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While Hollywood long has embraced the biopic, it has become more common in recent years for family members of a film’s subject — or even the films’ subjects themselves — to take on executive producing roles to ensure that the movie is as accurate to their vision as it is entertaining.
Warner Bros.’ King Richard follows Richard Williams’ pursuit to turn his daughters Venus and Serena into the tennis superstars they are today. Executive producer Isha Price, sister of Venus and Serena and played in the film by Danielle Lawson, admits to THR that she at first was dubious of Zach Baylin’s script. “People had approached us about doing similar projects before,” Price says. “You don’t necessarily know the involvement you’re expected to have, and most of the time people don’t get the story right. They try to cover too much.”
After WME’s Dave Wirtschafter championed the script, Price gave it a chance — and was surprised by how accurate it was. “I called Dave and was like, ‘Who did this, and where did he get all this information?’ ” Price recalls with a laugh. Although more private elements of the Williams family story already had made it into the script, Baylin and producer Tim White initially were concerned with how much the family was willing to share. During their first meeting, Price says, “Out of stage left walked Oracene Price, my mom, the realest woman on the planet,” who was adamant that the film be as truthful as possible about her relationship with Richard Williams. “She was like, ‘We have to be honest about this or we can’t do it.’ We cover a lot of tough stuff that happened in our family — things that I would have never initially shared.”
While the family was willing to share personal history, Price says there was worry about protecting their father’s image or, at the very least, offering a counternarrative to the way Williams was depicted in the media. “He has been vilified in the press like a lot of tennis fathers,” she says, adding that it was Venus who suggested the film show the toxic behavior among the other parents in the junior tennis leagues. “He pulled them out of the juniors because it was not a healthy environment for [his] kids. This is a guy who stood up for his kids and didn’t let them get run all over by the media, by the world, by life in general. That should be the story [instead of] what the story was for so, so long.”
While the subjects of King Richard are alive and could weigh in on the film’s development, Netflix’s Tick, Tick … Boom! tells the story of the late Jonathan Larson’s early artistic endeavors, years before he wrote the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning musical Rent. But the composer, played in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film by Andrew Garfield, wrote the source material as a one-man rock monologue about his self-imposed pressure to achieve musical theater greatness before his 30th birthday.
“We’ve contemplated [a film adaptation] over the years,” says EP Julie Larson, Jonathan’s sister. “We wanted to make sure that there’d be a way to expand it — to be authentic to what my brother was thinking at the time but would also say something and that we could put it in the hands of someone we thought could do it justice.”
But it also was about doing justice to the stories of the people within his orbit. His original show included fictionalized characters from his real life — his girlfriend and best friend — all written from his perspective. With the film adaptation being closer to a traditional biopic, Julie Larson says she was “really conscious of [her] big responsibility” toward those figures in her brother’s life.
“I spent a lot of the last 25, 26 years being concerned about trying to make sure I protect and honor all the people in my brother’s sphere,” she adds. “It’s always weighed very heavily on me. Not everyone necessarily wanted to be front and center.” Ultimately, she says, everyone in Jonathan’s life sees the film as a snapshot of a long-lost era and a chance to spend time with him again. “Watching and experiencing Andrew play my brother was a joyful experience,” she says. “We got some of Johnny back.”
Getting that seal of approval from the people who personally knew the subject of a film is tricky. Aretha Franklin was involved in the development of MGM/UA’s Respect before her death in 2018 and even handpicked Jennifer Hudson to play her in the film. The movie earned an endorsement from her surviving family members, unlike this year’s competing Franklin project, Nat Geo’s Genius: Aretha, for which Cynthia Erivo earned an Emmy nomination.
MGM/UA’s House of Gucci — Ridley Scott’s crime saga that stars Lady Gaga as Patrizia Reggiani, who ordered the murder of her estranged husband Maurizio Gucci in 1998 — sparked a scathing response from the Gucci family just after its November release. “The production of the film did not bother to consult the heirs before describing … the members of the Gucci family as thugs, ignorant and insensitive to the world around them,” the statement said.
The Academy may be unfazed by the Guccis’ response. After all, 2019 best picture winner Green Book — about the friendship between pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his driver Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga — was disavowed by the musician’s family as a misrepresentation. Ali won best supporting actor, and the film also earned best original screenplay for writer-producer Nick Vallelonga, who had the final say in his father’s story.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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