“If you get reincarnated, don’t volunteer to be the kid who stutters,” says David Seidler, who, this Sunday, will discover whether he’s the next writer to win an Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay. Seidler wrote The King’s Speech, a film about King George VI (Colin Firth) and his fraught journey to the top of the British monarchy after his brother, King Edward, abdicated the crown. Clearly, Seidler followed the old dictum and wrote what he knew: Like George, Seidler suffered from a terrible speech impediment. “I stuttered from age three basically to sixteen,” he says. “it’s not a lot of fun.”
Seidler crafted a beautiful screenplay about tackling your own fears head on; putting your faith in another person when you have lost faith yourself. His work paid off: The film is up for a whopping twelve Academy Award nominations. Here’s Seidler on Colin Firth, Lionel Logue’s letters to the King, and his own correspondence with the Queen of England.
Was your own battle with stuttering the driving force behind writing The King’s Speech? Absolutely. I was basically writing my story. I don’t like to write directly about myself because I can’t conceive why anyone would be interested in me. However, I was able to write my stuttering experience through a parallel story about the King of England and people do care about him. He was King at a time of war where the country needed him to speak and he couldn’t do it. The stakes get pretty high and it makes it more dramatic.
How did you conquer your own speech impediment? Did you have a speech therapist? Yes, but they were not particularly helpful. I learned some mechanical techniques, which are helpful once you have turned the corner emotionally. Most speech therapists will now agree with me on this that mechanical techniques that are taught do not control the stuttering. Once you have made a psychological turn, they become extremely helpful in giving you fluency. I still stutter, but you don’t hear it because I know all of the mechanical techniques – the slides, taking a breath, etc. I was not able to use those techniques until something internal had changed. I reached sixteen years old and the hormones were raging, but I didn’t ask girls out on dates because what was the point? We couldn’t talk! I got a little depressed and then I got angry. I made the psychological turn that I was going to speak even if I stuttered. After making that turn, the stutter melted away in a couple of weeks and I auditioned for the school play and got a small role. I had my stutter under control. In the movie, Bertie [King George VI] is so brave because he is doing this as an adult.
In the 1970s, the King’s widow, Queen Elizabeth, stopped you from doing this project. Tell me about that. I started reading heavily about King George VI. I continually came across these little blips on the radar screen about Lionel Logue [played by Geoffrey Rush], but not much was written about him. Probably because the royal stutter was a source of embarrassment and a sign of weakness. In those days, stuttering was called a “speech defect.” If you had a speech defect you were by definition a defective person.You couldn’t have the King of England be a defective person, so it was ignored and swept under the royal carpet, as it were. I knew about Logue and kept seeing brief references to him – that he wasn’t really a doctor and didn’t have training or credentials. I thought that was the story!
I had a friend in London who I asked to do some detective work and that person came up with the name of a surviving child of Logue’s. I wrote to him and he replied. He told me that if I came to London, I could talk to him and he’d show me the notebooks his father kept while treating the King. Wow, I thought, I hit the mother load! Then, he told me that he would only do that if I got written permission from the Queen Mother. I wrote to her and got back an answer in lovely cream-colored stationary, basically saying please Mr. Seidler, not during my lifetime, the memory of these events are still too painful. I understood what she meant. The Queen was still very grief-stricken and angry at the premature death of her husband. She blamed this on the fact that he had been forced to become a reluctant King. He wasn’t trained for it, suited for it, and had a speech impediment. He was fragile and she felt it had killed him at a very early age and didn’t want to be reminded of it. I felt that I had to honor that request and, besides, I didn’t think I had to wait too long because she was a very elderly lady. Well, twenty-five years later just shy of 102 she left this mortal realm, so I did have a long wait.
You painted a portrait of a beautiful friendship between Bertie and Logue. What did you draw upon? The bedrock of Logue’s technique was his absolute insistence on informality and equality in the consultation room during the sessions, which clearly points to what he was doing with this man. Logue was trying to break down all of the reserves and pretense and relate to him on a friendly, confident basis. Friendship was one of the main ingredients of the fix.
What was the most difficult part of writing the script? Probably getting it down to the right length. I have a tendency to overwrite at first. I think in its final form it was 92 pages long, but it didn’t start out that way.
Besides the cursing (used only to help Bertie’s stutter of course), there’s no sex, violence, or nudity in your film – certainly not the norm for movies in 2011. Are you surprised at how well this film has done at the box office? Yes and no. I am certainly surprised at the huge numbers. This past weekend we passed $100 million dollars in the US and we are already over $200 million worldwide. It’ll end up at least $300 million plus. These are huge numbers and that’s nothing I had anticipated. But the fact that it did well was not a total surprise. Sure, I was nervous that maybe it would flop, nobody would go and see it and it would be a complete dud. But most of me was saying I think this is going to work. What I am very moved by is that not only is it doing extremely well in the big cities where you would imagine it would do well, but I read on the Internet that it’s doing astonishingly well in small American Midwestern cities. These are places where people not only don’t go and see art films, but they don’t have theaters that even play them. They don’t go to see British movies and yet they are flocking to see this film and it’s very gratifying. The other thing I really love is that the same thing is happening in certain cities and districts that have a very heavy black population. It’s doing very well there. I find that wonderful and I am so pleased.
When you were writing the script, at any point did you have Colin Firth and/or Geoffrey Rush in mind for the roles? Geoffrey Rush was always in my mind from the very first word. I always saw Geoffrey as Lionel Logue. As for Bertie, there were many more possibilities floating around in my head and Colin was one of them. I have to admit that he was not one of the foremost choices, mainly because he didn’t look like Bertie. Later on, I realized who cares, because nobody under sixty knows what Bertie looked like except a couple of stamp collectors. I was lucky to get Firth. He’s magnificent and nailed it. I hope he gets the Oscar that he richly deserves.
You chose a very interesting time period to cover. Are you a history buff? I enjoy history a great deal. Remember, if you don’t study history you’re doomed to repeat it.
Tell me about your writing process. The longest and hardest part is the early stages – the research, organizing the 3×5 cards into a structure, etc. I always write a treatment, so I know where I am going and what I am doing. Then, I write the script, of course.
Do you put some of yourself in the characters you create in your films? Well, if not myself at least something I have experienced or known. Or, people I have known who resonate through that character.
The King’s Speech has received countless stellar reviews, but how did it feel to get the thumbs up from Queen Elizabeth II? It was a huge relief. I expected to be dragged off to the Tower of London. It was very nice that she was moved, and I was moved that she was moved. I assume HM clearly understood that this script was written with a great deal of love, reverence, and admiration for her father.
At this point in your career, what does it mean to be finally Oscar-nominated? It’s wonderful and it certainly has changed things. It’s a terrific victory lap. I’m still the same jerk I was a couple of months ago, but everyone takes me a great deal more seriously now. I supposed the key is not to take myself so seriously.