While success in Hollywood usually takes years of long hard struggle, screenwriter Iris Yamashita reached the pinnacle of her career with her first script, "Letters from Iwo Jima" (2006), the Clint Eastwood directed war epic about the famed Pacific theater battle told from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers. Prior to landing the assignment, Yamashita had a day job as a web programmer while working on writing during her spare time. Her only recognition as a writer was taking first place at the Big Bear Screenwriting Competition with her script "Traveler in Tokyo" and publishing a couple of short stories in Wingspan, All Nippon Airway's inflight magazine. Despite never having been paid as a professional, Yamashita landed the job thanks to Paul Haggis, who championed the fledgling scribe to Eastwood when she was helping to research "Flags of Our Fathers" (2006), the companion film to "Letters" as told from the American point of view. In a matter of months, Yamashita went from unknown commodity to Oscar nominee - a leap most writers dream of, but never achieve.
Yamashita was born in Missouri and raised in Hawaii, a first generation Japanese-American. Her parents were both originally from Japan and lived through the horrors of World War II - her mother's house in Tokyo was burned during a firebombing in March 1945, around the same time Iwo Jima fell to the United States. Yamashita went on to graduate Cum Laude with a bachelor's degree in Bioengineering from the University of California, San Diego. She later earned her master's in Mechanical Engineering from U.C. Berkley, then spent a year at the University of Tokyo as a research student studying virtual reality. Despite an academic career steeped in the sciences, Yamashita developed a passion for writing fiction while an undergraduate at UCSD. After winning the screenplay competition, she was signed as a client at Creative Artists Agency where Haggis was also represented.
With the writer-director neck deep in postproduction on his Oscar-winning picture, "Crash" (2005), Haggis sought another screenwriter to help him with "Letters from Iwo Jima." Yamashita got the job after their second meeting - a shock to the inexperienced scribe, who described herself as being "very nervous" about meeting the iconic Eastwood. Her rattled nerves were soon assuaged by Eastwood's calm demeanor - the director's hands-off approach to handling writers and actors allowed Yamashita to work on the drafts with relative freedom and encouragement. Starting on the letters written by Japanese soldiers that first sparked Eastwood to make the film, Yamashita developed a simple, but deeply moving look at the enemies fighting American soldiers on the black sand beaches of a tiny island in the Pacific - but without whitewashing the war crimes they committed, thus helping to complete an unprecedented filmmaking achievement. For her stunning work, Yamashita received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay.