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Redford bought the movie rights for $450,000. He began work by affixing himself to the Post city room, particularly to Woodward and Bernstein. "I fell in love with the Post," he says. "I felt these people really did lead a different life. I saw all the leads that Bob and Carl couldn't go with. It was such fat, juicy stuff." He won the confidence of Bradlee and most of the paper's other executives, with the exception of Publisher Katharine Graham, who remained wary of the whole project.
To write the script he hired William Goldman, a longtime crony and writer of the film that made Redford a superstar, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. His work was apparently both very good and very bad. He licked the narration problems posed by the book, carving a straight, simple dramatic line. But he also put heavy emphasis on crude news room humor. Bernstein was quoted as saying that the script read like a Henny Youngman jokebook. Another reporter retitled it Butch and Sundance Bring Down the Government, while Bradlee recalls it as "a caricature of us—tough-guy reporters."
The Post nearly backed out of the project then, and Bradlee was blunt with Redford. "Just remember, pal," he said, "that you go off and ride a horse or jump in the sack with some good-looking woman in your next film—but I am forever an asshole." Redford was impressed: "I've met few people who were as conscious of their position—and how to keep it." He did his best to make amends with the Post people. "Redford kept talking about trust," Bradlee recalls. "He kept saying, 'You've got to trust us.' We didn't understand that. We were thinking, 'Why the hell should we trust Robert Redford? Why should we turn our reputations over to him?' "
Redford was also disappointed by the script. It lacked details and substance on the matter that had come to interest him most—the newsgathering process. At this point, Bernstein took a crack at rewriting the script, but that, too, proved a mistake. Bernstein apparently built up his image as the more swinging member of the Woodstein team. "Carl," Redford told him, "Errol Flynn is dead." Thereafter, as Bernstein puts it, "Redford got on the script in a concentrated way." He squeezed a couple more revisions out of the miffed Goldman, who was eager to get on with adapting his Marathon Man novel for the screen. Yet another writer was brought in for a polish job, though the script remained a problem. A lot of what is on the screen now was finally improvised by the actors and Director Alan Pakula on the set—with Redford calling Washington five or six times a day, according to colleagues, to check these changes for accuracy with "the boys."
Goldman's script did serve one important function. It was good enough to use as a recruiting device for Dustin Hoffman, whom Redford wanted to play Bernstein. Says Hoffman: "I was amazed. Goldman had cracked the narrative problem. I had doubts until then that you could make a movie out of the book." He saw that problems remained, especially in the characterizations. But he signed on, provided that he could share director approval with Redford.