Director's Chair: Liesl Tommy - <I>Respect</I>
Issue: July/August 2021

Director's Chair: Liesl Tommy - Respect

Aptly titled Respect, the new film about Aretha Franklin follows the late music legend's career from a child singing in her father’s church’s choir to her international superstardom, along the way chronicling the highs and lows, the triumphs and tragedies of her remarkable life. Starring Dreamgirls’ Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson as The Queen of Soul, alongside a cast that includes Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Marc Maron, Tituss Burgess, Tate Donovan and Mary J. Blige, Respect was directed by Liesl Tommy, a Tony-nominated, award-winning international theater director who's making her feature directorial debut.

Here, in an exclusive interview for Post, I spoke with Tommy (pictured with Hudson, below), whose credits include directing episodes of such notable TV series as Queen Sugar, Insecure, Dietland and The Walking Dead, about the challenges of making and posting the film.

You're a Tony-nominated theater veteran, but you jumped in the deep end for your movie debut with a very high-profile project. How did you prepare? Did you ask for advice from other directors?

"(Laughs) No, I didn't talk to any movie directors, as I don't know anyone famous or fancy in this business. I never went to film school and I've spent most of my career in theater, so I didn't have those connections. But since I was just eight and looking at my father's photography books, I had ideas about composition and lighting, and I've done a lot of multi-media and theater with live-feeds and video components, so I feel I've always been composing images, whether they're live on stage or on a camera, so the transition into film has been very organic for me. And I had very clear ideas about how this movie should look."

This isn't a traditional, by-the-numbers, cradle-to-grave biopic of a legend. What sort of film did you set out to make?

"For a start, getting all the music right was so important to me, as I've spent so much time around musicians, and when the studio first approached me, I had a very clear sense of what the film should be — that it's about a journey of highs and lows, and that it starts and ends in church, specifically with gospel music, and that it ends with "Amazing Grace", as that live album and performance is so transcendent. And when I pitched my idea, it was centered around the tag line, 'It's the story of a woman who has the greatest voice in the world but who is struggling to find her voice.' And that's how it began to take shape. I love music and my background's in musical theater, and I didn't want to do the usual thing with the music. I wanted it, and the lyrics, to tell and further the story, and I wanted to show the creative process, which I felt you never see in music movies."

Aretha hand-picked Jennifer to play her. What did Jennifer bring to the mix?

"When I met Jennifer I quickly understood why Aretha chose her, because she has an amazing voice that, like Aretha's, is so powerful and full of emotion, a truly miraculous voice. But it's not just about the voice. Jennifer also has this sensitivity and depth. Aretha lived a complicated life, with a lot of success, but also tragedy, and Jennifer's also lived that kind of life, and I saw it in her eyes, just as I think Aretha did — that Jennifer was able to bring a very nuanced and heartfelt performance. And we worked very closely on that — everything from movement to her dialect, so by the time we began shooting we were both so prepared, and we were free to try stuff artistically and feel creatively unleashed."

Where did you shoot, and how tough was the shoot?

"We shot in New York and Atlanta, and my DP Kramer Morgenthau was perfect for this, as I knew we had to have a DP who understood music and rhythm, and he really got it. We were really in-sync in terms of style and just how much music there'd be in the film, and we've all heard stories of nightmare shoots full of problems, but I have to say that my time on-set was the most joyful, profound experience. Every single day was so enjoyable, and I don't think I've ever been happier creatively. I felt that every bit of my craft that I've honed over the years was channeled into this project."

Obviously the music and sound were crucial to this. Can you talk about the whole process of recording the music and sound, as most music films use lip-syncing and this looked like you recorded the songs live, on-set?

"You're right. In fact, we shot everything live, on-set. All the singing was live, even the little girl, and that's why I cast it the way I did, with all these great singers who could really deliver. Aretha brought such intensity and emotional depth to her own performances that I knew we had to do it all live to capture that feeling. Even the best lip-syncing is never quite convincing to me."

Tell us about post. Was any of it remote because of COVID? Where did you do it? 

"It was very challenging as I had just about a week in a post facility with my team before COVID hit and then we had to all work alone and remotely from our homes. I had to edit the whole film like that in my apartment in Harlem, and it was very tough. Because of the health crisis in New York, it was non-stop sirens 24/7, and everyone's internet slowed way down. It was a slog and very intense. And then when we were finally able to get into the soundstage to do the sound mix, we all nearly burst into tears, as it was the first time we'd been able to all see the film together."

Avril Beukes cut this. How did you work together?

"She's a fellow South African and we'd worked together before when I was a director on Ava DuVernay's TV project Queen Sugar, and it was a great collaboration. We were both at home in our apartments in New York, and we used this great software program, Evercast, that is very user-friendly, and it allows you to edit remotely and see the other person's work, which is fantastic, and it has great sound quality, which was very important. But it was very tough editing like that, as everyone in town was using the same system, and it was over-taxed. Sometimes stuff wasn't synced up properly and we'd have to hold and reboot, so it very challenging. But for me, the biggest challenge was that I missed the vibe. When you're making a movie, especially a music one, you want to be able to walk down the hall, show a scene to the music editor, feel the vibe and see people moving to the rhythm of it. It's the same with all the VFX. You need to show it to your colleagues, and get their reactions and input, and none of that was possible. To be honest, I felt very frustrated and slightly cheated by what happened to our whole post process. But given the pandemic and all the problems, I feel we made the best of it."

What were the main editing challenges?

"Apart from all those technical challenges, aesthetically and visually, this was not easy to cut, as I was interested in a lot of different styles. There's the concert vibe, the rehearsal vibe, and then all the different eras and the way we shot childhood scenes in the '50s, versus the '60s and '70s. The DP and I had a real strong vision of what the different decades meant to Aretha, and how they'd be framed, and Avril had to make all that work together and deal with pacing and tone, and she was brilliant."

Where did you mix? What was involved?

"That was crucial and we did it at the Warner Bros. facility in New York with a great sound team — supervising sound editor Phil Stockton and re-recording mixer Paul Hsu. They did such detailed, subtle work and just got it, and worked very closely with Avril to sync the style and sound, and we recorded the songs at Reservoir in New York."

There are quite a few VFX. Was that a steep learning curve for you and what was entailed?

"It was pretty steep and a very intense process, but luckily I had a great VFX supervisor/producer, Sean Nowlan, and his team, and he had to give me a crash course in dealing with all the VFX technology and what's possible within your budget. Of course, with a period piece like this, you have all the obvious stuff, like painting out anything modern — cars, signs and so on. But then we had these huge set pieces, like a show at Madison Square Garden, and there's no way you can fill it up with 50,000 extras, so you're using plates and crowd effects in post, but it's complex and you'd get a pass where the people in the back looked like M&Ms while the audience in the front weren't moving to the music convincingly. And then we had a church scene where people were clapping on the wrong beat, and so on. So all the VFX took a long time, as I wanted it all to look perfect, and we ended up using a lot of vendors [including Cinesite, Fuse, Crafty Apes, Otomo FX, Screen Scene, Sandbox, Mas Effects, Gloss Creative Post]. But I loved learning about the process and working with the VFX."

What about the DI? How closely did you work with colorist Mitch Paulson and the DP?

"I wanted a vibrant, magical, glamorous look, and Mitch and Kramer really took care of making sure we got that. I grew up in South Africa watching old classic Hollywood movies, but there were very few black people in any of them, and I wanted to create a film about black characters that was like those old movies — beautifully lit and glamorously designed. So we spent a lot of time in the DI, and there was a fair amount of back and forth, and playing around with the look until we got this lovely, almost antique feel to the film."

Did it turn out the way you first envisioned it?

"It did, and I'm very proud of what we did. It was a passion project for me, and there was so much pressure we all put on ourselves, but it's the film I set out to make."

What's next?

"I definitely want to direct again, and I'm working on Born a Crime, based on Trevor Noah's memoir, with Lupita Nyong'o attached to star. It's set in South Africa and it's another passion project.”