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If there was one key ingredient that helped director Liesl Tommy and screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson navigate their whirlwind journey to bring the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect to the screen on a hyper-accelerated production schedule, it’s the mutual R-E-S-P-E-C-T the longtime collaborators have for each other — and for the Queen of Soul herself.
“I’ve worked with Tracey extensively over the last 15 years,” Tommy says. “She’s a national treasure of a writer, and I knew that she had the personal experience, and the creative skill, to make this a really authentic screenplay.”
Adds Wilson, “We have a shorthand in the way we work together. Liesl understands a writer’s brain — and that’s a rare talent, I’ve found, in collaborators.”
Despite their considerable accomplishments — Tommy is an Obie winner and Tony nominee; Wilson is a Peabody Award winner and multiple Emmy nominee for her television work — they knew they were in for a challenging ride, not only in wrapping their arms around Franklin’s epic life and making their shared film debut at a breakneck pace, but also, as they tell THR, assuring that their friendship survived the experience.
Looking at a life as large and impactful as Aretha Franklin’s, how did you settle on the aspects you wanted to zero in on?
LIESL TOMMY When I pitched my idea for the film, I had a clear sense of the movie I wanted to make. I didn’t want to do a cradle-to-the-grave story, I knew that I wanted to explore childhood, and that I wanted to finish the film with the Amazing Grace concert, because that felt so triumphant and so singular, so truthful to who she was all along the line.
TRACEY SCOTT WILSON Liesl is someone who [has] an ability to talk about story and arc and character development in a way that is really helpful in the short time frame that we had to develop the piece. Having that perimeter in place even before I started writing was very comforting to my writer’s brain.
TOMMY I always thought that this movie was not just about Aretha Franklin; it was also about America. I pitched that time frame, I had a strong sense of the songs, of the events. I also knew that it should be a movie about sisterhood, because that was a big part of who she was.
Given that short time frame, how did your collaborative history help you through?
TOMMY People don’t understand how fucking fast we had to work to get this shit rolling! We holed up in houses, in the North Fork, upstate in the woods, basically working for 24 hours together for weeks. Because it was my first feature, people kept saying to me, “That’s not normal. Studio films do not come together that fast. You guys pulled off a miracle.”
WILSON Fear is a big motivator — it actually is the sole motivator, I have to say! It’s also helpful to know that she was also available to me 24 hours a day, so if I was up at 2 in the morning, I knew I could call her at 2:30 and say, “Help me, I’m stuck!” It was insane, and I never want to do that again. We were such close friends, and I didn’t want to let my friend down, which is bigger than “I don’t want to let MGM down.” You always have agents who can handle those things for you. When you have your friend sitting right across from you at breakfast, it’s a different story.
TOMMY At the same time, that time was such a joy, because we were able to live in the world of Aretha’s music. Sometimes with these music biopics, there’s that classic scene where somebody pulls a riff out of their ass and then you cut to the booth and then you have a hit song. Because we have worked in theater, in the thick of creation, the creative process was important to talk about. Not just that she was a gifted musician, but what does that mean?
WILSON I watched a bunch of biopics in preparation, and there are just a lot of lightning-bolt-from-God sort of moments. While obviously Aretha was touched by whatever genius is, clearly from a very young age, that doesn’t mean that it always happens that way.
You used songs — which at this point are so embedded in the brain of every American who’s been alive since she started recording — in a fresh way, as a window into Franklin’s life story.
TOMMY I’ve done a lot of musicals. I know the power of lyrics. One thing that I have found unsatisfying in other music biopics is when I feel like we just dipped into a song, then we dipped out — just enough so the audience understood “This is that song,” but not enough satisfying time with the artist’s music. I wanted to use the lyrics to illuminate her emotional journey, because there’s nothing more powerful than the character singing the song when words don’t suffice. Fortunately, Tracey really understood how to tee up those songs.
WILSON I did a lot of reading about the creation of the songs, her influences and things like that … We take for granted now Black and white musicians collaborating, but at the time she was doing it, it was still quite new. Having that collaboration at a time of such social unrest, it was revolutionary. It was very joyful to write that stuff. It also helped to understand and appreciate how brilliant Aretha was.
Jennifer Hudson had a personal relationship with Franklin. How was that useful to your processes?
TOMMY We had a lot of conversations with her about her relationship with Aretha, and that was very, very informative, in terms of the dance of Grown-Up Diva and Baby Diva. The scene with Dinah Washington and Aretha in the club in New York was a synthesis of both the research and those conversations.
Tracey, remember when we had that rehearsal with Mary J. Blige where we basically went through the whole script, very theater-style, with the actors? They shared such interesting stories about what it was like for them when they were coming up, which of the divas were generous and kind, and which of the ones were basically like, “Watch out — this is still my territory.”
WILSON That was one of the many amazing days of rehearsal, just to have another generation talking about the generation before them that mentored them … to see that DNA passed on to them, and the lessons that they learned from them. Jennifer, having spent so much time with Aretha and being in the room with her, was definitely able to pick up on several things. I remember she said something about the way Aretha liked to speak: “She liked to use big words.” That was helpful to sprinkle throughout the script.
What do you treasure about having delved so deep into her life?
WILSON I came out of it with such a profound respect — God, I can’t believe I just said that word! — an awe, of all that she had gone through and, even going through that, all that she gave us. Her emotional, psychological and physical struggle was just enormous. And she never talked about it, she never used it as an excuse. She kept it to herself and put it all in the music. Even with all that we know, I don’t even think we touched on a quarter of all that she had to withstand.
You think she was born with this talent — she opened her mouth and she just blows — not understanding all the craft and all the thoughtfulness that went into what she did. If nothing else, I want people to come away with appreciation for her actual talent — not just her raw talent, but all that she actually put in. She knew what she was doing with every lyric, and she delivered those lyrics on purpose. I came into it admiring her, and I came out of it worshiping her.
TOMMY That’s a good line, Tracey. You should be a writer! Something that was just so resonant for me was that she was an artist who had a moral compass that she learned at a young age at the table of her father, and from the civil rights activists in the church that she met. That moral compass, she never let that go.
Her music and her activism was deep. She was so sophisticated that when the country moved from a civil rights activism to a Black Power activism, she was right there. That was not an easy switch for people in the Black community — it was a scary switch. That I find very moving, very powerful, very inspiring, as an artist who believes in the marriage of art and politics.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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