Ms. Iris Yamashita had a meteoric rise as a screenwriter in the movie industry with her nomination for Best Original Screenplay for her debut work, “Letters From Iwo Jima,” which was released at the end of last year in the US and Japan. Depicting the Pacific War based on historical events from a Japanese viewpoint, this movie was critically acclaimed in the US as well as in Japan. It was also released on DVD on May 22. When Ms. Yamashita visited San Diego to give a speech at a local college, we had an opportunity to interview her. We asked her about what made her decide to become a screenwriter while working as a web programmer, how she became involved in the“Letters From Iwo Jima” project, and how she felt about the making of the movie as a Japanese-American screenwriter.
—— “Letters From Iwo Jima” is your first produced screenplay. But your regular occupation was web programming. What made you decide to become a screenwriter?
I was always writing as a hobby, but having Asian parents, I was encouraged to have a “practical job,” so I continued to take UCLA extension classes while working full time as a web programmer. Originally, I had the intention of writing novels. However, I had a difficult time actually finishing a novel. Once I started taking screenwriting classes, I found that the shorter format was a good medium for me.
—— What was your main reason for wanting to write “Iwo Jima”? Did you have any intention in scripting the film as a Japanese-American?
The idea to make a movie about Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective was actually Clint Eastwood’s idea. They were looking for a writer, and I do believe that being a Japanese-American was helpful in getting the assignment.
—— You are a second-generation Japanese-American or “Nisei.” Would you tell us more about your family background?
My parents were born in Japan and came to the U.S. in the ‘60s. My father had received a Fullbright Scholarship to study in the U.S. He currently works in Los Angeles as an ophthalmologist. My mother, who was a homemaker, passed away in 2005. I have one older sister who also lives in Los Angeles and works at an advertising agency.
—— How did your family react to “Iwo Jima” ?
When I first told my parents about the job, my parents asked me “Who’s Clint Eastwood?” They weren’t movie-goers. My mother died before the film was completed, so unfortunately, she was not able to see the movie. However, my father, as well as many of my relatives were very proud of the film.
—— Would you tell us how this film came about?
Clint Eastwood was working on pre-production for “Flags of Our Fathers” and as he was doing research, he became curious about the Japanese defense. He was able to get some information about Lt. General Kuribayashi and was impressed by his information. Clint Eastwood just had the right instinct that a movie about the Japanese perspective would be very interesting.
—— Following “Flags of Our Fathers”, Mr. Clint Eastwood directed another movie from the Japanese perspective and Americans seem to react better to “Iwo Jima” than “Flags.” Were you expecting the reaction or surprised by that?
Yes, I was surprised by the reaction. “Flags of Our Fathers” was well received critically, but I was surprised that “Letters From Iwo Jima” did so well because of the foreign language and the enemy perspective. Of course, it always helps to have Clint Eastwood as a director.
—— Do you think they are enjoying “Iwo Jima” more because of its different perspective of WWII?
Yes, I think a big part of the success of “Letters From Iwo Jima” is because it did portray a perspective that people were not used to seeing.
—— Have you always been interested in writing a screenplay about WWII?
Prior to “Letters From Iwo Jima,” I had written a screenplay called “Traveler in Tokyo” which takes place in Japan on the eve or WWII. I did wish to portray what civilian life was like at that time and I was able to put some of that into the movie, but before “Letters,” I had not considered writing about any actual battles.
—— Did you have any trouble researching historical facts of the war?
I did a lot of research including reading books, watching videos, websites, personal references and journals. The most problematic was that there were few Japanese survivors who could recount their first hand experiences. However, I did manage to find some references on survivors and information on the actual battle was plentiful from the American side.
—— What are your feelings on the fact that Japanese and Japanese-Americans were sent to the internment camps during WWII?
I had done some research regarding the internment camps and had talked to people who actually lived in the camps when they were young. It was a travesty for those who suffered through it. I can’t imagine today being sent to prison simply for my heritage. However, the people who I talked with who actually lived in the internment camps did not seem bitter. They were young kids when they lived there, so they simply viewed it as a part of their childhood.
—— WWII must be a sensitive issue for Japanese and Japanese-Americans. What are your feelings about how Japanese have been portrayed in Hollywood movies about WWII?
There definitely was a time when Japanese were mainly portrayed as caricatures, but I think that in recent times, people are more world-wise, and more people are interested in authentic and multi-cultural themes.
—— What’s your next step?
I am currently working on a couple of new projects. A deal is currently being negotiated on the previously mentioned “Traveler in Tokyo” script.
Iris Yamashita was born in Missouri to a “Shin Issei” (new first generation) couple who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s. After majoring in mechanical engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, she studied at the University of Tokyo for a year. After college, she continued writing screenplays as a hobby while making a living as a web programmer. Her talent was discovered by Paul Haggis, executive producer of “Letters From Iwo Jima,” and she was hired to write the screenplay for his movie. Ms. Yamashita entered the limelight when she was nominated for the Oscar’s Best Original Screenplay for “Letters From Iwo Jima,” her debut work as a professional screenwriter.
・Hobbies: I used to say “writing” was my hobby. But now that it’s my occupation, I’m not sure what to say.� Maybe traveling.
・Motto: The most important thing is to not give up and to keep chasing your dream.
・Favorite Movie: Too many movies to name.
・Favorite Music: I have an eclectic collection of CDs—many movie soundtracks and international music.
・Favorite Food: Japanese food and chocolate.
・Activities to Stay Healthy: I exercise with a TV fitness program called “Total Body Sculpt with Gilad.”