From a darkened bedroom to an enlightening ride, a Q&A with 'Serena' director Ryan White
NEW YORK -- Serena Williams didn't want to talk with Ryan White. At all.
That was a problem for White, the director of "Serena," the EPIX documentary that debuts Wednesday night. It was days after the US Open -- the one in which Williams famously, devastatingly lost to Roberta Vinci two matches shy of a historic calendar Grand Slam -- and White had sent Williams a simple text: "I'm really sorry," it read. "I'm in New York and I'm staying here and I'm ready to talk to you when you're ready."
And then he waited.
That conversation would finally come days later at Serena's home in Florida. In her darkened bedroom, the curtains pulled tight against a bright September sun. It's a moment that White, 34, calls "the most important part of the film."
There are many important parts of the documentary, which details Serena's 2015 season starting at the French Open, when White first began following her. Little did either of them know when they signed on for the project with producer Peter Berg that Serena's season would become the most talked-about story of the year in tennis, if not sports.
We see Serena in practice with her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, during her grueling and illness-ridden run at Roland Garros last year. We see her and Venus the day before their Wimbledon battle, at home hanging out in sweats. We see Serena chatting with a US Open driver in what turns out to be one of the more touching and unexpected scenes of the film.
White said he wanted to show people the other side of Serena because: "I don't think she sees herself and defines herself as a tennis player, as prolific as that part of her life has been." He does so in an opening scene, in which Serena is taking part in an aerial hoop dance class and rips her pants (in the behind, mind you) doing a routine to Aladdin's "A Whole New World." She bursts into laughter -- a laughter that White calls "infectious" -- and says, "Did my pants just rip?" And then, with determination: "The show must go on!"
The day after the film's premiere at SVA Theatre in New York City on June 13, White sat down to speak exclusively with espnW about Serena, his approach, that heart-tugging driver from the US Open, and more. Over iced coffees at Bodega Negra in the Dream Hotel in Chelsea, White was candid about how he dealt with Serena's return to Indian Wells and -- above all else -- that loss to Vinci.
espnW: Ryan, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Let's start on the lighter side of Serena. Why showcase it?
Ryan White: It was important to her that that was a part of the film, as well. She didn't want this to be all about the tennis player. When you're around her you're having fun -- I had a blast with her. So much of that didn't make the final cut, but we tried to give a balance of what she is like off of the court. There was a gymnastics class I filmed in the weeks leading up to the US Open, and Serena was doing crazy double flips off of a trampoline at full speed. I remember saying to her that the US Open was in two or three weeks and she was like, "I would not still be playing tennis if I wasn't doing stuff like this. This is what keeps me having fun."
espnW: How hard was that balance to find? You're trying to show this side of Serena that few people know, yet on the court she is trying to do something so historical, so it's all about her tennis at the same time.
White: It was not all fun and games; it was an intense year. I will never forget at the French Open -- at which point I barely knew her -- that we just hit the ground running. After the first round she had no easy match and the tournament became so grueling, and then she got sick. There was no time to get to know each other. She walked off the court of the French Open, and I was in this tunnel and it happened to be the two of us and I said to her, "You just gave us the most dramatic beginning to a film that we could have asked for." Serena has a way -- and I don't think it's conscious -- of delivering drama. That is very cinematic. ... I was a lucky filmmaker.
espnW: As a tennis journalist, I felt like Serena's return to Indian Wells in 2015 was as big if not bigger than the pursuit of the Grand Slam. You didn't start filming with her until after, at the French Open, so how did you end up working it into the film?
White: I feel like Indian Wells is its own film; I wish someone had made a film about it. When you're editing you start to speak in rudimentary terms, and we call the section "controversy." We bookended it with Indian Wells, beginning there in 2001 and ending there last year. That is still hard for Serena to talk about. I asked her many times to talk about Indian Wells and she would say, "It's not the time. I'll do it at some point." We waited until the end to talk about it -- it's hard for her to talk about. ... That was a hard scene to edit. I was so young when 2001 happened. It was uncomfortable to go back and watch. I didn't understand it fully.
I'm making a vérité film -- I'm a fly on the wall. I didn't want to try and piece together other people's footage from Indian Wells in 2015. If I could have been there -- I was begging to start the film in Indian Wells because we were in discussion with her team -- I would have.
espnW: How much did the film change -- for better or for worse -- after that loss to Roberta Vinci at the US Open? You probably thought you were headed for a different ending before that match.
White: I think the film is much more cinematic because of the Vinci loss. I think it's a better film and a better story because of what happened at the US Open. I hate saying that because I was devastated for Serena because I know how devastated she was, but I think even she recognizes that now. She sees how important that was to portray what she really went through.
It was not easy to get Serena to talk about that. Serena went AWOL. I sent her a text a couple of hours after she lost and I just waited. That was the last conversation Serena wanted to have. I said, 'Talk to me about why you don't want to talk about this.' That's when we had the conversation in the bed. That was a few days after the loss, back in Florida. ... She understood that we had to have that conversation, but I had to persist a lot in having it. I sat in her bed with her and we talked about it, and it was raw and grueling and it was the last thing that she ever wanted to talk about. But I also think that was the most important part of the film. In the end, that's probably the toughest defeat of her entire career.
Everyone who asked me about the film who knew nothing about tennis would say, 'Didn't Serena just lose something?' And it would make me so mad because she won everything else. She had the best year in tennis of any player in 30 years and all you know is that she lost something. That's why I made the ending of the film the way that I did is because I wanted to remind people -- including Serena -- what an incredible year and career she has had. That loss should not be the takeaway.
espnW: So you mentioned earlier that you watched the film with Serena. Tell me about that.
White: She was physically uncomfortable watching it. The whole third act is about the US Open, so she was writhing. When the film ended, she got up and gave me a hug and said, "That was quite the journey that we went on, wasn't it?" And then she had to go.
The only thing that Serena asked me to change was the Victoria Azarenka score from the French Open. I had gotten it wrong on the graphic. She said, "Victoria got more games off of me."
espnW: You were quite a tennis fan growing up, too, right?
White: Yes ... I actually feel so spoiled having been a part of Serena's team for a year. I would get so angry at myself because I would have these amazing tickets to all of the matches and I would be in the players' lounge editing footage, watching what I had. I would have to remind myself, "This is your childhood dream!" ... But I nerded out at the beginning. My eyes were wide open.
espnW: Where did this originate? How did you get involved with the project?
White: Pete Berg is the executive producer and he and Serena are friends. He's a big Hollywood director, "Friday Night Lights," "Battleship," etc. He's really into documentaries, and I knew him and the company. I had been talking to them back in the day and then we connected through a friend of mine. I got a call from Pete asking me if I was interested and I thought it was a joke. There is no other tennis story I would want to tell. I have to be really moved by something to want to work on it. It was the perfect storm.
espnW: We get to know Serena's "team" so well -- her agent, her coach, her family, her assistants -- in the film, as well.
White: I'm drawn to characters, and Serena is an amazing character, but there is a whole cast of them in Serena's life. Jill [Smoller] is a beautiful disaster. I love her. Can you imagine being Serena's agent and having someone like me around asking for access all the time? Serena is always surrounded by people -- she is never alone. That can be a nightmare for a documentary filmmaker because all you want is these quiet moments. Some of the only quiet moments you get with her is when she is getting treatment with the physio.
espnW: You actually use that time with the physio to showcase Serena's body and spur discussion about it in the film, as well.
White: I didn't want to knock people over the head with it, but I could for the rest of my life be with Serena in the training room. It's an art form to watch. Flo [her masseur] told me that he had never met someone who knew their body so well.
espnW: The one person we don't hear from directly ...
espnW: Yes. Right. Talk about that challenge. I didn't feel like she was missing, but I thought often, "What about Venus?" It seems like that was a challenge for you -- Venus.
White: Very different from Serena, yes. And Venus is very private. Venus does not love the camera. But I was making a film about Serena -- it is called "Serena." It wasn't a documentary about Venus and Serena. It was important for me never to do sit-down interviews with Venus about her sister, Serena. I wanted it to come organically. She played Venus twice last year and it was devastating for both of them. I wanted Venus to be in the film through the lens of Serena's year. They allowed me to come over the day before they played at Wimbledon; they were just hanging out at Venus'. I'm very thankful Venus let me do that. Venus knew why I was doing it, she knew I was making a film about Serena and that they were playing the next day. That was such a private moment between them. That was a moment just watching two sisters, Serena tackling her at the end.
espnW: To me the realest moment in the film is the US Open courtesy car driver who Serena chats with, and then you get him in the car talking about her, and he's so raw, so earnest. He says, "A lot of times, being African American, we can lack a certain confidence. She is a great example ... of, you know, if you put your will to it, you can do anything you want to do." Can you tell me a little bit about that and him?
White: It's one of my favorite moments in the film, too. It's interesting because I saw that happen time and again with Serena. She will intersect someone's life for a second or minutes and then I will watch how that person is affected after she moves on, and it's incredible to see. She is such a historical figure, a force. She doesn't have the time to digest what those moments mean to those people.
What I saw in the car was something special happening for that man that she probably didn't even realize. Those are long car rides from the US Open to Manhattan. Once she left the car -- he was so nervous to ask her for a picture, but she did -- but I told her I would be up to her hotel room in a little bit. It was very important to me to find organic moments to bring up larger themes of Serena's career and life. He, to me, was the perfect example. That man was an old sage. We talked for 45 minutes. ... I whittled that down. There was something about him that just felt so wise.
When she watched the scene, Serena was so moved by it. She has so many interactions like that that she wouldn't have remembered his name. He said to me, "This is the best moment of my entire life." Imagine having the power to do that? She has that.