Directors Maiken Baird, Michelle Major talk Venus and Serena docPosted by Wilson Morales
May 7, 2013
Coming out this week is the documentary of ‘Venus and Serena,’ an intimate documentary that takes us inside the lives of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams, during a year when debilitating injuries and life-threatening illness threatened to take them out of the game once and for all. Set against the 2011 and 2012 tennis seasons.
Directors Maiken Baird and Michelle Major, through intimate interviews with the sisters as well as other notables such as John McEnroe, Chris Rock, President Bill Clinton, take the audience on a journey as the lives of the sisters are explored from childhood to present.
Blackfilm.com recently spoke with the filmmakers on their latest subjects and the challenge they faced putting together a film that fans and newcomers can appreciate.
Between the two of you how did this project come about?
MAIKEN BAIRD: Michelle and I used to work together in the ’90s for Peter Jennings reporting at ABC News doing documentaries. We went our separate ways for several years but we stayed in touch and met in spring of 2007, batting around ideas of films to make and this was the one we felt the strongest and deepest about, that we would be the perfect team to make this. Of course we didn’t realize how long it would take us! It took us three-and-a-half years to get the access you see we had in the film and we’re incredibly grateful to the Williams sisters for the year we spent with them and the incredible access they allowed us.
Getting to the sisters I don’t imagine being an issue, but getting to the father is. Who’s idea was it to approach him about doing the documentary for an entire year?
MICHELLE MAJOR: We did first think we needed to approach Mr. Williams but it turns out Venus and Serena are grown women, Serena was 29 and Venus was 30. They’ve lived on their own for quite some time, since they were teenagers actually. Their father doesn’t make those decisions for them. The first time we sat down was with Venus, and she agreed it was time to have a legacy piece. We were fortunate to be the ones granted the access. With Venus being on board Serena came on board automatically in a sense, and the two of them asked their family if they were willing to be filmed. Every day when we came to film with them I or Maiken would ask Richard Williams if he wouldn’t mind wearing a mic and if we would film him. We’d do that with everyone in the family out of respect, because sometimes they weren’t in the mood to have a camera on them or whatever it may be. We’d ask them and sometimes they would agree and as you see in the film sometimes Richard wouldn’t agree. (laughs)
So when you have the entire family on camera every day how do you decide what you’re shooting?
MAJOR: We had a vision for the film to begin with and that was to make a documentary about two of the world’s greatest athletes who had this incredible backstory. That was already the plan. What we didn’t plan for was in 2011 Serena was out for the first half of the year and Venus gets out too in the second match of the first tournament of the year. We didn’t plan for it to be a story of them rehabbing in the hospital but it ended up being a rehab story. These incredible story of these athletes as they fight to get back to being number one.
When you’re doing a documentary you never know what you’re going to face. What were the most difficult challenges you faced as far as shooting it? Was it knowing what to leave out?
BAIRD: Certainly we had 450 hours of footage: 400 hours of verite and 50 hours of interviews, on top of all the archival footage. Certainly way too much to make an hour and thirty-nine minute film. It was difficult. We have a lot of extra stuff, deleted scenes that were in the film and now they’re not.
When you’re dealing with the sisters you obviously want them to both have equal time. Was there a point where you said you want to devote time to the father and mother just so we can understand their upbringing?
MAJOR: We didn’t really focus on meting out who we saw more than another. The way we cut the film was to show what was most interesting and revealing about both sisters. One of the really revealing moments is when Serena is on the treadmill dressing down her hitting partner Sasha. That was a really remarkable moment that we were able to catch her doing that because she forgot we were there. She was so in the zone she couldn’t care less about the cameras. She wanted to be #1 and would do anything to be #1, including telling her hitting partner to get better, curses and all.
BAIRD: I learned a tremendous amount because I’d never done a verite film before, which is a very intense process of filming and filming, hoping something interesting will happen. There were days that were frustrating, a waste of a shoot day, and there were days that were thrilling because you knew you had a scene that would make it in the movie. For example, when Serena was on the treadmill I’ll never forget the camera guy and sound guy, who were staying at my house during the U.S. Open, came home at midnight and said, “You’re not gonna believe the scene we shot!” They were jumping for joy and I couldn’t wait to see it. You have these ups and downs of verite.
I loved watching the archives. It’s good for people who didn’t see them growing up, to see that they started as young individuals, to see the father say they’re going to be #1 and 2. In getting the footage was it difficult dealing with the archive houses to get that footage?
MAJOR: There are not that many. There were very few journalists at the time who had the insightfulness to go and interview Richard Williams in Compton and take any of what he was saying seriously. There were only a few sources who had that footage of Venus and Serena playing in Compton. ESPN owns it now. I think you’re right, everybody who sees the film loves that footage, especially seeing Serena courtside predicting her Wimbledon win ten-years later.
For those who are fans and know their work what are they going to get out of this that they haven’t seen already? Seeing the karaoke was great because it was a chance to see them not being athletic.
MAJOR: I don’t think it’s a matter of never having seen the footage before. The reason we wanted to do the film is there is a great deal of mythology surrounding these very private women. We thought the truth would debunk the myth, like the myth that they’re just natural athletes who don’t have to work for it, that they don’t really care about tennis, or they’re not close to their father anymore. Only in it for the money. Once we got to know them we found these things not to be true. To tell the real story of who these women are, how their family helped them become the greatest tennis players ever, and how they stay on top. It’s a lesson, an inspiration, you can model how to raise a successful child from this, having a vision for them. Seeing them train consistently and be disciplined. Even as an adult you have to work hard at it and it doesn’t come easy, it’s all about mental toughness, constantly pushing yourself beyond what you can do. Hopefully people will be surprised by the whole story of Venus and Serena and not just the little things we’ve always heard in the press over the years.
With the film coming out, where do you guys go from here? Will you be working on individual projects?
BAIRD: We are developing some projects together. We are thinking of our next project, we have several ideas and we’re figuring out how to gain access to those stories. That’s always the great hurdle for documentary filmmakers is getting access to people whose stories you want to tell.
How were you able to pull this off when it came to funding and keep your day lives?
MAJOR: There was no day life, this was our full-time job from the moment we started filming. (laughs) This wasn’t a side project. Maiken raised the funding, and that’s all we’ll tell you. (laughs)