It was decades before “King Richard” earned six 2022 Oscar nominations including Best Picture and put star Will Smith in a position to win his first-ever Academy Award when producer Tim White first encountered the story of Richard Williams and his daughters Venus and Serena Williams.
“I grew up playing junior tennis around the circuit and I remember everyone was talking about Richard. He was this sort of controversial guy who was holding up signs during the matches and who was giving all these crazy interviews,” White tells Gold Derby in a new interview. One sign, in particular, stuck with White: At the 1999 Lipton Championship, when Venus and Serena became the first sisters to meet in a tournament final in 115 years, Richard was in the stands holding up a sign that read, “I told you so.”
“It was just an image that always stuck with me,” White, who produced “King Richard” with his brother, Trevor White, says. Years later, as the brothers made inroads in Hollywood as producers, the idea of telling Richard’s story resurfaced – especially as the Whites sought to make fact-based projects that upended established narratives. “True stories about characters that people know, like Venus and Serena, but with an angle into it that they don’t know,” Tim says.
That impetus led to “King Richard.” Set in the early 1990s, as Richard (Smith) and his wife, Oracene Price (Oscar nominee Aunjanue Ellis), attempt to fulfill Richard’s vision of athletic success for their daughters, the film is both a rousing sports drama and no-holds-barred family portrait. The Whites, alongside Smith, produced the Best Picture nominee with a script from fellow Oscar nominee Zach Baylin, a first-time screenwriter who found his way to “King Richard” perhaps by fate. The Whites had met with Baylin about other projects in New York, and before they parted ways Baylin mentioned he was headed to watch the U.S. Open.
“We said, ‘Oh, you like tennis, sit back down and let us tell you this one other thing we’re working on,’” Tim says. They had met with countless writers by that point in the process, but none responded to it the way Baylin did.
“He was so visibly moved by the character and the story. And he said, give me a day or two, and I’m going to send you an email. And sure enough, two days later, he sent us an email,” Tim explains. “That is one of the most amazing things we’ve both ever read. And to this day, that email is that movie.”
“I think we’ll always look back on that email as such a pivotal thing in all of our lives,” Trevor adds. “I mean, it really was this thing that just felt magical. It felt like could it be? Could it be so clean and clear what this movie is? And yeah, we recently reread that email, and it is, shockingly what the movie is.”
The script Baylin wrote ended up on the Black List of the top unproduced screenplays in Hollywood and eventually caught the attention of Smith, who agreed to produce and star provided the Williams family was involved. As executive producer Isha Price, Richard and Oracene’s daughter, told Entertainment Weekly last year, it was her mother who ultimately signed off. “If it’s good and you think we should do it, we just have to be involved,” Isha recalled Oracene saying of the script.
From there, director Reinaldo Marcus Green was hired, having beat out numerous other filmmakers for the job. Green and Baylin collaborated on making sure the family moments really came through. “I think that’s what makes the film special,” Green previously told Gold Derby of the family’s bond and how it is portrayed onscreen. “We don’t know their genesis story. We don’t know they had older sisters that were picking up balls and hanging signs and traveling to the court and spending as many hours as they were training. We don’t know their mom was not just a mom, she was also a full-time coach, not only providing the food but preparing the food and coaching full time. We discovered these attributes about this family which makes Richard’s plan that much richer. He had soldiers to execute the plan. They were the spine in a lot of ways to his plan.”
But while “King Richard” wouldn’t exist without the contributions of many, the Whites say its Smith who set the tone from the top, both as a producer and the film’s star. “You never know what kind of partnership you’re going to enter into when you’re joining forces with a movie star,” Trevor says. “And I think what always surprised Tim and me was just how dedicated Will became to this project. I mean, he put so much thought into really the entirety of the script… I can’t imagine anyone setting a more enjoyable tone on set. I mean, there isn’t a person on that movie who doesn’t want to do everything in their power to make the best movie possible given how enjoyable and loving and caring and fun that [set] environment was. This was like a real family on set.”
“As an actor, his level of dedication to the part was just amazing. He really became this character,” Tim adds. “But as a producer, he was so key because he never lost sight of the macro elements that were so important for this movie. And I think, when you’re making a movie, especially during COVID, you have all these variables to worry about. And now all these new variables with the pandemic, testing all this stuff, it’s easy to get sucked into all these other issues, and to lose focus on the core things. Will was very much our North Star on this movie in terms of not losing sight of the key heart of this movie.”
Make your predictions at Gold Derby now. Download our free and easy app for Apple/iPhone devices or Android (Google Play) to compete against legions of other fans plus our experts and editors for best prediction accuracy scores. See our latest prediction champs. Can you top our esteemed leaderboards next? Always remember to keep your predictions updated because they impact our latest racetrack odds, which terrify Hollywood chiefs and stars. Don’t miss the fun. Speak up and share your huffy opinions in our famous forums where 5,000 showbiz leaders lurk every day to track latest awards buzz. Everybody wants to know: What do you think? Who do you predict and why?