Lucky break for The Post's writer

Liz Hannah (left) had been fixated with Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham for years and wrote a script about her.
Liz Hannah (above) had been fixated with Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham for years and wrote a script about her.PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST

Aspiring screenwriter Liz Hannah harboured doubts about her career until her script was bought by producer Amy Pascal

BOSTON • Just 18 months ago, Liz Hannah thought her career had flatlined. After a decade of hustling, first in development at actress Charlize Theron's female-centric production company and then as an aspiring screenwriter, she was beginning to think: "Maybe this isn't what I'm supposed to do."

But she has caught a one-in-a-million lucky break.

Over coffee in downtown Los Angeles, she recounted how her first script, The Post, was snatched up by producer Amy Pascal and handed to Steven Spielberg, who cast no less than Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks as the leads.

Now, the film has six Golden Globe nominations.

Eighteen months ago, Hannah, now 32, did not hold any aces. Her boyfriend, TV writer Brian Millikin, suggested she spend the summer writing about the woman who had fixated her for years: Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. The latter braved the late United States president Richard Nixon's administration's legal threats and her own insecurities to print the Pentagon Papers.

Graham had taken over the family business unexpectedly after her husband's suicide eight years earlier and defied advisers who said printing the secret study about the Vietnam War could lead to the company's demise.

I've learnt that if you throw your passion into something, it makes other people care.

LIZ HANNAH

"That's the moment where she came of age," Hannah said. "You want to find the most interesting and relatable window into a person's life."

Graham's autobiography, Personal History, won her a Pulitzer, but Hollywood left her heroism on the cutting room floor. In the 1976 movie All The President's Men, she is merely dismissed in a quip by Attorney General John Mitchell.

In person, Hannah is sharp and charming, much like Graham herself. She is an old soul in a young body. "I was a child of the 1960s more than the 1980s," said Hannah of the politics and culture she was steeped in while growing up outside New York City.

Fresh screenwriters are often advised to write what they know, which is how in-trays get clogged with teen dramas. Yet, Hannah understands Graham almost like she is wearing the first female Fortune 500 chief executive's emotions under her leather jacket.

"I'm not a 55-year-old woman in 1971," said Hannah, lightly stating the obvious. "But I know what it's like to be a woman. I know what it's like to want the truth out there. And I care about morality and ethics."

Tattooed on Hannah's right arm is a line from author Harper Lee: "Remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."

For research, she devoured other memoirs about The Post, especially former executive editor Ben Bradlee's A Good Life: Newspapering And Other Adventures.

Hannah did not expect her unsolicited script to sell. At best, she hoped The Post would get her an agent. She finished her first draft on the Friday of Labour Day weekend last year. The next day, Millikin proposed. She enjoyed two months of tinkering with notes while casually planning their wedding.

Then, in 24 hours, her life changed. Her manager leaked the script, a buying frenzy began and, at midnight, former Sony Pictures chairman Pascal won the auction and rang Hannah to say hello.

The script was ranked No. 2 on the 2016 Blacklist, which lists the best still-unproduced scripts of the year.

After the sale, Pascal hired Josh Singer, who shared the best original screenplay Oscar for Spotlight (2015), to help strengthen The Post.

"Look, it's not the obvious way to tell the story of the Pentagon Papers," he said. "But it is a brilliant way to tell the story of Kay Graham."

After Pascal enlisted Spielberg, and Streep and Hanks agreed to play Graham and Bradlee, "the world opened up", noted Hannah.

Suddenly, she could meet her characters' families and run lines by colleagues who had known them first-hand.

The Post rushed into production and things moved fast. Hannah had to hand her November wedding to an organiser. "I will show up," she pledged. "And it will be great."

Everyone she met gave her the same two pieces of wisdom. First, appreciate that her stunning skyrocket "never happens".

And second, diary the on-set details, like the way Hanks, a typewriter collector, tested every ribbon in the newsroom. Hannah said "there is something romantic about the sound".

With no time for a honeymoon, the couple ducked away after their vows for a quick weekend retreat, where she woke up in the middle of the night and learnt The Post's trailer had premiered.

Her now-husband, half-asleep, mumbled: "Did you watch it? I cried."

Hannah said: "I've learnt that if you throw your passion into something, it makes other people care."

Now that she has beaten the odds, her second lucky ace is that she has the freedom to write about anyone.

MGM recently hired her to pen Only Plane In The Sky, an account of then-president George W. Bush's eight hours aboard Air Force One on 9/11.

"It's been fascinating with how much I empathise with Bush on that day," Hannah said. "There were no good decisions to make."

WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2017, with the headline 'Lucky break for The Post's writer'. Print Edition | Subscribe