By: Jeff Legge
Every year without fail, the dream of a career in film and television draws thousands of talented young hopefuls to the sprawl of Los Angeles. Inevitably, not everyone will find what they are looking for. Many will sour to the sometimes crushing realities of the industry, while others will endure a period of struggle before eventually finding their footing and carving their niche.
But while it’s entirely possible to carve a satisfying career in Hollywood, few will achieve the dream level of success that brought them here in the first place. And of those that do come close, few will get there directly.
Case in point: Liz Hannah. A 31-year-old screenwriter with no produced credits to her name. Until now, that is. Her big break arrives in theaters later this year in the form of The Post – a major awards contender starring Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, directed by none other than Steven Spielberg himself.
The obvious questions is how?
While one might be initially tempted to suspect nepotism or blind luck, the truth is far more inspiring. As it turns out, Hannah’s success boils down to the old-fashioned tenants of talent, dedication and a willingness to take detours through an industry as complex as it is unpredictable.
According to a recent profile in Vulture, Hannah originally arrived in LA with the hopes of becoming a producer. Soon after graduating AFI, she landed a development job at Charlize Theron’s production company, where, after reading screenplay upon screenplay, she decided to try her hand at writing something of her own. The resulting script centered around a 70th birthday party gone bad – a story that effectively caught the attention of the Hollywood gatekeepers she worked for.
“If this is good, I will quit my job,” explains Hannah, “And they were like, ‘Quit your job!’”
Hannah’s first major spec, The Post, is set in 1971 and centers around the Washington Post’s decision to leak the Pentagon Papers – a move spearheaded by the script’s central characters: publisher Katharine Graham (Streep) and executive editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks).
The idea was sparked by Graham’s own memoir, which left its mark on Hannah. But with so much material to choose from, the challenge lay in focusing in on just one aspect of Graham’s life. Something that would separate the screenplay from your average, run-of-the-mill biopic. Fortunately, the scandal surrounding the Pentagon Papers offered Hannah the perfect catalyst – a singular event that would come to define “the person [Graham] was really going to be for the rest of her life.”
The screenplay immediately caught the attention of the former head of Sony Pictures, Amy Pascal. Its central appeal, according to the producer, lay in Hannah’s ability to tell two simultaneous stories at once.
On the surface, there’s the story of Graham – a strong, female figure in the midst of a heated, political scandal – and on a deeper more fundamental level, there’s an important, deeply resonant story about America itself. And although Hannah and Pascal both expected Hilary Clinton to emerge victorious from the 2016 Presidential race, the election of Donald Trump contributed yet another layer of timeliness to the script: the essential role of the free press.
Things moved quickly for Hannah. Before long, Steven Spielberg had expressed an interest in directing, which led to a writing partnership between her and and veteran scribe Josh Singer, who won an Academy Award for his work on 2015’s Spotlight.
Most notably, instead of backing away from the idea of rewrites, Hannah chose to acknowledge her inexperience and embrace the process wholly. Of particular benefit, according to Vulture, was Singer’s on set experience. “When I write, I might sit and think about the line of dialogue for 12 hours, which is very different than: Meryl has to say a line now, what is the line?”
By maximizing her involvement and embracing feedback, Hannah joined a team of Hollywood elite including famed director of photography Janusz Kaminski and legendary composer John Williams. “I was on set every day saying, ‘You guys, I have to quit after this because I’m never going to make a better movie. I have peaked.’”
For screenwriters, Liz Hannah’s path to success is as inspirational as it is practical.
While talent inevitably plays a part in the launch of the majority of successful careers, it was Hannah’s willingness to take detours and make the most of her opportunities that inarguably landed her in a position to have her vision recognized by Hollywood’s elite.
Now, at only 31, with her dreams realized and a major awards contender already under her belt, she’s ready to call the shots.