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Boyz N the Hood Meets Moneyball“: Reinaldo Marcus Green on King Richard

Reinaldo Marcus Green, Demi Singleton, Saniyya Sidney and Will Smith on the set of King Richard

With three features and several shorts and episodes of television series under his belt, director Reinaldo Marcus Green’s filmmaking career has quickly accelerated since the premiere of his debut feature, Monsters and Men, at the 2018 edition of the Sundance Film Festival. After directing three episodes of the British Netflix series, Top Boy, and a second feature, Joe Bell (starring Mark Wahlberg), Green’s latest film is King Richard, the Compton-set true story of Richard Williams, his wife Oracene Price, and their five daughters, most notably future tennis icons Venus and Serena Williams. As parents who want the best for their daughters (but occasionally differ on how to offer it), Will Smith plays the title character and Aunjanue Ellis plays his wife, the duo providing performances that will no doubt bring them Academy Award nominations next year. 

A big, professional studio production that is, of course, uplifting in its dramatization of two incredibly talented teens pushed into the spotlight, dominating a sport previously associated with all-white country clubs, the film also finds moments of unexpected grit, in part due to films from the Black ’90s that inspired Green’s take on the material. It’s also an intricately detailed period piece, with portrayals of real-life figures (including Jennifer Capriati, John McEnroe and Nancy Reagan) and characters costumed in Adidas, Nike, Puma and Reebok. 

A few weeks after King Richard opened in theaters and began streaming day-and-date on HBO Max, I spoke with Green as he was wrapping up post-production on We Own This City, a six-hour HBO limited series from David Simon and George Pelecanos (the filmmaker will next direct a Bob Marley biopic for Paramount). Our conversation included stories of how Green was hired for the project, why he wanted the Williams family to be involved in production and how the cast and crew dealt with a pandemic-caused shutdown, 

Filmmaker: I was reading about the backstory of how this film came together. You were, I believe, on your way to Salt Lake City to film your second feature, Joe Bell, when you received a call to discuss potentially directing King Richard, is that correct? How long had this project been hovering within your stratosphere?

Green: I had heard about King Richard a few months before I began shooting [Joe Bell], but then it all went quiet and I assumed they had moved forward with another director. I then received a call from producers Tim and Trevor White (of Star Thrower Entertainment) asking if I was potentially available to direct the film, and I answered, “well, I’m getting ready to hop on a plane to Salt Lake City and shoot a different feature right now, so it would technically depend on when you’d be trying to go [into production].” Their timeline was apparently very compressed and they were planning to go into production that summer. As a result, it looked like I was out of the running for the gig, but sure enough, the timeline got pushed. Then, as I was wrapping production on Joe Bell (having roughly one week left), I scored a meeting with Warner Bros, and shortly thereafter flew to Los Angeles right after wrapping Joe Bell. Once I arrived in L.A., I sat down with Tim White, and a couple of days after that I was meeting with Will Smith.  

After my meeting with Will, the studio requested an idea of what I could present to them, visually, as potential styles for the film. The studio obviously hadn’t been privy to my conversation with Will, so they were asking to view some additional materials that would support what I planned to make. They had seen my first feature, Monsters and Men, by that point, but my second feature, Joe Bell, wasn’t even completed or in the can yet, so all they knew was [my first feature]. Monsters and Men was an independently-made film, one I think the studio respected very much, but King Richard was going to require me to make a jump in my career and they wanted to make sure that, visually, I was aligned with how they were thinking about the movie. So, that’s what I ended up doing, working with Trevor White (who was obviously championing me to become the project’s director) as he donated his time to helping me figure out how to use PowerPoint and put a few images together to present to the studio. I was able to select the images and essentially create a story like, “This is how I see the film: it’s Boyz N the Hood meets Moneyball. It has this vibe and this edge.” Trevor helped me put the package together, then we shared it with the studio. Once they saw it, they were very happy with the selected images, and I guess they worked out the rest with Will and Westbrook Inc. [the production company, founded by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, behind King Richard] and their team, eventually deciding that I was their filmmaker. I got the call confirming as much soon after.

Filmmaker: So it was essentially a mood board that sealed the deal?  

Green: It was a mood board, yeah. I think part of the goal of mood boards is to answer how the images you select can help tell a story, right? Having already read the script, it was a lot easier for me to lay out the presentation in a way that felt like I was telling the story of the film. I also asked myself which images would best invoke the emotions of the script, and a big part of that was telling the Williams’s story and what elements I thought I could bring that hadn’t previously been represented in the news media. I brought my perspective and energy, even if I was obviously pulling stills from other directors’ movies that I loved. Those were the things that helped solidify the job for me.

Filmmaker: The last time we spoke, on the occasion of Joe Bell’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), you recounted the story of flying to Boston to meet with Mark Wahlberg for an hour and that’s ultimately how you were hired to direct that film. I believe Wahlberg would even call from the dentist’s office to discuss elements of character preparation with you. Was there a similar line of open communication with Will Smith as you prepared for King Richard? What’s that communication like when you’re working on a project with a big star already attached and you’ve come on after?  

Green: Will was certainly a bit more poker-faced than Mark, but it was cool. There were great vibes in the room when we first met, for sure, but when I left, I didn’t get the sense that the job was mine, not at all. I think there were probably two other filmmakers coming in after me, then the final decision would be made. When I left, it was like, “Great, nice to meet you, take care,” etc. In retrospect, Will was a very good actor during our meeting because he certainly fooled me. I thought to myself, “Well, I guess I got to meet Will Smith, which is cool in and of itself, and that’s where this ends.” I had put my all into the meeting and obviously tried to get as personal as I could with the material, but I didn’t score his digits when I left that day. It felt a little different, even if I felt like a connection had been made. We bonded over talking about our fathers and sports and Compton, the community and my own upbringing as an athlete. I think Will was connecting to all of that, especially as it pertained to him and his father. I was getting a lot of head nods, feeling like we were in sync on the things we felt were important to bring to the table. I definitely felt a good vibe from him, but like I said, didn’t score his digits by the end of that meeting.

Filmmaker: Venus and Serena Williams are executive producers on the film, so I wanted to ask about their involvement. Of course, it’s nice to have their blessing, but I imagine you also didn’t want any additional pressure. When you’re making a movie about real people who are still very much with us, there’s always the pressure of getting something right while also hoping that you’re not being dictated to. Even though they were involved in the film, were you still able to tell their story your way?

Green: Yeah, and I don’t think it was that different an experience than Lola [Lathrop, the mother of Jadin Bell]’s involvement in Joe Bell. She expressed to us the things that were most important to her and, as a filmmaker, it was good knowledge for me to have. You’re equipped with the knowledge, the information, of what’s most important to the family’s story you’re telling, and that’s all I was doing: collecting information. As filmmakers, that’s part of our research process, i.e. what’s accurate and what isn’t? When you’re making a movie, you’re ultimately taking some liberties as you have to shove the lives of each of these individuals into two or three hours. That’s an extremely abbreviated timeline and, as such, we have to take some liberties, and my style is to welcome that. 

I would never make a show about police officers and not think to consult with police officers, and that includes my research on Monsters and Men. I was as active with the police force and studying their behavior as I was with the [Williams] family here. Since I’m not a tennis player and didn’t grow up around the game, it was important for me to understand the nuance of what it’s like to be on the court. That includes how players hold the racket, how they toss the ball, how they spin, etc. 

For me personally, it’s very easy to identify a baseball player—someone who has these quirks like chewing and spitting in the batter’s box and who does these weirdly superstitious things all the time—and that’s the stuff I was mining for on the tennis court. That’s why having the involvement and participation of the Williams family was critical for me. Myself, [screenwriter] Zach Baylin and producers Tim White and Trevor White were able to meet Venus and Serena, their mother Oracene Price and [their sisters] Isha Price and Lyndrea Price (Lyndrea is actually a costumer on the film and Isha is a producer on it). To work with them adds another layer that you just couldn’t get by searching for articles on the Internet. Who but them could know what their childhood bedroom looked like? 

When you talk to the sisters who actually lived the story, you take the project to an entirely new level. That access was incredible and the stories we heard were icing on the cake. We were able to add depth and definition to elements of the story that needed to be filled out. Zach had written a beautiful script, of course, featuring an amazing timeline that focuses on Richard’s plan [for his daughters] and the family’s execution of that plan, but the definition of that family and especially the definition of Oracene and [her] relationship with Richard became more defined once we started getting into the nitty-gritty of those conversations.

Filmmaker: I wanted to ask about the team you assembled behind the camera, including editor Pamela Martin and director of photography Robert Elswit. Were these relationships you had formed previously or were you connected with them via Warner Bros. with the sole purpose of collaborating on this film? 

Green: My relationships with both Pamela and Robert were completely organic. I met them when I was in the Sundance Directors and Screenwriters Lab in 2017 with Monsters and Men (they were advisors at the Lab), although neither of them were my advisors that year and I was bummed because I was such a fan of their work. Anyway, I remember having met them there and the first thing I did when I got the King Richard job was think to reach out. In my eyes, Little Miss Sunshine and The Fighter [both edited by Martin] are two comparable movies for King Richard, as the Volkswagen is a character in our movie in much the same way it’s a character in Little Miss Sunshine. I also loved the character work in The Fighter, how it really brings out every individual character, and so I thought, “Pamela would be amazing to go after.” In addition to editing Little Miss Sunshine and The Fighter, she also edited Battle of the Sexes, the tennis movie about Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, so she had tennis movie experience.  

Of course, I had a bit more leverage now, as I was coming to her with a studio movie from Warner Bros. starring Will Smith and a great story about the Williams family. When I finally approached her, it wasn’t like, “hey, I’m that indie kid….” It was more like, “Hey, I’m that indie kid from a few years ago who now has this big studio movie. Maybe I can afford you now.” I think it made the conversations easier, and that’s also true of Robert Elswit. Who would’ve thought that I would be able to get someone of his caliber for my third movie? But I think both Pamela and Robert remembered meeting me at the Labs and thinking that I was this hungry kid who just wanted to learn and grow as a filmmaker. When I reached out for King Richard, I think they were both humbled. They didn’t go to the Labs in vain. You often meet people who don’t come back into your life, so to have someone who actually had gone through the Labs—the “farm system” if you will—graduate from it, I think left them pleasantly surprised and open to coming aboard. They immediately said “yes,” and that was, of course, fantastic for me.  We then were fast at work, with Robert being the first person that I spent a lot of time with throughout the prep process.

Filmmaker: I know production was temporarily shut down in the spring of 2020 due to COVID, and with that pause came new complications, including months of waiting and even losing a cast member, Liev Schreiber, due to scheduling conflicts [the role was eventually recast with Tony Goldwyn]. Then you found yourself promoting Joe Bell at TIFF while you were preparing to resume production on King Richard

Green: It was a tough time for many of us. Personally, I lost some people due to COVID that were very close to me, including my godfather and a few others.

Filmmaker: I’m sorry to hear that.

Green: It was a dark time. It was also a dark time for the country and it still is. It’s still very much a thing and is still very much with us. I think we were all so lucky then to know that we had work to look forward to. If you had told me to come to the set dressed in a hazmat suit, I would’ve been giddy. We were lucky to do what we do, and the one thing we knew for certain was that entertainment was what people were seeking during that time. Movies and television can be a form of escapism and we were the lucky ones who got to make that kind of stuff. 

We utilized the downtime to bond together as a crew and as a family. We held bi-weekly calls with each of the actresses who play the Williams sisters, then Will [Smith] and Aunjanue [Ellis] would occasionally pop on. Our conversations were about much more than the film, however. We were checking in on each other’s lives, like, “How are you guys holding up? Are you doing OK? How are you each getting through this?” We were working with 13-, 14- and 15-year olds, so that was important to ask. We were resources for them and wanted to be a shoulder to lean on. It’s how we kept ourselves sane through a time where there was so much uncertainty about literally everything. 

I also spent several months with Robert Elswit during that downtime, becoming his neighbor so that we could spend more time going through the script. During the shutdown, we were able to go back into the script (including Zach Baylin in the process) and discover new things. We shot the first third of the movie before we were shut down and Pamela was able to edit that together so that we could view the footage and see what was working and what wasn’t. More than an assembly, we had a cut of the first third of the movie! It informed so much of what was left to do, where we could open the film up, where we could identify and hone in on additional moments. That extra time was utilized toward preparing to further elevate the story.

Filmmaker: And were there reshoots? I read that by the time you filmed the tennis matches at the conclusion of the film, you were allowed to have real people in the stands, a luxury you wouldn’t have been afforded had you shot those a few months earlier due to COVID-restrictions.

Green: Once we came back after our break, there were obviously strict COVID protocols in place and our extras decreased quite a bit. I think we had between 75-100 extras [in the audience] for those final tennis matches. We did a lot with the people we had, getting our shots of the Williams family watching the match and placing the 100 extras to sit around them. The rest of the stadium was completely empty. But once we filmed those shots, we knew that we’d have to eventually go back and get some additional, larger crowd shots that fill out the stadium (or else it was going to be done entirely via CGI). So that’s what that was, additional photography rather than reshoots, and it was something I really pushed the studio on. We didn’t have to reshoot anything we had already shot, we just had to get things that we couldn’t previously get. Even that momentary gap in time was beneficial to us, as we created a cut of the scene and edited in placeholders for where we wanted to cut to a larger crowd/reaction shot (to be filmed at a later date).

A big part of the sequence’s construction also involved not featuring game announcers in the final match. That was a big decision that I made. Robert and I talked about it early on—”look, if we have to rely on announcers describing what’s going on in the final match, I think we’ve failed.” That’s why we shot the scene in such a way that we hoped wouldn’t make the viewer rely on narration to pull them through. Personally, I think it works and the reason is because we took Richard out of the stands (why have him just sit for a three-hour match?) and into the tunnels by the [players’ entrance]. That was a big shift for us, as now we had a place for the camera to go. Richard could roam the halls, he could witness Arantxa Sánchez Vicario walking out to the court, etc. We could play a lot of key narrative moments to Richard’s perspective and could play up his nerves that we identified in earlier scenes at the juniors and have that carry over into the final match. It’s also how we can get Richard from the tunnels and finally into the stands. Adding that movement allowed us to go to different places while keeping things from within Richard’s perspective. As a viewer, you’re relying less on commentary to tell you how to feel in that moment than you are the subject, Venus Williams and [actress] Saniyya Sidney’s face, to sell that story. Between Saniyya and Will and the rest of the family, I think it tells you everything you need to know at that moment, and a large part of the construction of that sequence was created during the shutdown.

Filmmaker: Earlier you mentioned King Richard as being “Boyz N the Hood meets Moneyball.” Boyz N the Hood is primarily set in Compton in the early 1990s and so too is your film. Of course, Boyz N the Hood was released in 1991 and here’s your film thirty years later, but regardless, I wanted to ask about the parallels between John Singleton’s film and yours. Boyz N the Hood references corrupt policing and there’s a scene in King Richard that addresses the Rodney King beating. Both films also deal with white outsiders coming into Compton to recruit Black athletes, perhaps disingenuously. In what ways does your film, set in the early 1990s, mirror some of the films that were being released during that same time period, Boyz N the Hood chief among them?  

Green: I’m an ’80s baby, a product of that time period, actually the same age as Serena Williams. It was a lot of fun for me to go back and try to recall that period of my childhood. It was also important to not make a “get out of Compton” story, but rather an “I am from Compton” story. I think that’s the way the Williams sisters view themselves. They are very proud to be from Compton and very proud of the community they’ve built. It was important that our story be about their perspective of their community, rather than from a POV on the outside looking in. The film was meant to be an inside look at their experience in all its [forms]. Now, did their Dad really get attacked and beat up on the tennis court like we show early in the film? Yes, it happened, but they also had support from the community and we show that too. We show the evolution of what was seemingly a ragtag team on the courts to “wait, hold up here. This is Black excellence at its best. This is Black parenting 101.” The parents saw it as, “We’re devoting our time to our children and giving them everything we can to groom not only good tennis players but good human beings. We’re putting education first. We’re trying to protect our children from the dangers of this world by providing guidance, time, love, and commitment towards something.”

This is not to say that it was perfect parenting, but it’s certainly one avenue to look down for success. If you give time, attention, love, care and dedication to something, you could be successful. That applied not only to Venus and Serena but to the lives of all five sisters, two of which attended Ivy League schools. The Williams family was rich far beyond the means of money and their success is a testament to being there for your children, for allowing them to guide the life that they want to live while providing them with some structure. That’s what Richard and Oracene did so well. As Oracene says, “I was working full-time, yes, but I was also coaching full-time.” She was not an addendum to Richard’s story but the spine of it. Having Oracene be the spine to Richard’s plan is what makes their journey special.

Filmmaker: This is your third feature, and each one has grown in size and scope and budget and, I’m sure, numerous other things. I imagine you’re still learning a lot. Do you feel that way too, that you’re growing as a filmmaker and taking away additional things with each new project?

Green: Oh my gosh, yeah, I hope so. I hope you have seen the progression.

Filmmaker: Yes, of course. 

Green: Look, I love watching sports and athletes who achieve greatness, because if you hear Michael Jordan speak, or LeBron James speak, or Tom Brady speak, or Serena Williams speak, or Venus Williams speak, they always sound like they’re just getting started. I feel that way too. I feel like I’m just getting started, that I’m only now beginning to learn a little. Of course, I thought I knew it all at 18, right? Then I thought I knew it all at 21, and I’m realizing that I didn’t know anything at any of those ages. You always feel like you know your craft only to realize that you didn’t know jack. Of course, I still don’t know jack, but I hope my jack is a little bit more than it was a couple of years ago. I feel like a collector, collecting tools for my personal toolbox, and hopefully one day I’ll be considered an artist.

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