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Language of `Letters' no barrier

January 17, 2007|Jay A. Fernandez | Special to The Times

If your first produced screenplay became what many consider a sure-thing best picture Oscar nominee directed by the legendary Clint Eastwood, you'd practically be taking out billboards on Sunset to crow about your achievement, wouldn't you? It's, uh, kind of a big deal. But Iris Yamashita is so laid-back and unassuming it's hard to reconcile that this young woman is the screenwriter of "Letters From Iwo Jima," the grueling, psychologically poetic war film that has suddenly received a barrage of kudos (and, as of Monday, a Golden Globe for best foreign-language film).

While planning last year's "Flags of Our Fathers," a brutal depiction of the attack on Iwo Jima and its aftermath, Eastwood discovered a collection of letters written by the Japanese commander on the island (played in the film by Ken Watanabe), and became fascinated by the idea of doing a companion film that showed the Japanese perspective of the 1945 battle.

Eastwood brought the project to his best picture-winning "Million Dollar Baby" screenwriter, Paul Haggis, who was too buried in post-production on "Crash" to write it but who took it upon himself to find another screenwriter. Yamashita's agent at Creative Artists Agency got wind of the open assignment and sent Haggis (also a CAA client) some of her scripts.

"They were very different, very well researched and had a distinct sense of time and place," Haggis says via e-mail from New Mexico, where he's shooting his follow up to "Crash," "In the Valley of Elah," a drama about the suspicious disappearance of an Iraq war soldier.

At the time, Yamashita, who declines to reveal her age, was working full time as a Web programmer and had yet to sell a spec or get a paid assignment. But during their second meeting, Haggis suddenly decided that she was right for the gig and told Yamashita, "OK, now you can quit your job."

Though she kept reporting to work ("I waited until there was actually a contract," she says), she delved into additional research immediately, and soon after getting Haggis' support, Yamashita had her first sit-down with him, Eastwood and producer Rob Lorenz.

"I was very in awe," she says of meeting the iconic Eastwood. "He was very laid-back and down to earth and that made me feel a lot more comfortable."

Yamashita says that Eastwood remained a committed booster throughout her drafts. "The goal basically was just to show the horrors of war."

The battle for Iwo Jima so decimated the Japanese that there was almost no firsthand material available about the Japanese side of the fight (only about 1,100 survived from the original 22,000), so she ended up getting most of the feel from memoirs written by Japanese soldiers about other battles.

For the flashback sequences, Yamashita synthesized material from many sources to portray the fear, militarism and forced nationalism rampant in Japan during that era.

It was an atmosphere her parents, who were young children growing up in the Tokyo area during World War II, knew well. Yamashita's father's eldest brother fought and nearly died of dysentery, and her mother's house in the city was burned down. Her father later came to America on a Fulbright scholarship; Yamashita was born in Missouri and spent a year studying at the University of Tokyo after earning a master's in mechanical engineering from UC Berkeley.

When Yamashita went back to Japan last month, it was as a minor celebrity. At the Tokyo premiere of "Iwo Jima," 6,500 people were on hand to mob the film's stars at the famous Budokan arena. Such was the excitement level that Eastwood, Lorenz and Yamashita had to be escorted down their hotel's staff elevator to the underground garage, where they were quickly ushered into a contingent of highly secure vans.

"What was that Clint Eastwood movie where the security guards were running with the president's cars?" Yamashita asks as she tries to characterize the mayhem.

" 'In the Line of Fire'?"

"Yeah, exactly. There were those people running next to the van," she says, and laughs. "That was an experience I know I'll never have again."

This Reitman prefers low budget

It's a funny thing, comedy. Films as diverse as "Talladega Nights," "The Devil Wears Prada," "Borat" and "Little Miss Sunshine" can all make us howl with laughter while comfortably sharing space in the same giant genre tent. And sometimes, as Jason Reitman has recently demonstrated, there's even space in the same family.

Ivan Reitman, Jason's father, built his reputation on directing big-budget, star-driven, high-concept comedies like "Stripes," "Ghostbusters" and "Twins." Last year, the younger Reitman wrote and directed "Thank You for Smoking," a wicked satire made on a tiny budget that mischievously plays to both sides of the political aisle.

It's a sensibility he developed in high school after he discovered unique comedic voices in offbeat movies like Wes Anderson's "Bottle Rocket," Richard Linklater's "Slacker" and Kevin Smith's "Clerks."

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