Iris Yamashita's Road to Success

Posted on March 3, 2007

Iris Yamashita, who was nominated for an Oscar for her original screenplay, Letters From Iwo Jima, talks about how she got the call that jump started her screenwriting career. Paul Haggis and Clint Eastwood tapped Iris to write the screenplay, after Haggis read some of her work. At the time, she was working as a web programmer and wrote her screenplays in her spare time. Haggis didn't feel up to the task of writing a screenplay told from the Japanese perspective during World War II, and wanted a Japanese-American screenwriter who could provide cultural perspective and authenticity.
Fortunately for Yamashita, she is represented by the same talent agency as Haggis, who wrote 2005's best-picture Oscar winner Million Dollar Baby and earned the 2006 best picture prize with Crash, which he co-wrote and directed. Yamashita's agent, Cathy Tarr, sent Haggis some samples of Yamashita's previous screenplays.

"I was invited to meet with him and I had a few ideas about the story and some of the characters. He really went for them, so in the second meeting, he told me I was hired," said Yamashita, who lives in Sherman Oaks, Calif. "I had a full-time job as a Web programmer at the time and he just said, 'You can quit your job now.' And then he started making phone calls to my agent and to Warner Brothers to start writing a contract. He called Clint's office to set up a meeting right away. It was surreal."

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Her first screenplay, "Traveler in Tokyo," won first prize in the Big Bear Lake Screenwriting Competition, where her now-agent Tarr served as a judge. "I had always been writing on the side as a hobby as far as I can remember. But my Asian parents wanted me to pursue something 'practical,' so I majored in engineering," said Yamashita, who has a B.S. and M.S. in engineering.

"I had a couple of short stories published, and I thought I was going to write a novel. But it just takes too long. I could never really finish anything, so I looked into a screenwriting class [at UCLA] because I thought it was a medium that was faster, something that I could actually finish. I entered a screenwriting contest and my current agent was a judge and she picked me up."
We just love stories like this one. Now Iris is a full-time screenwriter with an Oscar nomination under her belt. It just goes to show that you should keep writing those screenplays and honing your craft, even if you have to work really hard to find the time to squeeze in your writing. And if your parents don't approve, you don't have to mention that you spend all your waking hours slaving over a hot computer keyboard -- when you're not at your safe day job, of course.