Almost thirty years ago, when screenwriter David Seidler received a letter from the Queen Mother on buff-coloured stationery with red Clarence House letterhead, he thought her gentle rebuff was no more than a brief setback to his plans. He had requested permission to write a screenplay about her late husband, King George VI, overcoming his terrible stammer: "Not during my lifetime," the Queen Mother responded. "The memory of those events is still too painful."
"I thought yes, but she's a very elderly lady," says Mr. Seidler over the phone from California, where he lives. "How long am I going to have to wait? Two or three years at most." He pauses for dramatic effect: "Cut to 25 years later when she leaves this mortal realm, aged almost 102. So it was a very long wait."
His booming laugh is proof of the adage about those who laugh last: On Tuesday he was nominated for an Academy Award for the screenplay he wrote, The King's Speech. The film lead the pack with 12 nominations, including acting nods for Colin Firth, playing King George VI, and Geoffrey Rush, as the irreverent Australian speech therapist who helps and befriends him. The story of the reluctant monarch's relationship with the coach, Lionel Logue, has reigned at the UK box office for weeks and is receiving standing ovations in Australia, where only 11 years ago the country nearly decided to dump the monarchy.
The English-born screenwriter overcame a terrible stammer of his own and the script, evolved from Mr. Seidler's boyhood fixation with the King, was almost never heard: It was sidetracked by illness, by the iron will of the smiling Queen Mother, by financing challenges, and above all by history's deferential silence. Ironically, as George VI struggled to find his voice, official biographers muted his plight.
Having left England to seek wartime refuge in America, Mr. Seidler's parents encouraged him to listen to George VI on the radio as a way of overcoming his stutter: "They would say, 'David, he was far worse than you. And listen now - he's not perfect but he can give all these magnificent speeches.'"
At Cornell University, Mr. Seidler began reading biographies of the King, but none of them dwelt on his stammer: "It's not surprising," says Mr. Seidler, 73. "In those days, stuttering was called a speech defect. You were a defective person. The Royal Family certainly didn't want it bandied about that one of their members was defective."
Much of his career in Hollywood was spent as a television writer. After finishing the screenplay for Francis Ford Coppola's Tucker: The Man and His Dream in the late 1970s, Mr. Seidler finally completed his script for The King's Speech, but put it away at the Queen Mother's request. He revived the project in 2005 after receiving a cancer diagnosis: returning to the story would focus his imagination. In a historical vacuum, he did what writers have always done: He made it all up.
At the suggestion of his wife, Mr. Seidler rewrote the film as a play, which had a reading in London in 2008. One of the people in the audience was Australian Meredith Hooper, who told her film-director son Tom she had seen a play that would make a splendid movie. The strands started to come together. Unrelated, Mr. Rush received the script in his mailbox and signed on - but there were still difficulties, not least the fact that it was hard to raise cash for such an unfashionable film.
"It's incredibly expensive to make period films anyway, and there had been films on similar subjects recently that had not performed up to expectations. We were still deep in the financial crisis. And we didn't know if we could find an American distributor, " producer Iain Canning says. In the early stages, it seemed like The King's Speech might be a BBC drama, at best.
On top of this, Mr. Seidler had been unable to uncover much biographical detail about one of the two main characters in his story. "I kept finding these blips on the screen called 'Lionel Logue.' I could smell a story. I knew something was there."
Mr. Seidler relates his story in the honeyed tones of a 1940s radio announcer; there is no trace of the stammer that traumatized his childhood. At the age of 16, he discovered profanity as a way of overcoming his impediment: In essence, he told it to go bleep itself.
He used that moment of defiance for a pivotal scene in the film, in which the Duke of York (who had yet to take the throne after the abdication of his brother, Edward VIII) sings an angry aria of profanity. In the absence of any actual information about Mr. Logue's relationship with his most famous patient, and drawing on his own fury, Mr. Seidler put his imagination to work.
Then, with nine weeks before filming began, a final piece of the puzzle fell into place: The art department discovered the London filmmaker Mark Logue, grandson of the speech therapist, who was the keeper of the family archive. He had a treasure trove of materials - photos, diaries, letters from the King to Mr. Logue.
"The producers and director were delighted," Mr. Seidler says. "I was terrified. What if I'd got everything wrong?"
The final pieces of the puzzle sit on the kitchen table of a house in north London. These are Lionel Logue's diaries, appointment notes, and a souvenir program from the King's 1937 coronation. More intimate are the yellowing letters, on red Clarence House letterhead, which the Duke of York sent in gratitude to the Australian who helped him when no one else could. One is dated Jan. 5, 1927: "My dear Logue," it begins, in bold, slanting writing. "I must send you a line to tell you how grateful I am to you for all you have done in helping me with my speech defect. …" It is signed, "Yours Sincerely, Albert."
Mr. Seidler, as it turns out, had not got it wrong: While the discreet Mr. Logue did not spell everything out in his diaries, it was clear that relationship between the two men was largely as he'd imagined it. "There were very few bum notes in the script," says Mark Logue, looking over his grandfather's archive. He has just published a memoir about his grandfather, also called The King's Speech.
Still, there were a few details that Mr. Seidler incorporated once he'd seen the papers, including a reference to a certain doughiness in the royal tummy. "Has an acute nervous tension which has been brought on by the defect," Mr. Logue wrote after he'd first seen the Duke of York on Oct. 19, 1926, "… waistline very flabby."
There is another crucial document on Mark Logue's table, typewritten on Buckingham Palace letterhead. This is the speech George VI broadcast to millions of his subjects around the world on Sept. 3, 1939, announcing that Britain was at war. The delivery of the speech, with the King and the therapist agonizing over every potentially treacherous consonant, forms the climactic scene in the film.
The actual document is revealing, if not quite as dramatic: In tiny, crabbed handwriting, Mr. Logue underlined words that might trip up the King, such as "forced," or indicated places where he should pause. He changed "my government" to "our selves." In his diary, Mr. Logue says he told the King after the speech that he'd stumbled over a "w." I had to, the King responded, "so they would know it was me."
Mr. Seidler stole that joke, quite happily and unapologetically. "It gets a laugh every time and I didn't even write it."
Now, after a career largely unremarked upon, Mr. Seidler is a very big noise indeed. You could say he's found his voice. "It's very nice at this stage of life," he says, "to be an overnight success."