MM: We met first about 15 years ago, working in the Peter Jennings documentary unit of ABC News. We worked on a couple of projects, well, we worked on one project there together, and then we shared an office and became quick friends, and then sort of went our separate ways. Maiken went on to produce docs for television, and I went on to produce various different things in television news departments.
But we’d always talked about doing our own thing when we felt like we were at that point. Maiken called me up and was like ‘Come over, and let’s talk about what we’re going to do.’ [Laughing] And she said ‘How about the Williams sisters?’ and I said ‘Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! That’s a great idea, let’s do it.’
That was in 2007. So we started making calls and…[laughing] 2010, three years later, they finally agreed. I mean, it took a lot of going back and forth and talking to their agents. I think that firstly, in 2007, they were still so hot (I mean, they were really hot in 2010, too) but it just seems to me that it was a little bit premature. They thought that it was a little bit premature. But in 2010 they felt like, ‘You know, we’ve had a solid career for such a long time, we’re really a bit more ready for a legacy piece now.’
They live together, they take care of each other… And what’s extraordinary about them is that they are also each other’s greatest competitors.
MM: Well, they are very private and you’re right, they don’t let journalists in usually. In fact, they were raised to not watch the press, any press about themselves, read any press about themselves, and I believe they still do that to this day, so, yeah, it’s pretty impressive. And that was to protect them. You know, their mother was like ‘People are going to write all kinds of things and most of it’s not going to be true, so it’s probably better if you just don’t read it.’ And they adhered to that.
But when they were ready, once we met Venus (we didn’t meet her until 2010) and told her what we wanted to do, she agreed and didn’t expect to control the film at all. It really was Venus and Serena’s film, not their father’s. So their father didn’t have any say at all as to whether or not they decided to do it. And we came to an agreement that they wouldn’t have any editorial control, because we wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise. It would’ve just been a very different kind of documentary and not one that we would’ve wanted to make.
MM: It’s interesting because that was a huge actual myth, pathology surrounding them, that they actually didn’t practice that much, they didn’t have to, that they were just naturally gifted, which I think is a little bit insulting also because you can’t be naturally gifted and become number one in the world as a tennis player [laughing].
It takes a lot of hard work, as you see in the film.
MM: Exactly. We kind of were like, let’s go in and see if all these kind of ‘negative things’ that were getting launched at them ever since they came on the scene were true or not. And then show what the real story is. So we didn’t actually know, we actually went in going like, ‘Who are their coaches?’ We couldn’t find them anywhere. We looked all over the Internet; we did all sorts of researching. ‘Do they have coaches? Their mother and their father are their coaches!?’ We still couldn’t understand that. That was a big question for us, like, ‘Who is coaching them?’ And we found out, ‘Wow, it was their mother and their father!’ I mean, they had other coaches along the way but their mother and father were their biggest coaches. And we found out that they were really hard workers, too.
The other dynamic of the film that I thought was so interesting was the relationship between Venus and Serena. You realize sisters are going to have this relationship where the younger is trying to be as good as the older sister, etc. I think the competition – it didn’t surprise me, but I didn’t know how specific it was that their mother was coaching one of them, and their father coached the other, etc., but that they were also so close in that they live together. That was very surprising for me as a viewer. Was that something that you knew about or something that unfolded as you brought the cameras in?
Maiken Baird: Yeah, that was to me, one of the most surprising things about the experience of spending time with them, was to see how – and I also thought it was one of the things I wanted to discover actually through the film – was to find out what their relationship really was like, and their dynamic and whether it was true. Could they really be that close as they have always said they are? And it turns out that they really are. They really are soul mates in a way.
They live together, they take care of each other, they, you know, they each have separate lives of course in the sense that Serena plays on her court and Venus plays on hers, and stuff like that (and they don’t ‘hit’ together so much) but they cook together, they do karaoke together, they’re really two peas in a pod. It’s really amazing. It’s an amazing relationship. And what’s extraordinary about them is that they are also each other’s greatest competitors. So you’ve got that dynamic too. And I just thought that that relationship was probably one of the most interesting parts of the film.
You have to say that this film is about two extremely powerful and important women, also being made by two women. Were there any experiences making the film that you thought were specific to the fact that you’re making and creating this film about women?
MM: Yes, 100% [laughing]. I mean, it was fascinating to us. Firstly, we would tell people who we thought had similar journalistic ideas as us about what a good story was, and we’d say, ‘We’re going to be doing this documentary about Venus & Serena,’ and invariably pretty much everyone was like, ‘Well, why do you want to do that?’ and we’d be like ‘Do you know the story about Venus and Serena? They’re amazing. It’s an incredible story!’ [Laughing] ‘Mmmm. Ok, well…’
We’d get all kinds of negative things about how they looked, about their physicality that we were completely turned off by but it made us more determined to want to do this because we were just like ‘Oh hell no, you will not talk about how they look!’ And that’s not what’s important about this film; they happen to also be gorgeous I think, but we got a lot of negativity like ‘Oh, they look like men,’ this kind of stuff, so there was always a lot of attention on that.
And then again, also, it was hard to raise money for this film because nobody believed that it was an interesting story or that it could be done, that they’re not two male NBA players, etc., or whatever it could be, they’re just not interesting enough, they’re not sexy enough, I mean. [Laughing]
Which is just…ludicrous because you see this film, and there is so much richness in their story and who they are! Well, hopefully you feel very proud of this film and can tell those people to stick it where the sun don’t shine! [Laughing]
MM: Absolutely! [Laughing]
Thank you for speaking with me, and best of luck with the film!
MM & MB: Thank you!
(Venus and Serena is distributed by Magnolia Pictures.)