King Richard

January 3, 2022

Sporting dramas are often tales of triumph over adversity but present an editorial challenge when the people featured in them are still alive. The Fighter(2010) tells the story of the fall and rise of boxer Micky Ward. The Battle of  the Sexes (2017) focuses on the 1973 tennis match which helped define women’s professional sports. King Richard is the new biopic of Venus and Serena Williams’ father who groomed the sisters to become champs against the odds.

“The most important element in these films is that the sport itself is background to the characters and to their circumstance in wider society,” says Pamela Martin, ACE, who edited all three features. For King Richard, Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men) directs from a script by Zach Baylin. Will Smith plays the title character (and co-produces) and Aunjanue Ellis plays Williams’ wife, Oracene ‘Brandy’ Price.

“I knew a bit about [Williams] reputation for being difficult and prickly mainly from popular notions of him in the media as being one of those crazy sports dads,” Martin says, “but our story is a lot more nuanced than that. Everything he did for his girls came out of love and from a good place of wanting his girls to be the best they can be whether that was a doctor or lawyer or an athlete. It was also extremely important that the girls had balance and joy in their everyday lives … that they had time to go to church, school and just be kids.”

Remarkably, as the film relates, Williams wrote a 78-page manifesto detailing what it would take for his daughters to become successful – even down to conceiving them in the first place. “To me this was the most fascinating detail of what drove his obsession,” Martin says. “His backstory is that he saw a women’s tennis match in the ‘70s where the winner made $40,000 which was more than he took home all year. He went to his wife and said,

‘Let’s make two more kids.’ He wrote a plan for two daughters. Both would be great but the second one was going to be even more successful than the first. “Neither he nor Oracene had ever played tennis but he researched a lot. He watched matches on TV, read books, wrote nutrition charts and taught the girls how to play tennis before any coach came on board. They didn’t have the country club.

They were playing from age 4 on public courts in Compton. That was their club.” Getting to grips with portraying Williams’ character was key
to telling this story. “He’s complicated and our movie doesn’t sugarcoat this. There are cracks in the marriage and Oracene calls him out on a lot of his nonsense. We see friction in the family home. I think that’s what makes the character so interesting. There are times you want to shake him or punch him and other times you want to hug the guy. What is really apparent is their love for each other. That’s what makes this story real.” She adds, “And maybe
some of that prickliness came from being an outsider as a black family in a ‘white sport.’”

The focus may be on Williams’ obsession and the sisters’ formative years, but tennis itself is critical to the story’s structure. Martin was able to lean on her experience cutting the boxing matches in The Fighter (a film for which she was Oscar® nominated) and the court drama of Battle of the Sexes. However, unlike those films there was no actual match commentary they could use to help tell the story of the game.

Early matches played by Venus Williams were not televised. “Even if there were commentary available, Rei was adamant he didn’t want us to use it,” Martin says. “He didn’t want to make a conventional sports picture. Once we embraced that, the challenge was how to keep each game captivating especially when you’re not being told every nuance. We have to keep in mind that many people aren’t tennis fans and don’t know how to play the game.”

The first professional match depicted in King Richard shows Venus losing and then fighting back to win. “It’s a simple story to tell,” Martin says. “In the script that match was very long. It had all the ups and downs of the game. Prior to shooting we
realized that the point at which Venus delivers this powerful stylized serve is when you know she is going to win. There’s no reason to play out the rest of the scene. We decided to truncate it and just show her losing at the beginning then show her taking her time, her breathing – we focus on her father and her mother, as

Venus centers herself to do the job at hand.” The climactic match in the film was trickier. It hinges on Venus’ first professional tournament contest, just 14 years old in Oakland in 1994 against Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, who at that time was the world’s number two female player.

“It’s a very atypical ending to a sports movie because she – spoiler alert – does not win,” Martin says. “A lot of the drama of this match falls with Richard. It’s been set up in the film that it’s hard for him to sit and watch Venus play. He’s too nervous and he can’t sit still so he’s backstage watching on a feed.” An element of gamesmanship involving Sánchez Vicario is portrayed as a turning point in the match (as reports of the match highlighted). At the same time, Venus and her family leave with their heads held high.

“The tools we used were reaction shots – the family’s reaction, Venus’ reaction – and music,” Martin says. “Music does a lot of the heavy lifting that a commentary may have done for us. More than anything we had to rely on the images to tell the story here. It was almost like cutting an action sequence. She adds, “Despite what happens, the Williams’ walk out as winners. It’s about self-respect and pride. You know they will be back.”

While Venus and Serena are executive producers on the project it was their half-sister Isha Price who was hands on. “Isha was our point of contact on set every day. She came to all screenings and meetings along with producers Tim and Trevor White and sometimes Will Smith. We were able to ask questions about her parents, especially Richard, and she served as a spokesperson for the family in terms of their feedback.”

In March 2020, after just three weeks of shooting, the pandemic forced the production to shut down. It did not resume until October but the break gave the production an unplanned boost. “When we shut down, Rei made sure to schedule time on Zoom with the young actors playing Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) and their three other sisters and sometimes Will and Aunjanue would jump on as well. This happened every couple weeks where they just caught up with each other.

“When we started filming again, I could tell from the editing room that there was a connection that they didn’t have even when they first started shooting. There was a relaxation in the performances. Anybody who was a little uncomfortable before – well, that was all gone and it really came through on screen. In those seven months they became this little family unit even more than they had been on set.”

In addition, the gap had given a chance for Sidney and Singleton to literally grow into their roles. “They were playing the sisters aged 10 and 9 and then in our story, a bit older aged 14 and 13. While hair and make-up decisions help to portray the difference in age, what was fortunate for us was that these young actors developed a lot physically in those months. Pretty much everything in Compton, the early part of the story, was shot before we shut down and when they came back ready to play the older version of their characters, they looked just right for the age they were playing.

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