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To tell the story of Richard Williams — father of Venus and Serena — and their family’s path from late ’80s/early ’90s Compton to the daughters’ rise in the world of professional tennis, production designers Wynn Thomas and William Arnold artfully used sets and Southern California locations.
“It’s a journey from the rough and tumble world of Compton, and as they advance, they travel into this world of various exclusive private country clubs and fancy tennis courts,” explains Thomas of the production design for Warner Bros.’ King Richard, starring Will Smith.
Early work involved careful research and extensive location scouting, for instance, to find the neglected tennis court on which the sisters practice early in the movie. “It had to feel like it was in an urban area, so we needed to have houses that were around it,” says Thomas, who won an Art Directors Guild Award in 2021 for Da 5 Bloods. “It also was a tennis court that needed to be in disrepair. It took time to find courts where the ground wasn’t steady and there were cracks and holes.”
The court also needed the right surroundings to meet script needs. “How did the gang members get in and out? How do they drive their cars onto the court?” he explains. “All of these things are part of the story.”
The film’s final match, taking place at the Oakland Coliseum during Venus’ first pro tournament, was ultimately lensed at Dignity Health Sports Park, a sports complex in Carson, California. “It’s a lovely, fancy arena, and that was the whole point,” says Thomas. “The [story begins] on the streets of Compton … and [ends with] this championship match. Dignity had the size and the scale that we needed.”
The Williamses’ homes required extensive location scouting as well, starting with their place in Compton. “Compton has been fixed up in the past couple of decades, and we kept running into a lot of incorrect period [issues]. There were fences, for example, that had been changed over the decades. [Also] the houses in Compton were too small [for filming],” Thomas notes, adding that director Reinaldo Marcus Green initially didn’t want a set, so they used an exterior in Compton and found the interior in a house in South Los Angeles with the needed space. “We were trying to honor the reality of how the Williamses lived,” he adds, though they took some liberties with the look, as the actual Williams house had, for example, simple white walls. “There were decisions that were made to add more character to the house, to give definition to who the family is and was and also to help with the actual mechanics of moviemaking.”
A break in filming due to the pandemic created another challenge, as the house was “restored to its original condition because that was part of the deal,” says Arnold. “And when production started back up again, those places weren’t available. Also, because of the COVID situation, [production] wanted to do as much work onstage as possible. So the decision was made to reproduce that interior house on a stage. We had to go in and basically copy it all and build it. Hopefully people watch the film and have no idea whether they’re seeing the home onstage or at its true location.”
This story first appeared in the Jan. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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The Gilded Age