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'Venus and Serena' screens in Toronto without sisters

Venus and Serena Williams, reportedly unhappy with a documentary of their lives, are no-shows at its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

September 12, 2012|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
  • Tennis superstars Venus, left, and Serena Williams in a scene from the movie documentary, "Venus & Serena." Toronto International Film Festival
Tennis superstars Venus, left, and Serena Williams in a scene from the movie… (Toronto International…)

TORONTO — The new documentary "Venus and Serena" is the distillation of 450 hours of footage shot by ABC News veterans Maiken Baird and Michelle Major about the private lives of Venus and Serena Williams. Considered some of the world's most fiercely private athletes, the tennis superstars gave the directors unprecedented access to shoot in their homes, hotels and even hospital rooms over the course of a year.

Yet the film has become a source of disagreement between the subjects and the filmmakers, with the Williams sisters choosing not to attend the documentary's world premiere Tuesday evening at the Toronto International Film Festival.

"Venus and Serena" looks at the rise of the two Compton natives to the pinnacle of their sport, their lives behind the scenes and the colorful personalities who have been part of that rise. It is largely complimentary to the sisters, showing their work ethic, their playful side (such as home karaoke parties) and their fight against injuries over the 2011 tennis season.

FULL COVERAGE: Toronto International Film Festival 2012

But it also explores many of father Richard Williams' foibles — including his out-of-wedlock children, his penchant for interrupting his daughters' interviewer from off-camera and a 78-page manifesto in which he plotted out the careers of his daughters when they were in elementary school.

Shortly after the Williamses watched the film last month, they raised concerns to the director about its content, according to Major, though the filmmaker declined to specify the nature of the objections.

But a person familiar with the exchange who was not authorized to speak about it publicly said the complaints came mainly from Venus, who did not like how their father was portrayed.

PHOTOS: Toronto International Film Festival 2012

A back-and-forth followed, with the filmmakers tweaking the movie to address the Williamses' concerns. But the parties were unable to find common ground.

"I'm disappointed the sisters didn't like everything that was being shown, because we really set out to tell a true story that was very inspiring," Major said.

Reached by phone, Venus' manager Carlos Fleming said that he and his client felt the filmmakers did the best job they could "under the circumstances," calling it "an ambitious story to tell for any filmmaker, and we feel like anyone who would try to tell would find it challenging."

He disputed the notion that Venus did not show up to the premiere owing to an objection with the film, citing a "scheduling conflict" with a Fashion Week event his client had in New York on Wednesday. The event, though, was known to Venus' camp, having already committed to Toronto several months ago; in fact, the festival had moved the screening to Tuesday to accommodate it.

The news comes just several days after Serena won her fourth U.S. Open singles title, which was expected to give the premiere a celebratory air; indeed, she has been making press appearances in the wake of the tournament, appearing Monday on NBC's " Late Night With Jimmy Fallon."

Serena's agent, Jill Smoller, did not reply to a request for comment.

The disagreement highlights an issue particular to the era of the tightly controlled superstar athlete: Athletes want a top-tier filmmaker to document their legacy, but don't necessarily want to give up the control that a top-tier filmmaker tends to require.

And "Venus and Serena" has an estimable pedigree. It is executive produced by Oscar winner Alex Gibney, and Baird produced Gibney's well-regarded Eliot Spitzer documentary, "Client 9."

Baird and Major have long been fascinated by the Williamses as tennis and public personalities. They wooed the Williamses for nearly four years — no serious long-form documentary had ever been done on the sisters — before convincing them to participate.

Major said that neither sister asked for any preconditions before filming began.

The Williamses' absence could be felt acutely at the Tuesday screening. A red carpet was sparsely populated and, though there was some applause after the film, the room lacked the energy of a star-driven event.

The low-key atmosphere was a blow to the film, which is seeking theatrical and television distribution in Toronto. It was also a blow to the festival, which had initially hoped for a glitzy screening populated by two of North America's most popular celebrities.

Thom Powers, who runs the festival's documentary section, told The Times that "It's normal for someone who has a film made about them to be uncomfortable about what's being shown. But it's disappointing that the Williams sisters didn't want to take the opportunity to see how the audience here could embrace it. I hope they change their mind at future festivals."

At the moment, though, there are no other events planned, though Baird said that media personalities such as Graydon Carter and Anna Wintour have expressed interest in throwing parties for the film.

Major said she believed she and Baird were in a no-win situation given the Williamses desire to tightly control their image, as well as the general difficulty of seeing oneself on screen.

"To be honest, I'm not sure if they would have ever liked everything we were showing," she said.

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steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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