Because he co-wrote “Spotlight,” the film about The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer-winning coverage of child sex-abuse and coverup by Catholic clergy, screenwriter Josh Singer wasn’t sure he wanted to work on another movie about journalism. “Spotlight” had won the Academy Award for best picture and Singer and the film’s director, Tom McCarthy, shared the Oscar for best original screenplay. But it’s not every day that director Steven Spielberg gives you a writing assignment, and the topic — the decision by Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham to follow The New York Times’s lead in publishing the Pentagon Papers — was tantalizing. In the end, Singer, who was also one of the writers of the acclaimed TV drama “The West Wing,” couldn’t resist. “The Post,” starring Meryl Streep as Graham and Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, opens in the Boston area on Friday.
Q. The original script for “The Post” was written by Liz Hannah. Tell me how you got involved?
A. Liz, who was 31 at the time, had written a couple of scripts, but this is the first one she’d sold. It got the attention of Meryl [Streep] and Tom [Hanks] and Steven [Spielberg], and they all read it over Presidents Day weekend of this year and fell in love with it. A couple of weeks later, I got the call from God — or rather, God’s lieutenant: Kristie [Macosko Krieger], who’s Steven’s No. 2 — and she asked if I’d help out. I’m not going to lie, I had some trepidation, most notably because I’d just written a journalism movie. In fact, I’d written two. I wrote “The Fifth Estate” [a biopic of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange] before I wrote “Spotlight.” But “Spotlight” turned out pretty well.
Q. I’ll say.
A. But can you do something that hits that bar and, moreover, do you want to play in the same water again? I was desperate to work with Steven, but I wasn’t sure about working in journalism again. Then I read Liz’s script and, I have to tell you, it’s the best spec script I’ve ever read. It was incredible to me the way she managed to frame this issue. I mean, the Pentagon Papers are a bit arcane, so it’s tricky to figure out how to make that clear and compelling. But by framing it within the narrative of Kay Graham and her decision to publish, Liz made it compelling.
Q. Talk about the difference between “The Post” and “Spotlight.”
A. “Spotlight” is about getting the story. There’s really never a question of whether to publish. You see (former Globe editor) Marty Baron, played by Liev Schreiber, but he’s really only on the screen for a half hour of a two-hour movie. “Spotlight” really lives with the reporters — [Walter] “Robby” [Robinson], Sacha [Pfeiffer], Matt [Carroll], and Mike [Rezendes]. That’s where the story is. It’s a procedural about getting the story. “The Post” is really about Kay and the editor, Ben Bradlee. It’s about whether to publish. This is much less of a procedural and much more of a character movie. It’s about a woman in a man’s world. It’s about a woman finding her voice. Kay was the first female Fortune 500 CEO and that story felt evergreen. Six weeks into shooting, I read an article that said only 5 or 6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women, so, to me, there need to be more of these stories. Kay was an inadvertent CEO who wound up being terrific for The Post. A story about this fascinating woman who becomes a force of nature was incredibly compelling. And there were a couple of things to say about the Fourth Estate, too. Ten years prior, [the late Post publisher] Phil Graham would have called up LBJ and said, “Should I publish?” They would have had a negotiation in a back room. JFK had been close with Bradlee and LBJ had been close with Kay, and these guys lied to them. They couldn’t be trusted anymore. They had to be held accountable.
Q. As a screenwriter, how do you frame a story with so many strands?
A. Liz had already made this a story of Kay Graham, so that was the north star. We were fundamentally telling the story of Kay Graham, and then you flesh it out so you understand all the stakes at play in her decision. Because that narrative is so clear, it allows the movie to hold much more. It allows you to open the movie on Vietnam and Ellsberg and the president. You understand what the Pentagon Papers are. It allows you to follow Ben Bradlee in the newsroom and you understand that The Post was really a local paper then. Here’s Ben with grand illusions of playing on the same level as The New York Times. You get to see everything that’s swirling around Kay.
Q. You referred to Spielberg as God. I’m guessing it’s pretty daunting to write something you know he’s going to direct. What was the intimidation factor?
A. Incredibly high. On a number of levels. First, Liz had already written a great script, and here I am called in to work with her to make it better. I don’t know if I can make it better. No. 2, I’ve been quite fortunate that Steven has been present in the background for a long time. The first script I wrote was about George Gershwin, and Steven bought it because he was considering making a movie about Gershwin. I wrote “The Fifth Estate” for his company. “Spotlight” was originally set up at Dreamworks [cofounded by Spielberg]. And the reason he hired me for [“The Post”] is because he read “First Man,” which is a script I wrote about Neil Armstrong, and Steven’s come on board to co-finance that with Amblin. It’s nonetheless terrifying to have to produce for him directly. Most daunting of all is that I was hired 10 weeks before production. On “Spotlight,” we had a good two years of just working on the script before we got to prep. Tom [McCarthy] and I had probably gone through 200 drafts. And there’s also Meryl and Tom [Hanks] and, oh by the way, the day I went to the set, they were about to do a scene with Tracy Letts, a Pulitzer Prize winner who’s probably the greatest American playwright, and Meryl, our greatest living dramatic actor. [Letts plays Post chairman Fritz Beebe.] Tracy came over and said, “Would you mind if I changed this one little thing?” Liz and I looked at each other and said, “Tracy, you do whatever you want.”
Q. You were still writing as you were shooting?
A. Yes. In 10 weeks, we did everything we could to make it ready. But on every movie I’ve worked on, I’ve been fortunate to work with great actors — and great actors are always going to have input. Meryl is one of our greatest dramaturgs. She has a laser-like ability to hone in on weaknesses in a scene. It’s painful as a writer, but it’s like having a great editor.
Q. Some at The New York Times have been critical of this movie because it focuses on The Post.
A. It was important to us to make clear that The Times got this story before The Post did. They broke the story. They were far ahead. The Times won a Pulitzer for it, as they should have. We get the history right, but as dramatists, our job is to tell a compelling story and to entertain. Frankly, the story of Kay and the underdog Post is so compelling.
Q. “Spotlight” reminded people of the importance of journalism. Will “The Post” have the same effect?
A. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t another reason why I signed up. I don’t think this is a liberal movie or a conservative movie. I think this is an American movie. This movie speaks to values that are fundamental to democracy. You don’t get a functioning presidential democracy without a robust and free press. It’s imperative that you have a vigorous Fourth Estate.
Q. The movie is also interesting in the context of the relationship between the president and the press today.
A. The aspersions that have been cast on the Times and Post and the Globe and others. We trust these papers for a reason. It’s not just some guy throwing stuff up on a website. They take care and they have a set of journalistic ethics, which means that when a woman comes into the newsroom and says Roy Moore abused her as well, they don’t just take that at face value. They believe her, but . . . trust but verify, as Walter Robinson likes to say. And when they do some homework and find out that woman is actually making the story up to catch The Washington Post in a lie, they did their job and got the story right. Journalists aren’t supposed to be kind to the White House. They’re supposed to be honest. They’re supposed to push you. And if you don’t have the answers, that’s something the American public needs to know.
Q. Your next project is the Neil Armstrong story, with “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle. Since all of your movies end with a front page rolling off the press, is that how we’ll learn Armstrong walked on the moon?
A. [Laughs] Actually, I’m in the midst of rewriting the Apollo 11 sequence. This movie’s been an intensely enjoyable experience, but also intensely challenging. The depth of research — I now know how to fly a Gemini spacecraft. Also, I joke that I worked with Steven Sr. and now I’m working with Steven Jr. Damien Chazelle is so brilliant.
Q. How do the dance sequences work in a gravity-free environment?
A. [Laughs] They’re pretty wild.Mark Shanahan can be reached at Shanahan@Globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan