When Venus and Serena Williams first watched “King Richard,” a sports drama starring Will Smith as their larger-than-life dad, a man who helped catapult the sisters to tennis super-stardom, time seemed to stand still — at least for the film’s producers Tim and Trevor White.
The brothers, who co-founded the production company Star Thrower Entertainment, had spent years developing the story, attaching key collaborators in director Reinado Marcus Green and screenwriter Zach Baylin, casting Smith, and most crucially, getting the Williams family on board with their vision to capture the heart of a father who beat the odds to turn his daughters into tennis legends.
“It was definitely a very long two-and-a-half hours,” recalls Tim White. “When the real subjects see the movie, it’s very nerve-wracking.” His fears were quickly quelled after Venus and Serena stepped out of the screening room. “There were tears involved,” he says. “They said Will was frighteningly similar to Richard [Williams]. It felt great to hear those things.”
In making the movie, old YouTube clips of Richard Williams became a treasure trove for Tim and Trevor White, who previously produced Steven Spielberg’s Pentagon Papers drama “The Post,” Tyler Sheridan’s thriller “Wind River” and Aubrey Plaza’s social media satire “Ingrid Goes West.” But Serena and Venus Williams, who executive produced “King Richard,” were key in generously offering up personal details that provided a window beyond snippets of recorded interviews and fragments of home videos.
“It was absolutely crucial we had their support. No one involved was excited about the idea of moving forward on this without their involvement,” says Trevor White. “Having each of their consulting really elevated it. All the nuances made it special.”
Following its debut in theaters and on HBO Max, Tim and Trevor White spoke to Variety about why Will Smith was the ideal choice to play Richard and the persistence needed to eventually get the Williams family’s approval.
How did you come up with the idea for “King Richard”?
Tim White: It started back when I was probably 12 or 13 years old and watching tennis on TV and saw Richard Williams one day in the stands. He was holding up a sign that said, “Told you so.” It was an image that always stuck with me: Who is this character? Who is this guy? Around 2014 or so, Trevor and I started to talk about interesting characters who would make great films. We landed on Richard as an amazing way into the story of Venus and Serena and everything they accomplished. It was an origin story that I think a lot of people didn’t know. We did some of our own research, and then we started to meet with a lot of different writers. We probably met with the 25 or 30 writers over the two or three year time frame. We heard a lot of different takes, but we didn’t think any were quite right. And then finally in 2017 we sat down with Zach Baylin and pitched him the loose idea, and Zach responded instantly. A couple of days later, he sent us an email that really was the movie. It was an unbelievably comprehensive point of view on exactly what this was. Trevor and I looked at each other and said, “This is our guy.” At this point in time, we had no contact at all with the Williams family. We had sent an email, we’d sent something out to Venus, I think around 2015, basically saying we wanted to do this. We got no response. It was a cold email. The only way to really get this off the ground would be to ultimately develop a script that was just so great, they couldn’t ignore it.
Trevor White: Tim had grown up in the sport and had known about Richard for a long time. I remember really being taken with something he said early on, which was, “This might just be the greatest coaching story in history of sports.” That alone got us really excited. As we began to dig in, we started discover it was far more than a coaching story. It was a story about a family and that perseverance through what seemed like an impossible dream.
How did you eventually get support from the Williams family?
Tim: We got Zach’s script in May 2018, and it was instantly well received around town. It started to go around CAA quickly, Will Smith got his hands on it and said he was interested if the family would bless the project. At that point, we were already reaching out to Serena’s agents. We sent the script to them — they read it and loved it — and sent it along to Isha Price, who is their sister and [became an] executive producer on the film. We first met with Isha in August or September 2018. She had read the script at that point, and she was interested — but it took nine months of us talking to her talking about the project and our intentions. I think Richard had been given a lot of negative press treatment over the years. They wanted to make sure we wanted to tell an authentic version of what actually happened, which we did. By March 2019, they were on board with the movie.
Technically you could have made the movie without the Williams family’s blessing, but how important was it to have their approval?
Trevor: It was absolutely crucial we had their support. No one involved was excited about the idea of moving forward on this without their involvement. We also knew the script was going to get a lot better and fill in a lot of the blanks. Having each of their consulting really elevated it. All the nuances made it special.
Tim: The “Cinderella” scene, that is not written about anywhere. [Editor’s note: In the movie, Richard has his daughters watch “Cinderella” on VHS and quizzes them on important takeaways.] That’s something you can only get directly firsthand from the family. There’s little things like when they drive by the cemetery and Richard honks the horn and says, “Say goodbye to people that are gone.” Those are really the kind of stories that make the movie feel like you’re talking about a real family. From a purely legal Fair Use standpoint, you could tell the story without them. But that’s not something that we wanted to do here.
Why did Venus and Serena want the movie to center on their dad?
Trevor: We were really drawn to the story of a family of fatherhood, parents and parenting. When Venus, Serena and Isha and everyone in the family read it, they felt like this was authentic. They’ve been approached many times before by people [who wanted to make a movie about them] and nothing has come close to grabbing their attention the way that that this did. And I think that in large part had to do with the way we were pitching.
Was there any hesitation from the Williams family about telling the story from Richard’s perspective?
Trevor: They loved it.
Venus and Serena are global superstars, but how does Will Smith’s movie-star pedigree benefit a movie like “King Richard”?
Trevor: Richard is such a larger-than-life character. He’s genuinely funny, super charismatic. When we were thinking who could embody Richard, we kept talking about Will. Will, for us, inherently carries a lot of the qualities that Richard has. Will is larger than life as a person. He’s all about uplifting, inspiring. Will such a good human being, and at his core, he wants to inspire others. At the end of the day, for this film, that’s its message underneath everything. We felt early on that it could be exciting to see Will go to these darker places too, and that he could carry the levity of it.
Were Venus and Serena on set?
Tim: Yes, they were each on set. I think Serena came one day and Venus came two days. And they gave notes on the script. Often, the notes really came through Isha. When they saw the movie, they gave us a couple thoughts too. But again, they were all in service of making things as authentic as we possibly could.
Trevor: Isha was on set every day and Lyndrea Price, their other sister, was on set every day in the costume department. We had great representation there. We were always getting input.
After the project started to take shape, there was a bidding war to buy rights. Why did you decide to set up the film at Warner Brothers?
Tim: It really came down to the way Warner Brothers talked about the film. They wanted to turn it into a big cultural event. The studio was coming off “Crazy Rich Asians” and “A Star Is Born.” Those were two movies that, to us, really did just that.
It’s been a tough time for adult dramas at the box office. Are you concerned about audience’s appetite, at least in theaters, for these types of movies?
Tim: There’s a lot of unknowns right now. We both think when we really get through the pandemic, we’ll be back for these movies in theaters in full force. But it definitely does feel like things are also changing.
Trevor: So many people have been reaching out [to me and Tim] and out of our own curiosity, we asked how people watched it. Almost across the board, people are watching on HBO Max. In the pandemic, people are still a little anxious to go to movie theaters. We’re happy people are seeing the movie and enjoying it.