While production designer Rick Carter was in Rome prepping Steven Spielberg’s The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, the production hit a roadblock, with the director unable to find a young actor to hang the film around. Subsequently, at the end of March of this year, Carter received the script for Spielberg’s next project, which would become The Post, and be released in theaters within the year.
Time was of the essence with this timely tale of Kay Graham, The Washington Post and the Pentagon Papers that brought down Nixon’s administration, given certain parallels between the current-day presidential administration and the story Spielberg tells. The challenge for Carter became tracking down and dressing up an office space with which to recreate The Washington Post home base, all within a much more compressed time frame than the average Spielberg film would grant.
Given the quick pace with which The Post was put together, how much was shot on sets versus locations?
We built the sets for the two primary houses—the Graham house and the Bradlee house—side by side at Steiner Studios, and there were lots of locations in Manhattan.
There was a location we found right away in White Plains, New York for the office, where we could go into a whole floor and use just the bare bones of that, and reconstruct a period office for The Post in this very large space that we never would have had time to build. We could change all of the lighting and add walls and furnish it, and we added quite a bit of interior walls for the executive area, but it was a way to do it as quickly as we could so that we could get the production up and running within about eight weeks.
On a logistical level, it was very quick, but we had lots of access to very good research, and we were able to put it together quickly partially because of the way the crew all operated together. I think that’s because people felt we were all in the service of something that we believed in, as a story that we wanted to tell and that was timely, even though it’s a period piece.
How did you go about locating vintage printers that The Post would have had at their disposal in that era?
In addition to doing the newsroom and trying to lay all of that out as though it was a working newsroom—the detail of who was working on what, and how it would really lay out—we wanted to show the process of how a newspaper gets created and all of the work that goes into it.
In those days, because it was done the old-fashioned way with Linotype machines, which literally means using molten lead to set the type, there are very few places available. In fact, there’s very few Linotypes in existence that work. Most are in museums and don’t. We were very fortuitous because the three that are actually still functioning were in a location right next to where we were shooting at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn, the naval yard. There was an old printing press that did it the pre-digital way, and we were able to go in there and clean out a lot of the junk that was all around those presses, but get them to work and appear to be the ones that were setting the type in the movie.
Then, we went to the New York Post to do the wider shots where we could see the newspapers going through, and they still, essentially, do it the same way that they used to. There’s a few ways that it’s changed, but for the most part, we were able to get away with using what they had.
What kind of details did you get into when it came to dressing the inside of the Washington Post?
First, as you know, there’s no computers, so there’s a lot of typewriters. Then, we had some very good research photos that we had gotten from The Washington Post and different archives that showed what Ben Bradlee’s office actually looked like, and in fact, what the boardroom looked like, so we were able with those photos to recreate that almost exactly as it would’ve been, as much as we did Lincoln’s office from the information we had. But we had a lot more to work from, because it’s not so long ago.
It was a huge job on the part of the set decorator to go out and source all the old phones and typewriters and desks and papers, and then make all of the relevant newspapers that were of the time. When you were on the set, if you picked up almost anything, it actually was close to what it might’ve been at the time.
What was the thinking when it came to the film’s color palette and general aesthetic?
One of the things that we were aware of was, this is the prequel to All the President’s Men. In All the President’s Men, the art direction of that newsroom that you saw was very different. It was very colorful with all of those desks and that’s because that was the newsroom that The Washington Post had moved into after this era that we describe in our movie.
This was the era before that, which comes to about 25 years of being in that space. It was more of a gray palette that really was quite monochromatic. If you look at most of those shots, they’re chaotic in the sense of how much detail is below the six-foot mark because there’s just so much going on with people and desks, papers and everything. But above it, we were able to create a lighting grid that Janusz [Kaminski, cinematographer] could use, all turned on or partially turned on, to create different moods in that room that allowed there to be, in a sense, optic designs to most of those scenes and shots. Otherwise, it could’ve been a lot to look at in every frame. It wouldn’t have had that kind of a structure to it, if that makes sense.
With so many practical light sources on this film, what was the collaboration with Kaminski like?
Janusz and I go way back. We’ve worked on a lot of movies, so I’m very aware of two things about him. One is how much he wants to see the light source in the compositions he works on with Steven, and how much that helps him in composing the shots. We are always very aware of going through a lot of discussions that relate to what the lighting is going to be. Where is it going to come from?
In this case, we were able to go into essentially an empty space and design all of it, both the ceiling and every fixture that the set decorator could put in any configuration. He could then turns things on and off to make it work with the mood of either the middle of the day, bustling, or late at night, when there are only a few people there.
The other aspect with Janusz is, he sees light on another level than most people do. The quality of the lights that he uses and the temperatures are a whole art/science that he utilizes in every movie. But on this one, we had such a big space to work with that we were constantly going to be changing its mood, but we didn’t want it to be an exaggerated type of feeling, where you start to think about it too much as though we were manipulating anything.
I think it comes across the way those ‘70s movies comes across, where it wants to feel like it’s real life—and to a certain degree it is, because it’s not just a set. There’s nothing wrong with a set, but I think the credibility of the movie is in part that you believe that it truly would look like that if you were there. The other thing is that although it’s 1971 and there aren’t computers, you’re not constantly aware of the time period. You get sucked in a little bit to a timelessness. There’s a reverberation through the whole design of the movie that while it’s set in the ‘70s, it doesn’t call attention to itself in any kind of precocious way, especially because some of us are from that era. It doesn’t feel distant to us.
It must have been fascinating to try to visually reimagine the break in at the Watergate hotel.
I thought it was great. [laughs] The irony of being able to juxtapose Nixon, and then take the next step—and it was very simple the way we did it. We did a lot of economical filmmaking. The RAND Corporation, the place where the Xerox machine was, the Watergate, was all in the same building where we shot The Post. We adapted a location to fit what we needed and I think that made it better for it. We didn’t have lots of money and time to overthink it, so we had to be very clear with everything that we were doing. I liked that aspect of it.
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