Anatomy of a Contender: Making of 'The King's Speech'
How a script from an unknown screenwriter (in his 60s!) led to a period drama with a shot at gold.
Six years ago,on a miserable Christmas morning, screenwriter David Seidler got the worst news of his life: He had just been diagnosed with cancer.
At age 67, faced with his own mortality, Seidler spent the next few days sobbing. But once he'd come to terms with his illness, it also pushed him to return to a passion project he had begun and put aside years before: the real-life tale of England's King George VI and his attempt to overcome a terrible stutter.
"I knew my grief wasn't very constructive," says Seidler, a writer who moved to the U.S. from England at age 3 and whose credits include such TV movies as 1995's Dancing in the Dark and 1988's Onassis: The Richest Man in the World. "I also knew it was time to write this film and turn my mind away from the cancer."
Seidler was returning to a tale that linked him to his childhood. As a boy, he too had suffered from a stutter, which explained his affinity for the king -- or "Bertie," as he affectionately was known. With the help of an unknown Australian speech therapist, the monarch got past his stutter to rally the nation with a radio speech on the eve of World War II.
This was Seidler's third major attempt to write what would become The King's Speech (which opens Nov. 26), the real-life story of George VI and the speech therapist, Lionel Logue. First he had tried in college then stopped, feeling he was too young.
His second attempt came after finishing Francis Ford Coppola's Tucker: The Man and His Dream in 1988. After getting in touch with Logue's son, he learned that Logue's diaries existed -- but the son refused to turn them over without direct permission from George VI's wife, by this time the Queen Mother. "Please, not in my lifetime," she responded.
The Queen Mother already was in her 80s, so Seidler figured it wouldn't take too long. Little did he know she would live to 102, dying in 2002. During all this time, he never got to see the diaries.
So he waited and waited -- until 2004, when Seidler got his cancer diagnosis and decided to go ahead and write The King's Speech, even though he still didn't have access to the diaries.
Soon, he was suffering a similar affliction to his protagonist's: a lot to say, without the ability to get out the words.
Seidler turned to his wife, Jacqueline, a writing coach, who suggested that, as an exercise, he focus on the characters by writing the story as a play rather than a script. After showing the play to Simon Egan at Bedlam Films, Egan optioned the rights to a movie version, eventually bringing on producers Iain Canning and Emile Sherman of U.K./Australia-based See Saw Films.
As Seidler began work on the movie script, his play -- something he never intended to be produced -- found its way to an Australian theatrical troupe, which staged a one-night reading at a fringe theater festival. It was through the troupe's efforts that a manuscript was placed on the doorstep of Melbourne's most famous actor, Geoffrey Rush, wrapped in a brown paper bag.
"My first thought was, 'Tell these people the proper procedure!' " recalls Rush, the Oscar-winning star of Shine. "Then I read it, and the story fascinated me. How did this failed Shakespearean actor-turned-speech therapist become the king's right-hand man?"
Rush googled Lionel Logue but found almost nothing. "It appealed to me a great deal to take this anonymous nobody into a major story line, to be a guy who didn't fit the traditional mode of what was perceived as being Australian at that time. He was learned and erudite."
Rush called his agent, telling him the play had the potential to be a wonderful film and that he wanted to executive produce it.
The serendipity of a paper bag finding its way to Rush would have been marvelous enough, but more followed when the troupe delivered its performance and found an unexpected ally in attendance.
That ally was the mother of director Tom Hooper (The Damned United, John Adams). Almost immediately after the play ended, she called her son.
"I just found your next film," she told him.
"Yeah, yeah, Mom," Hooper responded.
At the time, Hooper had 30 scripts on his desk. But during the ensuing four months, his mother nagged him relentlessly until he agreed to read it. He was astonished.
As the son of a British father and an Australian mother, Hooper felt he could tell the story of an Australian who helps a Brit during a time of post-colonial prejudice. He also could cast a subversive light on the abdication of King Edward VIII (played by Guy Pearce), George's elder brother, who preceded him on the throne.
Most Americans admire Edward for relinquishing his duties to marry a widowed woman from Baltimore, but Hooper was attracted to a story that presents this as a selfish act made without consideration for his brother, the man who would replace him.
Thrilled, "I called my mom and said, 'You are absolutely right!' " Hooper recalls.
Through his agents, he expressed interest and was led to Rush. Now he and Rush, who had met at an Emmy Awards ceremony, began e-mailing each other, exchanging notes as Seidler polished his screenplay. Soon, Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter joined the cast as the king and his wife. The creative elements were starting to come together, but there was still the matter of financing.
At See Saw, Canning took the lead. "It wasn't easy," he says. "The collapse of Lehman Brothers had just happened. There was a huge nervousness around everything, and we were trying to put together a film that was deemed to be, excuse the dirty words, a 'British period film.' "
Most studios passed, but the producers managed to raise about $1 million from the U.K. Film Council then got more funding from Momentum Pictures and Molinare Studios. The U.S. and other territories were sold to the Weinstein Co., which provided gap funding via an arrangement with the Aegis Group. Altogether, the film raised and was made for $13 million. Production commenced in mid-November 2009.
It was a tight shoot, made even more difficult by the need to complete scheduling in time to release Rush for a stage production and Bonham Carter for the final installments of Harry Potter.
The film was shot in London in November and December -- a 39-day shoot amid one of the biggest snowfalls in some time that caused other local productions to shutter, but not Speech.There just wasn't time to postpone it.
Firth joined Rush and Hooper in London and spent nearly a month rehearsing from 9 a.m.-6 p.m. each day in a hotel conference room. But he admits he had doubts about the man he was playing and whether he was too self-pitying.
Then, just weeks before cameras rolled, a production designer scouting locations stumbled upon Logue's grandson, who now possessed the diaries Seidler had heard about 20 years earlier but hadn't been able to access. With the Queen Mother dead, he had no problem showing the cast and crew Logue's writings.
The treasure became the source of the film's funniest line -- when the king tells Logue he deliberately stammered on the letter "W" during his culminating speech to let listeners know it actually was him.
"It's clear that [King George] was self-aware, witty and highly conscious about his role," Firth says. "I started to be drawn to him as an individual and his struggle with communications."
Firth had a struggle of his own thanks to Hooper's decision to use wide-angle lenses throughout filming, with numerous close-ups of his lead's face. The technique meant Firth had to keep ferocious control of his expressions and gestures, which were magnified by the lens. The camera would pick up everything, and he knew it.
How successfully he pulled it off was clear when the movie received the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, instantly becoming an Oscar front-runner.
Seidler himself became a mini-sensation there, stopped on the street by those who wanted to congratulate him. Within a week, at age 73, he was signed by UTA, the oldest fresh face in the Oscar game. A fresh face, by the way, whose cancer is now in remission.