Lessons from Hollywood: How the screenwriter for The King’s Speech found his voice

From time to time—but not nearly often enough—I attend a Los Angeles area screening for Oscar-caliber films with Q&A sessions with the screenwriter.  Last night, I jumped at the chance to hear 73-year-old David Seidler discuss his odyssey as he wrote The King’s Speech.

His story is almost as fascinating as his film.

I love that he is 73, working in a town where aging is considered a sin.  I love that he himself is a stutterer (“Once a stutterer, always a stutterer,” he said), although he never stuttered during his talk because, as he put it, “I know all the tricks.”  I love that King George VI was his childhood hero because of the king’s struggle to overcome his stuttering to rally his nation.

I love that Seidler waited 25 years to write his dream project because when he asked the Queen Mother’s permission, she said, “Not in my lifetime.”  (Can you even imagine?  She wasn’t a consultant on the film, but her permission was a condition of speech therapist Lionel Logue’s surviving son, who gave Seidler access to his father’s notes from the therapy sessions!)

Did I mention that I also love how well researched the film was?

It’s crucial to find ways to ask screenwriters how they achieved the magical act of getting a script written and produced.  That’s why I always encourage screenwriters to attend L.A.’s Screenwriting Expo each fall.

Here are the impressions I took from Seidler’s talk:

RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH. Far too many writers think writing screenplays will be easy because they love watching movies.  Please.  Cameron Crowe spent years writing Jerry Maguire.  Seidler researched his script meticulously, even for dialogue viewers might assume he made up.  Even if your screenplay is pure fiction, KNOW the world you are depicting inside and out.  That ring of truth is what makes scripts great.

PATIENCE IS EVERYTHING. It doesn’t always take 25 or 30 years to get a screenplay produced, but you can grow a tree in the time it can take to make a movie.  My novel My Soul to Keep has been in development at Fox Searchlight since before my 7-year-old son was born.  It’s always an exciting day when someone calls and wants to option your script or novel…but if you want to keep your sanity, consider that the first step on a very long, foggy, crooked road…that will probably disappear into a cliff at the end.

TRY, TRY AGAIN. If you haven’t learned by now that writing is rewriting, you are not truly a screenwriter.  There is no such thing as the perfect first draft.  When Seidler’s wife told him that his first draft had an unnecessary B story because he was trying to write a “movie,” she advised him to go back and write it as a play.  Get to the heart of the characters, she said—and your movie will come from that.  She was absolutely right.

BE BOLD. Shyness is not rewarded in Hollywood.  We might never have seen The King’s Speech if someone on Seidler’s team hadn’t slipped a copy of the play version in actor Geoffery Rush’s…er…personal mailbox because she lived nearby.  When Seidler objected to the plan, he was told it had already been done.  “Don’t ever do this,” Seidler told the audience.

Except that…Rush read the script.  After a delay—always expect delays—he informed Seidler that he wouldn’t commit to a stage version, but he would attach himself to a film version.  Feel free to use my name, he said.

And this is my favorite lesson from Seidler’s talk:

WHENEVER POSSIBLE, DO NOT WRITE FOR FREE. Even after Rush’s exciting commitment, did Seidler rush straight to his computer to start writing a new screenplay version?  No!  Why not?

He wasn’t being paid to write it, and he wasn’t going to write it for free. After his initial investment of a first draft and play, his “practice” drafts, he needed to be paid to keep moving forward.

A screenplay is a huge commitment, and there is no such thing as a “sure thing.”  We all start out writing spec scripts in hopes of getting paid down the road, and I’m no exception:  In 2009, hubby Steven Barnes and I had a screenplay in development for months with a major production company in the hope that they could sell it to the studio where they had their deal.  I looked at it as a learning experience, knowing we might never see a dime.  We didn’t.

Are there scripts I would write out of love or practice?  Absolutely.  If you want to be a good screenwriter, you have to write a lot of scripts.  Period.

But here’s the thing:  Until I started working in Hollywood, I had never been asked to do so much work without pay.  Often, Hollywood internships don’t pay.  Studios are scaling back on their development money for screenplays, more interested in finished scripts than books that need adaptation.  I understand this:  The adaptation process can take years.

But that doesn’t mean you have to write for free.

“You’ll get paid when we get our financing.”

“You’ll get paid when we get our distribution.”

“You’ll get a piece of the back end.”

All of this may be true—but pretend there will never be financing, distribution or a back end…because, most likely, there won’t be.  That’s life in the film business.  Sorry.

In Seidler’s case, a commitment from a major actor helped him put together a deal.  Whether it was a matter of principle or simply because he couldn’t afford it, he waited he took the time to dive into yet another draft.

But you don’t need a major actor to get paid for writing a treatment or script.  Whether it’s a few hundred dollars or a few thousand dollars—with a commitment to defer the remainder of your Guild cut until there is other financing—you deserve payment for your time and work.

If you don’t speak up and ask to be paid, you won’t be.  Even if you end up walking away from what feels like a great opportunity, you can console yourself by producing income elsewhere with the time you would have spent working for free.  The King’s Speech was Seidler’s lifelong dream, and even with emotional stakes that high, he found a way to get paid for his time and talent.

Sure, there may be exceptions…but never make writing for free your rule. Steve and I had come to this conclusion on our own, and I loved hearing a similar story from a screenwriter who just became an overnight sensation at 73.

What was Seidler’s crowning moment on his journey?

According to him, it wasn’t the day he finally had the chance to begin writing the script.  Or the day Geoffrey Rush said he would attach himself—which was the key piece in getting the film made.  It wasn’t even this week’s screenwriting Oscar nomination, one of 12 for his film.

To him, the most amazing moment was at the end of the screening at the Toronto Film Festival, in a room of 2,000 viewers who gave the film rousing applause even before the end credits.  When he heard the audience response, tears streamed from his eyes.

“I had finally found my voice,” he said.

Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due will facilitate the 2011 Organization of Black Screenwriters Writers’ Retreat in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, November 7-13, 2011.  For more information, click HERE.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Lessons from Hollywood: How the screenwriter for The King’s Speech found his voice

  1. Oh you nailed this. I found Seidler’s talk so inspirational, and I especially loved what you said about writing screenplays for free. I agree, less b/c of the money aspect and more b/c screenplays are a bit thankless in that you often end up getting no money and perhaps more importantly, no emotional compensation for them. It’s hard to do the work and then have it languish in production hell — harder still if you didn’t get paid to write in in the first place. I’m with Seidler. I think it’s much better to really discover your novel or a play first, THEN tackle it as a screenplay if Hollywood is willing to pay you to do so.

    Though, I must admit that I’m working on the screenplay for my novel, 32 CANDLES for free right now. More as a personal challenge, but also b/c I might not have fully learned my lesson yet. 🙂

    Also, I think he was a lesson in perseverance. I don’t think many of us think it will take 33 years until we get our first Oscar nomination, but perhaps we should think like that. Commit and say, even if it takes me until I’m in my seventies, the academy is going to show me some love.

    • Thanks, Ernessa! And I agree on the fine line between what we write for ourselves and what we write for Hollywood. I am “between screenplays” myself right now, and I am in discussion with an actor/producer who wants to pay us a bit of seed money for an adaptation, which would be lovely!….and I think it’s also time for me to write my own screenplay for MY SOUL TO KEEP because if I’m not going to see it on the big screen for a while, then ^%$#@!!! at least I’ll write the movie the way I think it should be done, if only for my own head… (And it won’t be in development forever!)
      The fact is, I do need the practice anyway. It’s the best way to be up to the challenge for a project someone will pay me for; novels and screenplays are very, very different. And 32 CANDLES would be a great movie, by the way!
      When it comes to writing screenplays, there is a fine line between “personal challenge” and “SUCK-ER”….

      • This is how I spun it:
        1. I only write one page a day. So yes, it will take me 4 months to finish this screenplay, but because I’m only writing one page a day the quality will be much higher. Also, it’s not keeping me from other “real” work.
        2. I think of it as “exercise” — how else am I supposed to keep my screenwriting muscles in shape?

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  3. Geralyn

    Great piece. I’ve shared it with many screenwriters I know.

  4. Thank you for writing this post. I really needed to read something inspirational after my own trials and tribulations in the screenwriting trade. I had a rough month dealing with production companies who requested my script and then treated me like a step child with a criminal record when I called back to check on the progress of my script or lack thereof.

    These are great tips for a screenwriter to live by. But I also think it’s time for screenwriter’s to go and find other sources of financing to make our screenplays a reality. I think turning your script into a play is a great idea, along with going the independent route. I guess what I’m trying to say is while we have to play the Hollywood game, we can also give our work more opportunities to shine.

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