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.