It’s one thing to have a script produced, but to earn an Academy Award Nomination for Best Screenplay — your first time out? Any decent-hearted film school professor will tell you it’s an unlikely scenario, unless, like ”40-ish” Missouri-born screenwriter, Iris Yamashita, you’ve already been plucked from among the morass of Syd Field-wannabe scribes by the Gods of Hollywood themselves.
None other than Paul Haggis, Academy Award-winning screenwriter and director of last year’s Best Picture winner Crash, read some of Yamashita’s unproduced material and elected to work with her on Letters From Iwo Jima, the companion piece to Clint Eastwood’s World War II epic, Flags of Our Fathers. Steven Spielberg would eventually sign on as a producer. And it was Eastwood himself who would stamp his imprimatur on her efforts, making sure that no other hands would be called in to do rewrites: If the film wins a Best Original Screenplay statuette this weekend, Yamashita’s name will be alone in the envelope.
”I felt very comfortable when he told me he loved the first draft,” says Yamashita, ”because Clint Eastwood has the clout to say, ‘I want to go with this.’ He doesn’t have to take the studio’s suggestions. I’ve heard a lot of horror stories. This is probably one of those experiences that I’ll never have again.” She laughs at her own good fortune, adding, ”It’s all downhill from here.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you become a screenwriter?
IRIS YAMASHITA: Writing was always a hobby, but having Asian parents, they wanted me to study something practical. [Laughs] So, I actually majored in engineering but minored in writing. I had a couple of short stories published, [but] I could never actually finish a novel. So I started taking some UCLA extension courses in screenwriting and found that that was a medium that was more suitable to me because I could actually finish the screenplay. I entered a screenwriting competition where Cathy Tarr at CAA (Creative Artists Agency) was one of the judges, and that’s how she discovered me. I won that contest and so she agreed to ”hip pocket” me — she’s the one who actually got me the project. She found out about Letters From Iwo Jima and sent some of my scripts to Paul Haggis, and he met with me. I had a take already and characters in mind, and by the second meeting, he told me I was hired.
Let’s back up a little bit and explain ”hip pocket” for people.
Oh, okay. So I wasn’t signed by CAA, but she would represent me. To me it was great, because she did pretty much everything an agent normally does, plus more, I would say. She’s been my guiding light through the whole thing.
It’s good to hear a non-horror story about an agent.
Yes, she’s one of the few — well, I can’t say that — she’s just really a great agent. Nothing like those horror stories that you hear.
You said you already had a ”take.” Based on what?
They sent me the book of letters that General Kuribayashi [who led the Japanese forces at Iwo Jima] had written to his family. It was originally in Japanese, and Clint Eastwood had it specially translated. They were mostly letters from the General’s time living in America. They were very cute letters that he was writing to his son, with pictures of, ”This is your father walking in the park” and [lines like] ”Oh, what are you doing? I really miss you,” things like that. I knew that they wanted him as the main character in the movie. But I did a lot of research, and I also had done research for a previous script [Traveler in Tokyo] I had written, which takes place on the eve of World War II in Japan. So I wanted to incorporate some of the stuff that I learned from researching that script. I wanted to show some of the stuff on the homeland, so I came up with a couple of other characters. And I just passed them by Paul Haggis. And he seemed very open to the ideas.
Explain ”story by” versus ”screenplay by.”
”Story by” means the outline phase. Then I was working with Paul, and he put in his suggestions. ”Screenplay by” means I actually typed up all the words, the dialogue, and the descriptions, everything.
You’re sole-credited on the screenplay. What was that like, working with this renowned screenwriter and director and then having to go off on your own to write?
It was daunting. I turned in my first draft kind of holding my breath, like, ‘Are they going to like it?’ And my agent scared me because she said, ‘You gave them the first draft and you didn’t let me go over it first?’ She was really paranoid. But Clint Eastwood called me a little bit later and said that he loved it. He wanted to go with the first draft.
Clint Eastwood’s name was attached and then Steven Spielberg’s as producer. What was that like?
It’s funny how it just seemed to get bigger and bigger. At first, my agent and I were not exactly sure what kind of project this was. Because it’s unprecedented to have a movie and then have a companion movie made [so] quickly, we thought ‘Maybe they’re just going to make a companion movie on the DVD.’ We weren’t sure. But then when I talked to Paul, he said ‘No, no — this is for theatrical release.’ And I thought, ‘In America?’ And he said, ‘Yes, in the U.S.!’ I was like, ‘Wow!’ At that time, they weren’t sure who was going to direct it. I’m not sure if the script changed his mind or what, but when Clint Eastwood decided that he was going to direct it, the movie’s potential rocketed up [in my mind]. And, originally, they were going to release it in February. Then Steven Spielberg saw it, and I think he was helpful in saying, ‘No, let’s move it up to December.’ Again, it was another ‘WOW.’ I couldn’t sleep.
Did they say they were moving it up for Oscar consideration?
No. But when I was told the news, I was actually sitting with Ken Watanabe [who plays Kuribayashi] on our way to Tokyo for the premiere, and we both looked at each other like, ‘That’s great! Why would they move it?’ In the back of our minds, we were thinking, ‘I wonder if they think it’s got award potential?’ But we couldn’t really say that.
How long did it take you to write that first draft?
Because I was working with Paul Haggis and he was still doing post-production on Crash, I was dependent on his schedule. We would meet and discuss, and then it would be almost a month before he had time to meet with me again. But we only met three times on the outline. When he gave me the OK to go ahead with the script, it took me a month-and-a-half to write it.
Why was this considered an original screenplay and not an adaptation?
[Eastwood] bought the rights to the book, but I really just used it for reference. And I used many other books. So it’s hard to say that it was based on that book, because there really was no story. There was just the letters. My friends said, ‘You might as well say your screenplay was adapted from Roget’s Thesaurus.’
What was your involvement after the screenplay was written?
I did visit the set a couple of times. But because the dialogue is all in Japanese and I had written it in English — and my Japanese isn’t on that level where I could make changes in Japanese — they just relied on the translators.
How has the film’s success so far affected your career?
Originally, my managers didn’t know what to do with me. They wanted me to become a thriller writer or an action writer or a horror writer because it’s difficult to sell the kind of stories that I liked. But now I can actually do the kind of stories that I like, and they don’t have to put me into a genre or mold.
What kind of stories would that be?
I’m looking at a lot of true stories, historical… some more political. But they are basically dramas.
How does your family feel now about you leaving the engineering behind in order to write?
My mother has passed away, but she always encouraged me with my writing. My father, on the other hand, thought it was a waste of my time. He basically told me, ‘Why are you pursuing this writing thing?’ Now, he’s come around.