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 wgaeast.org. 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.