This year’s award season looks to be an unpredictable race, there are no clear front runners in most major categories as yet. But, for one Will Smith, his new film biographical drama King Richard, it could look like a success for the once and future Fresh Prince. Telling the story of how Richard Williams (Smith), turned two of his young daughters into the greatest tennis players of all time – Venus and Serena Williams. FilmHounds sat down with screenwriter Zach Baylin to discuss the film and what it means to put their early years on screen.
This is your debut as a screenwriter, and it’s already being spoken of for major awards consideration. That must feel pretty good for a first screenplay, are you surprised by the reviews?
I’m not surprised by the film’s reviews, we were fairly confident that Rei [Director Reinaldo Marcus Green], had made a terrific movie. But, certainly, the accolades around the script are pretty surprising, and I’m trying not to take that stuff too seriously right now.
But, in terms of, I’d written many screenplays before this that did not get this kind of notice or make it to the screen. So, to get this kind of notice I knew this one was really special, long before I sat down to write any of it, but when I was researching the story, I knew it had a chance to be really powerful and connect with audiences. I knew it was a unique one, so everything that has happened around it, from Will [Smith, star and producer] getting involved, Rei Green signing on to direct, to sitting through the table read for the first time, those have all euphoric moments.
With Richard Williams himself, he’s a figure that many people might be aware of, but not necessarily know in depth, how do you as a writer go about crafting a screenplay about someone who is in the shadows of a major event?
Richard is a really compelling, complicated, charismatic, outrageous character. I knew Richard peripherally, just from being a tennis fan and from growing up watching Venus and Serena play. You’d see Richard in the stands often holding hand made signs that said “I told you so”. So, I knew Richard’s story just the way other people did from Sports Centre or Sports Illustrated, my perception was that’s something of a controversial figure. Or, at least, what you’d think of as the typical sports father who is overbearing, contentious and a hard driving coach.
What I was surprised to learn as I started researching it was Richard had that public face that was in a lot of ways was calculated. But, when he was in private or on the courts with his family he was really soft, and encouraging and loving. He was the antithesis of what you’d expect from that hard driving coach. I thought that would be really compelling for audiences to see, that he was someone that contained multitudes or wildly swinging personality traits.
The end of the film says both Williams sister were involved in an Executive Producer role, is that a hands-on role, are they there overseeing the script saying yes and no, or is it more or less them giving their blessing to go and make the film?
More the latter. I wrote the script for two producers Tim and Trevor White, and we did not have the rights or any contact with the family. So, the script that Will read was written independently without the family’s involvement. But, we all knew for two reasons that we wanted the family’s cooperation.
One, there were aspects of the research that I was never going to be able to get right. Just from reading books and watching the videos. I did a lot of interviews with people who had touched their life, so I had spoken to them, but not the family. We knew we wanted it to be a really intimate family drama.
And to understand what Venus and Serena’s life was like, not just on the court, but what was it like riding in the van with you five sisters every morning. Were you guys exhausted and cranky, or were people cracking jokes. What did it feel like? So, I wanted to get a chance to sit down and interview then.
So, the revisions I made to script once we got it in front of the family, I felt, were very additive. It wasn’t sitting down with them and them saying “please don’t put this in the script” it was us asking for more stories so that we could put them in the script, and get things accurate.
And then, Isha Price, who is one of Venus and Serena’s sister, who is a lawyer and also works with them on more entertainment aspects of their careers. She come on, and was on set everyday. Isha was like our factual consultant, everything from showing Demi [Singleton, plays Serena] and Saniyya [Sidney, plays Venus], the right backhands, as well as working with the production designer to say “no, my bed was on that side, and they slept there, and Venus and Serena would sleep in the same bed.” Then Venus and Serena, at that point with the script were just there to talk us through.
One thing that came out of those conversations was the scene where Richard shows the kids Cinderella. When Richard is disappointed in their behaviour after Venus has won a tournament and he sits them down to watch Cinderella, and then asks them to explain what they learned from watching a children’s animated movie.
That kind of unorthodox parenting was something Venus told us specifically, and it was kind of an amazing scene. So those things to me were extremely beneficial to me writing.
That’s a scene that in the screening I was in, people laughed, then gasped at, in that it seems ridiculous.
I saw it with an audience and it was fun to watch their reactions to that.
This is a story about the Williams’ sisters and how they became two of the greatest living athletes. How do you balance the fact that people know Richard is right with a “will they make it”?
That was tricky, but I knew we wanted it to be propelling towards an unexpected outcome. I very early on read about Venus’ first pro-tournament, and sort of decided that that was where I wanted the movie to end. None of the filmmakers wanted to see Venus and Serena at Wimbledon. That didn’t feel like a movie to me. I wanted to focus on this moment in time where this improbable dream was either going to crash and burn or they’re going to make it. So we tried to hang onto the storytelling.
And, that tournament had held such huge stakes for the family, because Richard had pulled them out of junior tennis, she hadn’t played a match in all those years. All their financial goals and aspirations were tied into how she would perform when she finally came out of the shadows of not playing, and stepping into the spotlight of that match.
What I felt like was, yes, people know that they go on to become very successful tennis players and entrepreneurs and all that, but people hopefully didn’t know exactly what was on the line. They don’t know what the outcome of that tournament was, so we lead up to that in a way that is suspenseful but also truthful.
There’s a moment in the film where the Williams family witness the Rodney King beatings on TV, which underlines how hard it’s going to be for two Black girls from a poor area to break into a white sport. Was it important for the production to tell a story of Black success as opposed to Black suffering?
I think so. Everyone involved understood that this was a really special story about a Black family that achieves something incredible. Again, when we were talking to Venus and Serena about life in Compton, in those areas, they emphasised that it was a tough neighbourhood, there was a lot of stuff that made it hard. But, there was also a lot of things that made their life in the house that made it vibrant.
It was important to show that there were things to overcome to achieve something in their lives, but it didn’t mean that their day-to-day was oppressive. It was a big bright and loving place that the family had made. That was important for the production to show.
Just finally, looking at your IMDb, it says your next project is Creed III which is ironic given that this film has a very Rocky-style ending. Is there anything you can tell us about the third Creed film?
Well, one, I’m very excited to be a part of it. Michael [B. Jordan] is directing it, and I think he’s brought a very personal story to this next one. I can’t say much about it, as they’re about to start shooting, other than the story is really powerful. It lives on it’s own, outside of being the third Creed film. It has huge boxing pieces that will be really exciting but the journey that Adonis goes through is huge and could live on it’s own as a great film.
King Richard is out in UK cinemas now.