ve ever had in my life,” says Pascal. “And in the middle of the meeting, [President] Obama called! I thought I was going to have a heart attack.”
Their first and foremost challenge was casting. But Spielberg had spoken to Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep on March 3, the day he committed to the project, and the two had agreed to play the leads, Bradlee and Graham. As the Mortara crew relocated from Rome to New York, Streep met with Spielberg — whom she barely knew — in his Tribeca outpost.
“He gave me Ben’s book [A Good Life: Newspapering and Other Adventures] and [Graham’s memoir] Personal History, which I had not read, and a documentary on the Pentagon Papers,” she recalls. “And we talked about the whole project. At that moment, it was much more centered on Katharine, and there were certain assumptions in the script. One was that everybody knew what the Pentagon Papers were, and I said, ‘There’s a whole generation of people that don’t.'”
Now she immersed herself in research — sitting down with Evelyn Small — who had helped Graham with her autobiography — among others, and listening to the late publisher’s audio recording of her book, which she continued to dip into, “mesmerically, almost every day. I just listened to it over and over and over.”
Hanks also began an exploration, meeting Daniel Ellsberg, the RAND Corp. analyst and whistleblower who had revealed the existence of the secret Defense Department report on the Vietnam War that later became known as the Pentagon Papers. “I was present for a very long meeting with him and his wife,” says the actor. “We almost had a ‘Pentagon Papers 101.’ I always thought this was just a guy who had seen the report and knew it existed. But no, he was key in the formation of it.”
Bradlee especially intrigued Hanks, who drew on some of his own memories of the newsman. “Ben independently was very competitive and complicated,” he observes. “He’d been an itinerant journalist working…