‘King Richard’ writer Zach Baylin found the universal in the extraordinary story of the Williams sisters [EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW]

Venus and Serena Williams are not just two of the greatest athletes of all time but arguably some of the most recognizable celebrities alive. But when it came time to tell their story for the film “King Richard,” producers Tim and Trevor White, director Reinaldo Marcus Green, and screenwriter Zach Baylin decided to focus the film on the strength of the Williams family, embodied by parents Richard Williams (Will Smith) and Orecene Price (Aunjanue Ellis). 

“There are a lot of ways the story could have been depicted,” Baylin explains to Gold Derby (watch the exclusive video interview above). “There’s a much more straight-down-the-line sports movie version that feels like a Nike commercial. That could have been interesting and dynamic. But Rei really tapped into the idea that this was going to be a family drama. That everything that happens needed to feel intimate and fully realized in that way and not manipulative. The story is so improbable…. If there were false notes in the filmmaking, it would dilute the idea of how remarkable that was.”

Set in the early 1990s, the Warner Bros. film begins not with Venus and Serena on the rise, but with Richard cajoling and begging rich, white country club members to take his daughters seriously as tennis prodigies. “I think we all know what Venus and Serena have gone on to achieve in their lives, but it felt to me, more dramatic, to focus the story on the time in their family’s life when all the chips were on the table and there was a real precarious situation of whether or not this huge gamble they made as a family was going to work,” Baylin explains. “That window seemed to be the most dramatic and distilled their journey down to something that was a movie.”

Richard’s unwavering belief in the future success of his children started before they were even born when he wrote a 78-page document about how he planned to turn them each into tennis champions. “That just felt like such a central journey for a character,” Baylin says of putting the focus on Richard. “I really wanted to allow that to be the guiding principle of the story. Venus and Serena and all the women in that family achieved so much and we as filmmakers looked at it ultimately as a story of a father who can be overshadowing sometimes, who is looking for something personal in this experience, but ultimately throughout the course of the story is relinquishing that responsibility and giving that agency to Venus in particular.”

One sequence in particular that highlights that arc of the story comes late in the film, as Richard and Venus discuss whether she will be allowed to compete in a tennis tournament. What starts with characters on opposite ends of the debate, ends with Richard confessing to his daughter the fear he feels about letting her down — something Richard says his own father did when he was faced with racist abuse as a child.

“Will and Rei deserve huge credit for that scene,” Baylin says. “Richard had gone through such tremendous trauma in his life. There were so many incidents that we could have chosen to tell his experience to Venus at that moment. Will found that story, that’s a true story and Will brought it to me and Rei and said this is the one I want Richard to say here. It really linked that idea of him being afraid of not being present…. Will found that story of Richard and I wrote it up with him and I think it’s a beautiful scene.”

That kind of collaboration with Baylin, Green says, happened throughout production. “Zach Baylin wrote a beautiful script and I was so fortunate to have him throughout the entire writing process,” he says. “He remained on through prep and production. So when I needed new pages Zach was right there to do that. Zach was in on every conversation, he was in on every script read, he was in on every breakout session. We were able to get into the nuances of character through that preparation process.”

Baylin, who has two children of his own and considers himself a big fan of the sport, says he was ultimately looking to write something about the experience of parenthood. The result was his first produced screenplay and now growing awards buzz around the film and his contributions.

“If you were totally to subtract the sports film element from it, it’s still a story about a parent who has to let go of their child and allow them to go out into the world,” he says. “You’re questioning, have I done enough are they going to be safe out there are they going to achieve the things they want to. We looked at that as a kind of universal experience. It could be the same as you’re sending your kid off to college. But obviously, the stakes in this family were so high.”

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