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“My father always said to me I would be a late bloomer.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter David Seidler (The King’s Speech)

The next time you hear a writer complain about not getting the break they think they deserve, or how long it’s taking for their script to become a movie, remind them about David Seidler. Seidler’s life story—like The King’s Speech—follows one of the most basic principles of drama; A strong protagonist who is willing to go to the end of the line to get what they want.*

For Seidler all it took was 73 years to reach the top of the mountain. Diablo Cody’s Oscar win in 2009 gave inspiration to many that it was possible to win an Oscar as a rookie writer** and Seidler’s Oscar gives inspiration to many that toward the end of your career you may finally peak in the way you’ve always dreamed.

And it really was a 70 year journey for Seidler. At age 3 he and his parents fled England due to the outbreak of World War II and the impending danger of German troops. Soon after arriving in the United States Seidler began stuttering, which if you’ve seen The King’s Speech is about King George VI’s desire to overcome stuttering as he prepares to give one of the most important speeches before England’s involvement in World War II. Seidler grew up listening to the King’s speeches on the radio and his father would point out to him that the King had overcoming stuttering. And Seidler, like the King, did overcome his speech impediment.

So out of the gate Seidler seemed destined to write this story. Seidler happened to go to high school with Francis Ford Coppola and before you start into the “it’s who you know” thing remember that Seidler has been paying his dues for decades. And it’s not just who you know, it’s what you learn from who you know. (But with that said, having a classmate like Coppola is a nice bonus.) Seidler in an interview on Jeff Goldsmith’s Creative Screenwriting podcast (January 07, 2011) says he picked up some great advice from Coppola:

“I learned a great deal from Francis. He’s a very, very bright filmmaker. One of the things I learned was—know what your ending is. And that’s something that’s really stayed with me. He said he always knows the big scene at the end of the movie he’s going for. It may not be the last scene, but it’s the apex of the action. And then everything is to move towards that scene.”

“Everything is to move towards that scene”—that’s great advice. In the script you’re working on now, does everything move toward that scene?

As Coppola launched his directing career in the ’60s, Seidler’s first job in the entertainment business was less exciting—transcribing Godzilla movies. In 1966-67 he landed his first writing gig on an Australian TV show called Adventures of the Seaspray. I believe after that he turned to a variety of jobs to pay the bills (advertising, Signal Corps, Playwright in Resident in San Franciscio, and political advisor in Fuji).

His next IMDB credit was not until 1981, an episode for the soap opera Another World.

There’s not much there to think that at that point in his career that the 43-year-old Seidler was on the fast track to have a feature made from his work, much less win an Oscar some day. But way back in 1981 is when he actually began working on what would become The King’s Speech. Obviously there were a few twists and turns in the road before it became a movie. And surprisingly, or not, Coppola—Seidler’s old high school classmate— had a small part in getting The King’s Speech script written.

“I had written Tucker for Francis and was just naive enough to think that that meant it would get made immediately and change my life forever. It took ten years to get made and it didn’t change my life that much. And I also thought that meant I could write anything I wanted in Hollywood. And you’re all wise enough to know that’s not true, but I did.”
David Seidler

And that’s when he began to work on The King’s Speech. But unlike Tucker:The Man and His Dreamsit would not take 10 years to bring The King’s Speech to the screen, or 20 years, but almost 30 years. As Paul Harvey used to say, “You think about that.”

Tomorrow we’ll look more deeply at the actual writing process that Seidler used to write his Oscar-winning script.

* A strong protagonist who is willing to go to the end of the line to get what they want. Other films in this year’s Oscars that fit that description include, Black Swan, 127 Hours, The Fighter, and True Grit. All which also build to a dramtatic ending.

**While Cody’s script for Juno was her first script I like to point out that she had been writing daily for 15 years.

Scott W. Smith

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“Yes, it is over the top, but it has to be. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a Hollywood movie.”
Writer/Director Roland Emmerich on The Day After Tomorrow

Yesterday I was editing peacefully in my office when the biggest hailstorm I’ve ever seen (and heard) hit Cedar Falls. The same place that in the last two years has seen record flooding and a monster tornado. I’m starting to think I’m living on the set a Hollywood disaster movie. Speaking of…

The only movie I can think of with a hail storm scene is The Day After Tomorrow. A movie that showed super-sized bowling ball sized hail that dwarf’s the golf ball sized hail that pelted parts of Iowa yesterday. But people don’t generally go to the movies to see what they can see in their backyard. The Day After Tomorrow was co-written and directed by Roland Emmerich who has a history working on films that destroy cities or show the impending doom of the end of civilization as we know it.; Independence Day, Godzilla (1998) and most recently 2012.

Emmerich was interviewed by Daniel Robert Epstein who asked him, “What made you want to tell this (The Day After Tomorrow) story?”

ROLAND: It was taken from the book, The Coming Global Superstorm, by Art Bell and Whitley Strieber. When I saw the book, I realized it was science fiction guys discovering the weather. Also, my very first movie was about weather control, The Noah’s Ark Principle [released in 1984]. Then, everywhere I started reading science magazines articles, which talked about everything leading to an imbalance, which leads to this worldwide storm, which leads to an ice age.

Some have called The Day After Tomorrow bad science, and others just call it bad filmmaking.

“Director Roland Emmerich is an ‘over-the-top’ director. He’s responsible for two of the worst summer blockbuster movies ever, Independence Day (1996) and Godzilla (1998). And now you can add a third, The Day After Tomorrow is possibly the worst film I’ve ever seen. It’s cheesy, predictable, laughable, and frankly made for dummies.”
Chris Wehner
Screenwriter’s Utopia

There must be a lot of dummies out there because The Day After Tomorrow made $186 million at the box office, and Emmerich’s films as a whole have made over one billion dollars.

Scott W. Smith


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In the 1950s, while Akira Kurosawa was in Japan making two of the most highly regarding films in cinematic history (Ikira and Seven Samurai) there was another filmmaker in Japan who was making a film with one of the most memorable and recognizable characters in cinematic history—Godzilla. Ishiro Honda, the director (and co-writer) of the first Godzilla film actually worked early and late in his career with Kurosawa.

So along with his Godzilla directing credits (Godzilla, King Kong vs. Godzilla, Mothra vs. Godzilla, All Monster Attack) he also worked as an assistant with Kurosawa on Stray Dogs, Ran and Dreams. After Honda passed away at age 81 in 1993, his eulogy was done by Kurosawa.

In his book Mushroom Clouds and Mushroom Men: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda Peter H. Brothers writes, “While Honda is best remembered today for having directed the original Godzilla film, there was considerable more to his career. Honda worked on 82 feature-length films, 36 as assistant director and 46 as principle director. Of those 46 films, 25 were in the fantasy-film realm (or genre), making him arguably the most prolific director of such films in the history of cinema.”

Also part of Honda resume includes serving in the Imperial Army during World War II where he was a prisoner of war for six months in China. Honda later said, “When I returned from the war, and passed through Hiroshima there was a heavy atmosphere, a fear that the world was already coming to an end.” That gives an extra layer of needed context to the man behind Godzilla.

The version that most American’s saw as some  part of their childhood is different than the Godzilla seen in Japan in the 1950s. Remember the first fire-breathing Godzilla came on the scene in 1954. The atomic bombs that the United States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred in 1945 at the tail end of World War II. The death and destruction of those bombs has been well documented. I have not seen the original cut of Godzilla, but I’ve read some say that it’s politically anti-American and or at least critical of America’s use of the bomb. Godzilla either represents America or  the fire-breathing atom bomb that America dropped. Either way, its serious anti-nuke warning is a long way from some of the cheesy Godzilla movies I remember.

According to the NPR Program that aired May 25, 2004 Original ‘Godzilla’ to Make  Uncut Debut in U.S. the exploitation distributors repackaged the Japanese film for an American audience by cutting out 40 minutes, and reshooting some scenes written by Al C. Ward. The result was the 1956 film Godzilla , King of the Monsters! starring in Raymond Burr.

Can’t imagine Honda being to thrilled with the results. Anyone have Honda quotes in regard to what he thought of the American version of his film originally known as Gojira? (It was probably whatever is Japanese for WTF.)

Ishiro Honda website.

Scott W. Smith


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“When film came to Japan,  the country had only allowed foreign imports for a few decades. The nation’s culture—which means its way of accounting for, of constructing, of assuming—was still its own.”
Donald Richie
A Hundred Years of Japanese Film

It’s been a while since I took a screenwriting road trip and today seems like a good day to do so. Yesterday I mentioned Louie Psihoyos and his Oscar-winning documentary The Cove which was shot in Japan so that seems like a fitting place to head.

My knowledge of Japanese cinema is limited but I know enough to say they have a long eclectic love affair with movies. From Godzilla to Kurosawa covers a lot of ground.

I imagine as a kid the Godzilla films were the first I ever saw that were made in Japan. Kurosawa I starting watching while in film school. In fact, Seven Samurai, Ikiru, Rashomon are pretty much the go to films that he made that are considered all-time cinema classics. Later via Paul Schrader’s book Transcendental Style in Film I became familiar with Yasujiro Ozu (Toyko Story, An Autumn Afternoon).

More recently (though I confess to never having seen any of his film) Academy Award-winner Hayo Miyazaki (Porco Rosso, Princess MonokeSpirited Away) is considered by some Japan’s top director and his anime the best ever. (These days more than half of the films produced in Japan are anime.)  I’m sure I’m leaving out many of the top filmmakers in Japan, but this is just meant as an overview to show films and screenwriting done far from Hollywood.

One film I did see just over the weekend that I would consider one of the best films I’ve seen in the last 10 years is Okuribito (Departures) directed by Yojiro Takita and staring Masahiro Motoki. At the Academy Awards in 2009 it won best foreign film. The script was the first feature film written by Kundo Koyama (known for his work as a TV writer) loosely based on Coffinman: The Journal of a Buddhist Mortician by Aoki Shinmon.

If I know little about Japanese cinema, I know even less about Buddhism and its rituals. (And I don’t know if the traditions in the movie were even rooted in Buddhism, but I know they were foreign to me.) But as an American and a Christian I found that Departures deals with the passage of physical death in a beautiful way that I wish was practiced here.

In western cultures we sterilize death. We’re told someone has died a few days later there is a service and that’s it. In fact, when my father died years ago I was at a TV studio in Florida getting ready to direct a program when I was informed of the news. To the man I had known a lifetime, had visited two weeks prior, and spoken to on the phone the day before–that was it, he was gone. I never saw his body, he was cremated, and then a while later there was a service at a military cemetery in Clearwater. Like most funerals or memorial services I’ve been to the whole thing seems like an abrupt ending to life, and impersonal.

The film Departures shows a culture and a tradition that I have never seen before in Western culture. A tradition rooted in respect and honor which seems to be the basis for many Japanese films. It’s a film that shows a tradition where time is stopped to reflect on the passing of a life in a way that is personal and meaningful. A time to say goodbye. A time to reflect on your own life.

And for all I know it may be a passing tradition in Japan itself as families become more fragmented, hurried and westernized.

So I was curious to find out a little more about this film and found this quote by the director;

“Because it deals with the very tricky subject of death he and the producers at the time weren’t sure how to go about making a film out of this. It probably took about 15 years since the idea was first conceived to the completion of the film. It was a producer at an independent production company who felt strongly that this film should be made. Many of us are around the same age, and we got to a certain point in our lives when death was slowly creeping up to become a factor around us with the people that we knew. And death, of course, is something that many of us around the world, of course, tend to avoid as a subject matter altogether.  We don’t like to think about it. But we felt at this point, we really should face it head-on and do something with that subject matter…But in the process of making the film, and looking at how we honor those who’ve passed I came to realize that the film is ultimately about the value of life and how we honor those who’ve passed and how we look at and confront out own lives and the act of living.”
Yojiro Takita
From an interview on the  Departures DVD

If you haven’t seen the film, here are a couple quotes from critics;
“The ultimate beauty of the film rests in its symbolic details that bridge the abyss between the living and the dead.”
Andrew Sarris, New York Observer

The music is lush and sentimental in a subdued way, the cinematography is perfectly framed and evocative, and the movie is uncommonly absorbing.”
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

As it turns out, I have read that the topic of death is somewhat taboo in Japan so the filmmakers didn’t know if anyone would want to see this film. But it did very well in the box office in Japan and then won an Academy Award here in the states which were nice payoffs for the 15 year journey they took to get the film made.

So yeah, there is some good stuff happening east of L.A….even far-east of L.A.

P.S. In the forward of A Hundred Years of Japanese Film, Paul Schrader (screenwriter of Taxi Driver and The Yakuza) writes of the book’s author, “Whatever we in the West know about Japanese film, and how we know it, we most likely owe to Donald Richie.” (And for what it’s worth Richie—this expert on Japanese films who has lived in Japan since 1947— is originally from Lima, Ohio.) His commentaries can be found on the The Criterion Collection of many DVDs of Ozu and Kurosawa’s films.
Scott W. Smith


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