Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

By: Geri Cole

Promotional poster for RESPECT

Host Geri Cole is joined by Tracey Scott Wilson, writer of the Aretha Franklin biopic RESPECT, about writing the film’s screenplay on a very expedited timeline, how being a playwright has informed her film & television career, and her creative process – which includes writing in longhand and starting each day reading scripts.

Tracey Scott Wilson is an accomplished television writer, producer and playwright. She served as a co-executive producer on FOSSE/VERDON and MORNING SHOW. Before that, she was co-executive producer on the award-winning series THE AMERICANS, where she wrote for 4 seasons and received two Writers Guild awards, two Peabody awards and a Golden Globe. Her plays include BUZZER, THE GOOD NEGRO, and THE STORY. She is the winner of multiple awards for her work as a playwright, including 2001 Helen Merrill Emerging Playwright Award, the 2003 AT&T Onstage Award, the 2004 Whiting Award, the 2004 Kesserling Prize, the 2007 Weissberger Playwriting Award, and the 2007 Time Warner Storytelling Fellowship. In 2009, she was the writer-in-residence at the O’Neil National Playwriting Conference.

Her latest project is the Aretha Franklin biopic, RESPECT. The film follows the rise of Aretha Franklin’s career — from a child singing in her father’s church choir to her international superstardom — and tells the remarkable true story of the music icon’s journey to find her voice. The film was released in August 2021 and is available to rent or buy on major streaming platforms.

Seasons 7-10 of OnWriting are hosted by Geri Cole, a writer and performer based in New York City. She is currently a full-time staff and interactive writer for SESAME STREET, for which she has received a Writers Guild Award and two Daytime Emmys.

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OnWriting is an official podcast of the Writers Guild of America, East. The series was created and produced by Jason Gordon. Associate Producer & Designer is Molly Beer. Mix, tech production, and original music by Stock Boy Creative.

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Thanks for listening. Write on.


Geri Cole: Hi, I’m Geri Cole. And you’re listening to OnWriting, a podcast from the Writer’s Guild of America East. In each episode, you’re going to hear from the people behind your favorite films and television series talking about the writing process, how they got their project from the page to the screen and so much more. Today, I’m thrilled to welcome Tracey Scott Wilson, screenwriter of Respect, a biopic of Aretha Franklin starring Jennifer Hudson.

Wilson is an accomplished television writer, producer and playwright who has earned a Peabody award and three Writers Guild awards for her work on this series Fosse/Verdon and The Americans. I spoke with Tracey about how she had to write the screenplay for Respect on a very expedited timeline, how being a playwright informed her film and television career, and how her creative process includes starting each day by reading scripts and writing in long hand. Hi Tracey. I want to start by saying thank you so much for coming on the podcast. Also, thank you so much for making this film. I read that this project was in development for a while, but then I also read that there was an expedited timeline, I guess, in production?

Tracey Scott Wilson: Yes. Yes.

Geri Cole: So let’s talk about that.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Oh my God.

Geri Cole: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you come to this project? At what point did you join the team? And what was that experience like?

Tracey Scott Wilson: From what I understand, I think sometime before Aretha died, a couple of years before she died, she publicly chose Jennifer to play her. But she’s famously volatile. So who knows? She could have changed her mind any time, but she did not. And so yeah, I think it wasn’t development in that sense for a long time. And then, I was brought on by my good friend, Lisa Tommy, who I’ve worked with on my play, The Good Negro, and so we came up together in theater. And the previous writer had to drop out for some previous commitments, and so I was brought on in May and they were planning on shooting in the end of September.

Geri Cole: I’m sorry? I’m sorry, you said you were brought on in May?

Tracey Scott Wilson: That is correct. You heard me correct.

Geri Cole: And you start shooting at the end of September.

Tracey Scott Wilson: That’s right. That is right.

Geri Cole: Okay. That’s funny. That’s a funny joke.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Well, this is my first movie, so I had a sense that that was not good, but I didn’t know how not good that was until I actually started that process. It was insane. It was crazy fast, and I was writing right up until the last day of shooting.

Geri Cole: Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Yeah, because I was on set the whole time.

Geri Cole: Okay. Wow. That feels really intense. Also, I’m like, “Why?” That’s always my question when you’re handed those types of timeline, I’m just like, “Why? Why? Who’s deciding this?”

Tracey Scott Wilson: Usually, yes. But this was because they had pushed it because of the previous screenwriter. So they had pushed it, pushed it and pushed it.

Geri Cole: [crosstalk 00:02:56].

Tracey Scott Wilson: And of course, Jennifer was the only one on board. She has a schedule. Her managers, agents, obligations that she has. And also they hadn’t cast anyone else. They hadn’t hired anybody else. So they had to do all of that stuff. And in order to do that stuff, they needed a script. I mean, obviously they needed it even just to create a realistic budget. So it really was seven days a week, 10, 12 hours a day.

Geri Cole: Wow.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Yeah. For that entire summer, for sure. Up until-

Geri Cole: Wow.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Yeah.

Geri Cole: Wow. Wow. Wow. I’m going to ask you more about your process later and we’re going to talk a bit more, just because that feels very intense. So in that very intense script writing process, how much research did you have to do, want to do? Did you watch any other biopics to help inform how you crafted this story?

Tracey Scott Wilson: I did. That’s just always part of my process. But the second I signed on, I immediately started reading everything I could about her. And of course they, MGM had a researcher. So I could always just… I didn’t have to tool around on the internet for hours trying to find things and go into rabbit holes. I could just ask her. And then within an hour or something, I’d have what I needed. So, that really helped to streamline a lot of it, just having my own librarian there. And yes, I also did watch all the big biopics, all the big musical biopics. I read a bunch of the scripts. So I was doing that all along, and that’s when I realized that a lot of musical biopics follow the same trajectory. And it’s just because it’s a very weird reason. A lot of singers or certain writers, their lives follow the same trajectory. This almost always an extraordinary talent very early on, a uniqueness to the voice, a rise, a fall.

Geri Cole: A redemption.

Tracey Scott Wilson: A redemption that some people fall back and forth for the redemption. But that is just, for some reason, a lot of times it follows the same thing, because I was also afraid of falling into those traps, and wanted to try to avoid that. But then I looked at her life and you think, “Oh, okay. I can see why.”

Geri Cole: Yeah. Well, that’s actually leading me perfectly into my next question, which is, how did you decide on this timeline and what would stay and what would go? And then was there anything that you wish you could have expanded on, or anything you wish you could have pulled in that you were like, “It just doesn’t make sense in this timeline?”

Tracey Scott Wilson: Yeah. Yeah. At the time, I was just really about answering such a question of the movie, which was, how does a woman with the greatest voice of all time find her own voice? So starting, you couldn’t ignore that extraordinary childhood where she’s hanging out with Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. And there’s always this talk of she didn’t read music, and never had really any formal training, but that’s true that she couldn’t read music, but she was also being taught just by the most extraordinary people, just by virtue of just hanging out on the stairs. Just like a master class like no other. And then ending with her bestselling album, which also happened to coincide with the moment when she got sober. And she was going into that next phase of her career. So that was the perfect timeline, to study that, to answer that question.

Geri Cole: I’m going to go off on a little bit of a tangent here because I did, I was thinking about this actually earlier when thinking about the movie about how… I didn’t know that she was in the company of… It almost, it feels like a lie.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Yeah.

Geri Cole: I was like, “Did all the people’s timelines overlap?” I didn’t know that.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Yeah.

Geri Cole: And then it made me really think about that… Yeah. It was like she maybe didn’t have any formal training, depending on whose definition of formal you’re referring to. But there was that, in the company of these other masters, and then the idea of community, and the community of these other masters. And then I just started going off on this tangent of could you argue that being in the community is the thing? Is that what pulled this excellence out of her? Or I don’t know, put such… Yeah.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Well, yeah. But even, you talk about some of the things I had to leave out of the movie, but Sam Cook was her brother’s best friend. She was down street from Diana Ross and Mary Wilson. And Sam Cook was mentored by her father, and sang in her father’s church. That was her first big crush. And it was something, I don’t know what was going on in Detroit at that time, but it was all those Motown guys were literally down the… They were all friends, and they were down the street from each other. So she had that. But also this hub of an extraordinary talent that her father created, you know what I mean?

Geri Cole: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tracey Scott Wilson: And as far as what I wish I could have… I wish I could have explored more of the sisters’ relationship. We had a number of scenes between her and her sisters, and because they were very close, and fought only like sisters could, just because of time, could not put that in there. And Carolyn, she was a lesbian, and I touched on that in some drafts, but couldn’t get that in there as well. And to live openly like that at that time for a black woman was just unheard of. So that’s something I wish I could have-

Geri Cole: Represent that truth. Yeah.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Yeah, yeah.

Geri Cole: Man. So you were saying that you worked with director, and I feel like Liesl, am I saying Liesl correct?

Tracey Scott Wilson: Liesl. Liesl.

Geri Cole: Liesl. Liesl. Liesl Tommy.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Yeah.

Geri Cole: You’ve worked with her a lot in the past. And you worked with her on this project. What do you think actually helped make you guys such good collaborators?

Tracey Scott Wilson: Oh, well, I think the reason why I worked in this such short timeframes is because we had worked together at… The Good Negro was a big play for me, and a big play for her as well. And so we had worked so closely on that. So we had a shorthand. And through that, we became really good friends. So we had gone on vacations together, and trips together, and been sick together, and all this kind of stuff. So we had all that. And so, because I knew her so well, she knew me so well, we don’t have to get through a lot of just nonsense and bullshit. You know what I mean? We could just say, “This doesn’t work,” or, “I disagree with you here,” or just to be really honest. And I mean, there was a moment I was writing in Brooklyn, and I don’t know, she must have sensed that I was flagging. The energy was flagging, and she was like, “Let’s go out of town. Let’s get out of town for the weekend.” Actually the costume designer, Clint, we went to a place that he has in Massachusetts and wrote there. And then we proceeded to hop from house to house for the rest of the summer.

Geri Cole: Nice.

Tracey Scott Wilson: We rented a bunch of Airbnbs.

Geri Cole: Nice.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Just because being in nature, being in trees, being out of the city was really helpful. It was just really helpful. And then we lived together all through when we were in Atlanta as well. We lived together. So it was just… I can’t imagine, you’re not going to do those things with a stranger. You’re not going to do something with a director you just met. So I just think that that really enabled this to happen. I couldn’t imagine it happening with anybody else.

Geri Cole: Yeah. It sounds like your genuine friendship provided a certain amount of trust and honesty. So it’s like you don’t have to try and dance around, or you can just get to it. Get to the business. So I’m curious also as to how you approached writing dialogue in this film, because there’s a lot of intimate dialogue, but between real people.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Uh-huh (affirmative). Uh-huh (affirmative).

Geri Cole: How did you approach this?

Tracey Scott Wilson: Well, just reading everything I could about her. She didn’t talk a lot, but people around her did. And hearing the rhythm of their speech when they were recalling stories, that oftentimes when you recall a story, you go back to the language that you used during that time. So that helped me to piece together the way people talked. And of course, there’s many, many videos of Aretha speaking, but particularly there was a CBS News documentary that was one of the few videos, one of the only, I think, but one of the very few where Ted, her husband, talked extensively. And just early on, right after her first album, and she was still in that, this all very new stage, and was nowhere near the Aretha that we came to know.

And I watched that. I must have watched that 50 times. There was just so much in there because it wasn’t a polished documentary like we have now. It was very cinéma vérité. So there was just the camera, and you could see these interactions between them. And one of the things I learned from that is just how deeply Ted loved her, as damaged as the relationship became. I mean, there’s a moment where she’s singing. She’s at the piano, he’s sitting next to her, and we recreated that in the movie. And she’s singing Amazing Grace. And he wipes a tear from his eye. He starts crying. I mean, he must have heard this woman sing hundreds of times, and she could still move him in that way. So there was a lot of just making sure and reading books from the period, just because the rhythm of speech is so different. I didn’t want it to sound like today. And just extracting relationships based on the stories that her friends and family told about her.

Geri Cole: Man, it sounds like a lot of detective work, in a way, where you’re piecing together, and especially in trying to immerse yourself in the spirit of the time. So also, expanding on this last question, how did you approach characterizing real people? Because not just Aretha, there is, again, a ton of incredible and famous people in this story whose lives actually crossed. What was your approach? And also did it have to pass legal at any point?

Tracey Scott Wilson: Oh yes. There was legal, it did have to pass legal.

Geri Cole: Yeah.

Tracey Scott Wilson: That was very stressful. It was the process I never had been through before.

Geri Cole: Yeah.

Tracey Scott Wilson: “Did this happen?” “No.” “Did this happen?” “No.”

Geri Cole: Wow.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Just like, “Oh, shit. Is anything going to make it?” But surprisingly, I didn’t get any pushback from legal, which was a nice surprise. But I read, in terms of James Cleveland, I read a biography of him, in which I learned he was Mahalia Jackson’s paper boy.

Geri Cole: Oh.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Yeah. Yeah. And he used to go up to her door and listen to her sing.

Geri Cole: Whoa.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Yes. And he was so poor, he didn’t have a piano. So he drew little piano keys on his window, and would just, for a first, just pretend to play based on what he saw in church.

Geri Cole: Wow.

Tracey Scott Wilson: But yeah. Isn’t it amazing that she just happened to be somebody, and he happened to hear her sing? And then that put in him this desire, this dirt poor boy, to aspire to something else.

Geri Cole: Wow.

Tracey Scott Wilson: So reading all those little things, and I mean, we shot a scene where that story was told, but that had to be cut. But all that, as you know, it forms your sense of character, and who the person is. There’s a ton about Dianah Washington, Clara Ward. And there was a lot of information about Clara’s relationship with CL. So just from that, you just get a sense of personality. And then you put on that personality in mind, you extract dialogue from that, whether or not Clara Ward, obviously, the way she grew up different from the way CL grew up so that the speech pattern is different. So those little things that might not always make it in there, but it helps you to get a rhythm for the character’s voices.

Geri Cole: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Man, again. So a lot of research in a very short period of time.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Yeah. There was a lot. Yeah.

Geri Cole: So one of the things, actually, I also want to talk about is the tone of the film. One of the things that I really appreciated about this film is that, even though it did not shy away from the dark aspects of her story, like the molestation, and the domestic abuse, and the alcoholism, it never felt overpowered by it or marred in it, which was like… Yeah, so how did you work out that tone? How did you strike the balance between telling the truth, but then also keeping the focus on her music and talent and spirit?

Tracey Scott Wilson: Almost like that her life was the example of that because when I read about her really painful childhood, and then I would look at the behind the scenes, and then seeing where she was in her career, and seeing how she just kept going. She just kept going. And she had relationships, she went to parties, she did all this kind of stuff. So it was just maybe part of her extraordinary talent comes from this ability to compartmentalize until you can’t anymore, right?

Geri Cole: Right.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Until it catches up to you. But you’re also talking about a time when no one, let alone black people, had a language for their damage. And also, and in particular, in the back community, people having no patience, and thinking that you’re pain is indulgent. I mean, I heard, every time when I grew up, was just like, “Do you know what your grandfather went through? Do you know what I went through? I had no shoes,” and blah, blah, blah, blah.

Geri Cole: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tracey Scott Wilson: So you don’t have any… So you’re almost trapped in that. So what do you have? You have your music. You could just put it all in there, all the pain, all the joy, all the confusion. You could just put it all in that, because that’s your only outlet, right?

Geri Cole: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tracey Scott Wilson: And so it was just about, I don’t know, just fine tuning that journey.

Geri Cole: Yeah. I mean, it sounds messed up, but I understand it on such a level where… I mean, I was literally just talking to someone the other day where it’s like, growing up, if we were ever crying, it was, “Are you bleeding?” And if you weren’t bleeding, you didn’t have a case. If you weren’t bleeding, you did not have a case.

Tracey Scott Wilson: That’s right.

Geri Cole: It’s like-

Tracey Scott Wilson: “Get outside.”

Geri Cole: “… You better suck it up.”

Tracey Scott Wilson: That’s right.

Geri Cole: “You better. We don’t have for it.”

Tracey Scott Wilson: That’s right. That’s right.

Geri Cole: “I will give you something to cry about,” was also then the follow up.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Yes. Yes. Yes.

Geri Cole: You want to keep on with it?

Tracey Scott Wilson: Yes.

Geri Cole: Oh man. Which is messed up, but also helpful? I don’t know.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Well, I remember my brother’s friend had his bike stolen. He had a brand new bike, 10 speed, back when that was a thing. And his friend’s bike was stolen, and he came down the street crying, just crying. And his father was like, “You better go back out there and get your bike from those boys who stole your bike. And if you come back in without your bike, that bike, I’m going to beat your ass.” Right? So he got my brother and all his friends together because they knew who did it, right?

Geri Cole: Okay, go on.

Tracey Scott Wilson: And they made up a plan, and they figured, before people were shooting people like that in the street. And they figured out a plan, and they stole the bike back. And then it became a thing-

Geri Cole: What?

Tracey Scott Wilson: … of them stealing the bike and getting it back. It became a whole thing. But yeah, but they were just like-

Geri Cole: Wow.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Yeah, I know. Everyone started thinking, “We can booty that.” Or something like that. But yeah, just-

Geri Cole: I was going to say, that sounds like a movie I would watch of the one summer where the bike was going back and forth.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Back and forth all summer. But yeah, that, “I paid money for that. And no, I’m not going to solve your problems for you. I’m not going to…”

Geri Cole: “You better go get that bike.”

Tracey Scott Wilson: “Get that bike, boy.”

Geri Cole: Yeah. Oh man. I can hear that voice.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Yeah. “You better…” Oh.

Geri Cole: So, also I want to talk about music. There’s so much music in this film, and it’s credited as a biographical musical drama, which I was like… How did you figure out what music you wanted to incorporate and when? It almost feels like a musical, but not… I don’t even actually technically know the rules of a musical, but it feels like a musical.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Yeah. Well, we had these songs, we had a bunch of songs that we had the rights to. And we could probably get [inaudible 00:18:39] to some others, but it would take a while, but we knew the songs that we had. So with that in mind, that helped. And not wanting it to just be like, “Okay, here’s this hit, here’s this hit, here’s this hit.” Trying to actually look at where she was in her life when she sang that song so that it comes from a true emotional place. So Respect, it’s just like she’s coming at a time when she’s starting to realize maybe this… Something is now, I think, what am I repressing? All this kind of stuff. You know what I mean?

Geri Cole: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tracey Scott Wilson: And that’s the way she sang, because so much of what she did was so personal, so that there was always a way of tying what she was singing to what she was going through. Aretha made it easy.

Geri Cole: Man. Jason and I were talking before you jumped on about that scene where she’s in the South with all those white musicians and they’re working. I was like, “I could have watched a whole film just watching that.”

Tracey Scott Wilson: Yeah. Yeah.

Geri Cole: Of them working the songs out, it’s so, so, so good. The film also culminates with her historic performance at the New Temple Missionary Baptist church in Los Angeles. Why was this the performance that you wanted to end on? And why did you feel it was so special to her story?

Tracey Scott Wilson: It was the perfect convergence of where she was spiritually and where she was creatively. It was the first time she took control of her music. It was the first time she produced her own music. She chose everybody, and Jerry Wexler was on the sidelines for that. And it coincided with also the moment that she was getting sober and in a healthy relationship. And then, it also ended up becoming her best selling album. So it was just this convergence of her. And also, it harkened back to the beginning, to her church. It was, again, Aretha was the guidepost. It was this way of really where her life came full circle in this perfect moment, creatively, spiritually, emotionally. And I think that’s probably one of the reasons why, I mean, aside from the fact that it’s an amazing, amazing album. Just she’s at her vocal peak, the music and everything like that. But I think part of it also is because so much of her soul was in it, so much of her heart was in it.

Geri Cole: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So let’s also talk about this amazing cast. You mentioned earlier, and I also read that Miss Franklin had cast Jennifer Hudson before passing, that she had, I guess, granted her-

Tracey Scott Wilson: Anointed.

Geri Cole: Anointed, yes. That’s a good word.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Yeah.

Geri Cole: How did this inform how you were writing the character? And did you have any other people in mind while you were writing?

Tracey Scott Wilson: No. When I came on board, she already in place. She had been singing for Aretha when she wasn’t feeling well and things like that. So she had been seeing her stand in for a while. In fact, she sang when she, posthumously, Aretha got a culture prize, a special citation, and Jennifer sang. That’s the first time I met her, actually. She sang for that. So that was already… But who else, honestly?

Geri Cole: Yeah. Yeah.

Tracey Scott Wilson: It’s strange to think. It’s just like, “Who else?” And so, just in terms of the church background, just everything is just perfectly alive there. And it was helpful because during this script writing process, which as you know, was very stressful, she would be able to say, “I think that she would use different word here. I think she would…” She would talk about the way she spoke. She’d like to use, for lack of better term, big words sometimes because she didn’t even finish grammar school because she was singing and stuff like that. So maybe over compensating a little, which also helps to understand who her character is and why she was always such a church lady, even when she was singing Dr. Feelgood.

Geri Cole: But you also had Marlon Wayans, Mary J. Blige, Audra McDonald, Forest Whitaker. I mean, I guess they were all brought on. Did any of those folks inform as you were writing? Or was it like it all happened after the fact?

Tracey Scott Wilson: Oh no, because when you’re… That was just one of the blessings of being on set because when you hear how the actors are saying things, and you hear it, and then all of a sudden, the voice you had in your head is taken over by the actor’s voice.

Geri Cole: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tracey Scott Wilson: When I was on The Americans, that happened. Every time I would write, I would hear Matthew and Keri’s voices in saying that. And so it became that too, because I knew how they talked when they were themselves, and how they talked when they were… And so it was very helpful just hearing that, especially since I was writing so much.

Geri Cole: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So actually you just brought up The Americans because I do actually also want to talk a little bit about your career. I read that you started out as a novelist, but then very quickly moved into playwriting, and then that it took you… You have been a very successful playwright, as I understand. Can we talk a little bit about what were some pivotal moments in your playwriting career that you feel like shaped you as a writer?

Tracey Scott Wilson: Oh yeah. When I first came to playwriting after realizing the novel thing was not going to happen, and I really loved theater, I would just go see everything I could, and read everything that I could. And one of the first things, or very early on, I was like, “I want to have a show at the Public Theater in New York City. And when it actually happened, I just couldn’t believe it happened. And so that was really pivotal because I got my first agent through that, and it happened to be around the time when TV started hiring a lot of playwrights. All of a sudden, these playwrights, they were moving to LA. They would go to LA, and getting on shows, creating shows. So it was just at that moment because for a very brief naïve point of my career, I thought, “Oh, I’m just going to be a playwright.” And then I realized you can’t actually live or eat doing these things.

So having that was great, even though I didn’t… Obviously I watched a lot of TV, but I didn’t know that much about it. But it took me five years before I got my first TV job. I mean, it was a lot of meetings, a lot of Water Bottle Tour. And my first job was this show, Do No Harm, which was a modern day Jekyll and Hyde story. And the most notable thing about that is that Lin-Manuel was on the show as an actor, and he was writing Hamilton when he was on that show.

Geri Cole: Wow. Wow, wow, wow.

Tracey Scott Wilson: So I like to take some credit for that. No, I’m just kidding. And then that show was canceled quickly, but that show led to my job with The Americans. And it’s been non stop ever since, but it took a while.

Geri Cole: Wow. From the playwriting-

Tracey Scott Wilson: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Geri Cole: … to the transitioning into TV and film.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Yeah.

Geri Cole: So what is your process like, and how does it change with the medium? You talked earlier about how being in nature really helped you in the writing of the script, and getting out of the city. Obviously in TV writing rooms are a very different dynamic, but can we talk a little bit about are there any rituals that help you get things out?

Tracey Scott Wilson: Yeah. I mean, I have to say, whenever I actually start to… Actually the first day I put pen to paper, I write longhand first until something tells me to stop, and then I type what I wrote. And then I go from there, I just use the computer from then on. But I can’t just look at a computer screen and just start typing. I’ve never been able to… I can’t do it. I have to write it out longhand.

Geri Cole: Wow.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Yeah. Yeah.

Geri Cole: Wow, wow, wow.

Tracey Scott Wilson: I don’t know what that’s about, but yeah. But on TV, when I got job on The Americans, there was a lot of research because I mean, I didn’t know anything about the Cold War, or Russian, Chinese relations, and the American relations and stuff like that. So there was a lot of… I had three months before I was starting the job when I was hired. And so I just was watching all these documentaries about World War I and World War… But that was very similar to my playwriting process. I just read stuff, absorb stuff until ideas start to form, and then the ideas start to form, and then I start playing around with writing stuff. And then, until the moment where I just actually have to write a dialogue or something like that. I’ve always loved the research part of it and that’s the process. And I watch movies. And The Americans, I started on the second season. So I had 13 scripts from the first season to read, and I used to just read them all the time before I even wrote when my first script, so I could get a sense of the rhythm of the show. And so, when I’m writing, I always read screenplays, I watch movies. But whenever I’m writing, I’m always reading something. I usually start the day with reading a script before I start writing.

Geri Cole: Oh, interesting.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Yeah. Yeah. [crosstalk 00:27:16].

Geri Cole: No, it’s fantastic. But the long hand, plus the reading, and the emerging yourself, almost just like dropping into the energy or something of what you’re trying to create.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Yeah. Yeah. Well, it’s like that moment when you’re writing, and you’re writing, and then all of a sudden, you feel like you take a dictation because your characters is talking to you. So it’s getting to that moment is the sweet spot, because you know that even if you get to that moment, whatever structural issues you might come up against, I find you can get through it because you have a sense of… Because rhythm is so important, right?

Geri Cole: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tracey Scott Wilson: In the script. Rhythm. And so, that’s why I like to read scripts when I’m writing, just to keep that… It’s like listening to music over and over again. It’s like listening to a song over and over again, because superstitiously, I listen to Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. I listen to the album when I start writing just because, I don’t know, there’s something about that that just soothes me and it eases me into it. So it’s just about finding that right rhythm, I find, to get the tone correct.

Geri Cole: I feel like you have a lot of rituals that you are sharing right now and I am into all of them. I’m like, “We’re going to listen to an album, we’re going to do a little reading. We’re going to start with longhand.” And it is to all get into that space. And I also, I have this theory, which I refer to, it is like the ether, and it’s like we all have access to it, but then it’s not always easy to maintain that connection.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Right. Yeah.

Geri Cole: And so, once you do lock in, and it’s like, yeah, you can just hear the characters. It’s all happening here. And it’s like trying to get your way into that connection, that secure connection

Tracey Scott Wilson: That sweet spot. Yes, that sweet spot. Yeah.

Geri Cole: Yeah. That’s amazing.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Well, I’ll tell you the best ritual that I learned actually from the writer, Josh Brand on The Americans. Josh Brand, he created Northern Exposure and St. Elsewhere. He is a legend. And I had the honor sitting at his feet while I was learning from him while I was on The Americans. And he told me this. I was stuck on something. And he said, “Just write out all the scenes that you want to see.” He’s like, “This is the fun part before everybody gets their hands on there, grubby little hands,” he said, “On your stuff.” And he’s just like, “It doesn’t matter. It could be just John enters a room, whatever. Just write it until you exhaust yourself of all ideas and you’ve written down everything you want to see.” And he said, “You just take a day, and you look at it, and you’ll see a pattern emerge. You’ll see this will belong in act one. This will belong in act two. This will belong here, here, here. And from that pattern, that story will emerge.” And whenever I’m stuck and I feel blocked or whatever, I do that and it works every time. So I’m always trying to pass that forward because I think it’s pretty brilliant.

Geri Cole: Yeah. That is amazing, because I feel like sometimes you can forget that writing can be fun. It’s like, “Yeah. What do you want to see? Write down what you want to see.”

Tracey Scott Wilson: Yeah, because before they all take it out and ruin it for you.

Geri Cole: Yeah.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Which they will do.

Geri Cole: You start doing it beforehand, start self-editing of what… It’s like, “What do you want to see?”

Tracey Scott Wilson: Yeah.

Geri Cole: And actually you’ve just led me also into my next question brilliantly. That’s amazing advice. And in addition to that amazing advice, you teach. And so what is one thing that you always try to instill in your students?

Tracey Scott Wilson: One thing I always try to do is teach them about structure. I always compare it to great poets. It’s just like before you can write an effective free verse, I think you have to understand how to write a sonnet. You have to understand the basics of the rhythm, the pattern of the poem, and then you could fuck it up, and then you could do something on top of it. And I also say, it’s like Ingmar Bergman… I was going to say Mussolini. Not Mussolini. Rossellini, all these guys. Ingmar Bergman, he used to make commercials in Sweden before he became Ingmar Bergman. I mean, these are people who learned the basics of filmmaking and then they mastered that, or they got tired of that. Then they created something new. It’s the same thing with Miles Davis. The reason why he created his style of music, which no one had ever heard, is because he was playing with Dizzy and those guys, and he couldn’t play as fast as they could.

He couldn’t keep up with them. So he was just like, “Well, I can’t keep up with them. I’m going to do my own thing rather than try to [inaudible 00:31:32] the fool.” And ended up changing jazz forever. But before he did that, he understood these basics that he was playing with the people that, at that time, were considered the best. And from that, he was able to create his own thing. So I just think it’s very important that writers understand structure, and understand the basics of storytelling, and the basics of storytelling arcs. And then you could do whatever you want with that. But if you don’t have that foundation, then you can’t create something avant-garde because there’s no center. And you always have to have a center to your story. You always have to have that. And a lot of times people think, “Well, people who are innovators don’t have that,” but that’s the opposite. It’s the exact opposite. They have it so strongly that they have the confidence to do something different.

Geri Cole: Man, that’s a really good point because I feel like I always think of writing as math, where it’s like you need to understand A plus B, and if you don’t have A plus B, you can’t equal the C kind of thing.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Right.

Geri Cole: But if you don’t understand that, if you don’t understand that two plus two equals four, then you can’t get to geometry or whatever it is-

Tracey Scott Wilson: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly.

Geri Cole: … if you don’t understand the basic math. So I’d also like to talk with you about, you spoke a little bit about it earlier, and this is a question that I like to ask everyone that comes on the podcast. It’s about the idea of success. And you had talked earlier about how, when you had started out as a playwright, one of your goals was to get a play up at the Public Theater and then that happened. So the reason why I like to ask people about success, especially in creative fields, but really everyone, I talk to everyone about their success because it does feel like elusive. It’s like sometimes you have it, sometimes you don’t. Or you’re in it, do you feel successful?

Tracey Scott Wilson: Right. Right.

Geri Cole: And I find often, especially and related to Aretha and her story where it’s, arguably, at the height of her success, she was not a happy person.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Geri Cole: She was not doing well. So I’m curious as to how you define success for yourself and how that may have evolved over time.

Tracey Scott Wilson: I mean early on, like I said, it was just like, “If I could just write a play. Okay, if I could just have a reading of a play.” And then, “If I could just get a production here, if I can think of another production here,” and then you realize, at a certain point, you’re chasing the thing, and not the art. And so it’s always… I have friends and a lovely wife who always helps me to get back to that point, because it’s also, you just said, well, especially when I was in theater, because there’s no union, shout out to the Guild. It’s just very capricious about who gets this money this time. And it could just feed a lot of jealousy and resentment. And you’re just chasing that play or chasing this play, hoping that that’ll be the thing.

And I certainly went through a time of that, which I called my dark dawn of the soul, and it was actually a good friend. And my good friend, actually, Faye Price, who used to run a theater in Minneapolis, who brought me back to my center. And was just like, “Just write a play that you want to write.” And I did. And then just being back to that reminded me why I wanted to do it in the first place. The idea that I get to make up stories for a living and people pay me for it, that is an honor that most people just don’t get to do what they want to do with their lives. And they certainly don’t ever get paid well for it. And being in such an amazing union as well, and all that kind of stuff, and have those rights, and those safeties, and things like that. So no matter what else happens, having that is just like… What else is there, just in terms of career stuff? But what else is there? And also I have to say, when I started playwriting, that’s when I found my people, that’s when I really found, “Oh, this is the community that I am a part of. This is a community of people who I want to be with.” So that, to me, is success.

Geri Cole: Man, that is a really wonderful and lovely thought. And I’ve been thinking about that lately, the idea of community and how finding your community, and just how much community fulfills us in ways that we probably don’t even understand. I mean, in clear and obvious ways, but then also deeply in ways that we don’t understand, and about how finding your community can really feel like that’s the success.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Yeah. And real community, not just likes or whatever that is, but real community, people that you know, that you could call on when things get ugly, when you’re not the hot whatever, because somebody’s always going to be the next, the next, the next, the next. So chasing that, you’re just down a rabbit hole you’re never going to get out of. And that’s what having community is because hopefully you have people who just speak the truth to you. That’s also rare.

Geri Cole: Yeah. Oh, man. That’s wonderful. Well, we’re running short on time. So I do have one more possibly controversial question, which is, what is what is your favorite Aretha Franklin song? You have to say it, you have to go on the record. And why is the follow up.

Tracey Scott Wilson: I have to say a song I always come back to is a song… It wasn’t anywhere near her biggest hit or anything like that. But her arrangement of You’re All I Need To Get By, I just think it’s beautiful. And I love to listen to it. It’s one of those things where, how do you possibly improve on the legendary original? But I just love the way she combines it with Respect a little bit and it did… I just love it. It just makes me happy. It makes me happy every time.

Geri Cole: Wow. Wow, wow, wow.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Yeah.

Geri Cole: Okay. That’s a deep cut.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Check it out. Deep cut. Check it out, check it out.

Geri Cole: Well, Tracey, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. Thank you for making this film. It was incredible, and it’s incredible to get to see her life and her story, and it’s important to get to see her life in her story. So thank you so much for all that work that you did.

Tracey Scott Wilson: Well, thank you so much for having me. It was great. I so appreciate it. Thank you for your great questions too.

Geri Cole: Oh yeah, of course. That’s it for this episode. OnWriting is a production of the Writers Guild of America East, and is hosted by me, Geri Cole. This series was created and is produced by Jason Gordon. Tech production and original music by Taylor Bradshaw at Stockboy Creative. Our associate producer and designer is Molly Beer. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America East online And you can follow the Guild on all social media platforms at WGA East. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. Thank you for listening and write on.

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