Awards Daily talks to Academy Award nominee Zach Baylin about writing the complicated character study of Richard Williams and which scene was the one he rewrote the most in Reinaldo Marcus Green’s King Richard.
Long before he became an Oscar nominee for screenwriting, Zach Baylin spent years cutting his teeth in art and prop departments, something that helped him when it came to writing King Richard, the story of how Richard Williams (Will Smith) pushed his daughters to become the greatest tennis players in the world.
“There were things in this script that I spent a lot of time thinking about from an art director [point of view] or even from a position of having worked in the prop department,” says Baylin. “Specifically the van that Richard owned and drove the family around in. In the script, I remember writing, ‘This van is a character itself.’ I knew it was a cinematic setting, but it felt like it illustrated who this family was and what they were trying to achieve. That van felt like the tour bus in Almost Famous.”
Having been exposed to so many scripts on sets, Baylin used his experience reading scripts to write something that he would want to read.
“In the original script, I tried to write the tennis sequences in a way that were very evocative and energetic. When people read scripts with a lot of action—and I’m guilty of this—sometimes you have a tendency to move through it and get through to the next [scene]. I didn’t want the reader from the beginning to feel like [the tennis action] could be skimmed over, because there were so many character and story moments that I wanted to come across.”
He also had to incorporate key turning points in the match via research and reading play-by-play pieces from the time period, while also being accessible to a wider audience that might not be fans of tennis. Thankfully, producer Tim White gave him some guidance on how to balance this act.
“I don’t need to get lost in the arcane details of the tennis world, but for tennis people who are watching this, we have to get it right.”
Who is Oracene Price?
A character who ended up popping in early screenings was Oracene “Brandy” Price, played by Academy Award nominee Aunjanue Ellis. Baylin admits that it was difficult to write a character who acts as a foil to larger-than-life Richard Williams.
“It was really challenging to write her. All the research I was able to do was predominantly from Richard’s perspective. He’d been very camera-forward facing. Oracene was private. There were very few on-camera interviews. She didn’t write a book and do all of that self-publicizing. I think in my early drafts of the script, while the character worked, it wasn’t authentic to who she was.”
So Baylin sat down with the real-life Oracene and went through the script with her, over the course of two weeks. She proved to be very forthright about what they got wrong and right in every scene.
“She’s very deliberate when she speaks, and that can be tricky on the page, to bring out the forcefulness of a character who is somewhat reserved. Aunjanue really helped do that. It would be inauthentic to give her big monologues and speeches. Aunjanue could do so much with just a few purposeful lines.”
Developing Oracene as a character was a collaborative effort between Baylin, Ellis, and the real-life Oracene.
“She saw her role as both the backbone of this family but that she would pick and choose her moments where she was going to assert herself, when she felt Richard was doing something detrimental to what the family’s goals were.”
That Bombshell in the Kitchen
In a kitchen confrontation between the Williams matriarch and patriarch, Oracene reveals that Richard has other kids he has neglected. It’s a stunning revelation about someone so focused on his children. Baylin says he moved that information around many times when structuring the movie, even throughout production.
“That scene was probably the scene I rewrote the most. Essentially a version of that scene had always been in the movie, where Oracene has to call Richard out on the children he previously had as well as his propensity to quit things.”
Baylin met with the real-life Oracene about this scene, and a lot of what she told him ended up verbatim in the movie.
“She equated [his tendency to quit] to his relationship with his children and she was not going to allow him to run away from the responsibility that he had made to this family and this dream. It was about structurally finding where that was going to live in the story. Ultimately it felt most powerful to come right before he has to own up to Venus about his own inadequacies.”
Which all leads back to why Baylin wanted to write this script to begin with: to show how complicated Richard Williams really was.
“He was inspiring and so determined but also brash and self-defeating and self-serving. He had so many different facets. I thought from the beginning that the best version of this story was to show a very human character who has human elements but major flaws and is fighting through those on the way to achieving something. If we didn’t include those elements, it was going to be too soft and just kind of a hokey inspirational story, instead of a real character study of a complicated guy we can root for but also that we don’t have to think is infallible.”
Crafting King Richard became the perfect synergy of access to the real-life figures the story was based on, directorial and producing vision from Reinaldo Marcus Green and Tim White, and of course the actors performing these parts, like Will Smith.
“Will did such an amazing job. He knew Richard inside and out, and I thought I had become the expert on him. But Will was this huge gift in part because he’s so likeable and has this natural charisma that allowed us to continue to examine some of the controversial parts of Richard’s character. The audience is going to stay with him because he’s Will.”
King Richard is now playing.