'Aretha' Helped Writer Tracey Scott Wilson Rediscover the Power of Faith [Interview]

Tracey Scott Wilson knew she wanted to write since the fifth grade. A teacher encouraged her, and she listened. From there, the playwright and screenwriter, who graduated with a Masters in English at Temple University, gained acclaim in the theater. She wrote several acclaimed plays, including Leader of the People and Buzzer, and frequently collaborated with filmmaker Liesel Tommy. Now, the two of them are key voices behind the new biopic Aretha.

The two artists first met in the New York Theatre Workshop. Over 20 years later, they spent years working together on their Aretha Franklin biopic. It’s not a story that simply recaps a life – it’s all about Franklin’s journey towards becoming a powerful voice in music and beyond. It’s a powerful voice, and actress Jennifer Hudson does it justice.

In addition to Aretha, Wilson has written for shows like Do No HarmThe Americans, and the limited series, Foss/Verdon. Recently, the writer told us about her past experiences, how to write towards a commercial break, and how she wanted to focus on Aretha the person, not just the icon.

Were you always listening to Aretha’s music when writing?

The entire time. I listened to it every day when I was writing it.

Any deep cuts that inspired you?

There was actually a lot of her jazz stuff that I got into a lot. In particular, I can’t remember which album it’s on, but her version of “Skylark.” It’s just extraordinary. Let’s see, “All the King’s Horses” and “You’re All I Need to Get By.” There are her not as famous covers of other songs, her version of “The Weight.” There’s also an album of songs that she did and they never were fully recorded. I listened to it a lot. I really grew to appreciate her artistry in a way that I didn’t when I was just listening to it when I was growing up.

Something seemingly tricky to do in biopics to really communicate or capture an artist’s passion. How did you want to achieve or convey Aretha’s soulfulness on the page?

Well, it was just important to show how she became the artist that she became. One of the things I didn’t know about her, is she grew up around extraordinary talent. She grew up with performers coming around her house. Obviously, she absorbed all that. She was surrounded by musical geniuses. It was really about understanding how she did it, because she didn’t practice any more than anyone else.

She never learned how to read music. It was about how she found her voice, and obviously her playing as well. How she was able to express universal emotions through these songs, personally and politically. In terms of doing that, it was helpful to get into the nitty-gritty and to get into the weeds about what makes the songs extraordinary and ahead of her time and also of their time.

In choosing which parts of her life to portray, was that the unifying theme in your mind, her finding her voice?

Oh, yeah. Having that as a frame and knowing when a movie was going to end, was helpful because obviously there are so many stories that you can draw from. But if you just know that we were just focusing on how she became the Queen of Soul, just focusing on that, narrows things down. And then within that, obviously there was way more than they were able to put in the movie. It’s shaping the narrative so that we see Aretha as a character, not just as an icon.

You take your time, too. It’s not rushing through cliff notes.

Liesl and I talked about at the beginning, we both love Coal Miner’s Daughter. I’ve watched a lot of musical biopics while I writing this and the preparation for it. I was always drawn to the ones that were character-driven, where it wasn’t like I was watching a movie about an icon. “We have to share this moment, we have to show this moment.” It was just about, who is this Aretha as a character? It was looking at this 10-year-old girl as a blank slate, and see how she developed over time based on her parents, based on where she lived, based on all these kinds of things. It was just taking the whole Aretha part out of it so that you’re not looking at something larger than life, and you’re just looking at a kid who’s growing up.

I know this is a sensitive subject, but what happens to her as a child, how much did you see the film as a story of trauma?

Oh yeah. No, absolutely. Absolutely. It’s only through her pain that she knows how to express it. Expressing your pain through songs was one of the ways she was able to help so many people and reach so many people. The only way that you can show that is by showing the trauma, and then you can appreciate the joy that you can’t have one without the other.

Well said. Fosse/Verdon, which you worked on, also showed the internal life of artists. How’s it different telling that story in a movie compared to a limited series? 

Well, Fosse/Verdon, you could take more time and you can use sort of different techniques. Flashbacks, things like that. In terms of the research part of it, it’s just about finding those stories or creating those stories that speak to where she was emotionally. It’s probably in the song that she was sitting at that time that also speaks to that moment. It was breathing for Aretha.

What didn’t the movie have time to explore about Aretha? What stories didn’t we see? 

There was more stuff with the sisters that couldn’t get in there. There was some other stuff with Forest [Whitaker] early on. A lot of tragic stuff had to be cut. When I was cutting some of the other scenes, some scenes with Ted White (Marlon Wayans) had to be cut. We just had to, because it could be four hours. I think that it took me a minute to realize that I had to let go of the screenplay. Editing is a whole nother sort of process, and writing process. I’m really happy with the way everything came together. So much so that when I saw it, I forgot that those scenes were not in there.

You and Lisel have collaborated before, right?

Oh yeah. She directed a play of mine. We worked in that for four and a half years. We’ve been working on it for a long time, which was helpful to this process. She knows my writing, I know her directing. There’s just no bullshit between us. There’s no ego involved. She just wants the best of the best script, she just wants the best writing. All that sort of stuff, when you have to get to know the other director, and you’re not sure about the motivation, none of that’s political, none of that stuff is there because we just have this friendship. We just hit the ground running. Things could be done in shorthand, or a look, and she can understand why I see it was written in a certain way at a certain time. I couldn’t imagine going through this process with anybody else, especially with something like this. This important task.

What are, for you, the subtle differences between writing a play and a movie?

It might be the most obvious, was just that the camera could do so much more work for you. You could actually say a lot less than you have to do on stage. It’s understanding the film is a visual medium and keeping that in mind. Once I had that in mind, that changed the way I was writing. Obviously, different from TV because I’m not writing towards an act break in the same way. I’m not running towards a commercial or anything like that. With film, lines can be more powerful. It was sort of a big revelation brought on to me.

How do you write towards a commercial break?

Well, it depends. If you’re writing for an old-school network, literally you’re writing so the people could come back after the commercial. You’re writing for, “Oh, my god. Who got shot?” Your writing so that they’ll come back from the kitchen. So that one usually is, for the network, it’s more high stakes. If you’re writing for cable, obviously, it can be a little different, but you’re still writing very cautious of this the first act and we’re going to forward to the second act. It’s much more stamina.

Was The Americans the perfect show to factor in commercial breaks?

Absolutely.

For The Americans, you said you respond to characters who believed in something bigger than themselves. With Aretha, was she the perfect protagonist for you then? 

No, absolutely. She was raised to believe in some bigger than herself. She was raised in this very political, not only religious but political household. Her whole life was about service. Her whole life was about believing in something bigger than herself. Obviously, firstly, it was sort of her father. And then her, I mentioned learning how to believe in herself. Separate from following her faith and separate from her father.

Speaking of faith, Marc Maron’s character has a line about [Aretha’s gospel album] “Amazing Grace” needing to connect with the atheists, such as himself. Since Aretha is about faith, too, did you think about reaching the non-believers? 

Yeah. Well, my father was a minister. I know very well the church from which she came. As I got older, and got my own faith, I started to… You have to go through this moment where you’re just like, “Oh, this not really real.” What this helped me to appreciate, was the power of faith. And the power of the church in the black community, and how central it is. How central those songs are to our healing, to our growth, to our community. It was powerful for me to hear those songs that I grew up listening to, hearing that album that I grew up listening to, seeing Jennifer sing those songs. It brought me back. I think it allowed me to appreciate the faith I grew up in. It was actually quite powerful.

Aretha is in theaters today.

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