David Seidler

Academy Award-winning Screenwriter
David Seidler

Photo by Beth Bienvenu

Transcript of conversation with David Seidler

[Excerpt from the The King's Speech]

Jo Reed: That was an excerpt from the acclaimed film, The King's Speech, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and garnered Oscars for Colin Firth for Best Actor, Tom Hooper for Best Director, and 73-year-old, David Seidler Best Screenplay.

Welcome to Art Works that program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.

The King's Speech is based on the true story of Britain's George VI, who suffered from a debilitating stammer and who as a second son never expected to become king. But the Crown is thrust upon him when his brother abdicates in 1936.

His struggle to overcome his stammer gained greater urgency as the world heads toward war and Britain needs a leader who can unite its people against Hitler.  Enter Lional Logue: an unorthodox speech therapist whose methods allow the King to face the microphone with more than a fair degree of success.      

The story of The King's Speech is one David Seidler grew up hearing, because he too suffered from a stammer.  In fact, when David was a child he turned to the King's wartime speeches as sources of inspiration.  The story of the King's struggle with his stammer stayed with David Seidel, even as he wrote other screenplays and TV movies. The film literally took a lifetime to make, but it was well worth the wait. In David Seidler's knowing hands, the film retained the particularity of the physical and emotional effects of stammering and the variety of techniques employed to cure it.  Yet it's universal theme is also apparent as we traced one man's struggle to find his own voice.  I spoke with David Seidler when he was in Washington DC giving the keynote address for FRIENDS, also known as the The National Association of Young People Who Stutter.

I began our conversation by asking him to tell me when he knew he wanted to make a film about The King's Speech.

Jo Reed: What first inspired you to make a film about that particular speech?

David Seidler: Well, when it began, it wasn't necessarily that speech; all I knew is I wanted to make a film about George VI. I was a profound stutterer as a child; he was my childhood hero. My parents, during the latter stages of the war, when I was old enough to listen to such things, encouraged me to hear the King's speech, and they said, "He was far worse than you, David. He's not perfect, but look! He can give these wonderful, stirring addresses that rally the free world, so there's hope for you." So, I always had a great warm spot in my heart for George. And I determined, when I became a writer, that one day, I would write something about him. So that was the inception. It's a very long journey.

Jo Reed: And you were born in England.

David Seidler: I was born in England.

Jo Reed: Raised in the United States.

David Seidler: Correct. Came to the US when I was three, and that's when the stuttering started. That's a classic time: between three to five. Mine was undoubtedly triggered by the start of the war. All of a sudden, my world changed, and I had no idea why it was changing; I came from a family that didn't explain things to children. So, I had a nanny who I was absolutely bonded with, and, suddenly one night, she disappeared. She had to go home to her family. And very quickly after that, I was on a big boat, going across the ocean. And there was a lot of drama going on. There were submarine sightings. Well, actually, my father spotted a submarine, because he was on submarine watch. They got the male passengers to volunteer, but it wasn't a submarine; it was a whale. So he wasn't asked to watch for submarines anymore, but we went out in a convoy of three ships, and one got sunk. It was not filled with families, such as ours, but Italian prisoners of war who were being shipped to Canada so they wouldn't potentially riot behind the lines when the Germans invaded England, which was a foregone conclusion. And they were locked in the hold, and they all perished. It's a terrible tragedy that nobody likes to talk about. So, by the time I got to New York City, I was just shy of my third birthday. My first memory of the US is the Statue of Liberty, the classic immigrant's image. And it stays with you; you bond with that. But I had started stuttering.

Jo Reed: Do you remember what it was like being in school, and feeling the issues around stuttering?

David Seidler: Yes. It, surprisingly enough, those memories start quite slowly, and they build very slowly. I know, absolutely, I stuttered my early years in America, during the war. I don't recall ever being teased about being a stutterer. I may have been teased about being a little bit chubby, but not about being a stutterer. And I don't think it affected me terribly. I had friends who I got along with that I could talk with; and, of course, when I was with friends, I didn't stutter as much as being called upon in class. That's when you really get it. When I went to England after the war, the stuttering got decidedly worse. I don't remember being bullied for being a stutterer; I remember being bullied that I had spent the war in the United States, and had had, in quotes, an easy time of it. But I do remember distinctly: stuttering was now becoming a real issue. I was finding it extremely difficult to respond in class. I found it impossible to read in class, and I remember an instance where I had my first opportunity to write a story, and I was extremely proud of my story. It was "The Adventures of a Penny," of all the various people that a penny got passed to. I think I probably stole that from O. Henry, but I hadn't read O. Henry yet, so it was just synchronistic. And I couldn't read it, so I had to plead and beg the teacher to read my story. And that memory sticks. I remember that. Coming back to the States, again, it was now definitely very difficult to respond in class. Things such as I was always the kid who knew the answer and I had my hand up; but, when I got called on <laughs>, I couldn't give the answer. So, the teachers stopped calling on me, and that was a profound grief. It got really bad in junior high school. I think everything gets bad for every kid in junior high school; that's a miserable time of life. It's when teasing and bullying and cliques and gangs are at their absolute worst, and I was having a very rough time. Then, in high school, it was very much there, until I reached the age of 16. And that was the turning point for me, because I got so despondent. When I reached 16, I knew perfectly well that if my stutter didn't improve now, it was going to become increasingly difficult. It's not impossible to get real progress with your stutter when you're an adult, or young adult, or even a-- well, Bertie was doing it in his 30s and 40s, which is one of the reasons I think he was so incredibly brave. But I knew that this was the turning point of whether it was going to happen now, or whether it was going to be a really, really tough slog. And the hormones were raging. I couldn't ask girls out on a date, and even if I asked them, and even if they had said, "Yes," what was the point? I couldn't talk to them. And this was the '50s; we did talk on dates. So, at first, I got kind of despondent about it, but I'm not a depressive personality; I'm more of a defiant, angry personality when it comes to things like that, so I got-- and this is the source of the scene that gave the film its "R" rating, equal to "Chain Saw in 3D." People are very strange. I started thinking, "All right, why has this happened to me? It's not fair. I didn't do anything dreadful. You know, I didn't sleep with my mother or kill my father. It's not right." And then I started jumping up and down on my bed, saying the "F-bomb" word. "If I'm stuck with stuttering, well, F-bomb all of you; you're just stuck with listening to me." And that was the psychological turning point. And that act of defiance turned the tables for me. Within two weeks, my stutter had not vanished, but it had melted away to a great degree. So much so that I was able to audition for the school play, and I even got a part: a very small part, but I got a part. It was George Bernard Shaw's "Androcles and the Lion," and I was a Christian being eaten by a lion in the Coliseum, but I didn't stutter as I died.

Jo Reed: You've had a very long career: you came to Hollywood; you worked with Francis Ford Coppola, who you went to school with; you worked on the film "Tucker," starring the wonderful Jeff Bridges. So, Bertie wasn't with you this entire time, I'm assuming, or was he? Am I wrong?

David Seidler: Well, he wasn't with me on a day-to-day basis, but I never lost track of my desire to write about him. It probably surfaced fully for the first time when I was at college. I was at Cornell, and I thought, "Hmm, I'd really like to do something about Bertie." I was doing a play-writing course, and I thought, "Hmm, maybe." And I started reading about him. But final exams, term papers, and coeds intervened, and not much got done on that. The next time I really seriously thought about it-- again, it flicked through my consciousness. Every year or so, I'd say, "Yeah, I really must do something about Birdie." Yeah, one day. When I came to Hollywood at age 40, which is when everyone is leaving, but I didn't know that, and I had written "Tucker" for Francis-- of course, it didn't get made for ten years. See, everything takes a little time with me; I'm not only a late bloomer. I'm slow, too <laughs>. I'd written "Tucker," Francis loved it, but I didn't know it wasn't going to get made for a while. And I thought, "Well, I can do anything I want in Hollywood," which, of course, I quickly learned is not the case. But, at first, I didn't know it. And I started doing real research on Bertie. I had a friend in London who I contacted, and she did some detective work, which I think was looking in the telephone directory, and came up with a surviving son of Lionel Logue, Valentine Logue. He was an eminent brain surgeon, Holly Street specialist, retired. By the way, the fact that he was an eminent Holly Street specialist must have really pleased his father, who always felt put down by the rather snobbish British medical society. I contacted Mr. Logue by letter; there were no emails in those days. And he replied very nicely, "Yes, come to London. I'll speak with you. And I have the notebooks my father kept while treating the King." And I thought, "Good Lord, that's the mother lode. It's the holy grail. That's what I need."

Jo Reed: I have a question. And that is: had you known about Lionel Logue? Was it common knowledge that the king had been seeing this man?

David Seidler: Ah. I had done enough reading that I was aware of these occasional blips on the radar screen called "Lionel Logue." Very little is written about him, or was written about him. I knew that there was an Australian speech therapist named Lionel Logue who treated the king; that I kept on getting. And nothing else, because, I think, the stutter was a royal embarrassment which they swept under the carpet. We are talking about an era when the President of the United States was never seen or photographed without a blanket covering his polio-withered legs. It was considered a sign of weakness. Stuttering, in those days, was called a "speech defect." So, if you had a defect, you were a defective person, and you couldn't have the King of England be a defective person, so it was never talked about. But in one of the books I read, and I wish I could remember which one it was, there was just this hint, this sideways hint, that maybe Logue wasn't quite what he was purported to be. Something was mysterious there. And I thought, "Ah. You're a reporter; you can just smell a story. You don't know why, but there's something, and the hairs on the back of your neck go up, and you know, "That's what I've got to look at." So, that's why I started tracking down Logue. And, of course, I quickly found out that what I was intuiting was the fact that he was not a doctor. He was on Holly Street, but he had no medical degree, whatsoever. He had had no formal training in speech therapy, mainly because there was no formal training to be had in western Australia at that time. He was an intuitive.

Jo Reed: Do you know when he started doing this? Do you know what his background was?

David Seidler: He had begun during World War I, when Australian troops were returning home from the front with shellshock, which in many instances caused stuttering, and they were saying--he was an elocutionist. He had taken elocution lessons as a child; his mother had given them to him so he wouldn't sound too Australian, which I'm sure his father really appreciated. His father was a much simpler man; he was a publican or a brewer. So, he had loved theater, and he was teaching elocution occasionally. He was doing readings at pubs, and at the mining camps, and he was earning his living through the use of his voice. So, the powers that be knew about this, and they said, "Hey, Lionel. You're good with this stuff; see if you can help these blokes."

Jo Reed: And he was good?

David Seidler: And he knew exactly what to do. He knew how to work on their physical problems; many of them had been not only shell-shocked, but actually hit pretty badly with blasts or mustard gas. And he knew how to work on the column of air, and the strength of the muscles that had been damaged. But he also intuitively knew that there was something psychological going on there, that these were men who had been frightened to death, and had cried out to God, "Save me," if not literally cried out internally. And they hadn't been heard. And something had triggered their stutter. So he became their friend, their confidant. And he had the most amazing cure rate. It was just astonishing. And that's how it all started.

Jo Reed: Oddly enough, he also treated your uncle, didn't he?

David Seidler: Yes, yes <laughs>.

Jo Reed: That's truth stranger than fiction.

David Seidler: Yes, yes, that's another story. I have an elderly and somewhat eccentric curmudgeon of an uncle in London, and he has a little pied-a-terre in St. John's Wood, or had. And the early stages of this project, when I was doing it all on my own nickel, to keep my costs down, he very generously allowed me to stay at his little flat. So, he became familiar with what I was doing. When there was the stage reading of the play, in Islington, at the Pleasance, he attended. And then he wanted to read the screenplay, and I gave it to him. So, he was very familiar with this. Now, during all of this time, I knew, just intuitively, that Logue was using the talking cure, but I could never prove it. I could never come up with any evidence written that Logue had read Sigmund Freud, but I knew he had. Well, a couple of weeks before we went into production, my uncle one night said, "That chap in your script: Australian, wasn't he?" I said, "Yes, Uncle; you knew perfectly well he's Australian." "And it was Logue, wasn't it?" I said, "Yes, Uncle, his name was Logue." "Yes, I saw him for years when I was a lad." I said, "What?" He said, "Yes, your grandfather, my father, sent me to him for years. The King's Speech therapist. Bloody waste of money." I said, "What happened? What happened in the consultation room? What was it like?" He said, "Rubbish. The man was an Australian gangster. He didn't know anything. All he wanted to do was talk about his parents and his childhood, and get me to talk about my parents and my childhood. Rubbish." I said, "Uncle David, you don't stutter any more." He said, "Yes, I would have outgrown it, though, wouldn't I?" So, there I had proof that it was the talking cure. He was using a combination which is, by the way, the cutting edge today, as you'll hear at this conference if you're around, that most of the best speech therapists today use a combination of mechanical techniques and exercises, which don't really make the breakthrough. But they are extremely useful, once you've made the breakthrough. Then, they really-- you can use them, and get great confidence and a great deal more of fluidity of speech. But they don't create the fluidity of speech by themselves, so today, many speech therapists are using that in combination with therapy: in other words, talking therapy.

Jo Reed: So, what did the notebooks that you got from Valentine Logue, show you?

David Seidler: Well, at first, of course, I didn't get them, you see. He said he had them, and he said, "Come to London, and I'll show them to you. But, first you must get written permission from the Queen Mother." Well, easy-peasy. So, I wrote to the Queen Mother, and I waited, and, in a reasonable amount of time, I got back a lovely, cream-colored envelope with a big, red stamp of Clarence House on it.

Jo Reed: Thick stationery.

David Seidler: Yeah, thick stationery: good, solid, British stuff. And it was not signed by her; it was from her equerry, but it was clearly dictated by her, very clearly. And, it said, basically, "Thank you, Mr. Seidler, for your letter." It said, "Her Majesty says please, not during her lifetime. The memory of those events is still too painful." Okay? I thought, "Well, all right. If the Queen Mother says to an Englishman, "Wait," an Englishman waits, or you go to the Tower of London, I think. So, I waited. I thought I didn't have to wait that long; she was a very old lady. I thought a year, two years, three at the most. Twenty-five years later, she had her last gin and tonic.

Jo Reed: And you were then free to…

David Seidler: And then, I was free to write it; yes. Yes. I didn't instantly; I was busy with other things. But about a year, 18 months after her death, I was diagnosed with what at the time seemed like a very serious and threatening form of cancer, very aggressive. May I say I'm in total remission, and a poster boy for good health, much to the annoyance of my enemies. And my doctor assures me I'm going to have to find something else to die of; I'm sure I'll find something.

Jo Reed: We all will <laughs>.

David Seidler: Exactly. But at that time, it seemed very dire. It's shocking news to get, and it upsets one. And then I realized that a great deal of tears and grief is not good for the autoimmune system, and the autoimmune system was my best defense. And I had to get my mind off of how powerful sorry I felt for myself. So, work is the best medicine, and then I thought, "Well, David, if you're not going to write The King's Speech now, when exactly do you intend to write it, because you might not be here?" So, I plunged into that, and that's when I started writing it.

Jo Reed: How did you come to create, or illustrate, that extraordinary relationship that developed between these two very, very different men?

David Seidler: I knew, from a lot of research, that this was Logue's technique: that along with all the mechanical stuff, the tongue-twisters, the vowels at the window, all of the things we show in the film are techniques that he used. But I also knew from my research that he had this uncanny knack of getting your confidence, of becoming your mate. Very Australian thing. And he had this ability to say, "Look, we're just mates here in the room. First-name basis, we've got to be equals. If we're not equals, it's not going to work." And, once I knew that that was his technique, it was rather easy to proceed from there. I knew a great deal about Bertie, because a great deal is written, so I could get all of his life's details, all of his childhood traumas, and I knew that this was the stuff that Logue was going to be working on.

Jo Reed: In preparing for this, I went back and listened to, actually, a video of one of George VI's speeches. I think it was at Edinburgh.

David Seidler: Yes, that's a particularly poignant one.

Jo Reed: And it just tears at the heart, watching him gather himself. And you can just see the struggle in the man.

David Seidler: Yeah. When Colin Firth and Tom Hooper watched that footage, they were both weeping by the end of it. And every time I see it, it brings tears to my eyes; it's just heartbreaking. But his bravery is also very apparent. This man is not going to give in.

Jo Reed: The way Colin Firth was able to create on the screen that struggle was quite extraordinary. Did you work with him?

David Seidler: Well, I worked with him a great deal; or, I think he worked on me a great deal <laughs>. Anyway, he said, "Look, you're writing from your own experience; this is your story, as well as Bertie's." And, of course, he was quite correct. So we worked together a great deal during the pre-production rehearsal period. We had three weeks, which is extraordinary for a film. That's almost as long as you get for a Broadway or West End play. They only rehearse for four weeks, so it's really amazing. And it's great that we had it. And Colin questioned me very thoroughly: first, working from the out, he was asking me how it felt, physically: which muscles, how did the chest feel, where did the shoulders go, what's happening in your stomach, what happens to the column of air, the way the jaw juts forward and locks? All of these things: he wanted exactly as much muscle memory as I could convey to him. And then, he started questioning me about the internals: the sense of frustration, the sense of loneliness, the inner silence because you can't speak. He really delved into it very, very deeply. And then, of course, everyone said, "Well, I wonder whether Seidler really knows what he's talking about." So, they got all the very top British speech therapists to come in, and they said, "Yeah, actually, he does know what he's-- yeah, he's been there. That's the way it is." But he then had the benefit of their tutelage, and their information. And then, I think fortuitously, either his sister or his sister-in-law is actually a speech therapist, so he was able to have in-home help, as well.

Jo Reed: When did you figure out that The King's Speech was a big hit?

David Seidler: Well, I've got to be very careful here, because I can really heap hubris upon myself.

Jo Reed: Oh, but why not?

David Seidler: Yeah <laughs>. Everyone had told me that this was a very good film, would be a very good film, but it would be a small, art-house film, and would have a very limited financial life and shelf life. I never quite believed that; there was something in the back of my mind. So, the time that really hit home was when we went to Toronto, and we had a gala screening at the big theater: 2,000 people. And they all started applauding at the end of the speech, before the movie was over. And then, when the movie was over, they just rose as one. And I thought, "Oh, my goodness." And I was sitting with Tom Hooper, and Colin, and Geoffrey Rush, and Helena at the first row of the balcony, and we were in the dark, of course. And it really hit me, and I lost it. I was blubbering: tears coming down, mucus, the whole works. Disgusting display. And they put the spotlights on us <laughs>. But that's when I knew.

Jo Reed: You often, when you received the Academy Award, when you're being queried about the film, you talk about the importance of people being able to find their voices, and how particularly poignant that is for people who stutter.

David Seidler: Right. Because of our impediment, we are denied our voice. And I actually that possibly with many of us, the trigger mechanism that starts our stutter is, and it can be very varied in cause, but it is something that makes us feel that our voice is not being heard. In my particular case, a little three-year-old: he loses his beloved nanny, he doesn't know why; he's put on a boat, doesn't know why; life changes, he doesn't know why. And you're saying, "Hey, I'm not being listened to." You don't say it out loud; but internally, you say, "I am not being listened to." So, to find your voice again, to have the confidence to speak and say, "It doesn't make any difference whether I stutter. It really doesn't make any difference; I have the right to be heard," seems to be, in my experience, a very crucial factor in getting real progress. And, of course I find it terribly moving. Even if you don't stutter, finding your voice is a terribly important thing. Even if you can speak quite articulately, many of us feel we're not being heard. And the moment you do feel you do have a voice, and you are being heard, it's a great moment.

Jo Reed: I had just one final question. I'm assuming you've gotten feedback from people who do stutter, and I'm wondering what kind of feedback you have gotten?

David Seidler: Oh, yes. That's why actually I'm here today, in Washington, DC. I was invited by Friends, which is an organization primarily for children who stutter, and I'm going to be their keynote speaker tomorrow morning. Two weeks ago, I was in Fort Worth, Texas, at the NSA-- not the National Space Agency, but the National Stuttering Association, doing a similar thing, being a keynote speaker. I've also been a speaker at Our Time Theater, which is a wonderful organization in New York, run by Taro Alexander, who is the stepson of Jane Alexander, who once ran your organization.

Jo Reed: The NEA; yes.

David Seidler: Absolutely. And that's a theater for children who stutter, which is wonderfully empowering and brave; fantastic. One of my greatest frustrations as a little kid is I love theater, and I couldn't do it, because who was going to give a part to a kid who stuttered? So, I only could start acting when I finally got a handle on it. But these kids can get up on stage, and everyone is patient; they wait as long as necessary, and they get their parts out. It's wonderful! And I've also gotten a lot of emails and letters that just bring tears to my eyes. I'm incredibly moved by some of the things I hear; it's just heartbreaking, but it's wonderful. And I'm incredibly grateful and thankful that the Academy honored me with one of those golden men; it's terrific. I wouldn't give it back, but the award that I get from the stuttering community is really moving to me, and makes the whole thing very worthwhile.

Jo Reed: David, thank you so much, and bravo.

David Seidler: Grazie.

That's David Seidler, he won the Academy Award for The King's Speech.

You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Special thanks to Beth Bienvenu, Accessibility Director here at the NEA. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.  

Excerpt from Beethoven: Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Op. 95, “Quartetto serioso,”played by the Guarneri Quartet Courtesy of VAImusic.com with thanks to Allan Altman.

The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U---just click on the itunes link on our podcast page. Next week, Opera director Nic Muni.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter.  For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.


David Seidler talks about his film, The King's Speech, and his own struggle with stuttering.