AwardsWatch spoke with director Liesl Tommy earlier this week via Zoom, a lover of Black people, a longstanding Aretha Franklin fan, and the first Black, female Tony Award nominee for the 2016 Broadway play “Eclipsed.” The South African-born artist made her feature film directorial debut this month with Respect, a biopic of Aretha Franklin that stars Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson as the legendary “Queen of Soul.”
The New York City-based Tommy discusses many aspects of her career, including her roots in theater, casting the movie, and the pandemic shutdown that stalled the release of Respect, and that for her also marked a period of personal loss. Respect begins with Franklin’s childhood, then moves to her early twenties, backgrounded by the Civil Rights Movement in which she and her father were well-known figures, and finally to her self-actualization as an artist and an African-American woman.
Maria Garcia: Hello, Ms. Tommy. Thank you for speaking with AwardsWatch. First, I have to ask: did you pull a Hitchcock moment? Was that you in the hotel lobby movie scene?
Liesl Tommy: It totally was me. Good catch!
Garcia: That was a wonderful moment in Respect. Tell me why you decided to appear in the film.
Tommy: Well, I was brought onto this film after Aretha Franklin passed, and she was one of my heroes. I just loved her and her music so much. She meant a lot to me. When it was time to cast that part in the hotel scene, I thought about what the character was saying. I decided to say it, to say to Aretha Franklin in the film what I never got to say to her in real life.
Garcia: She was really important to me, too. I especially love “Freedom” (also called “Think”). When it was released in 1968, it said so many things about that historical moment.
Tommy: I agree.
Garcia: Did you choose Tracy Scott Wilson, or was the screenplay completed when you joined the project?
Tommy: No, it was not. When I had my first meeting with the studio, they were looking for writers, and someone had given them my name. I pitched as if my life depended on it! I had a very clear, vivid sense of what I thought the film should be, the time period it should cover, the tone, the music. They came back to me a couple of weeks later, and said that they would actually like to start with me as the director, with my vision, and build the film out from there. I brought on Tracy Scott Wilson, because she and I had worked together in the past, and we’re very good friends. I felt that she had the authenticity that was necessary for this film. She grew up in the Baptist church, and her father was a preacher. Her grandfather was a preacher. You cannot make a film about Aretha Franklin and not get that part right.
Garcia: Did she have an opportunity to speak with Aretha?
Tommy: No, she didn’t.
Garcia: So she was relying somewhat on biographies. Did she also speak to people who knew Aretha?
Tommy: Yes, and we sequestered ourselves in various places in the mountains and near oceans to complete the script. We both did extensive research and spoke to people who knew Aretha. There are so many video documentaries that consist of interviews with Aretha. They provide a real sense of who she was and how she spoke, for instance. These sources fired up our imaginations.
Garcia: It’s a good script.
Tommy: Yes, I agree.
Garcia: At the center of the screenplay are Aretha’s childhood wounds. You made that apparent and then you built the story around them. Her father dragging her out in her nightgown as a girl led to her vulnerability. It’s the place where I felt your gaze most intensely, and certainly the writer’s gaze, a female gaze. Could you comment on that start to Respect?
Tommy: We definitely wanted to start the film spending a meaningful amount of time in childhood. That was important to us because to understand a woman, you have to understand the child, right? When I pitched the film to the studio, I pitched it as one that really looked at her becoming the Aretha Franklin that we knew. I thought there was so much of her childhood and young womanhood that would really be surprising to people. With regard to the timeline, I pitched a story about a woman with the greatest voice in the world who did not know her own voice, who was struggling to find her own voice because of the trauma of her childhood. For instance, for a young person, the death of a mother causes your development to get frozen in time. What we see in the movie is Aretha Franklin fighting for parts of her life, the parts of her soul to come alive.
Spending time in childhood, we develop a very deep and emotional connection to this character called Aretha Franklin.
Garcia: And important to that was Skye’s performance, which was terrific. Had you worked with child actors before? How did you get this performance?
Tommy: Thank you. I have worked with children. I love working with child actors.
I actually used to be a preschool teacher when I was in my twenties, but I was also an actor. There is just something so beautiful about capturing children on film. There is a spontaneity and truthfulness when you get the right actor and Skye Dakota Turner was 100% the right actor. We did a massive search for young Aretha. And Skye has this incredible voice, but she also had truly beautiful acting chops. I did a lot of work with her on the audition and it was clear to me that she was created to pull this off.
Garcia: She was already a YouTube star. Is that how you found her?
Tommy: She was one of the many people that the casting directors brought to me. Actually, at that point, she was just beginning a professional career on Broadway. This is her first big movie.
Garcia: How did you work with Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker, who also gave wonderful performances?
Tommy: I come from theater. I’ve been a director for a long time, and I have a very specific aesthetic that I’ve developed over the years in terms of the kind of acting performance that I’m interested in. We rehearsed in New York, in a rehearsal studio, for a few weeks before we even got on the set. We studied every single page of the script, analyzing it, and talking about the relationships; we were all on the same page in terms of what I was thinking about this film. There was a singular vision we all understood. By the time we started filming, we were all of one mind about this movie, so the collaboration was very organic and beautiful. And I felt they very much trusted me.
Tommy: Forest Whitaker is an actual genius. He is such a sensitive, powerful actor as well as being a really impressive film technician. It was a privilege to work with somebody like that. And then Jennifer, she and I, we share our adoration for Aretha Franklin, and a year before we started working on the movie, we agreed that the only thing we wanted was for Aretha’s legacy to be preserved. Jennifer trusted me when I brought her to work with my theater team—my vocal person, dialect coach and choreographer—about six months before we filmed. Jennifer carved out the most organic version of Aretha that fit into her voice, and body, and the kind of person she is, so that we could capture the essence of Aretha. I did not want an imitation performance, and neither did Jennifer. We worked to find something that would feel like she was inhabiting this character on screen.
Garcia: Are there any differences for you in directing the actors onstage as opposed to on camera?
Tommy: I wish I had a dramatic story to tell you about a moment like that, but I actually find that a lot of my aesthetic that I developed as a theater director carried over into my television work, and then into the film work. I really get in there with actors. I have a strong sense of a sort of visual style. In the film, there is a lot of what I call the “tender touch,” a lot of shots of people touching hands, of contact. I would literally take a hand and place it. The actors were so open to that kind of collaboration that it was really fun.
Garcia: When you were talking just now, it brought to mind that lovely but brief scene in which the young Aretha is sitting with her mother at the piano.
Tommy: Thank you. These actors and actresses were heaven to work with.
Garcia: So how did you survive post-production?
Tommy: Post-production was really hard. If every day of shooting was like the great joy of my life, post production was the great challenge of my life. We wrapped shooting at the end of February last year, and then I had a week off; afterward, we went into the edit and got shut down because of the pandemic. We were in our edit bay for about seven days, and then we all retreated to our apartments. I was in Harlem in March, April and May, where it was 24 hours of ambulance sirens. A lot of people I knew got sick and died of COVID in the beginning. It was so traumatic. We were editing the film virtually. My editor and I “met” every day, virtually. I couldn’t walk over into a room with my team and play a music sequence and see if they were moving their bodies to it, if they were vibing, if it felt right. It was all done in isolation, which is not how you should edit a film.
Garcia: Most directors say that they remake the film in post production. Were there moments that you remade in Respect?
Tommy: Well, we edited to five and a half hours! Let me put it this way: my first cut was three hours and 15 minutes. [Laughter.] The movie is two hours and 25 minutes. So you can imagine that process. I had to cut songs. We had so much material, and during the pandemic, the big fear on the part of the producers was that there might need to be reshoots; while I got everything, that meant that there was a lot of editing to do.
Garcia: In such an iconic figure as Aretha, whose talent is really what set her apart, what appreciation of Black women or the Black experience in America in general, would you like audiences to gain? This is, of course, aside from the novelty of seeing an affluent, confident Black woman on the screen.
Tommy: And that was something that was important to me. Because in a period film, you never see affluence, or intellectual life. This family was so cultured and so sophisticated. I wanted to show that because I can’t think of a film that focused on a Black family like that. Also what was important to me about our portrayal of this iconic Black woman is that while there are so many images of Black women who are tough, who are intimidating and who are powerful, and who teach white characters things about themselves or set them straight, there are fewer Black female characters that are vulnerable, that are delicate, that are unsure of themselves. Aretha Franklin was tremendously shy in her childhood and early twenties; it is as though these qualities are of no use to audiences, or to writers and directors. Black women have to be allowed to be all the parts of ourselves. I felt it was really important to create a very nuanced portrait of this incredibly important Black woman, that she was a true, unique personality who was evolving every day of her life.
Garcia: I am thinking of Kasi Lemmon’s autobiographical film, Eve’s Bayou, that also has nuanced Black, female characters.
Tommy: So that’s two.
Garcia: Yes, we found two films! [Laughter] In Respect, Aretha’s grandmother moved in, right after mom left, as she did in life, right? I liked this character because she was gentle, flawed, and complicated.
Tommy: And our world is populated with those beautiful grandmothers. And there are so many in our lives. She is such an important character. I’ve worked with that actress, Kimberly Scott, through the years, in theater. To me, she’s like a secret or undiscovered national treasure. I was very happy to bring her into the film.
Garcia: Did you get everyone you wanted in terms of casting?
Tommy: Yes, I did, a combination of film people that I absolutely adore, as well as old friends from theater. Even the studio was surprised. I knew from the start that I wanted everyone to sing live in this film. I just knew that this was not going to be a film where the music was created in the studio, and then we lip-synched. It had to be live to match the emotional intensity and specificity of what Aretha Franklin did with her music. Everyone who sang did so live, from young Aretha, played by Skye, to Audra McDonald who plays Barbara Franklin, Tituss Burgess who portrays Rev. Cleveland, Heather Headly as Clara Ward, to the backup singers, and to Jennifer. All of them had to be able to sing and act.
Garcia: That decision was a good one for this film. So, any offers yet for your next project?
Tommy: Yes, a lot.
Garcia: Stage or film or both?
Tommy: Both. I’m already working on Born a Crime (2016), the Trevor Noah audiobook about his childhood in South Africa.
Garcia: That’s great. Good luck. It was a pleasure to speak with you.
Tommy: Me, too. Thanks for these great questions.
Respect is currently playing only in theaters from MGM/UA.
Photos: Quantrell D. Colbert / Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer