With her biopic on Aretha Franklin Respect, director Liesl Tommy has sought to capture a world of “black excellence … beauty and … fabulous” from the past that she thinks few movies have ever had.
Her directorial debut follows Franklin (Jennifer Hudson) from her childhood in the 1950s until her rise to stardom, examining the late musical icon’s journey to find her voice, as well as the personal challenges she has been through. faced in her life, including the loss of her mother. at a young age and an abusive marriage to his manager Ted White (Marlon Wayans).
Tommy took his bearings in the craft RespectThe visuals of Franklin herself, recognizing early on that costume design would be an integral part of telling the story of someone who loved fashion as much as she did. She said in the latest edition of The Process that the designer she needed was someone who understood “tailoring” as well as “glamor” and “was also going to figure out how to credibly live” in the different time periods that she was. the film would represent. .
It ended up being Clint Ramos, an artist she first met in New York City 19 years ago, when the couple launched their careers as “baby theater makers,” who shared a shortcut with her and understood her aesthetic perfectly. While Tommy says she’s collaborated with Ramos over the years on ‘Too Many Pieces … to Count’, two of their most notable collaborations before Respect came in the Off-Broadway and Broadway productions of Danai Gurira’s play, Eclipse. (Ramos won a Tony for the latter, becoming the first person of color to win the award for Best Costume Design in a Play. Tommy, meanwhile, was nominated for Best Director, becoming the first Afro woman. -american to do so.)
As a costume designer for RespectRamos would create precise recreations of some of Franklin’s most famous looks, while tweaking others to serve the story. 85% of the pieces worn by Hudson were built from the ground up, with a variety of vintage pieces also added to the mix.
Part of what struck the designer about Franklin as he delved into the research was how diverse his fashion of dress was. âIt changed very frequently, and almost overnight at times, and for me it really showed that she was following her instincts,â he says. âShe was not a fashion slave; it was not just dictated by the trend.
Another takeaway for Ramos when examining Franklin’s photographs was that at every moment his humanity shone. “Nothing’s holding her back, so there would be a bit of a crooked hair, a bit of sweat on her nose.” It’s almost Aretha saying, ‘No, you won’t lock me in that fashion photo you want me to be in. I am a human being, âhe observes. âSo that’s kind of how we planned it all. What clothing is she wearing? What will it do to him and how will it affect his performance? “
Part of Ramos’ challenge on Respect bridging the gap between Franklin and the actress who played her, making sure he tailored the clothes to fit Hudson’s “completely different body type” and getting “an emotional calibration” from the way she was going to wear them. âJennifer moves differently, even though she had an Aretha step and an Aretha position, so all of that was factored into the redesign of these performance dresses,â he says. âA lot of it got reinterpreted, and a lot of it, I really wanted to stay close, and then maybe just change the colors to work with Jennifer’s skin, and also what we were doing in a particular scene.â
When Tommy now looks back on his first feature film, she finds many things to be proud of, including the fact that the film “is black as f ** k” and was made with total “devotion and love” for Franklin. .
âWe understand that this film is going to be part of his legacy, and I took it very seriously,â she said. “You can’t walk away from this movie and not understand that she was adored, respected and deserved every ounce of that emotion because she gave us so much.”
For Tommy, it is particularly significant that during the making of the film, she was able to meet Franklin’s “proudly black female gaze” with his own.
âFor so long, films like Respect would have been written and directed by white men. We’ve watched so many movies about us that were created by white males, so white males would tell us who we are, and to me it’s devastating, âshe shares. âSome of these films were great, but they’re not complete. I’m not saying this movie is complete, but I’m saying there are details in this movie that could only have happened with a black writer and director – and I know that’s true because of the the deep trust that these actors have placed in me. “
Tracey Scott Wilson wrote the screenplay for Respect based on a story by Callie Khouri. Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Marc Maron, Tituss Burgess and Mary J. Blige also star in the MGM and United Artist Releasing film, which hit theaters in August. Scott Bernstein, Jonathan Glickman, Harvey Mason Jr. and Stacey Sher have produced, with Tommy, Hudson, Sue Baden-Powell, Jason Cloth and Aaron L. Gilbert in production.
In a conversation about The Process, Tommy and Ramos discuss all aspects of their Respect collaboration, including how they navigated a Madison Square Garden stage involving around a thousand background artists. They also enter their first “Off-Off-Off-Broadway” encounter, their shared artistic mission from the early days, as immigrants and people of color who “felt like strangers in American theater”, the dream of Tommy to be a filmmaker. and more.
Check out the full discussion above.