Respect for director, writer for collaborating on biopic Aretha Franklin – The Hollywood Reporter

If there’s one key ingredient to helping director Liesl Tommy and screenwriter Tracey Scott Wilson navigate their whirlwind journey to deliver the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect hit the screen with super-fast production, it’s the mutual RELIEF that longtime collaborators have for each other – and for the Queen of Souls herself.

Tommy said: “I have worked with Tracey extensively over the past 15 years. “She is a national treasure for a writer, and I know that she has the personal experience and creative skill to make this a truly authentic scenario.”

Wilson added, “We have shorthand in the way we work together. Liesl knows a writer’s brain well – and that’s a rare talent I’ve found in collaborators.”

Despite their remarkable achievements – Tommy is an Obie winner and Tony Award nominee; Wilson is a winner of a Peabody Award and multiple Emmy Award nominations for her television work – they know they’ve embarked on a challenging ride, not just in their arms around an epic life Franklin and their joint film debut at breakneck speed, but also they say CHEAP, ensuring that their friendship survives the experience.

Looking at a life as large and impactful as Aretha Franklin’s, how have you tackled the aspects that you wanted to accomplish?

LIESL TOMMY When I presented my idea for the movie, I had a clear understanding of the movie I wanted to make. I didn’t want to do a story about the cradle, the grave, I knew that I wanted to explore my childhood and I wanted to end the film with Great grace concert, because it feels so exhilarating and so strange, so true to who she is all along.

TRACEY SCOTT WILSON Liesl is human [has] the ability to talk about story and plot and character development in a way that really helped in the short amount of time we had to develop this part. Having that circumference even before I start writing is very comfortable for a writer’s brain.

TOMMY I’ve always thought that this movie wasn’t just about Aretha Franklin; it’s also about America. I recommend that time frame, I have a strong feeling about the songs, about the events. I also knew that it should be a movie about sisterhood, because that’s such an important part of who she is.

Given that short amount of time, how has your history of collaboration helped you through?

TOMMY People don’t understand how fast we had to work to get this damn thing! We hid in houses, in North Fork, a suburb in the woods, basically working 24 hours together for weeks on end. Because it was my first feature, people kept telling me, “That’s not normal. Movie sets didn’t come together that quickly. You guys have created a miracle.”

WILSON Fear is a big motivator – it’s really the only one, I must say! It’s also helpful to know that she’s available 24 hours a day, too, so if I wake up at 2 a.m., I know I can call her at 2:30 and say, “Help! me with, i’m having trouble! “It was crazy, and I never wanted to do that again. We are such close friends, and I don’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 a friend sitting across from you at breakfast, it’s a different story.

TOMMY At the same time, it was a joy, because we lived in Aretha’s musical world. Sometimes with these musical biographies, there’s a classic scene where someone pulls a riff off their ass and then you cut across the booth and then you have a hit song. Because we worked in theater, in the creative process, the creative process is very important to talk about. Not just because she’s a talented musician, but what does that mean?

WILSON I watched a bunch of biofilms in preparation, and there were only so many moments like lightning from God. While Aretha has obviously been touched by any genius, obviously from a very young age, that doesn’t mean it always happens that way.

You’ve used the songs – which at this point have been ingrained in the brains of every living American since she started recording – in a new way, as an opening door to the verse. Franklin’s life story.

TOMMY I’ve done a lot of musicals. I know the power of lyrics. One thing that I find unsatisfactory in other musical biopics is that when I feel like we’re just getting lost in one song, then we’re drowning again – just enough for the audience to understand, “This is that song”, but not enough time to be satisfied with the music of the artist. . I wanted to use the lyrics to illuminate her emotional journey, because there’s nothing more powerful than a character singing a song when the lyrics aren’t enough. Luckily, Tracey actually understood the pronunciation of those songs.

WILSON I read a lot about songwriting, her influence and stuff like that… We took it for granted that Black and white musicians collaborated together, but in this day and age. the point she does it, it’s still quite refreshing. Having that cooperation at such a time of social unrest is revolutionary. It’s fun to write that stuff. It also helps to understand and appreciate how excellent Aretha is.

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Jennifer Hudson plays Aretha Franklin in MGM/United Artists’ Respect.
Courtesy of Quantrell D. Colbert / MGM

Jennifer Hudson was once in a personal relationship with Franklin. How does that help your process?

TOMMY We had a lot of conversations with her about her relationship with Aretha, and it was very, very informative, about the Grown-Up Diva and Baby Diva dance. The scene with Dinah Washington and Aretha in the New York club is a synthesis of both the research and those conversations.

Tracey, remember when we had that rehearsal with Mary J. Blige, where we went through the entire script, theatrical style, with the actors? They shared interesting stories about how they felt about coming up, which divas were generous and kind, and which divas were essentially “Watch out – this is still my territory.”

WILSON It was one of those great rehearsal days, just to have another generation talk about the previous generation they guided them… to see the DNA passed on to them and the lessons they learned from them. Jennifer, having spent a lot of time with Aretha and being in the room with her, could certainly gather a lot. I remember her saying something about the way Aretha likes to speak: “She likes to use big words.” That’s useful for sprinkling throughout the script.

What do you appreciate about being so deeply involved in her life?

WILSON I walked out of it with deep respect – God, I can’t believe I just said that word! – an astonishment, of all she’s been through and even going through, all she’s given us. Her emotional, psychological, and physical struggles are truly immense. And she never talks about it, she never uses it as an excuse. She kept it to herself and put it all into the music. Even with all we know, I don’t even think we’ve touched a quarter of all she’s suffered.

You think she was born with this talent – she opens her mouth and she just blows – not understanding all the craft and all the thoughtfulness that has gone into what she does. If nothing else, I want people to appreciate her true talent – not just her raw talent, but all she really puts in. She knew what she was doing with every single lyric, and she delivered those lyrics on purpose. I went in there to admire her, and I walked out of there to adore her.

TOMMY That’s a good line, Tracey. You should be a writer! What impresses me is that she is an artist whose moral example she learned as a child at her father’s table, and from the civil rights activists in the church that she meet. That moral compass, she never lost.

Her music and her activism are profound. She was so sophisticated that when the country moved from civil rights to Black Power activism, she was right there. It wasn’t an easy transition for people in the Black community – it was a terrifying transition. That I find very moving, very powerful, very inspiring, as an artist who believes in the union of art and politics.

The edited interview is long and clear.

This story first appeared in a December issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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