Liesl Tommy interview: ‘Respect’ director
“Respect” is Liesl Tommy‘s feature film directorial debut, and no, she never thought her first movie would be an Aretha Franklin biopic. “Just squirreling around New York City trying to get on and off subways with a crew, I never imagined that [my first movie] would be a studio film,” Tommy tells Gold Derby at our Meet the Experts: Film Directors panel (watch above).
A theater vet, Tommy had recently transitioned into TV directing — “Insecure,” “The Walking Dead” and “Jessica Jones” are among her credits — when she had a meeting with MGM about directing the film in late 2018. At the time, Jennifer Hudson had already been cast, selected by Franklin herself, to play the singer and there was no script yet. Tommy arrived for what was supposed to be a “casual chat” with a full vision and pitch for what would become “Respect.”
“I was very aware because I directed primarily theater for 15 years and then about a year or maybe two years of television that I was a long shot. But I knew that I could do it, so I had a very clear vision for the film and I pitched it,” she recalls. “I turned it from a casual chat into a full-on, ‘This is the movie, these are the songs.’ I said it should start in the church and end in the church. I said it should not be a cradle-to-grave film. I said it should be a film that dealt with these 20 years of her life that I felt was just a really beautiful, emotional, exciting journey, and that it should really be about the creative process and finding your voice as an artist.”
After landing the gig, Tommy brought on Tracey Scott Wilson to pen the screenplay, which covers Franklin’s life from when she was a 10-year-old in 1952 until 1972, when she recorded her seminal live album “Amazing Grace.” Looking at it as a “superhero origin story,” Tommy wanted to shed more light on Franklin’s roots. Hers wasn’t a typical rags-to-riches story as her father, C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker), was a legendary preacher in Detroit and a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr.
“You never see wealthy African-American period depictions, right? And they had a very glamorous, fabulous life in Detroit because her father was so successful,” Tommy notes. “And they had all these amazing dignitaries come through their home. Her father was Martin Luther King’s mentor, all of these incredible musicians and writers. It was a very inspiring childhood that she had, which of course adds to the pressure that she was under to be successful because she was surrounded by these dynamic minds.”
And when you’re the director, you can also put yourself in the picture, which is what Tommy did as she makes a cameo as a Franklin fan. “It was very stressful. I almost changed my mind like every single second,” she says with a laugh. “I started off as an actor and I’ve seen some of my favorite directors do that … and so I just felt like I can do it. And also I never met Aretha Franklin. I was brought on to this film after she passed [in August 2018] and I just kind of thought this is my way of saying to her everything I would’ve said in real life. … The scene with the fan was something I thought was really important to include in the film where a woman tells her what her music means to her.”