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 their writing process, how they got their project from the page to the screen, and so much more.
Today, I’d like to welcome Zach Baylin, screenwriter of King Richard, now in theaters and VOD.
King Richard is the true story of how Venus and Serena Williams were raised and coached by their parents to be tennis greats. Zach’s original screenplay won the 2022 Black Film Critic Circle Award and is nominated for a Writer’s Guild Award, a BAFTA Award, and an Academy Award.
In our interview, we talk about the films journey from a serendipitous meeting before heading to the US Open, to the script landing in the hands of Will Smith, Zach’s experience collaborating with the Williams family, and the importance of writing every day because even a few lines can feel like a success.
First congratulations on the success of this film. I was watching it and I was like, I know what this is. It’s not going to get me and then it got me. I was like damnit. It got me.
Yes, I have read a bunch about this, but for the sake of the listener, could you talk about this incredible story about how you came to write this film? Because correct me if I’m wrong, this is your first writing credit, not the first thing you’ve written obviously, but first credit.
Zach Baylin: Yeah. Yeah. This is my first produced credit and I got involved with it really through a general meeting that I took in New York. I was living in New York at the time. I’d sold a TV show a couple years before that was centered in the world of tennis. I had some background. I’ve done some research into that world and I was a big tennis fan.
It was really a very sort of circuitous route that I met this producer named Tim White on a general, we were meeting about a different project. Before I left the meeting, I mentioned to him that I was headed to the US Open just to go watch as a spectator. Tim was a huge tennis player growing up and he essentially said like, “If you like tennis, give five more minutes because I have another movie that I’ve been trying to make for a long time and I haven’t figured it out really.”
He told me about Richard and about Venus and Serena’s upbringing a little bit and that he thought it had the makings of a really great story, but had not found a way into it. Had not figured out how to successfully contact the family. I just really fell in love with it right away.
I knew tangentially about Richard just from being a tennis fan and from cheering for Venus and Serena, but I didn’t know the details about how he had come up with the idea that he was going to try and raise tennis superstars. That’s really where I began.
I began reading about him from that inception point and realized, I think like Tim had that there was an incredible sports underdog story to this, but even more than that, that there was a real chance to tell a unique character study of a guy that doesn’t really get a chance to be represented in movies very much. That he was an exceptional character and I really just fell in love with that aspect of it.
Geri Cole: What was writing that first draft like? I imagine then there was like, “Okay, we’re going to move forward with this.” Rather, I read that you were like, “We need to have a solid script if we’re really try and hook the family, we need to have a good script.”
Zach Baylin: Yeah, essentially. I mean, there were a couple different steps. To convince Tim and his brother, Trevor, who are producers and have a company called Star Thrower. They had made The Post and a couple other really cool movies.
To get the job from them, I spent basically like a weekend where I just dropped up everything and I read every bit I could about Venus, and Serena, and Richard. I mean, I probably read six books or something in this weekend because Serena had written a book and Macci wrote a book, the coach from Florida. Richard wrote a book.
There was some random hitting coaches along the years who had written books and so I read everything. Pretty quickly came back to them and said, “Here’s what the movie I believe is about. I really think it’s about at the core of it, it’s about Richard and his sort of desire, internal desire to find respect and to find self respect. That tennis is an outlet for that. That it should begin here in Compton in the early 80s, late 90s and it should end with Venus’s first pro tournament.”
I wrote them that email early on and they agreed to bring me on and then sort of collectively, we all decided that… And we could’ve tried to go pitch the family at that point. We had a pretty clear idea of what we thought the movie it would be, but again, I didn’t have any credits. We didn’t think we had a strong enough package essentially to get them to sign off. We decided that I would go and try to write the best script we could and then take that out as the calling card for the movie.
Then I dug in for a couple months where all I just did was research the family and research Richard. Tim, who again, was a big tennis player and sort of grew up in the same tournaments that they were playing in and so he was able to facilitate me meeting a bunch of their contemporaries. We also sort of had to keep it quiet that we were doing it because we didn’t think that… I don’t know. Concerned that if word got out that we were trying to do it, that it could be killed before we got to the point where we could show them something that felt really exciting.
Yeah, I just did a ton of research. Ton of reading, watching every bit of tape that Richard ever made because he was a constant chronicler. He had a VHS camcorder all the time and was taping everything. I wrote the first draft of the script probably in four or five months. I went to my agent and pretty quickly we got a call that Will was interested. It was pretty nuts.
Geri Cole: That’s crazy.
Zach Baylin: It really was crazy because I don’t even we were going to take a swing like that yet. I think we thought maybe we try to bring a really great filmmaker on board and then someone that had some clout that could get in those doors. I didn’t I feel like I could, or that even the producers could.
Yeah, I remember we got a call. Tim called me and he said like, “This is pretty crazy, but Will read it and if we can get the family, he wants to do it.”
Geri Cole: Wow.
How did he get his hands on it? And this actually is also, you submitted this first draft to the Blacklist and is that do you think what it sort of helped create enough buzz or how did that platform help the script?
Zach Baylin: I think from my understanding with The Black List, there’s sort of two sections of The Black List. There’s the submission process where you as a writer can send your scripts to them, which is not what we did. Then there is an annual sort of list that The Black List puts out at the end of every year. That’s like, “These are the 100 best unproduced scripts from this year as voted on or selected by executives at different studios and stuff.”
My script ended up on that list, but I think by that point, which I’ve had a couple scripts on there over the years and it’s been really just an amazing kind of boost of confidence if nothing else because I, again, not having had things produced, you like to see your script on those lists. At the end be like, “Oh, people are actually reading these things and their responding to them,” and gave me a lot of ammunition moving forward that even though they weren’t getting made that they were connecting with someone.
With this one I think Will had gotten involved and by the time it was on that annual end of the year list, we had already got in touch with the family and the movie had some momentum to actually get made. I mean the path that it took to get from even once we had Will and the script sort of started to get out and people were reading it, it was really exciting, but we still didn’t have the families’ involvement.
I knew sort of that there was a limit to how much research I was going to be able to do and actually bring everyone else in the script to life without sitting down with them. The story was broken, the script really worked, but I knew it could be more specific to them and more nuance with Venus and Serena, and Oracene. I really needed to like sit down with them to get that.
Geri Cole: You’ve actually perfectly led me to my next question, which was how did your writing change once you sat down and the family got involved and sat down with the family?
Zach Baylin: It changed a lot. I mean, it was a really interesting process that essentially we were finally able to convince their sister, Isha Price, who became a producer on the film to read this script. Isha read it. We waited this really tense night to see… I mean, it was pretty terrifying because it would not just like, is she going to like the story? But it was her family. It was depicting scenes in her life and was the ultimate barometer of whether we had total really messed it up or if it was going to feel accurate.
She came back the next day and said like, “It’s really good.” I think the family really responded to the weigh into it. Then said, “If you’re willing to sit down and hear the other perspectives, and the other details, and really be collaborative, then we’ll get on this ride with you guys.” We did that.
Then the process became I sat with Isha and with Oracene, their mother, over the course of two weeks during the US Open. Every other day when Serena wasn’t playing, I would meet with the family. It was incredible and we’d go through the script.
You have discussions where Oracene read a scene where she gets in a big fight with Richard about children that he had had in the past. She read that and said, “Oh, you really want to put this in the script?” I said, “I think it needs to be in the movie. It’s a big part of who Richard was as a person and think it must’ve been a huge formative moment for everyone and we think we need to address it.”She said, “Okay, well, if it’s going to be in the movie, let me tell you exactly actually how I found out about it and let me tell you how I felt about it.”
What she said is almost verbatim what’s in the movie to me. They were extremely open with things. I rewrote based on those interviews and it really helped get her voice right and helped bring out things that I think frankly as a white guy, I probably wasn’t even aware of. I don’t know, things that were going to end up being really powerful in the film.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the scene towards the end were Oracene braids the girl’s hair. I had seen an interview with the one piece of tape on Oracene that I had was this video from the 90s where she talked about putting the beads in and what it meant.
That was always in the script, but I don’t think we saw her actually doing it and sitting down with Oracene and sitting down with Aunjanue and really saying like, “What needs to be in this movie that I’m not seeing?” They both talked about that scene and then we wrote it to make sure it was there.
Geri Cole: I’m going to be honest that’s the part that got me.
Zach Baylin: See too. I think it’s so beautiful. [crosstalk 00:11:59]