Michelle Major is the director and producer of “Venus and Serena,” a documentary film that follows the careers of the star tennis player sisters, Venus and Serena Williams. The film looks at the struggles the Williams sisters have overcome throughout their lives, including the odds they beat to break into the sport of tennis and their battles with career-threatening health problems.
A former news and film producer (think ABC’s "Good Morning America" or Barbara Walters' "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus: But We Have to Live on Earth"), Major has mastered the craft of storytelling. After 15 years in the industry, she came together with friend and colleague Maiken Baird to create "Venus and Serena."
The film took more than three years to make, a year of which Major spent traveling with the sisters, documenting their every move. She opens up about the challenges of being away from friends and family for an extended period of time in order to produce a documentary film and the rewards that come with being your own boss.
HLN: What was it like to travel with star athletes, Venus and Serena Williams, being there for some of their most private moments?
Michelle Major: The overwhelming feeling is that you’re perhaps seeing things that you shouldn’t be and that you’re intruding on someone else’s life. As time went on, they trusted that we weren’t going to put in some embarrassing shot. The traveling part isn’t so romantic. I’m making a film, not trying to become their best friend. If you get too emotionally involved with your characters, it can be dangerous in terms of telling a powerful story.
HLN: Did you develop a friendship with them?
MM: We definitely did -- I adore them and loved being a fly on the wall and hanging out with them. They’re really funny! They’re at the top of their game and they know others at the top of the game, so there’s always someone interesting coming by. Under any other circumstances, I’d love to be their friend, but I worked really hard to be their documentary filmmaker, not their friend. I wouldn’t just call them up today. During the filming, I never called them directly on the phone. We’d go to film them singing karaoke at a club, and I’d join in at karaoke, but I’m always doing a job. I always try to make sure everyone on my team is being professional.
HLN: What’s the hardest part about being a documentary filmmaker?
MM: Raising money for the project. And getting the subjects to agree to do the film -- they may not want to share their story. They see reality TV shows and they don’t want be a reality TV show character. It’s hard to persuade people to let you into their lives. Once you’ve persuaded them, it’s hard to get people to give you money that they probably won't make too much money on. It took us three years from the first phone call to even meet with Venus, let alone get her to agree to do the film.
HLN: How do you keep going after what seems like a lot of rejection?
MM: You have to know that when people tell you no, it's temporary. Yes is coming soon -- you just have to find the right angle and different reasons why they should let go of their money. Keep coming up to people -- eventually someone will agree.
HLN: So if the money doesn’t come right away, do you have to have another job to supplement your income?
MM: Yes. I started working on documentaries right out of college and quickly realized that I couldn’t pay my rent and eat at the same time (I don’t come from money). So I started working for Peter Jennings Reporting, his documentary unit at ABC. I was quite fortunate to work on projects in that department and learn the craft of hard news. [After a series of jobs in the news industry], I came together with a friend from ABC to work on an independent project, "Venus and Serena." I still had a job at that time -- a very demanding job -- but would reach out to them intermittently and attempt to get people on board.
HLN: Is it less challenging now that you are only working on the documentary?
MM: It’s quite enjoyable to take credit for the work that you’ve done and to realize that it’s pretty much all you. It feels great, and no one has to approve the content but me. But with it, you carry a lot of responsibility -- now you’re specifically responsible for other people’s money, and you’re the only one responsible.
HLN: What’s the biggest complaint your family makes about your job?
MM: No one understands why I work so much. "Do you have to go to Italy to do that story right now? Oh I guess you’re too busy." I get that a lot. But my partner is incredibly supportive -- he doesn’t say that at all. [When you’re filming], you’re on the road the whole year -- so friends just drop off because you’re never around or available to hang out. If you are around, all you want to do is sleep.
HLN: How many hours a day do you work when filming?
MM: More than 12 hours. You start at 7 a.m., call time is at 8 a.m., and you work until midnight. But there’s a lot of waiting around -- we don’t know when things are going to happen or we need to take a break.
HLN: What was your favorite part of working on this film?
MM: When I get all of the footage in and start thinking about putting the story together. It’s a long process -- you work with an editor who watches every single minute of the footage and pulls out amazing scenes that you may have forgotten. That’s the most fun for me. The whole reason I decided to work on documentaries is because I love storytelling: Telling real stories about real people to educate you and help you to grow.
HLN: What’s next for you?
MM: I'm already working on about three projects, and they're all documentaries. I've never considered myself a sports documentarian, but they’re all sports stories. They’re all amazing -- how hard the athletes have to work to be at the top of their game.
Venus and Serena opens in theaters on May 10 and is currently available on demand.