November 23, 2010
Screenwriter’s stammer inspires ‘Speech’
In 1944, future screenwriter David Seidler snooped through his father’s chest of drawers and discovered a hidden stash of Life magazine clippings.
“They were early pictures that had come out of the concentration camps,” said Seidler, whose British family had fled the Blitz in London for the United States. “And then my father came into the room, ashen-faced, profoundly upset, and told me never to look at those pictures again. Later, I learned that his [own] parents had died in the camps.”
Seidler’s relatives never spoke openly about the tragedy, and the screenwriter of “The King’s Speech,” opening Nov. 26, says he developed what may have been a response to this crippling silence: a severe stutter. But wartime radio broadcasts by England’s King George VI — who himself struggled with a debilitating speech impediment — gave Seidler hope.
“Here was a stutterer who was a king and had to give radio speeches where everyone was listening to every syllable he uttered, and yet did so with passion and intensity,” Seidler, now 73, recalled. “I personally knew what a strain that could be, and in my mind he became a very brave man, indeed. It was pointed out to me that here was a fellow stammerer, and look what he was able to achieve, so perhaps there was a future for me.”
Seidler’s fascination with the king eventually led him to script “The King’s Speech,” which chronicles how Prince Albert — the future George VI (Colin Firth) — overcame his stutter with the help of an unorthodox speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Logue, an unlicensed Australian commoner, insists on calling his royal patient by his nickname, “Bertie,” while conducting sessions in his shabby office, where the two men are to be considered as equals; and in subtly urging his client to reveal painful childhood memories in order to exorcise the cause of the impediment. The stakes are high, as Britain is on the cusp of war; Bertie’s older brother, Edward (Guy Pearce), has announced plans to abdicate the throne in order to marry an American divorcee; and the future king will be required to deliver crucial wartime broadcasts — a prospect that terrifies Bertie.
The film is considered by many to be a major Oscar contender and now leads the 13th annual British Independent Film Awards with eight nominations.
Seidler, who has wanted to make the film for much of his adult life, learned that he shared more than a stutter with the king. Both came from families where emotional repression was required. “Like many upper-middle-class children in Britain of my generation, I was raised by nannies,” Seidler said. One of his most beloved nannies disappeared on the eve of the Blitz; perhaps she had returned to her family. “But nobody in my family explained these things to children; no one prepared me for the loss.”
As German bombs began to fall on London, Seidler and his family boarded an ocean liner for the United States and were shocked mid-Atlantic when a German submarine sank another boat in their convoy. Seidler began having recurring nightmares about trying to escape a gas chamber, which continued into his 50s. “I’m pretty sure I left England speaking normally,” he said. “But I arrived in America as a stutterer.”
By the time Seidler was a teenager, he was well aware that his stammering made others uncomfortable, so he often chose to keep quiet. Numerous forms of speech therapy failed him, until, at 16, he had a breakthrough. “I resolved that if I was going to stutter for the rest of my life, people were going to be stuck listening to me. I had been depressed, but now I was angry — I decided I deserved to be heard. I learned some expletives, and I’d just leap around my bedroom like Tom Cruise in ‘Risky Business,’ shouting the f-word. And when I did, I didn’t stutter — it was a huge relief.”
Seidler drew upon memories of his own speech therapy as he wrote his script — including his own “expletive” cure — since at the time he had little information about Logue’s techniques. In one of the most hilarious and poignant scenes in the film, the king learns to swear every time he stumbles on a word.
Seidler said he became a writer in part because in writing he could communicate fluently beyond the spoken word. He has worked in television and wrote the film “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” for Francis Ford Coppola, all the while researching his King George project as far back as the 1970s. The problem was that Logue had been meticulously discreet about his famous client, keeping his diaries and notes secret because Buckingham Palace “didn’t like to acknowledge the royal stutterer,” Seidler said.
One break came, in the early 1980s, when he was able to locate one of Logue’s sons, who had kept all of the therapist’s notebooks and offered to share them so long as Bertie’s widow, the Queen Mother, agreed to the film. She did not — the memories were too painful, she said — and she requested that Seidler wait until her death to complete the project. Seidler figured he wouldn’t have long to delay because she was already elderly – but it turned out he had to wait 28 years as the Queen Mother famously lived to be 101.
Several months after her death in 2002, Seidler began working in earnest on the project — first as a play and then as a movie, rewriting drafts with the help of director Tom Hooper (of HBO’s Emmy-winning “John Adams” miniseries).
The film spotlights the importance of the king’s speeches during the growing Nazi menace, as well as how Adolf Hitler’s impassioned rants mobilized the German masses. But the focus is on the relationship between George VI and Logue, whose treatment relies not only on speech exercises but on the kind of “talking cure” that had been newly popularized by Sigmund Freud. While Logue never wrote about using a psychoanalytic approach with his patients, Seidler deduced that he must have done so after reading about Logue’s work with shell-shocked World War I veterans in Australia.
Ironically, it was Seidler’s eccentric uncle, also a stutterer, who confirmed this fact for the screenwriter. The elderly uncle allowed Seidler to use his country home to write “King George’s Speech,” so he was familiar with its characters. “Just a few weeks before we were to start filming, my uncle said, ‘The fellow in your film — an Aussie, wasn’t he? A man named Logue, eh? I saw him for four years, because your grandfather wanted me to be treated by the king’s therapist.’ ”
So, what, the incredulous screenwriter asked, was the treatment like? “The man was an Australian gangster, absolutely a fraud,” his uncle said. “All he wanted to do was to talk about my childhood and my parents … utter nonsense.”
Seidler pointed out that his uncle no longer stuttered.
“I grew out of it myself,” came his uncle’s dismissive reply.