When you think of great movies, you think of how the story made you feel. You think of how each scene made you reflect and dive into the perspective of others. Films have always been incredibly powerful, from the propaganda movies shown in theatres during war times, to the blockbusters we all enjoy today. True film enthusiasts know the power of words and how you can have the most expensive cast and scenes filled with the latest CGI effects, but if the story doesn’t grip you and keep you focused for hours on end then it’s not a win. Zach Baylin has to be one of the most important voices within the film industry to date- not only does he have a magical way of transporting us into different cities and worlds, but he allows us to interpret and dream along the way.
You may have seen Will Smith promote his new role as Richard Williams in “King Richard” lately. You may have also heard that it’s something to do with worldwide tennis champions Serena and Venus Williams. Well, we’re here to say that it is probably one of the most important stories to be told, not only in sport history, but in black culture. The movie is not a biopic, it’s not a explainer on how to become the best, it’s an incredible film which explores vital themes within race, society, family, gender and well, power. Throughout the film, Baylin takes us into the complicated mind of an individual who is full of flaws but above all else, would always try to the best person he could be. He takes us on a journey through generations of black men and women within the community of Compton, where it all began. He shows us how the past of African Americans still haunts the present and emphasises how magnificent it was to break boundaries in a space where only white faces were prioritised. Anyone can talk about the tremendous success of the Williams’ sisters, anyone can talk about the endless trophies and riches but Baylin takes us on an alternative route. In every scene we where able to walk with a man who has always had less in life, but is determined to do all he can to break the cycle for his daughters. We had an incredible conversation with Zach Baylin about his creative process and why he felt that the story of Richard Williams was crucial to share.
Could you walk us through the creative process and how you do your research prior to writing?
This was a unique process because the producers [Tim and Trevor White] had been trying to make a movie about Richard for years and had no success with getting in touch or gaining permission from the [Williams] family. I met Tim and he told me about the project and I fell in love with it as I’m a really big tennis fan. I went away for the entire weekend and read everything I could get my hands on. During that process I contacted Tim and Trevor and said that the movie should start in Compton in the late 80s/early 90s, and it should go up to Venus’ first pro-tournament. After that initial process Tim and Trevor said that we didn’t have the rights and the best way to get everyone onboard was to bring them [Williams family] a finished script. I continued with my independent research and kept reading anything I could find about Richard, Venus and Serena as well as everyone who was around them throughout those years. Richard, Rick Macci and Serena had all written books and Richard was a constant self-promoter. There is a lot of footage of him telling folks his story as well as his perspective on various subjects so I had a lot to draw from. There is also a lot of reporting and media attention surrounding Venus, especially once she was ten years old entering junior competitions. A lot of the footage and articles are contemporaneous, so I could tell the thoughts and feelings surrounding Richard from that time, which was really great for me as a writer to get my mind into that period. From a film making perspective, you have to take all of that research and find the backbone of the movie within that. That really came to me when I looked at Richard as a character and what I thought was inherent in his journey. Richard was someone who had a dream that was his initially and there was definitely a self fulfilling aspect of what might be accomplished through Serena and Venus succeeding. The main journey of the film is surrounds allowing someone other than himself to take the spotlight and his ability to be able to step aside. I knew that was the script I wanted to write from the beginning and it become a huge guiding principle throughout the process.
Throughout the film there are so many important themes including family, racial injustice, society and wealth. Why was it important to you to capture all of these moments within the film?
Richard was a very complicated person and we never wanted to shy away from that whilst telling the story. We also wanted people to be able to empathise with him as a human-being throughout the film and to understand that, while he may have done things he would come to regret, he was still moving through life like the rest of us. We wanted to show that at the end of the day he helped accomplish something that was inspiring and I wanted to share that people can be good and bad whilst doing great things. I think really understanding how much trauma through circumstances he faced throughout his childhood were so character defining and really set the goals for the rest of his life. Richard just wanted to be seen and respected as a person and whilst writing I had tremendous empathy for him, and I knew his character could continue to be outrageous with a forward facing perspective to the world but behind closed doors he was extremely encouraging and loving to his daughters.
Were there any key lessons that you learnt from Richard Williams that you would apply to yourself?
I have kids and, even though I’m not raising them to be tennis champions, I took more away from what the entire family achieved. Some of the big revelations I found throughout the research process, and also from talking to Oracene [Williams], was what a big role she had in raising the family through being the main bread-winner and also having an enormous presence on the tennis court. Richard had concocted this very improbable plan that two children, who had not been conceived yet, were going to grow up to be the greatest tennis champions of their generation. Oracene had made it clear that if we’re going to do this you can’t give up because the entire family is going to have to be involved, and that she was going to have to figure out how to raise a family amongst that. People often talk about Richard being the big dreamer but Oracene had been the backbone while all of it was coming together. Families live and die together, the choices that you make as an individual or parent end up being collective responsibilities and you only really ever succeed or fail together.
What is the most important thing that you hope the audience takes away from the film?
Ultimately, I think what we as a team helped define is that it was a family achievement. Venus and Serena would obviously get all of the accolades for everything that they’ve done and they’re careers on the tennis court and as entrepreneurs- but there were five girls that got into that van to go to the court everyday. Yetunde, Lynndrea and Isha all made tremendous sacrifices to facilitate Venus and Serena being able to practise and live the way they did; travelling to tournaments, relocating and being a support system. It’s trite but family really does matter and you don’t achieve things alone.
Do you have any advice for young people looking to get into film writing and what would you say to your younger self?
I would say find stories where there is a huge central character that you can hang a lot of emotion on. This story [King Richard] had huge scope in terms of who it was about and it was very dynamic and exciting on it’s own- but knowing that it had a very big, complicated and charismatic figure in the centre of it allowed me to build out the rest of the world around him which was really exciting.
What’s the next major project for Zach Baylin?
We’re about to start shooting “Creed 3” which is really exciting; I’m writing that alongside an amazingly talented young writer called Keenan Coogler. Michael B. Jordan is of course starring in it but he’s also directing the film as well. It’s a huge franchise but there is such a dynamic character story that’s going to get told within the film. I’m also working with Rey [Reinaldo Marcus] Green on a movie about Bob Marley with Paramount Pictures, as well as a script of a true story about a huge FBI manhunt in the early 80s to stop a group of white supremacists who were robbing banks to use the proceeds to overthrow the US government- which is a big and frighteningly relevant story right now and will be a big action thriller.