King Richard’s cinematographer breaks down tennis scenes

During his 40-year career as a cinematographer, Robert Elswit shot films in virtually 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 won an Oscar in 2008 for PTA’s ‘There Will Be Blood’.

But Elswit had only worked on a sports project (“Long Gone” from 1987, about baseball) before filming “King Richard”, the biopic starring Will Smith as the father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, the film was 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 Best Film Producer. a theatrical film, both precursors of the Oscar winners for best film.

TheWrap has hooked up with Rome’s Elswit, where he’s filming Showtime’s limited series “Ripley,” starring Andrew Scott as Patricia Highsmith’s crook anti-hero. He lives in an attic apartment in a house belonging to the noble Borghese family. And with a painting of Pope Paul V (a Borghese ancestor) looming over Elswit’s shoulder, the cinematographer explained the challenge of making a sports drama look fresh and authentic. “But not too exciting,” he said. “The tennis scenes just had to help tell the story.”

‘King Richard’ is much more of a character story than a sports movie, but were you still worried that tennis would look different watching ESPN?

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

Looking at them, what did you learn?

There were some things we liked. In “Battle of the Sexes” and in “Borg vs. McEnroe” the camera was 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, cart moves, all kinds of ways to show points because it was part of the storytelling.

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But there’s not 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 you see on TV. Because it was actually going to be on a monitor that Richard watches from inside the stadium. So we were staying behind the baseline and we didn’t want to do Steadicam shots in which we were on the field. So we did it with four cameras, longer lenses, but staying behind the baseline so you could see the speed and power of the strike. It was more like bread and butter. Not too fancy.

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

Yes, we knew we could cheat a little with the visual effects. We had face replacement shots, using athletes’ bodies. Also, Venus is played by Saniyya Sidney and Serena is played by Demi Singleton, two amazing girls, but the adversaries in the movie were real tennis players. We were therefore able to make very precise choices on the real 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 learn to play tennis with her right hand.

Wow, you wouldn’t know that by looking at her.

It’s an incredible performance. When Venus starts losing you see that from Saniyya’s performance: the interaction with her family and the way we photographed her with the long lens. When Saniyya fell on the ground, she literally tripped and fell. And the wonderful Pamela Martin, the editor, took advantage of this moment to show that things were going badly for Venus.

Also in the script, which (director Reinaldo Marcus Green) fought for, was the fact that you figured out what was going on in the tennis match without someone constantly telling you. The other tennis movies have done that a lot. But here you understand what is happening in the game from the performance of the actors. It was important.

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Speaking of amazing performances, can you also talk about filming the amazing scene where Richard and Oracene are arguing in the kitchen?

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

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

It’s true. As we worked through the blocking in this scene, it was really about the subtext of Richard walking away from the conflict. She brings him back to the conversation, or he chooses to return. But that still means we had to anchor the scene with her. Like everything should, it was born from the script and the way Aunjanue and Will shaped the scene and made it clear that it was Oracene who was backing him off. They come back and stand there facing each other.

Pictures from Warner Bros.
Pictures from Warner Bros.

What do you think of how the camera should be used during this scene?

The camera just follows the action. Rey made it very clear that he didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that we were in the room with them. We don’t constantly emphasize or point fingers or show how smart we are. The goal was to focus on these two people who have worked so hard to make their children the best they can be.

And while this scene ends in a reconciliation, we realize that’s not the last time they’ll have this argument, is it?

This fight is not going away, no. A few years after the end of the film, Richard and Oracene separates. And the actors knew, of course, that’s not happy for the characters. The tension is not completely relieved. And we know that might not end well for them as a couple. But it will work out for that day.

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

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

About Victoria Rothstein

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