Monday, September 27, 2010

The King's Speech

Genre: Period/Biopic
Premise: On the precipice of World War 2, the son of King George V, who has an embarrassing speech impediment, is tasked with giving one of the most important speeches of the 20th century.
About: The King’s Speech just won the Audience Award at the Toronto Film Festival. The film stars Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Botham Carter. For those of you writers getting long in the tooth and afraid that Hollywood ageism is conspiring against you, David Seidler, the writer of The King’s Speech, is 73 years old and just signed with UTA! Talk about paying your dues, huh? This script should prove to many that your best work is usually your most personal. Seidler had a terrible stuttering problem when he was growing up and was inspired by Bertie’s (King George VI) story. He’s been trying to get the film made for over 20 years. The script was finally made because it got into the hands of Tom Hooper’s parents (the director). They gave it to their son, who was shooting John Adams for HBO. He showed up at Seidler’s door, waving the script, calling it the best script he’d ever read in his life. In classic Hollywood fashion, they then proceeded to write 50 more drafts!
Writer: David Seidler
Details: 115 pages – Sept. 17, 2008 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).

I remember last year around this time when An Education debuted and people were talking about it as an Oscar contender. I didn’t personally see anything Oscar-contention-worthy about the script, so while I know a lot of people liked it, I wasn’t surprised to see it disappear off the radar. I still don’t know why you’d make a movie about an inappropriate relationship where nobody in the movie cares that the relationship is inappropriate! But alas, I’m not here to complain about An Education.

I’m here to look for some weightier scripts. Last week’s half-hearted attempts at screenwriting left me cold so when I heard that, once again, companies were marching out their Oscar contenders, I perked up. You figure, at the very least, the scripts have to be decent, and this is what led me to The King’s Speech, the movie that came out of Toronto with the most attention.

I’m by no means an expert on British royalty so you’ll have to excuse me if I get some facts wrong. The King’s Speech is about Albert, or “Bertie” as he’s known, The Duke of York and second son of King George V. It’s the 1930s and some lunatic named Hitler is wreaking havoc up and down Europe. With King George on his last legs, a new king will have to reign soon, and that king’s voice will be one of the most important voices in the world, as it will convey to every country what Britain’s stance is on the dictator.

Enter Bertie, who has a colossal stuttering problem, so much so that his own wife, Elizabeth, is embarrassed by him. Lucky for Bertie, his older brother David, the Prince of Wales, will be taking over the throne, not him. David is a media darling and extremely popular, however he falls in love with a common woman, and is therefore scandeled out of the throne, forcing Bertie into the role he thought he was free and clear of, that of The King.

During this time, radio was becoming huge. For you youngsters, think 3-D times a thousand. Actually, 3-D’s not a good example, since it will be gone in a year. Let’s see. Like the internet! Yes, like the internet. Radio was like the internet back in the 1930s. Except there was no e-mail in radio. Or web. Or Twitter or Facebook. This reminds me, did you guys hear about that college that experimented for one week with no cell phones, texting, or internet? I guess the whole college grinded to a halt because nobody knew how to operate.

Anyway, the point I was making was that radio was huge, and more leaders were required to give public addresses. In particular, the world was awaiting the most important country in the world’s response to Hitler. Enter Bertie, a man who stuttered so bad he couldn’t find his way out of a sentence with a map.

So terrible is his problem that his wife actually seeks a speech therapist outside the royal circle. She finds a man with a great reputation, an Aussie named Lionel Logue. Lionel is of course brash, unconventional, and inappropriate, sort of like a 1930s Mr. Miagi with more attitude. Bertie hates him immediately. But after a clever first session in which he proves to Bertie that he can speak without stuttering, Bertie has no choice but to continue the therapy.

This is where the script really takes off, when these two are clashing against each other. The pitch-perfect conflict, one steeped in convention, the other dripping with disrespect, makes for some fun back and forth. Characters who buck convention and live by their own set of rules are always good, and when I heard that they got Geoffrey Rush to play this part, I knew they’d hit the jackpot.

Unfortunately, for some reason, the script deviates from the Lionel-Bertie storyline in the later half of the second act, focusing instead on in-family political issues and some nonsense with the prime minister that we don’t really care about. While I understand why so many writers get lost in this part of the script (I think it’s the hardest part of a screenplay to get right), this seemed like a pretty obvious mistake. Why go away from the best part of your story?

While it could be characterized as a hoighty-toity period piece, The King’s Speech uses the simplest most classic story structure there is. Man has problem. Man tries to fix problem. Believe it or not, it’s not that different from a script like Bad Teacher, the Cameron Diaz comedy I reviewed earlier this year. In that script, woman has problem (she needs bigger boobs so she can find a sugar daddy) and woman tries to fix problem (Steals money from the school she’s employed at).

What makes The King’s Speech so successful at this format, however, is first, irony is built straight into the concept. A man who can’t speak is tasked with making the biggest speech ever! What a great premise. Next, the stakes are extremely high (possibly the freedom of the world). There’s a natural ticking time bomb (the speech), and our character is super sympathetic. He’s an underdog! As I’ve pointed out before, there’s no character we root more for than an underdog. Put all these things together and you have a winning formula.

Now that doesn’t mean the structure is foolproof. One of the problems you run into with such simple stories is deciding how complex to make them, namely how many subplots to add and what to do with those subplots. This is a critical decision. If your subplots are too few or too thin, the story feels empty. If they’re too many or too complex, they create deep chasms of screenplay real estate that bore the audience to death. This is what I was referring to above. When we move away from Lionel and start concerning ourselves with Bertie’s brother, he’s just not tied into Bertie’s issue enough to make him interesting. Or, at least, not in the way they chose to include him.

Finally, I have to mention the dialogue in this script, specifically between Bertie and Lionel. Once again, it proves that the SITUATION is the most important factor in creating great dialogue. The dialogue here comes because you have an uptight man who demands respect working with a selfish man who respects no one. Before you’ve even written a word, the conflict you’ve created by placing these two characters in the same room is going to lead to great dialogue no matter how inexperienced you are.

It’s really too bad that the dreaded late second act blues hit this script because it was shaping up to be an impressive. Still, this was an enjoyable read and I’m not surprised it’s playing so well to audiences.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Failed period pieces often try to cover too much territory. It’s as if the writer feels he/she must live up to the weightiness of the time and the material by exploring as many different aspects of the subject matter as possible. Instead, the next time you write a period piece, consider telling a simple yet powerful story that audiences can understand and relate to, like The King’s Speech.