The fairy tale version of the story behind “King Richard” goes like this: Jada Pinkett Smith was on the U.S. Dramatic Competition jury for the 2018 Sundance Film Festival when she saw director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s first feature, “Monsters and Men.” The tough but ultimately rousing look at police brutality and communal activism left her impressed enough to bring the movie to the attention of her husband, AKA Will Smith. The actor, in turn, was on the hunt for the right director to take on “King Richard,” the story of Venus and Serena Williams’ devoted father, with Smith’s Westbrook Inc. attached to produce. Green seemed like the perfect fit.
Cut to three years later, and bingo — “King Richard” launched with a bang at the Telluride Film Festival, where the Warner Bros. production became an instant Oscar contender, with Smith’s empathetic performance as a flawed but passionate patriarch hailed as his best yet. Green’s early passion for sports merges with his distrust of unearned sentimentality to yield an absorbing, credible saga about the bonds of a Black family devoted to navigating the athletic spotlight on their own terms.
But like most Sundance breakout stories, the reality wasn’t so simple. Green’s journey to “King Richard” took place over the course of several years, and he was almost too busy for it.
When Green first heard about “King Richard,” Smith hadn’t yet secured the rights from Williams’ family, and the filmmaker wasn’t even sure if his name was truly in the mix. A few months after Sundance, a few producers slipped him the script by Zach Baylin, with no offers attached. “They all said that there were probably other filmmakers ahead of me, but it had my name written all over it,” Green said in a recent interview over Zoom. “And they all said they were hearing that Will was attached. But you hear that kind of thing a lot. Was it real?”
After warming to the script, Green called his agents at WME, who were lukewarm on the idea until the Williams family signed off. “So I was like, ‘Alright, keep me posted,’” Green said. “There was really no time to overthink anything.”
In the immediate aftermath of his Sundance debut, Green scored a gig directing three episodes of “Top Boy,” the British crime series often considered the U.K. equivalent to “The Wire.” Green’s own brother, Rashaad Ernesto Green, experienced moderate Sundance success with his own debut “Gun Hill Road” in 2011. However, Reinaldo was looking to pattern his trajectory after recent Sundance breakouts like Cary Joji Fukunaga, whose successful path from his explosive first feature “Sin Nombre” included both the acclaimed first season of HBO’s “True Detective” and the 25th entry in the James Bond franchise. “I liked that Cary was working between TV and film,” Green said. “I was thinking, man, if I could be somewhere in that.”
As it turned out, Green’s next opportunity was a project that Fukunaga originally intended to direct, and also involved a high-profile actor-producer. Mark Wahlberg was already attached to “Joe Bell,” the real-life story of a father contending with the suicide of his gay teen son, when Green came onboard and zoomed into production in early 2019. En route to the Salt Lake City set, Green got a call from “King Richard” producers Tim and Trevor White, who had secured the rights to the story and set the project up at Warner Bros. with Baylin’s script.
The sibling producers had been tracking Green’s work for years while juggling interviews with other candidates. “Looking at Rei’s work, we both felt like this was going to be a really honest, grounded movie but not saccharine,” Tim said. “We felt like there were a lot of different versions of this movie. There’s a version of this that’s much more melodramatic and over the top. Rei could deliver the heartfelt, non-sappy version.”
Green ultimately had to slot in a meeting with Warner Bros. during the last week of production on “Joe Bell,” then flew straight to Los Angeles for a follow-up with Tim White, and secured a meeting with Smith shortly afterward. The chaotic timeline left him little room to prepare.
Will Smith in “King Richard”
“My strategy was like, ‘Look, I’m sure he hears pitches all day long. I’m not going to pitch Will Smith. I’m going to go have a conversation with the guy and see if we could connect,’” Green said. When he arrived, the actor was sitting in a room with Overbrook co-founder James Lassiter and Jada’s brother, actor-producer Caleeb Pinkett. Green offset the tension in the room by getting personal. “We just had a very raw conversation,” Green said. “I put my heart into explaining what I could bring to that story.”
Like the Williams sisters, Green grew up in a lower-class household, albeit on the other side of the country. He and his brother were encouraged by their single father to pursue careers in baseball, and Reinaldo even tried out for the major leagues. “I had a father very similar to Richard, an unorthodox guy who never missed a game, and I played thousands of them,” Green said. “To have a father that was that present in our lives, I understood how rich of an experience that could be for a kid. A lot of the kids I grew up with are dead or in prison. A lot of them didn’t have fathers at home, the same level of support that I felt like I had in my family. Yeah, we didn’t have a lot of money, but what we had was a father who was there.”
The story stuck with Smith, who had a troubled relationship with his abusive father, who abandoned the family in the actor’s youth and only reconciled with him decades later. But at the time, Green couldn’t tell if his impromptu approach had an impact.
“At the end, it was all poker faces,” Green said. “I didn’t know I got a job.” Soon after, the Whites followed up, asking for a proper pitch. “They were like, ‘It was great, Will really responded, but do you have a supplementary pitch presentation?’ I didn’t even know how to use Powerpoint,” Green said.
From there, the pieces came together: Green was able to explain the appeal of “King Richard” not only in autobiographical terms but movie ones as well. He explained the potential of the story as “Moneyball” by way of “Boyz in the Hood,” and that clinched it: Yes, Williams raised his kids under difficult circumstances in crime-riddled Compton of the 1990s, but the movie didn’t have to dwell in the darkest shadows of that milieu.
“In the way that I lens a community, it’s never this poor, sad thing,” he said. “I’m not interested in that version of the story. I’m not interested in showing us in that way. That doesn’t mean that we’re sugarcoating it. We grew up poor, but we didn’t know we were poor. We thought that our place was beautiful. It was about capturing our perspective rather than the way other people see us.”
To that end, Green found a key visual trope for the movie in the research process, as he learned that all five of the Williams sisters — in addition to Venus and Serena, there was Isha, Lyndrea, and Yetunde — helped out at games and practice sessions. (Isha Price served as an executive producer on the project, while Lyndrea worked in the costume department.) That realization sent Green thinking about road movies, “Little Miss Sunshine” in particular, and the unique opportunity to crowd a car with his main ensemble. “I realized how much more cinematic it would be to have five Black girls in a VW bus than to have two,” Green said. “We haven’t seen that before. But it was real. So we just started to lean into that. These girls were everywhere.”
Will Smith in “King Richard”
Anne Marie Fox
Producer Tim White said the inclusion of the entire family helped Green get the job. “He talked about it less as a sports story than as a family story,” White said. “That was different from the way almost every other director talked about it. I think a lot of people for simplicity’s sake wanted to hone in on Richard and girls.”
The movie doesn’t dwell on the specifics of Williams’ complicated marriage to Oracene Price (Aunjane Ellis), who also played an active role in training the kids while working full time. But there is one revealing scene between the couple that touches on Williams’ marital infidelity, and how his drive to serve his children’s future careers often came at a personal cost. The couple divorced in 2002, after the events depicted in the movie. “We know that they’re divorced and that they didn’t have the smoothest experience,” Green said. “Something didn’t work. But they had respect and admiration for how they raised their children.”
Some of the best scenes in the movie cast Williams in an uncertain light. He’s both the righteous hero defending his girls from the avaricious advances of white sports agents and a domineering figure who risks destroying his family in the process of fighting to control their direction. “We did a lot of making sure we didn’t sugarcoat who Richard was,” Green said. “We tried to keep him as complex as humanly possible. He’s unorthodox. He’s unpredictable.”
As a filmmaker, Green has done some of his best work in open spaces, from parking lots and housing projects where cops and activists roam throughout “Monsters and Men” through the vast outdoors that Wahlberg wanders through as he walks across the nation in “Joe Bell.” That came in handy in “King Richard” when one indoor scene wasn’t working out. Green was shooting an exchange between Richard and Serena where the father tells his daughter that she would become the great player of all time, but the bedroom conversation wasn’t going well. “Quite frankly, it just wasn’t a great scene,” Green said. “We were running out of natural light and everything didn’t look good. Everything was just off about it. Will was like, ‘Well, that’s probably not going to make the movie.’”
The director found a solution later on while shooting other scenes at a stadium and realized that the exchange worked better if the pair were overlooking the arena where Serena’s career would take shape. “It was a great scene on paper, but there was something wrong about its construction — not the scene itself, but where it was happening,” Green said. He patterned the new scene on the climax from “Rudy,” when Sean Astin’s character looks out at a football field as he determines his future. “I figured since we already had to go to the stadium, let’s find a place to stick our scene in,” Green said. “It ended up being so much richer than its original intent.”
In the writing process, Green and Baylin drew from real moments they came across, even if they didn’t fit into the movie’s timeline. This includes one memorable scene in which Williams interrupts an interview with Serena to tell a reporter to back off from pushy questions. The moment actually took place during a “60 Minutes,” segment but in the movie has been shifted to the court. “I felt like I had to find a way to put this in our film,” Green said. “It’s still true to the words and it’s a perfect time in the film for this to happen.”
Williams himself was not involved in the production of the movie. With the Williams sisters providing the rights to their life story, their father was not contacted in advance of the project, and Green defended the decision to leave him out of the creative process as well. “The stories we had were enough for us to tell the story of how Richard should be depicted in the film,” he said. “We already know his public persona. But in hearing it from Serena and Venus, the love and admiration for his girls — and hearing it from his ex0wife, the plan, the things he was able to accomplish, was pretty rich tapestry for us.”
Still: Not even a note? “To me, the film is a note,” Green said. “Will’s a pretty handsome dude. It would be a step up for any of us to have Will play us in a movie. That’s a huge testament to his story and what he was able to accomplish.”
Green said he pushed back on pressure from the studio and Smith himself to add prosthetics to his face that would increase his resemblance to the real-life character. “At some point I saw him in full prosthetics,” Green said. “They made him look like Richard Williams, and I was like, ‘Wow that’s amazing,’ and, ‘Absolutely not.’”
Instead, Green decided that attempting to bury Smith would only emphasize the artifice in play. “We needed to offset Will’s look and make him disappear into the character, but he’s still Will Smith,” Green said. “Everybody knows that. So changing his nose is not going to do anything. You can’t go that far. It’s going to be a distraction.” Ultimately, it was the tennis shorts that did the trick. “The second he put those shorts on, Will was locked into character,” Green said.
Despite Smith’s oversight on the project as a producer, Green said that the actor embraced feedback on his performance. “He comes from an era where you respect the director,” Green said. “If something didn’t feel right, he’d speak up, and he did many times. But he was also very receptive to letting me take the reins.”
Green hasn’t had much time to bask in the glow of that achievement. He was speaking from the set of David Simon’s upcoming HBO series “We Own This City,” where he’s currently directing the full season. In the meantime, he’s gearing up for another biopic, this one centered on Bob Marley and set up at Paramount Pictures, with Baylin attached to co-write the screenplay. Once again, Green is working with his subject’s family. As for casting the lead role? “That’s a whole other Zoom,” Green said.
In recent years, Green has clarified his mission as a director of underrepresented stories. In 2020, as the George Floyd protests instigated a conversation about diversity across the country, Green said in an interview with IndieWire that Black representation in Hollywood still had a long way to go. “We have to challenge ourselves to tell stories in ways that haven’t been done before,” he said. “We can’t label ourselves. Where is the first Black-led ‘Gravity’ space movie? Give me an opportunity make my Black Kubrick movie. Where’s our Black ‘Italian Job’ or Black ‘Thomas Crown Affair’? That’s where I’m looking to go — positive images of Black folks.”
Over a year later, that mission remained in place. “I think we need more positivity and more positive images of ourselves onscreen, but that goes in many different ways,” Green said. “I steer away from anything that feels like poverty porn. It’s about constantly looking for opportunities to showcase talent in front of and behind the camera with stories that uplift us in ways we haven’t seen before.”
Asked about his potential to bring that impact into the franchise arena, Green smiled. “What about a Black James Bond?” he asked. “Let’s get that going.”
Warner Bros. releases “King Richard” in theaters and HBO Max on November 19, 2021.
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