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David Seidler stuttered as a child. "It's not a pleasant experience. Nobody in their right mind would choose to be a stutterer," Seidler said. As a method of education and motivation, Seidler's parents played him audio of the United Kingdom's King George VI, explaining that if this distinguished royal figure could overcome his own speech impediment and lead a nation during a time of war that young David could do the same. In fact, he did more than that. Seidler wrote The King's Speech, about the vocal voyage of the king. This year, it leads all films in Oscar contention, with twelve nominations, including Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay. We spoke with Colin Firth about the film last year, and Seidler recently spoke to us about his own speech impediment, major changes he made to his script, and his Oscar-worthy cast.
Q: Congratulations on your Oscar nomination and your recent win at the Critics' Choice Movie Awards. What is it like to attend an awards show and actually win?
A: You know, you go to these things with mixed emotions. Part of you feels, Gee, I've got a real good shot at taking home a piece of crystal glass tonight. But the other part of you is very cognizant of the fact that you never know with these awards. So when I won, I have to admit that there was a huge sense of relief. I was delighted. And, as you either saw or heard, when I got up, the emotion of it all did get to me a bit. I realized that this really was the end of a very long journey, and I thought, Look at that. I got a sugarplum. It felt very good.
Q: How long ago did this journey actually start?
A: In one respect, it started just shy of my 3rd birthday, when I started to stutter. The best way to handle a stutter when it first starts -- and I'm choosing my words carefully because once it starts a parent is well-advised to get speech therapy for their child -- but when it first appears, the best thing to do is nothing. Just listen patiently with a smile on your face, with no anxiety, with no agenda or rush. Just listen. Because I really do believe that psychologically the trigger mechanism is something that tells the person that they are not being heard. They doubt the power of their voice.
Q: Your family also moved you from England to the United States at a young age, correct?
A: Yes. At that time, it was believed that an invasion by Hitler was imminent. The U.K. government was trying to evacuate as many families and children as possible, and we were shipped off to the United States. My second memory is of the Statue of Liberty. By the time I arrived in New York City, I was stuttering, and it stayed with me right through my childhood and much of my adolescence. But the one ray of hope that I was given was the speeches of King George VI. In the latter stages of the war, when I was old enough to listen to the radio, my parents would encourage me to listen to the king's speeches. They would say to me, "David, he was a much worse stutterer than you, and listen to him now. He's not perfect. But he can give these magnificent, stirring addresses that rallied the free world." And he could do that as a king, with everyone listening intently to every syllable this man uttered. That's tough. But if he could do that, I felt that there was hope for me. He was a childhood hero. And as I got older and realized that lying and telling stories was a great deal of fun so I ought to become a writer, I always did feel that someday I would do something with the story of King George.
Q: You worked on The King's Speech or at least the idea driving the narrative for decades. What was the best piece of advice you received while concocting the script?
A: I wrote a first draft of the screenplay, which I wasn't quite sure about. So I showed it to my then-wife and writing partner, and she said, "Look, there's some very nice stuff in here, David, but you're being seduced by cinematic technique. Why don't you just, as an exercise, write it out as a stage play because the physical confines of the stage will force you to focus on your key relationships?" As you've seen, The King's Speech really is, after all, two men in a room. And if you get that tentpole upright, you can then hang everything off of it like Christmas tree ornaments. She's a smart woman, so I took her advice and wrote it as a play and kind of realized, I think I may have finally done this correctly.
Q: Speaking of doing it correctly, what can you tell me about Colin Firth's Oscar-nominated performance as King George?
A: Colin really is a genius. He's magnificent. From the first day, I realized that this man was going to nail it. He talked to me very, very deeply and at great length about being a stutterer: how it felt physically, what muscles tensed, which bones seemed to lock up, how it felt internally. And then he asked me a great deal about how it felt psychologically, in the sense of the isolation. He's an extremely bright man, very intelligent, and he asked all of the right questions. But he also listened, and he absorbed it, and he has turned in a magnificent performance. I remain beyond thrilled.