The stirring new sports drama “King Richard” is a family affair in more ways than one.
The film is foremost a portrait of a tight domestic unit, chronicling how Richard Williams (Will Smith) and Oracene “Brandy” Williams (Aunjanue Ellis) tirelessly pushed their daughters Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) to all-time tennis greatness.
But the familial teamwork went behind the scenes, too. The international superstars Venus and Serena Williams received executive producer credits. Isha Price, one of their half sisters and a fellow executive producer, went to the set virtually every day and consulted on the story. Lyndrea Price, another half sister, served as a costumer and helped re-create the 1990s-era outfits and styles.
The key creative players behind the project always believed getting input from the real-life extended Williams family was essential, both for factual accuracy and emotional truthfulness, according to Trevor White, one of the producers.
“We couldn’t have done this without the family’s support. Isha Price has been an integral part every step of the way,” White said in a statement provided by the studio, Warner Bros. Pictures, adding that Isha Price was involved in developing the screenplay credited to Zach Baylin.
“The level of detail, accuracy and insight that she brought we could not have gotten from reading and research,” White added. “There was so much color added that elevated the project. Isha —and the rest of the family— have been amazing collaborators.”
Venus and Serena Williams were convinced to get involved in the project after Smith signed on, adding an extra layer of megawatt star status. The two visited the set and have helped promote the film both on social media and in person, most recently at the AFI Fest premiere.
“I think having Venus’ and Serena’s names right there in the credits as executive producers gives the movie automatic credibility, because it’s effectively an endorsement,” said Dave Karger, a Turner Classic Movies host and “TODAY” show entertainment commentator.
Isha Price said that “for the longest time” she would not even read the script, mindful of what she believed to be false perceptions of her family.
But “after finally reading the script — laughing a little bit, being completely enamored with other parts and also recognizing the things that weren’t quite right — we had a discussion as a family and made the decision jointly that we were going to go ahead,” she said in a statement.
But there was a crucial caveat: Isha Price needed to be an “integral part” of the production to ensure its authenticity and help guarantee it was “honest and true and reflective of who we are.”
The wages of Oscar season
“King Richard” is one of the major Academy Awards contenders on the fall calendar, and Smith is widely seen as a lock for a best actor nomination. In the world of awards campaigns, it pays to avoid blowback from a biopic’s real-life subject — or their family members.
“I would say it’s very risky, if you have Oscar hopes, to do a film based on a real person and not have the family’s involvement, because inevitably the family will be contacted by the press or the family will speak out,” Karger said.
In fall 2018, for example, the producers of the 1960s-set “Green Book” were criticized by the relatives of Black pianist Don Shirley, played in an Oscar-winning performance by Mahershala Ali.
Shirley’s family claimed they were not contacted by studio representatives before production got underway, and they blasted the final product as a “symphony of lies.” (“Green Book” was distributed by Universal Pictures, a unit of NBC News’ parent company, NBCUniversal.)
The director and writers of “Green Book” defended their work, and the movie ultimately went on to win the best picture Oscar in 2019. However, Shirley’s family’s complaints — combined with a wider debate about the film’s racial politics — loomed over the studio’s awards push and reputation.
In the case of "King Richard," the drive for verisimilitude went beyond capturing the real-life Williams family.
Rick Macci, the go-getter tennis coach played in the film by Jon Bernthal (“Ford v Ferrari”), said he was consulted during production.
"Jon reached out to me and called me a handful of times, so that was very beneficial to him," Macci told NBC News during a brief break from a tennis lesson Thursday. "He studied my book. He watched a lot of videos of me with the girls back in the day. He knew the drill."
But the filmmakers behind “King Richard” also seem to have been wary of the perception that the movie would effectively be an authorized biography that flattens complex dynamics or simplifies nuance.
“We were not interested in making Richard perfect,” director Reinaldo Marcus Green (“Monsters and Men,” “Joe Bell”) said in a statement. “He’s a human being, and I think any three-dimensional character in any film is what people love.”