Opening in theaters today, Friday May 10, Toronto Film Festival documentary Venus and Serena follows the famed tennis champions from the Australian Open in January 2011 to the U.S. Open the following fall. What was intended as a victory tale became a film about overcoming adversity as both sisters sustained injuries and illness throughout the course of filming – Venus with a hip injury and Sjogren’s syndrome, and Serena with a foot injury and pulmonary embolism.
I spoke with producer-directors Michelle Major and Maiken Baird about the film and what it was like to be up close and personal with the Williams sisters for nearly a year.
S&A: You spent a year filming with the Williams sisters to make this doc, but before that it was a lengthy process to get them on board with it. Tell me about how you got started.
MB: Michelle and I had worked together for many years at ABC News and knew each other well, and we had wanted to make a film together for years. But it wasn’t until spring of 2007 when we got together and decided that we wanted to make this film about the Williams sisters, because we both were very passionate about the story. So we started calling Venus’s agent Carlos Fleming and just started pitching. It took us three and half years before we got a meeting with Venus, but once we pitched her what we thought should be the story we were on the same page, and after that meeting we were granted the access.
S&A: You spent a significant amount of time with them while making the film. Was there anything you learned about them that may have surprised you?
MM: You go into this not knowing what mythology is true. So I didn’t know, for example, whether they were still getting along with their father. We didn’t know whether they got along, truly, with each other. They were each other’s biggest rivals. But it was wonderful to see their relationship with their father. It was kind of shocking, he would come on the court every single day when they were practicing and they would greet him with open arms: “Hi daddy!” Big hugs, and this is at 29 and 30. They have a great relationship with her father and their mother, and even though their father and mother are divorced they’re both at all their matches. They may be on opposite sides of the court sometimes, but the whole family is there to support.
Also, they’re incredibly dedicated to their sport. They love tennis so much and it clearly isn’t about the money for either of them. They’re very frugal, they don’t spend lavishly. They were raised to be wise with their money and relative to who they are, they live quite modestly. So there were a lot of surprises in filming with them.
S&A: They’ve been known as very private individuals. What was it like for you to try to bond with them and get inside their heads a bit? Were there any challenges?
MM: They are incredibly private people, and that’s why it took us three years to get the access. But once they signed on, they trusted us at that point. I didn’t get the feeling that there were things that they were trying to hide from us. I think it’s hard to have cameras following you around all the time, and it’s hard to wear a mic all the time. So sound was sometimes an issue and there are a few outtakes of me following after Richard Williams asking if he would just put a mic on [laughs]. So certainly there were times where it was a bit much for them, but for the most part they were incredibly revealing.
S&A: They weren’t present for the film’s premiere at Toronto. Is there any truth to the news that they pulled their support from the film? What happened there?
MB: We got into the Toronto Film Festival very late in the game and we were sort of jamming to finish it in time for the festival because we thought it would be a great place to premiere. So we sent Venus and Serena a copy of pretty much the finished film, but it was very close to Toronto. I think that like any subject of a documentary, when you first see a film about yourself and when you’re as private as they are, it’s something that you kind of have to process. There are obviously lots of things they really liked about it and some things that made them uncomfortable. But I think that now they’ve processed it and they’re on board and very much supporters of the film. But it was something that needed more time, which is completely understandable.
S&A: After they saw the film was there any back-and-forth, any negotiation of changes that needed to be made in order for them to be more accepting of it?
MM: Venus was the first one to watch the film. Her role in the family is the protector and she’s also the one that wants to make sure that their image is correct. She was thrilled by the scenes of her as a young kid because I’m sure they don’t get a chance to watch those old films. But there were definitely a few things that weren’t as thrilling. She didn’t have editorial control and neither did Serena, but there were a couple of little things that didn’t change the film that we took out because both Venus and Serena humbly asked us to. I don’t remember exactly what they were anymore, they were insignificant enough for us not to miss them.
S&A: You worked with Sam Pollard to edit, and you mentioned cutting up until the last minute to prepare for Toronto. Was there anything that got left out of the movie that you would’ve wanted in?
MM: The first thing I would have wanted, and we tried to fit it in every which way but sideways, was one of the first days that we filmed with Serena. She was visiting the doctor and had this sort of wheelchair for her knee. She got out of the car with these big Gucci sunglasses looking gorgeous with this cast on and wheeled herself into the doctor’s office, then proceeded to talk about when she went dancing could she take the cast off. And then she started to insist that she needed to work out immediately. You could tell she was just very frustrated by the schedule and how long it was taking to heal. The doctor was very cautious with her, of course. But it was such a fantastic revealing scene about this woman who is such a fighter and never sees herself as handicapped, even when she fully is, and she just wants to get back out there.
MB: There’s lots of scenes that hit the cutting room floor with 450 hours of footage, but they’ll be in the DVD extras. Some of my favorite scenes are with Venus. She loves to read comic books. Particularly, she loves Hellboy. And so she’d go between matches at the Australian Open and spend hours searching through piles of old comics at comic book stores to find ones that she might not have read. The other thing that’s really interesting is that she has a serious candy habit. I think she had to kick it because of the Sjogren’s diagnosis, but we have this great footage of her in an old candy shop, and her sort of like skipping around the shop with a big smile on her face almost like she’s liking this more than Wimbledon. And you know, you just can’t imagine Roger Federer skipping around a candy store.
S&A: It’s interesting you should mention that, and we’ve heard it before – that even though they’re grown women and very accomplished, it seems that the Williams sisters still have this girlish playfulness and childlike attributes in some ways. Where do you think that comes from?
MM: I think a lot of it is because they’ve lived incredibly sheltered lives. Their family has formed this shield around them because they’ve had to protect them from all of the attacks from the outside world. A large part of the tennis world resented them. “Two black girls have the nerve to come and wipe us all out?” They were called names – “the two-headed monster,” nasty names. And you see in the film some of the antics and how the girls received them. So they were protected greatly, but with protection you miss something too.
And also with that kind of dedication [to the sport] practically every day of their lives since they were four and five, you’re going to miss something. Gay Talese in the film says it well, that with all of the obsessive-compulsive behavior that goes into making a great athlete, there’s parts of your life that you may not experience the way that other people do. So to a large extent they may not have had the chance to grow up in the same way or as quickly as the average person who hasn’t been a superstar since they were young.
S&A: What do you expect people to take away from the film?
MM: Our initial goal was to make a film that inspires everyone to greatness, because their story is the great American story. But you can’t be as inspired by superheroes if they have no humanity or flaws, so our goal was also to show that they are great icons for generations to come, but at same time, they’re like you and me. So the greatness that they’ve achieved is not too far from anyone’s reach if they have the vision and drive to get there.
MB: People often called this film a sports story and I take issue with that. I love tennis, I play myself, and it’s not that I have any issues with sports docs. It’s just that this is a story about family, sisterhood, the American dream, tenacity, hard work. A big part of it is race. And I think it’s just about a lot more things, so even on the festival circuit the film has appealed to many more people than are interested in just sports or sports films. We really look at this is a story that transcends sports.
Venus and Serena opens in theaters today, May 10.