When producers Tim White and Trevor White focused their attention on bringing King Richard to the big screen, based on the true uplifting journey of a family whose unwavering resolve and unconditional belief ultimately delivers two of the world’s greatest sports legends, they knew that screenwriter Zach Baylin, a keen tennis fan, was the right person to craft the screenplay.
The journey from inspiration to film began about the time that the real Venus and Serena Williams had left those neighbourhood courts behind and were exploding onto the pro tennis scene in the mid-to-late-‘90s.
A young Tim White—also a tennis player—had heard stories about the plan that Richard Williams had penned before Venus and Serena were even born. So, when, in 1999, the Williams sisters faced off in the finals of the Lipton Championships (now the Miami Open), producer Tim White remembers, “There he was, this dad with these two girls, and everyone was looking at him with widely varying opinions. But, what stuck with me was that this was a guy who had a dream that everyone around him had doubted. Now, they were playing in the finals, and he held up this sign he had written on a message board that said, ‘I told you so!’ In the end, everything he said and predicted turned out to be exactly right. I just found him to be an amazing character with a story that needed to be told. And that, for me, was the one moment that really inspired the film.”
Around 2015, Tim and his Star Thrower Entertainment producing partner and brother, Trevor White, began to look at Richard Williams in earnest—his upbringing in the Jim Crow South in Shreveport, Louisiana, and later, his penchant for authoring plans for all kinds of ventures, including one outlining how his and Oracene’s daughters would conquer the world of tennis.
Producer Trevor White says, “Tim framed it as potentially the greatest coaching story he’d ever been told, but also much more than that—a story of a family making the impossible real. I knew very little about Richard, outside of how the press had positioned him as a controversial figure. When we really began to look at who Richard was as a person, we saw this incredibly complex man determined to bring success to his family and how, together—Richard, Oracene, all the girls—they had raised Venus and Serena to be outstanding women and champions.”
Tim and Trevor knew they wanted the story to be centered on Richard, Oracene, and their daughters, reasoning that it was, at its most basic, a tale of a father protecting his family. In the fall of 2017, they met with writer Zach Baylin on a separate project, and he mentioned he was heading out to the evening matches at the US Open in Flushing Meadows, Queens, New York.
Pitching Idea To Screenwriter Zach Baylin
Tim and Trevor pitched Baylin this very loose idea of Richard Williams and the characters in the story, who told them to give him a day or two to look at it. “He sent me an email the next day outlining the heart of the movie—and four years on, what he sent is still exactly what the movie is,” says Tim White. “He crafted a screenplay that elicited such strong and positive emotion that people laughed and cried when they read it. It was really Zach’s fantastic script that began to make this project real.”
Zach Baylin is a screenwriter who writes grounded, kinetic, character-driven stories and was named one of Variety’s 2021 “10 Screenwriters to Watch.” Graduating from Johns Hopkins University, where he is still one of the most accomplished wide receivers in Hopkins football history, he is the co-founder of Youngblood Pictures. He has written projects for Lionsgate, Imagine, TNT, Studio 8, WIIP, as well as for acclaimed filmmakers such as James Grey, Jeremy Saulinier, Francesco Munzi, and Jonathan Levine. Apart from writing, Baylin has also worked in the art department on dozens of film and television projects in New York including Boardwalk Empire, Mildred Pierce, The Blacklist, A Walk Among the Tombstones, Gossip Girl, Side Effects and Dave Chapelle’s Block Party. He resides in Los Angeles and will make his feature film debut with Creed III, the third installment of the revamped Rocky series, from his own screenplay.
“It was also Zach who cracked that very specific window in Time,” says Trevor White, “The final moments of the family’s years in Compton, finding that first coach in Paul Cohen, Venus’ first years in the juniors, then moving to Florida to be a part of the Rick Macci program and whether or not Venus would go pro, which was such an integral part of the family’s story. The real genius was capping it at Venus’ first professional tournament. It was such an interesting and compelling way to tell the story.”
Baylin relates, “At that point, I knew the broad strokes of the story, but not the nuance of it. I was excited from the beginning and knew I needed to find this finite window in which to encapsulate everything that was exciting and inspiring. I began reading about the plan, and what the family had overcome, and found these anchors for the story. First, the moments at the beginning of Richard’s journey—trying to get outside people to understand that he had something really special on his hands with his daughters. Then, the struggle and adversity they had to go through, up to the end, when all the cards had to be put on the table with the decision of Venus going pro.”
Trevor White underscores, “It’s not a story about what Richard did so amazingly to make these girls the superstars they are today; it’s not really about that. It’s about how Richard had a vision for it, and how he and the entire family – Oracene and the other sisters—all came together to build it. It’s really a story about a family, not a man.”
With regard to the veracity of the story—in particular, some of the hard-to-believe moments along the way—Baylin supplies, “Almost everything in the script is factful. I remember the first time I sent it off to my manager for a read, and he didn’t know the story really well. The first notes I got back were, ‘This all couldn’t have happened…right?’ ‘No, everything is really accurate.’ They had a pretty incredible journey, I think, in part because Richard is a larger-than-life character. It just felt like a unique, American dream story, and the big challenge for me was capturing some of these huge events and unexpected interactions.”
Once the two producers had a strong screenplay in place, the first person they shared it with was Will Smith, who represented “the dream” collaborator to them
Discussions then began, with filmmakers landing Smith as a third producer and the ideal performer to portray Williams in one move.
Smith explains, “I think the thing that was most surprising for me—before I decided that I absolutely had to tell this story—was that Richard had prophesized everything; that he had been watching a tennis match and Virginia Ruzici won $40,000 and two years before the girls were born, Richard wrote out plans for their entire careers. He actually went to Oracene with this dream, this prophecy, that they had to have these two kids who were going to be the number one and number two tennis players of all time. And, I was like, ‘Wait, that can’t be true.’ When I went back and did the research, I just found it to be such a powerful story of belief, love, family, and God.”
For star and producer Will Smith, the story of King Richard is a story of “The impossible dream. For the most part, we all have impossible dreams. We have things that we would do if we felt that they were possible, things we would do if we believed. The story of Richard and this family is largely the American dream. There are very few places on earth where Venus and Serena could happen. At the core, this is about wanting to be the best versions of ourselves and sometimes, our circumstances may not line up with that, and it’s up to the strength of the human spirit to overpower circumstances. It’s wish-fulfillment for all of us.”
“I think the beauty of this story and this family is that at the heart of it is faith,” says Will Smith. “Oracene—‘Brandy’ to Richard—is the center of the family in terms of faith and Richard is the driving force towards the dreams…and that team was spectacular. Everything in this family is about their purpose. This gave them confidence in what they were doing. Above all was God, then family, education, and tennis. That’s what I think was so special—and so sustainable—in their drive.”
Director Reinaldo Marcus Green found resonance in the dynamic of the family working together to manifest that dream
And to tell this family-driven story, producers looked to the accomplished Reinaldo Marcus Green to helm the production. Trevor White: “Rei is a special filmmaker— incredibly thoughtful, meticulous, detail-oriented. But what he understands, I think better than many filmmakers, is how to let his cast feel like they can be themselves a little bit and bring a level of authenticity to the work. His movies feel lived-in, and not false in any way. For this movie, we wanted to capture the family as a very truthful entity, not as actors portraying celebrities, and that’s a danger in a film like this. With Rei, we felt in good hands with someone who understands and can make it feel real, gritty, inspiring—all the elements that this movie embodies.”
Reinaldo Marcus Green is a writer, director, and producer. He made his feature film debut with Monsters and Men and directed the first three episodes of the Netflix series Top Boy. He is currently in production, directing the upcoming HBO Limited Series We Own This City” written and executive produced by David Simon and George Pelecanos. He will then write and direct the upcoming Bob Marley biopic.
“It is very clear that this story is really a full family affair. In speaking with the members of the Williams family, they talked about their mom, Oracene, working double shifts to put food on the table. Richard had many jobs. But all of the sisters, Isha, Lyndrea, Tunde, were all on the courts with Venus and Serena. They would pick up balls, hang signs, and be out on the court after school until the lights shut off. These older sisters were helping to take care of the younger ones, which I just thought was incredible when I heard that story—all of this needed to make its way into the script and onto the screen.”
For filmmakers—now with Smith in concert—what was above all else was getting the family on board. Tim White says, “And that started with Isha Price, who’s Venus and Serena’s sister, who’s an executive producer. She not only opened the door to the family’s participation, but she also continued to be a key collaborator in her support of the project and by her just being there for the production—providing all of those little details and specificity in a context that adds value and makes the family feel so real.”
Trevor White echoes, “We couldn’t have done this without the family’s support. Isha Price has been an integral part every step of the way. After we had Will, she was our earliest collaborator in continuing to develop the script. The level of detail, accuracy, and insight that she brought we could not have gotten from reading and research. There was so much color added that elevated the project. Isha—and the rest of the family—have been amazing collaborators.”
Executive producer Isha Price admits, “For the longest time, I wouldn’t even read the script, because I’d seen so many iterations of other people’s perceptions of what my family was like. For us, authenticity and honesty were an important part of making sure that we were going to be able to do this project. After finally reading the script—laughing a little bit, being completely enamored with other parts, and also recognizing the things that weren’t quite right—we had a discussion as a family and made the decision jointly that we were going to go ahead…with the caveat that I will be an integral part of it, to make sure of its authenticity, that it was honest and true and reflective of who we are. That part was really important; otherwise, it’s just someone else telling your story.“
“Being a part of it this way has allowed us to tell the story ourselves, to share a lot of what people don’t know,” Price continues. “I think that it has helped create an incredible storyline of a snapshot in time. It almost has a stamp of approval, so to speak. It’s not just something that somebody made up. It actually, authentically happened.”
Will Smith never saw the Williams family’s story as one dealing with overcoming challenges or scaling the walls of circumstance. Smith points out, “I don’t think they were ever trapped anywhere, because their minds were free. And that was a major part of their faith and a major part of their belief in themselves. So, there was never a sense of being trapped by anything other than their ability to commit and work hard and love each other. That belief system is powerful and wildly productive. I think you can’t trap a spirit like that anywhere.