The 1970s were a bad time for American politics, but a great time for Hollywood movies about American politics. One of the best was All the President's Men, showing how two dogged newspaper reporters exposed the Watergate cover-up and eventually brought about Richard Nixon's resignation. More than 40 years later, we're still feeling the effects of Watergate, and movies are still being influenced by All the President's Men. Here are some behind-the-scenes details that we found while combing through the public record.
1. ROBERT REDFORD DIDN'T JUST SHAPE THE MOVIE, HE SHAPED THE BOOK IT WAS BASED ON.
The biggest movie star in the world contacted The Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in October 1972, when the Watergate story was still unfolding, to express his personal interest in it. The reporters didn't have time to take meetings with Hollywood types at the time, but Redford said something that stuck with them. He told them that the most interesting way to tell the story would not be to simply reveal all the information they uncovered, but to lay it out piece by piece, in the order they uncovered it—to make the story a procedural, in other words, like a detective story.
Woodward and Bernstein disagreed at first, not wanting to insert themselves into the news, but they soon came to realize Redford was right and took his approach when they wrote the book. "He laid the seed for that in that first phone call," Woodward later said.
2. REDFORD ONLY WANTED TO PRODUCE IT, BUT THE STUDIO MADE HIM STAR IN IT, TOO.
As producer, Redford's original idea was to make the film in black-and-white, almost documentary-style, without any superstar actors. But the people at Warner Bros. knew it was going to be a pricey film (they'd already paid $450,000 for the book rights) and told Redford in no uncertain terms that they needed his name on the marquee to help sell it. Once Redford agreed to play one of the leads, it became clear that the other reporter would also need to be played by someone famous, lest viewers perceive a power imbalance between Woodward and Bernstein.
3. THE TWO STARS SHARED TOP BILLING, SORT OF.
Once Dustin Hoffman was cast as Carl Bernstein, a minor but tricky new issue arose. Hoffman was newer to Hollywood than Redford, but he was nearly as big a star, with three Oscar nominations already under his belt. Moreover, Woodward and Bernstein were an equal partnership, and both were to be treated equally in the film. So how should the actors be credited? Someone has to be listed first. Redford and Hoffman (or their agents, more likely) settled on a compromise previously used by John Wayne and James Stewart for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Redford got top billing in the ads, trailers, and other marketing, but in the film itself, Hoffman gets the top spot. (For what it's worth, though "Woodward and Bernstein" is how the reporters are usually referred to, their bylines always listed them alphabetically: Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.)
4. THE SCREENWRITER WAS HIRED BY ACCIDENT.
Redford was friends with William Goldman, who'd won an Oscar for writing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and invited him to a meeting with Woodward and Bernstein when their book was nearing completion, just to hear the story and give his input. Redford later said, "I didn't mean to involve [Goldman] in the project, and I wasn't commissioning him as the screenwriter." But a few weeks later, a mix-up led to publisher Simon & Schuster sending galley proofs of the book to Goldman's agent, who passed them on to his client, who understood this to mean he was adapting it. Redford said, "I was troubled from the beginning about Bill, but friendship kept it going." (Woodward said he always assumed Goldman was going to write the screenplay, as did Goldman, apparently.) Goldman won another Oscar for All the President's Men.
5. CARL BERNSTEIN AND NORA EPHRON WROTE A DRAFT.
Goldman's first pass at the script yielded something nobody liked—not Redford, not Woodward, not Bernstein, and not The Washington Post editors, who found it too jokey ("Butch Woodward and the Sundance Bernstein," someone called it). Unsolicited, Bernstein and his girlfriend, Nora Ephron—later the author of When Harry Met Sally... and Sleepless in Seattle—wrote their own draft and presented it to Redford and Goldman. The latter was offended by the very idea of two non-screenwriter upstarts presuming to revise his work, and he was even more furious when Redford weakly suggested that he consider their input. (In hindsight, everyone agrees the whole incident a mistake, including Bernstein: "I would say in retrospect that whatever Goldman says about the self-aggrandizing notion of that screenplay, it might well be right," he said in 2016. "I would not say that our treatment of him was sterling.")
6. REDFORD SAID THE FINAL SCREENPLAY WAS ONLY 10 PERCENT WILLIAM GOLDMAN'S WORK …
As soon as director Alan J. Pakula came aboard, he started asking for multiple rewrites from Goldman, who dutifully complied despite the Bernstein/Ephron insult. (Goldman: "I've never written so many versions for any movie as for President's Men.") But it was to no avail: Pakula and Redford still weren't satisfied. So they rented a hotel room across the street from The Washington Post and spent a month rewriting it themselves. In 2011, Redford's biographer wrote that "about one-tenth of Goldman's draft remained in the end"—which is to say, the screenplay for which Goldman won an Oscar was actually 90 percent Redford and Pakula's work.
7. ... BUT REDFORD WAS EXAGGERATING.
Could it be that the final screenplay for All the President's Men was mostly the work of Robert Redford and Alan J. Pakula, and not of William Goldman, whose name is on it? In a word, no. Richard Stayton, editor in chief of Written By magazine, compared the final shooting script with Goldman's earlier versions and found "similar, sometimes identical scenes throughout. Complete sequences of dialogue carried from draft to draft to draft, verbatim … The script had William Goldman's distinct signature on each page." Stayton concluded: "Goldman was the sole author of All the President's Men. Period. End of paper trail."
8. DUSTIN HOFFMAN GOT ESPECIALLY CHUMMY WITH BERNSTEIN.
The actors spent a lot of time with the men they were playing, and while Woodward was somewhat reserved (in general, and with Redford), the extroverted Bernstein got along well with Hoffman. He invited the actor to his home for a Passover dinner, and gave him his wristwatch to wear in the movie, for extra authenticity.
9. A LITTLE BIT OF IT IS PURE FICTION.
Despite the attention to detail and overall emphasis on accuracy, there's at least one thing in the movie that never happened in real life: Bernstein luring a protective receptionist (Polly Holliday) away from her desk with a fake phone call so he can slip in and see her boss (Ned Beatty). It's not in Woodward and Bernstein's book. In fact, according to Goldman, it's the one element of Bernstein and Ephron's screenplay draft that made it into the final picture.
10. THE NEWSROOM SET IS AN INSANELY ACCURATE RECREATION OF THE REAL THING.
The film was shot on location where possible (including the actual courtroom where the Watergate burglars were arraigned, according to Redford), but it wasn't feasible to shoot in The Washington Post's newsroom, not while they were still putting out a paper every day. Instead, a crew took hundreds of photos and measurements of the workspace and built a full-sized (33,000-square-feet) replica on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank.
Production designer George Jenkins bought more than 150 desks exactly like the ones at the Post, from the very company the Post had bought them from in 1971, and went to great lengths to have them painted the exact same color. One ton of scrap paper was used to adorn the desks, plus a few dozen boxes of actual desk clutter donated by Post reporters, who were stunned when they saw how accurately their office had been recreated. Jenkins won an Academy Award for his efforts.
11. THE NEWSROOM IS ALSO THE ONLY FULLY LIT PLACE IN THE MOVIE.
To emphasize the mystery and obfuscation of Watergate, cinematographer Gordon Willis shot most indoor scenes with minimal light and a lot of shadows. The one place that's brightly lit, with no shadows? The newsroom, where the truth is revealed for all to see. Symbolism!
12. HOFFMAN AND REDFORD LEARNED EACH OTHER'S LINES.
From the very beginning, Redford always thought the most interesting thing about the story was the Woodward and Bernstein partnership, how these two very different men (a Republican WASP and a liberal Jew) worked together to root out the truth. To help that harmonious relationship come across on screen, Redford and Hoffman memorized each other's lines as well as their own, so that their characters could finish one another's thoughts as they discussed the case and give the dialogue a natural flow. You can see it especially when they're interrogating people—they make a good team.
13. IT'S ALMOST UNIQUE FOR A PG-RATED FILM.
The MPAA initially gave All the President's Men an R rating because of its 10 or so uses of the F-word. On appeal, the ratings board relented and gave it a PG rating, making it one of the few PG films to drop the F-bomb at all, let alone 10 times. Even today, with PG-13 as an intermediary rating, any film that uses that word more than a couple times is automatically rated R.
Blu-ray commentary and documentaries American Film Institute Adventures in the Screen Trade, by William Goldman Robert Redford: The Biography, by Michael Feeney Callan