Co-directors Michelle Major and Maiken Baird.
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Superstars of the tennis world, Venus and Serena Williams have been winning championships for over a decade, showing remarkable longevity in a such a highly demanding sport. The new documentary Venus and Serena offers an intimate portrait of the tennis legends, as they battle a variety of challenges—including career-threatening health problems—during the 2011 tennis season.

This unfiltered (and unprecedented) look into the remarkable lives of the Williams sisters, shows how, despite facing many on and off-the-court obstacles, Venus and Serena were able to make it to the top—breaking new ground for both African-American and female athletes across the globe. Featuring interviews with Bill Clinton, Billie Jean King and John McEnroe, this inspiring documentary shines a revealing light on two of the greatest players in tennis history…and as you’ve never seen them before.

Venus and Serena, which was co-directed by Maiken Baird (producer of Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer) and Michelle Major (former producer of “Good Morning America”), is currently available via VOD and opens in limited released May 10. Just before the movie hit theaters, MM asked co-director Major about her fascinating new documentary.

Kyle Rupprecht (MM): What initially led you to consider filming a documentary about the Williams sisters? Was the project long in the making?

Michelle Major (MM): Both Maiken and I love telling great stories, and this one is just about the best tale one could find to tell. Two little black girls from Compton—as Serena says  in the movie—dare to break into a lily-white sport that had no room for them really, and become the greatest players of that sport the world has ever seen. What’s more, they have a father who claims to have dreamt up the concept before they were born! If you made this stuff up, no one would believe you.

We weren’t the only journalists/filmmakers who wanted to tell this great story. As you can imagine, there were a lot of people vying for the opportunity. We first requested the honor in 2007, and didn’t get Venus and Serena to agree to let us film with them until 2010. I believe one of the main reasons they gave it to us was because we were persistent and didn’t take no for an answer. We started filming in January 2011, and finished the film after cutting down over 450 hours of video in July 2012.

MM: The film takes a very intimate look into the lives of Venus and Serena. Were they at all hesitant to take part in the documentary? Overall, what was the biggest challenge in making the film?

MM: We couldn’t have made the film without Venus and Serena, so we are very grateful for their full participation and cooperation. They gave us unprecedented access, which is the only way we were going to be willing and able to make this documentary. Once they finally agreed to do it, there was little to no hesitation on their parts.

As far as the biggest challenge…We had planned on following the sisters throughout the 2011 tennis season, but when we started filming, Serena had a pulmonary embolism and nearly died, and Venus retired from the Australian Open in the third round with a groin injury. Both Maiken and I were really worried about what the film would be with our two stars out of the game. Were they ever going to play again? So I would say the biggest challenge was in the beginning, when we realized it was going to be a very different year with the Williams sisters and therefore a very different story than we’d originally planned on telling.

MM: Richard, Venus and Serena’s father, is a fascinating personality. What was his initial reaction to the idea of a documentary about his daughters?

MM: The first time I met Richard, he’d just arrived at Serena’s Beverly Hills house after she got home from the hospital. Serena said to me, “My dad’s here, but he doesn’t want to be filmed.” So I went out to meet him, and there he was on his knees, with his wife, painting Serena’s gate!

Weeks later, he told me he had been so afraid for Serena’s life that he didn’t know what to do when he got there, so he just decided to paint her gate where it needed patchwork to show his love.

Richard didn’t really have any say in whether or not we did this film about his daughters. After all, they’re grown women who live on their own, and after he got used to us being around, he was relatively cooperative.

MM: What was the biggest revelation you learned about the two sisters while making Venus and Serena? 

MM: Both Maiken and I were really surprised when Serena said on camera in an interview that she didn’t know who the guy was on the court during practice, calling her father dad. This guy is older than Serena and was introduced to me as Richard’s son, and yet Serena said she didn’t know him. As you can imagine, this was quite surprising.

MM: Obviously, this is a film that’s sure to appeal to tennis buffs, but what would you say the movie offers those who aren’t typically fans of the sport? What makes Venus and Serena such a compelling story?

MM: Their story is an inspiration to everyone. The idea that achieving greatness is actually within reach for anyone if they are willing to commit themselves, if they have a vision and if they stay the course is an encouragement to us all. The film is also a celebration of the American pioneering spirit. It confirms that originality and doing it your own way can often produce the greatest results.

MM: This being your directorial debut, what’s the best piece of advice you’d offer an independent documentary moviemaker about to embark on his or her first feature?

MM: Get a lot of advice on the entire process, before you start. We made so many mistakes that we could have avoided if we had just really sought advice from those who came before us. Also, listen to—but do not take to heart—the sometimes disheartening words of all the naysayers who say it cannot be done.

For more information on the film, click here.