Script to Screen and the NZ Writers’ Guild joined together to present an afternoon with Academy-award winning screenwriter David Seidler (The King’s Speech). In conversation with Fiona Samuel, he spoke candidly about his writing life, the intriguing story around making The Kings Speech, and his approach to the craft of screenwriting.
David Seidler has a vast oeuvre writing for stage, television, and feature film. In 2011, he was rewarded for his talent when he received both an Oscar and BAFTA for Best Original Screenplay for The King’s Speech. In New Zealand mentoring at the Writers’ Lab Aotearoa/Waiheke, David is no stranger here and clearly has a deep affection for our country.
It was 1956 and David first arrived in New Zealand to make The Adventures of Seaspray, the first TV show to be filmed entirely in the South Pacific. Coming from the warmth and friendliness of Fiji, David found NZ a little chilly, in more ways than one.
“I was sent to Queenstown to prepare things for the unit,” said David. ” I’d written half of the scripts for the show and found myself as the assistant director too.”
At his Queenstown hotel he was lured out on a date with a ‘flirtatious young lady’ only to find himself face to face with the woman’s boyfriend. “He beckoned to me and said, ‘Outside mate – that’s my sheila!’ He was also the amateur heavyweight champion of New Zealand so I was quite glad to leave the country at that time.”
During the 70s, John McCrae was appointed as TVNZ’s Head of Drama and David was commissioned to write New Zealand’s first locally produced one-hour play. “There were only two newspapers here at the time. One review said that ‘at last local TV had come of age’ and the other said it was the ‘worst nonsense ever perpetrated upon the innocent viewing public’.”
But in spite of it all, New Zealand is still one of David’s favourite places. He lived here for over eight years, married two kiwi women, and now returns annually to see family, enjoy an ‘off the grid’ escape and to ‘torment the trout’ from his little cabin in the Ureweras. “New Zealand has been good to me and I am very pleased to give back something to the kiwi community in whatever way I can.”
Fiona acknowledged David’s generosity of spirit. “Bridges have been built between us. David is a master craftsman. We don’t often get access to these people and when we do, we feel a bit humble, small and far away but David has let us know that he doesn’t see it that way.”
David won a Best Screenplay Oscar for The King’s Speech, a work which had a long gestation period. Fiona asked David to talk about why the idea initially appealed to him, and how that idea eventually became an award-winning screenplay.
“I was a stutterer as a child and my childhood hero was Kind George VI. I was a little boy during the war and my mother would say, ‘Listen to the King speak. He had a far worse stutter than you and one day, you can sound like that.”
David learned to overcome his stutter which began at the age of three. “When you’re born with two conflicting characters something has to give. I was a stutterer but also a natural born ham. I loved to tell stories but I couldn’t, so I started to write them and that’s how I became a writer. I always intended to write about Bertie (King George).”
He began researching the story in his early twenties but was completing his education so didn’t progress too far. Flash forward to his Hollywood days some years later.
“My first job was working with Frances Ford Coppola on Tucker and my second was Days of Our Lives. After finishing Tucker I wanted to get serious about Bertie and as I researched, I found my story.”
Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue helped the King overcome his stutter. Little was written about Logue and David discovered that he might not have been a qualified therapist at all. David had found his story.
“A friend of mine in London found Logue’s son, Valentine, and I contacted him. He was very elderly then but said if I wanted to come to London, he would speak with me and give me access to the notebooks his father had kept. It was the holy grail but there was a caveat to the use of the material. He said, ‘You must first get written permission from the Queen Mother’ (the Kings’ widow).”
David wrote to her and two months later a beautiful envelope arrived bearing the royal seal.
“I ripped it open and the letter said, ‘Dear Mr. Seidler, please not during my lifetime. The memories of these events are still too painful.’ So I thought how long must I wait? She’s an old lady … maybe a year, two at the most. She passed away 25 years later.”
After her death David didn’t start writing immediately. He was facing his own mortality after receiving a serious diagnosis of cancer. Given only a 20% chance of survival it was a huge shock. “After three days of producing a great deal of mucus I knew enough about the human body to know that sustained grief isn’t good for the immune system. I had to take my mind off my impending death. I had to get to work, thinking, ‘If you’re not telling Bertie’s story now, when do you intend to tell it?’”
Fiona said it was reassuring for screenwriters in the audience to know that some stories can be a long time in the making. But can that length of time affect the way the story is eventually told?
“Yes,” said David. ” If I had written The King’s Speech as a younger man, I could have done a reasonable job in terms of craft but I doubt I could have gone deep enough. It was a combination of age, maturity and staring down the long barrel of infinity that allowed me to do it. Nothing to lose, nothing to hide, let’s make the trip.”
And making that trip involved pain.
“Stuttering is like having a toothache. It’s all you think about while it hurts. You go to the dentist, have treatment, the pain stops. Afterwards, you don’t want to remember the toothache. It’s the same with stuttering. It’s such a miserable way to spend a childhood and when you get over it, you don’t want to think about it. To write the script well, to get into Bertie’s head, I had to go into some very painful places and as an older writer, I was able to do that.”
When asked who he shows his work to, David replied, “Nobody. Be very careful who you show your work to. Don’t show it to your mother, your family because they all have agendas. Show it to the people who are paying you. That’s all that counts.”
Most writers can ‘get stuck’ whilst working on a screenplay and David is no exception.
“There are two things that get me stuck. One: I haven’t done the crucial thing before I start writing which is to say succinctly to myself what the intrinsic meaning of the story is. This should be two or three sentences. If I haven’t done that, I’ll have trouble. My advice here would be to stop, re-think, re-set your mind, and when you know absolutely what you’re doing, start again.
“Two: I can get stuck on a scene. That usually means something is wrong. Either the scene doesn’t belong in the movie or it has started or ended too soon or too late. I’ll think about where my character has been before the scene: where am I coming from, where am I going, what do I need? Sometimes I will write the story, or just that segment, from the first person point of view of the characters in the scene, writing from what they know so I can understand exactly what is in their heads.
“Long walks are good too. There’s something about the rhythm of walking that frees my mind. Or I’ll take a nap.”
Fiona asked David to outline his process once he has signed on for a project.
“I have a template and I’m very methodical. Alot of my projects are biographical or research-based so I start by putting my research on 3 x 5 cards. I always note the source I’ve taken my research from, the page numbers, because if the movie is made, the studio will want an annotated script for legal reasons so I am very careful right from the start. When I have a stack of about 350-400, I use a big cork board or the living room floor to lay them out and look for connections to join them together. A structure starts to take shape. It’s very rough but I can see faint outlines. Some of the cards are scenes, others just a fact, a piece of dialogue or even a joke. When it starts to take shape, I’ll write a treatment and I don’t want that in my contract if I can help it because if it is, the studio has the right to read it and if that happens, you’re in development hell very quickly and you may never get out of treatment stage. If there is a director attached I’ll show it to them because they’ll probably have a vision for the movie and it’s good to know if you both want to make the same one. ”
This part of the process can take two or three months and David asks for patience. “To give you an example, I’m working on a script about Jesse Owens now. It’s about 104 pages. The treatment is over 50 pages but it makes the writing go quickly. Once I start writing I can usually complete the script in 6-8 weeks.”
David emphasised the need to ‘cover your butt’ when working on anything potentially contentious. “Have at least two, preferably three, printed references. Don’t put anything in the script unless you can justify it. I do the notations right from the start because I don’t want to have to go back later. With the Jesse Owens story, no one is left alive from that era but the studio has insisted that I turn in an annotated script.”
For projects that are ‘fabricated’ and not based on extensive research, David still uses his cards but the process is not as organised. “I’ll get a big role of paper, put that on the wall, draw lines for beginning, middle, and end and start putting ideas and scenes where I think they might go.”
Fiona invited questions from the audience and the first asked David to explain his pathway towards building relationships with producers willing to hire him. This discussion then led David to discuss his first days in Hollywood and working with Frances Ford Coppola on Tucker.
“It’s simple in the USA. If you get something made that is marginally successful they want you to write the same film again. The good thing about that is you get some work but bad because it’s the wrong work to take. I won the Oscar for The King’s Speech and everyone wants that again but they won’t get it. I put lightning in the bottle and I can do it again but it won’t be the same lightning or the same bottle. They don’t like that because they want something familiar. Your work is based on your reputation and what you have done. The more you make, the more you get offered. The system is inherently tough on someone breaking in because if you haven’t had anything made, you have no track record and they won’t offer you anything.
“I came to Hollywood at the age of 40. That showed my immense ignorance and stupidity because that’s the age when most writers are getting out. Now I’m so old that people say, ‘He’s been around so long he must know something’. But sometimes I can’t imagine that the public would be remotely interested in me or anything I am interested in. However, if someone is willing to pay me, it is a stamp of authenticity. People bring the project to me and I’ll decide whether I can do it or not. I choose my projects based upon whether I feel a resonance with the story and can do it justice.
“Before coming to New Zealand all those years ago, all I’d done in the USA was Seaspray. When I decided to return to the US for one last attempt to be a writer at the age of 40, I had to figure out what I wanted to write. The story I’d always wanted to tell was that of Preston Tucker and the ’48 Tucker. I’d seen it on the boardwalk at Atlantic City. It was this spaceship on wheels, a beautiful car. Then Tucker was arrested and the factory closed down. I asked my Dad if Tucker was a crook and he said, ‘Don’t always believe what you read in the paper’.
“So I knew what I wanted to do when I went back but I had no money. I couldn’t go back naked so I had to find a job. Fortune was kind to me. There was a Creative Director’s Conference in Sydney and all the US bosses were there. I presented well, they took me to lunch and asked what I wanted. ‘ I want to come home to America’ was a line I hoped would melt their hearts and it worked. I eventually ended up with a job in Detroit and that was fortuitous because Tucker had worked close by. I started researching him but couldn’t get through to the family at all. I was discouraged. It was then that a friend asked me to caretake his property in Malibu so out I went to California.”
The reason David hit a wall with Tucker was because his high-school buddy Coppola had bought the life rights to the man’s story. David called his old schoolmate.
“It took about six months to meet him but when I did, he asked me to tell him all I knew about Tucker and he said, ‘You can do the research and treatment. Have your agent call me.’ I didn’t have one but a friend did so I called his agent, Stu Robinson. Stu said, ‘I don’t take kids off the street’ but when I said, ‘All you have to do is make a deal for me in the morning with Coppola’ there was a long pause and he said, ‘Kid, you’ve got yourself an agent.’”
David was asked to what degree he took liberties with the truth to make a script work. “I feel we have certain responsibilities. In The King’s Speech I knew I would be crucified by the British press so the only liberty I took was the compression of time. Bertie and Lionel worked together for 20 years so I compressed that and the critics accepted it as something I had to do. UK historians checked my script and found only two small things.
“If a person is not important historically you can take more liberties. We’re writing drama and entertainment so my rule of thumb is: the facts are not that important but the truth is. You can fudge facts a bit but you cannot fudge the truth of who the character is or what the story is about.”
David concluded his talk by sharing some views on film making in New Zealand. ” A piece of advice I’d like to give to screenwriters here is to open up. Be brave. If there is a weakness in New Zealand writing, it is ‘niceness.’ But that’s part of the New Zealand character. The last vestige of Victorianism lives on in this country. There are some wonderful strengths in kiwi writing and storytelling but often the scenes end too quickly. Stick with it, try to go as deeply as you can. I know it is possible because over the last five days at the workshop I’ve seen writers willing to take the risk of personal pain and going deeply.
“And another thing I would encourage you to do is to make your films here in New Zealand. Don’t go to Hollywood because you’ll be eaten alive. If you can express yourself here on your home turf, that’s a wonderful thing to do.”
Written for Script to Screen by Jane Bissell