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'Venus and Serena' Filmmakers Talk to S&A About Spending a Year with the Williams Sisters

Shadow and Act By Jai Tiggett | Shadow and Act May 10, 2013 at 10:48AM

Opening in theaters this Friday May 10, Toronto Film Festival documentary Venus and Serena spends nearly a year following the famed tennis champions from the Australian Open in January 2011 to the U.S. Open the following fall.
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Venus and Serena

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.

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Venus and Serena opens in theaters today, May 10.



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