The journey from Sundance breakout to big-studio moviemaker can seem both fast and treacherous, with a success rate that’d have any director think twice before making the jump. For Reinaldo Marcus Green, who helmed the acclaimed 2018 indie Monsters and Men, the line from one to the other also proved unusually direct. Jada Pinkett Smith served on Sundance’s 2018 U.S. Dramatic Jury, which awarded Monsters and Men with an outstanding first-feature prize. She handed Green the award herself. A few years later, Green found himself angling for his big-budget upgrade to be the Warner Bros. biopic King Richard. He managed a meeting with Will Smith—and right off the bat, the Oscar nominee told Green, “Jada couldn’t stop talking about your movie after Sundance.”
It’s the kind of Cinderella story that matches the one Green so deftly, emotionally crafts in King Richard, about Venus and Serena Williams’s father, Richard (Smith), and how he and his wife, Oracene (played by Aunjanue Ellis), raised their daughters from a very young age into world-class athletes—as well as well-rounded human beings. This star-driven, inspirational narrative inevitably hits some familiar beats, but in other hands, might have been devised more formulaically, with less texture and grit. Green knew this family in his bones, however, and he knew what he wanted to say about them.
On a shady park bench in the heart of Telluride, where King Richard had just screened for its world premiere, Green takes out his phone and shows me a picture of him and his brother standing on either side of their father. It’s virtually identical to a photo of Richard Williams with his two pre-tennis-star daughters. “I had a very similar upbringing—a father that raised two kids to be major-league-baseball players—and I didn’t make it, but I had gotten very far,” says the New York native. “I’m the same age as Serena. I have an older brother that’s very similar and we grew up with this unbreakable bond as brothers…. I got what it was like growing up in the inner city. I grew up in very similar circumstances on the East Coast. There were a lot of similarities with our paths.”
As much as classic sports movies informed his movie, a tiny family indie like Little Miss Sunshine was a major touchstone for Green. King Richard ultimately plays like a nuanced family portrait: parents figuring out when to push hard and when to step back; kids taking their cues from adults while also realizing their own agency, power, and potential. Green believes he got the job, in part, from his connection to the material. (He showed Warner Bros. the family photo.) That’s what helped him assert and stick to his own vision, even when it made executives uncomfortable. “I was very true to myself from the very first meeting that I had with Warner Bros.,” he says. “This is the movie I wanted to make, this was the tone I wanted to make it in.”
Green first found out about the project, scripted by Zach Baylin (the upcoming Creed III), while in production on his second feature, Joe Bell, which opened earlier this year. In other words, he was that Sundance breakout about to be handed the keys to a much more expensive car. He navigated not only a major studio—a process he calls fruitful and respectful, even when he had to stick to his guns—but one of the world’s most famous families as well. Green met with Serena, Venus, and Oracene (though he never met the real Richard); he peppered their most intimate anecdotes into the film, and particularly homed in on the fiercely loyal, loving bond the two sisters had as children. “I remember talking to Venus and she said, ‘Serena would skip a match to see me practice; that’s the kind of relationship we have,’” Green recalls. “That was important to us, that bond. [And] they were very receptive to me taking some liberties.”
As King Richard begins, Richard tirelessly coaches his preteen daughters on the courts of Compton, California; a languid first act richly establishes the family dynamic while taking its time with the Williams’ rise to prominence. He gets them in with top coach Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn), in which they start playing junior tournaments; afraid of pushing his daughters too hard too fast, he then partners up with Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal), who finances the family’s cross-country moving trip to Florida. Richard pulls Venus (Saniyya Sidney), who rises faster, out of tournaments for years, but his demand that she focus on education is eventually confronted with her own ambitions and sense of self. (Serena, played by Demi Singleton, plays a more complex part in the film that clarifies itself in the final act.)
It’s Smith’s best performance in over a decade. “It was important for everybody to see him in a role [in which] he’s really grounded and very human,” Green says. “He takes on a very complex man with an amazing story and crazy journey.” The director and star immediately connected. “We bonded over being fathers, and of course, Will, he’s from Philly—don’t be fooled by Hollywood,” Green says with a laugh. “He’s got a past. He’s from the mean streets of Philadelphia. I think Will grew up with a very tough father figure. There were a lot of things that we were able to take from our own lives and apply to this story.”
Richard is undeniably a larger-than-life presence. “If you listen to the real Richard, at times, it’s really tough to understand,” Green says. His distinctive look, too, proved a challenge to capture. But Green eschewed prosthetics after experimenting (“It didn’t work”) and focused on a hybrid of accuracy and humanity—“allowing Will to really sink into this role and disappear, but also still maintain some of the qualities that Will needs.” (All the while, as ferociously played by Ellis, Oracene holds a key matriarchal presence, shaping many of Richard’s decisions and challenging his impulses.) Before production even began, Smith asked for eight weeks of prep, and put his entire team and bevy of resources at Green’s disposal. “I cut my first feature in six weeks, let alone eight weeks for prep!” Green says, still in slight disbelief. “The scale was so different.”
After premiering to an ecstatic audience response and warm reviews, King Richard is headed into the fall a significant awards contender—with Green’s shift to the big leagues a clear success. The Williams sisters have seen the film and supported his vision, despite Green’s spare use of creative license; Green feels proud about not compromising on his approach. (Warner Bros. wanted an announcer to help narrate the story, as the formula goes in most big-budget sports dramas; from the get-go, Green made clear he wouldn’t do it—and didn’t.)
He feels the attention building in Colorado this weekend, but is staying off social media and away from reviews, instead soaking in the mood. “I’d be lying to say there wasn’t pressure,” he admits of his path to this very moment. “I just wanted to make my movie.”
King Richard continues to screen this weekend at the Telluride Film Festival. The film will simultaneously open in theaters and stream on HBO Max beginning November 19. This feature is part of Awards Insider’s exclusive fall-festival coverage, featuring first looks and in-depth interviews with some of this coming season’s biggest contenders.
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