Interview: David Seidler
Oscar Nominated Screenwriter Talks About ‘The King’s Speech’
Friday, January 28, 2011
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando.
When the Academy Award nominations were announced on Monday, "The King's Speech" (still playing at select San Diego theaters) topped the list with 12. The film's Oscar-nominated screenwriter David Seidler recently stopped by the KPBS studios and discussed how the "naughty" word cured his stutter. You can listen to my radio feature or read the extended interview.
As a child, David Seidler used to stutter. So his British parents encouraged him to listen to the speeches of King George VI.
KING GEORGE VI: In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history…
The king had to overcome a stammer and you can still hear hesitations in his famous 1939 speech to rally the nation to go to war.
KING GEORGE VI: … for the second time in the lives of most of us we are at war.
"He was doing this as King with the whole world listening at times critically to every syllable he uttered," says Seidler, "And I realized if he can do that maybe there's hope for me."
Writer David Seidler uses this speech as the climax for his screenplay "The King's Speech." The film focuses on how Prince Albert - before becoming King George VI -- overcame his stammer by working with speech therapist Lionel Logue.
"Logue was a phenomenon, he was untrained," Seidler states, "He didn't have a doctor's degree, he had no certification. He was just an intuitive. But he understood the whole concept. He would never say, 'I can fix your stuttering.' He would say, 'You can fix your stuttering.' I'll give you the tools, but you have to do the work. I know you can do it. I'm confident you can do it.'
In the film, Geoffrey Rush plays Logue and at one point explains to Her Royal Highness, "I can cure your husband but for my methods to work I need trust and total equality here in the safety of my consultation room."
"He would absolutely convince his patients that they could do the work," Seidler explains.
Logue also convinced the Prince to trust him and an unexpected friendship developed. Seidler wanted to focus his script on this bond of trust but it took this suggestion from his wife to fine tune the idea: "Why don't you just as an exercise write it as a stage play because the physical restrictions of the stage will force you to focus on your key elements, which is basically two men in a room and if you get that tent pole upright you can then hang everything else off of it like Christmas tree ornaments."
One of those ornaments is the notion of the social contract, something Seidler says Bertie's brother David had little respect for.
"With position, privilege, power, comes responsibility and duty," says Seidler, "And David, Edward the 8th, absolutely did not sign on to the social contract. His attitude is, 'I'm a divine right king and I can do jolly well what I please. and if I want to marry someone that my nation and my church say is completely unsuitable, I'm just going to do it.' It was a constitutional crisis."
David was supposed to be king but famously abdicated to marry an American divorcee, leaving his younger sibling Bertie to take the throne. But taking the throne meant not only more public speaking but also public broadcasts to millions of British subjects.
"Up until then," Seidler says, "to be a successful King or Queen you simply had to wear a uniform well and as George V says in the film, 'Just not fall off your horse on parade.' Nobody heard the king speak because he didn't speak to his nation. He may speak in court but the only people close enough to hear him would be the courtiers who would say, 'You are really brilliant sir.' The radio then really changed everything. You had to come into the home of the people and speak to them directly."
Radio and newsreels were also capturing the dynamic orators on the other side of the political coin.
Seidler points out, "You had Mussolini who was absolutely a magnificent speaker. You had Hitler who was mesmerizing. . Stadiums of a million people in Nuremberg and then you had poor old Bertie who couldn't successfully order fish and chips."
In the film, the royal family watches a newsreel of Hitler and young Elizabeth asks her father if he knows what Hitler is saying. Bertie's telling response is: "I don't know but he seems to be saying it rather well."
Poor Bertie wishes he could say things well. He felt enormous pressure to cure his stammer. So too did Seidler. When I asked Seidler how he managed to overcome his stutter, he said it was in the film.
"I did that by the scene that got us the R rating, The use of the 'F' word. The naughty word."
Logue deliberately angers Bertie at one point and notices that when the Prince curses, he doesn't stammer: "Vulgar but fluent. You don't stammer when you swear. Do you know the F word?"
Bertie certainly does and this scene shows a breakthrough in his therapy. Bertie's ability to take charge of his own fate is one of the reasons Seidler thinks the film has caught on with American audiences: "They understand what it's like to be bullied and teased. They understand what it's like to be marginalized, and they understand the immense power of a supportive friendship. And the other element that I believe is at the root of the American public so taking to this film is, we are in America a nation of being able to change your own destiny, to make yourself into something different, something better, that's what this nation was really founded upon. And that is the story of Bertie, it is the story of a man who ultimately through his friendship with Logue realizes that he is not trapped by his destiny he can change who he is."
And that, Seidler says, is a very American concept.
Seidler's screenplay has been nominated for Best Original Screenplay. But the process of writing it as an original script and then rewriting it as a stage play has prompted Seidler to go ahead and produce a stage version of the story. One of the things he had in the play that was cut for the film was a larger role for the character of Winston Churchill. When the play is produced, Churchill's meatier role will be reinstated, and that makes Seidler happy.
Although Seidler didn't want to openly talk about his Oscar chances he did say, "I have to be honest. Way down in the recesses of my soul I thought this is the little film that could. I think this may really be able to get out there. I had this silent hope that I never expressed because it seemed so ridiculous and so far-fetched."
If on February 27, his name is announced as the winner, he says he "would be the oldest person ever to win it [in the screenplay category]."