Producers Maiken Baird and Michelle Major recently gave an interview to Life + Times ahead of the May 10th release of their forthcoming documentary, Venus and Serena – an intimate portrait of sibling tennis phenoms Venus and Serena Williams. The Magnolia Pictures film is an examination of the lives, massive successes and career longevity of the sisters, who began as unlikely tennis phenoms hailing from Compton, California. Their ascent and powerhouse talent have been anomalous enough that professional sports may never see anything like it from a pair of siblings again. Their almost impenetrable stat sheets and collective trove of major awards has been countered more recently by serious health concerns that have sidelined the sisters late in their careers – Venus battled an auto-immune disease while Serena fought back against a pulmonary embolism in 2011. The film takes a serious look at their response to adversity and champions their strength as a unit – a huge factor in their individual achievements on and off the court. After working for three years to get access to the sisters, Baird and Major cut the film down from over 400 hours of footage to tell their story. Watch the trailer and check out a bit of what they had to say about the making of the film.
Life+Times: Talk about the process of bringing idea of the film to Venus and Serena as well as to their parents.
Maiken Baird: When Michelle and I met in the summer of 2007 in New York, and we were just throwing ideas around and this idea came up, we both were very [passionate] about making a film about these two sisters and finding out more about them. So, we took a very long process of getting the sort of trust and access that we felt we needed to make the film what you see today. So, it took us about three years to get a meeting with Venus in the summer of 2010. Then we managed to convince her and the people she was with at the time, her agent and [one of] her sisters.
Michelle Major: Basically, Venus liked the idea. We had a great conversation with her and after that meeting she green-lit the project and everybody else automatically came on board. Serena, the young sister – as you see in the film – she follows her big sister. So big sister made the decision, little sister agreed and everybody else came after that, there was not really a big persuasion with the rest of the family. Except everyday we filmed with [their father,] Richard, we had to persuade him [laughs]. We had to ask him again if he didn’t mind being filmed.
L+T: From seeing the film and hearing things about them, they seem to be very private people, especially their father. Were they pretty open when you all were interviewing them?
MM: I think, first of all, Serena is an open book. So once you get her started – and Venus, too – they were willing to talk. Because they agreed to this project, they were very, very open with us. I think that they were probably more open than they’ve ever been with journalists or any kind of media because they agreed to do this and they knew what it was going to be and they thought it was important to document their lives at this stage in their careers. There wasn’t really a problem getting them to be open at all. We’re grateful for that. Richard off camera was a great guy: so friendly, very respectful. Then some days, he just wasn’t in the mood, and he’d say, “I don’t wanna be filmed today.” I’d say, “Mr. Williams, can we put a mic on you?” and he’d say, “No.” Then the next day, he’d be like, “I’m ready to go today, I’ll take the mic.” It just depended on his mood.
L+T: Did they have any influence on the final product? What were their thoughts when they saw the final thing?
MM: Interestingly enough, we tried to do a screening with them, but they’re from the school – or they invented the school – of don’t watch yourself in the media. Even though we’ve done this film, I don’t even know if Oracene has ever seen it, I don’t know if Richard has ever seen it. We were told Serena did not see it before it showed in Toronto. I know Venus saw it, and [her sister] Isha, and their agent. But I think the family really thinks of it as Venus and Serena’s film that they were just helping out on. And really, to Oracene’s point, she’s like, “I don’t pay any attention. I taught my daughter’s not to pay any attention to what the media ever says about them.” So, I think she sticks with that. I don’t know if she’s seen it, although I’ve texted with her about it. I just don’t know [laughs]. I know that sounds strange, but they gave us a year of their life, and then were like, “Enough. Now we’re going to be private again. Leave us alone.”