Posts Tagged ‘True Grit’

“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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“I have an overall kind of approach to cinematography— that it should be as simple and submissive to the script as possible.”
Roger Deakins
Nine-time Oscar-nominated Director of Photography

Here is the list of films that cinematographer Roger Deakins has shot that have been nominated for Oscars in cinematography:
True Grit
The Reader
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
No Country for Old Men
The Man Who Wasn’t There
O Brother, Where Art Thou
The Shawshank Redemption

And if that doesn’t impress you he was also the director of photography on Fargo, Doubt, Jarhead, House of Sand and Fog, Barton Fink, and A Beautiful Mind. Watching films multiple times and  sometimes with the sound off is a habit I learned in film school, and any of Deakins films above are worth studying.

Deakins has been a major supporter of shooting on film and has shot all of his movies on film…except the one he just shot. Now (written and directed by Andrew Niccoi) was shot digitally on the Arri Alexa. One more sign of the changing of the guard.

“Am I nostalgic for film? I mean, it’s had a good run, hasn’t it? You know, I’m not nostalgic for a technology. I’m nostalgic for the kind of films that used to be made that aren’t being made now.”
Roger Deakins
Slashfilm interview with David Chen

If you’re a writer who would like to direct (and maybe even shoot) your work, Deakin’s has a website where he has an informative forum where people ask him questions about lighting and his work. Between his forum and studying a film or two of his in depth you can take major strides in better understanding the filmmaking process.

It’s also worth mentioning that Deakins grew up far from Hollywood in Torquey, Devon, England and while he had an interest in still photography as a youth, working on Hollywood films was way off his radar.


“You should get a simple lamp, some diffusion, some bounce materials and practice lighting a face. Just experiment with the light and see what variations you can achieve with limited means. You might also start taking photographs of a face under natural lighting conditions, perhaps augmented by some bounce material. Experiment with the way that the face reacts to differing conditions of back light, front light etc.. Find what it is about light that excites you and don’t try to copy what someone else sees.” (Note: You can start doing this without even having a video camera—just whatever still photo camera you can use.)
Roger Deakins
Learning to Light post
“If I were starting out, quite frankly, I would concentrate on digital capture. The possibilities now on offer and the new work flows that are available seem to me to have tipped the equation. I have yet to shoot a film digitally but I am seriously beginning to doubt that I will shoot film again – other than on my Leica M6 that is. On the one hand I find that a little sad, just as I find it sad that Du Art in New York has processed its last roll of film, but on the other hand I am really excited by all the creative opportunities that digital capture can offer and which will only expand to ‘who knows where’ in the future.”
Roger Deakins
August 17,2010

“The courtroom (in True Grit) was primarily lit by the light coming through the windows, which was created using three 18K HMI par lamps. When we were looking away from the windows I augmented the light with a couple of 2K Blondes bouncing off some muslin, which was hung between the windows.”
Roger Deakins

A fitting end to this post is to show some photos highlighting the work of Deakins from one of the many films that he’s made with a couple of Minneapolis natives, the Coen brothers, and featuring the song Leaning on the Everlasting Arms sung by Iris DeMent , who lives right here in Iowa. (If you were a Northern Exposure fan you may remember her song Our Town at the closing of the final show.)

Scott W. Smith

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