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Why ‘King Richard’ Cinematographer Studied Other Sports Movies to Make Williams Sisters Drama

Oscar-winner Robert Elswit (”There Will Be Blood“) also explains the approach to staging the film’s domestic scenes with Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis

During his 40-year career as a cinematographer, Robert Elswit has shot movies in practically every genre: “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle,” “Syriana,” “Good Night and Good Luck,” two “Mission: Impossible” films, and six with director Paul Thomas Anderson, including “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia.” He took home an Oscar in 2008 for PTA’s “There Will Be Blood.”

But Elswit had only worked on one sports project (1987’s “Long Gone,” about baseball) before lensing “King Richard,” the biopic starring Will Smith as the father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, the film has been nominated for the Screen Actors Guild award for Best Ensemble Cast (in addition to a solo nod for Smith’s performance) and the Producers Guild Award for Outstanding Producer of a Theatrical Motion Picture, both precursors for the Best Picture Oscar lineup.

TheWrap connected with Elswit from Rome, where he is filming Showtime’s limited series “Ripley,” starring Andrew Scott as Patricia Highsmith’s con man anti-hero. He’s living in an attic apartment in a home owned by the noble Borghese family. And with a painting of Pope Paul V (a Borghese ancestor) looming over Elswit’s shoulder, the cinematographer expounded on the challenge of making a sports drama look fresh and authentic. “But not too exciting,” he mentioned. “The tennis scenes just had to help in telling the story.”

“King Richard” is much more of a character story than a sports film, but still were you concerned that the tennis looked different than watching ESPN?

We thought about that a lot and we struggled with it. So we watched every tennis movie, even though there haven’t been a lot of them. There’s “Battle of the Sexes,” which is about Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs; there’s “Wimbledon,” which is a love story; there’s “Borg vs. McEnroe,” with Shia LaBeouf.

As you watched them, what did you learn?

There were certain things we liked. In “Battle of the Sexes” and in “Borg vs. McEnroe,” the camera was out on the tennis court with the actors, both handheld and Steadicam, which was really interesting. And in “Wimbledon,” they designed shots in the movie that were made for specific tennis points. They went out of their way to do crane moves, dolly moves, all kinds of ways of showing points because it was part of the storytelling.

But there isn’t much of that in “King Richard.”

No, we wanted to do it a little differently. We certainly didn’t want it to look like the two-dimensional tennis that you see on TV. Because that was actually going to be on a monitor that Richard is watching from inside the stadium. So we would stay behind the baseline and we didn’t want to do Steadicam shots in which we were on the court. So we did it with four cameras, longer lenses, but staying behind the baseline so you could see the speed and power of the hitting. It was pretty bread-and-butter. Not too fancy.

Were you able to take advantage of using some visual effects to emphasize the athleticism?

Yeah, we knew we could cheat a little bit with visual effects. We had face replacement shots, using the body of athletes. Also, Venus is played by Saniyya Sidney and Serena is played by Demi Singleton, both incredible girls, but the opponents in the film were real tennis players. So we were able to make very specific choices about the actual points. It was choreographed. And we tried to choreograph how to shoot it, which is a tricky thing. Saniyya is left handed and had to lean how to play tennis with her right hand.

Wow, you wouldn’t know that from watching her.

It’s an amazing performance. When Venus begins to lose, you see that from Saniyya’s performance: the interaction with her family and the way we shot her in the long lens. When Saniyya fell on court, she literally really tripped and fell. And the wonderful Pamela Martin, the editor, used that moment to show that things were going bad for Venus.

Also in the script, which (director Reinaldo Marcus Green) fought for, was the fact that you would understand what was going on in the tennis match without constantly having someone tell you. The other tennis movies did that a lot. But here you understand what’s happening in the match from the performance of the actors. That was important.

Speaking of amazing performances, can you also talk about filming the incredible scene where Richard and Oracene have an argument in the kitchen?

Well, before I talk about that scene, I just have to mention the scene earlier in the film, where Oracene confronts one of their neighbors. We shot that scene before the kitchen scene. And I stood there and I watched Aunjanue Ellis, who I wasn’t too familiar with as an actress, to be honest, and I thought, “I’m absolutely in the presence of greatness.” Aunjanue is like Gene Hackman. There’s never a false moment in anything she does. She doesn’t play anything that you wouldn’t completely believe.

And she is so crucial to that kitchen scene. What’s powerful is that Richard exits the scene, but the camera stays in the kitchen.

That’s right. As we worked out the blocking in that scene, it was really all about the subtext that Richard is walking away from the conflict. She draws him back to the conversation, or he choses to come back. But that still means we had to anchor the scene with her. As everything should, it grew out of the script and the way that Aunjanue and Will shaped the scene and made it clear that it was Oracene who draws him back. They come back and they stand there in front of each other.

Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures

What were your thoughts about how the camera should be used during that scene?

The camera is just following action. Rey was very clear about not wanting to call attention to the fact that we’re in the room with them. We’re not emphasizing or pointing fingers or constantly showing off how clever we are. The point was to focus on these two people who worked their asses off to make their kids be the best they could be.

And though that scene ends with a reconciliation, we realize that it’s not the last time they’ll have this argument, right?

This fight doesn’t go away, no. A few years after the movie ends, Richard and Oracene split up. And the actors knew, of course, that this isn’t happily ever after for the characters. The tension isn’t completely resolved. And we know that it might not end well for them as a couple. But it’s going to work itself out for that day.

Lastly, you worked on six films with Paul Thomas Anderson. Have you seen “Licorice Pizza” yet?

No, I haven’t yet. But I have so many friends who worked on it. When I stopped working on Paul’s films, he wanted to keep a lot of the crew, so they all worked on it. I can’t stream anything here Italy but eventually I’ll see it. And I’m excited to.