There’s something that seems effortless about Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ buoyant, slickly entertaining period sports drama, Battle of the Sexes.
But it can’t be easy to turn a complex real-life tale into a Hollywood crowd-pleaser. From the well-modulated period trappings to the trenchant script to the complex and convincing performances of Emma Stone (likely to contend for another Oscar) as women’s tennis pioneer Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as former tennis champion and master showman Bobby Riggs, the choices the filmmakers have made demonstrate a formidable talent for engaging an audience.
At the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film premiered, we spoke with Dayton and Faris (whose previous films are Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks) about the process of writing, casting, and editing the film, the story’s current relevance, and how they recreated the titular event.
Josh Ralske, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How did this project come to you?
Jonathan Dayton (JD): Fox Searchlight brought it to us, but they had originally begun with Danny Boyle and his team, [producer] Christian Colson and [screenwriter] Simon Beaufoy, and they developed a first draft of the script. They then came to us with it.
Valerie Faris (VF): Danny left to do Trainspotting 2. We took it on in February 2015 and worked with Simon for about a year on it. Emma was the first person we met with. They knew she was interested and they were interested in her. We had met with her before.
JD: We had wanted to find a project to work with Emma on.
VF: It was challenging for her, which she likes. That’s what she wants to do now in her career. This was a challenging role playing a real-life character who is very involved in the project. Getting Emma and Steve on board and discussing where we wanted to take it with them as well as Simon and Christian. We made a number of changes and made it our own. A lot of the structure was already there, but we worked a little bit more focusing in on this cast of characters.
JD: We remember the event, but what really intrigued us were the things we hadn’t heard about before. Particularly about Billie Jean’s relationship to Marilyn. The idea that she’s under this intense scrutiny and having her first relationship with a woman…
VF: And fighting for equal pay. She was really putting herself out there and risking a lot professionally. Then also having her personal life face all this upheaval.
MM: The film really conveys that well, the personal and professional pressure that was on her.
JD: She talks a lot about how she was incredibly confused at the time, and I think that it’s important when you take someone who is celebrated like she is, and deservedly, but sometimes those moments where you’re actually taking action, they are messy, and you don’t really understand how much what you are doing is going to change things.
VF: Emma has said it and we felt it, talking to Billie Jean now, she looks back at the time and has a different perspective. We really wanted to look at it as if it were the present and you were in it, and what it was like to be going through it. Looking back, you can make new assumptions about the impact it had, but at the time she was just fighting for woman’s tennis and women in general. She was really upset Bobby was going to ridicule women’s tennis.
JD: Even in this ridiculous way.
VF: It could do damage.
MM: I remember being a kid watching it with my parents. They were rooting for Billie Jean, but I didn’t have any sense of its importance. There are details I didn’t know about—that she was married at the time, for example. You capture that it’s not so simple as finding yourself, and that it was a complicated situation for everyone involved.
JD: Billie Jean continues to love Larry [King, her husband at the time]. Larry is a really important figure in her life. It was really a matter of there not being clear bad guys. Obviously, the movie has a point of view, but we wanted to honor the complexity of the situation.
VF: And how gender and sexuality are complex, period. Especially when you come from a conservative family. Her parents were very conservative, homophobic. She describes herself as being homophobic. So, to have to come to terms with something about yourself that maybe goes against the way you were raised is very brave. Personally brave, and the parallels between personal change and political change are interesting. Having gone through that and understand something about herself maybe empowered her to become more of an advocate later in life.
MM: You said that Billie Jean King was very involved in the film.
JD: She was. She worked very closely with Simon initially. Then there was a point after meeting her and having a conversation about the project, we all had to distance ourselves while we made it. Today she is a fully formed wise warrior but back then she was a 29-year-old in turmoil. We could never meet that 29-year-old so we had to keep a little distance. We couldn’t have her be fully formed; she was evolving at this time.
VF: Luckily, she is so busy it wasn’t that hard to keep her away. There was really only one day she was available so she couldn’t hang around the set.
JD: But she was really helpful in talking to Emma. Emma really got her essence very quickly. Emma spent a lot of time studying footage and interviews of Billie Jean and really understanding who she was in this period.
VF: The benefit of having the entire match to watch. What was that for her? How did she carry herself throughout that match? It was fascinating to watch because you couldn’t get inside. This amazing strength. Bobby broke down a little more. That was a very important part of the story. Getting to know Bobby. The script had a lot of his personal life, but when we did the research, in watching the interviews with him, he was a fascinating and smart guy. He wasn’t really a gambler. He even says it. “I’m not a gambler; I never lose.” He’s a…
JD: He’s a hustler.
VF: He’s a hustler. He was really smart about who he would bet against.
JD: But you know when we began work on this, it was before the election. We knew that Hillary would run, but we didn’t know who her opponent would be. As time went on and things evolved, it was clear it was going to be Trump. It wasn’t lost on us that some of the circus-like atmosphere of the election was mirrored in the silliness of the match. While Billie Jean is the focus of the movie, Bobby is really important to study in these times. We wanted to keep his complexity. He was a man who felt the world had passed him by. He was a champion in 1939 and won the Triple Crown at Wimbledon. Then the war broke out and he felt like he never got his moment. There he was, this middle-aged man lost in an office tower wondering, “What’s going to happen to me?” So that struggle for relevance in the face of the frustrating career path feels really relevant in today’s world.
VF: What we saw in Bobby, and I don’t see this parallel in our current president, is this vulnerability. When we watched the match, there’s this sadness to him when he realizes he’s not going to win. She’s killing him. There was this real sadness. I think that’s what we love about Steve—he brings this level of vulnerability and depth to the character that could have been a much more two-dimensional character. Bobby was so interesting to watch.
MM: He’s not a hateful character.
VF: No, he’s not. He just saw an opportunity to kind of mock the chauvinism at the time.
JD: Both Steve and Emma trained for four months. Steve worked with Lornie Kuhle who was Bobby’s trainer.
VF: He’s in the movie a little bit.
JD: He’s in his 70s now. Steve trained every day playing tennis and learning about Bobby’s persona.
MM: There’s also this establishment behind him that is much more officially hostile towards the progress of women’s equality that’s very relevant in today’s culture, particularly with Trump. It’s unfortunate.
VF: Yes, it is. It’s a mixed blessing.
JD: It’s not what we planned. We cast Bill Pullman as Kramer and again, didn’t want to make him an immediate villain. So much of the dialogue in the movie is word for word what they said at the time. We didn’t make up Howard Cosell’s dialogue. He is the voice of the times, and you can see built into his commentary a certain level of chauvinism.
VF: Defending the patriarchy. He’s like, “Oh, poor Bobby.” [laughs]
MM: This condescension.
VF: That she looks like a movie star.
JD: Or she could be a movie star.
VF: Like that’s every girl’s dream is to be a movie star.
JD: Never talking about her as an athlete—
VF: —as a world-class athlete. Boosting Bobby throughout.
JD: Going back to what you began with, which I appreciate, we wanted to entertain. That was always a goal. While doing that we wanted to infuse as much richness and compassion for…
VF: For the characters. Both characters really. We like to love our characters. It’s just the way we come at it, from that angle. It was important that as much as you are rooting for Billie Jean, I think hopefully it’s a little sad to see Bobby…
MM: You see his humanity.
VF: The day before he died, Billie Jean and Bobby talked on the phone and he said to her, “We really did it, didn’t we?” I think they shared in that moment and through the rest of their lives, there was this connection, and in some way, he felt he helped the cause. He brought attention to the cause. I think he actually did do something.
MM: He also enhanced his own celebrity.
JD: Oh yeah!
VF: The Odd Couple.
JD: You can see The Odd Couple where he starred. Earlier on, he watched how Muhammad Ali would talk about his boxing matches and a light went on. It’s all about the rap. By developing this public chauvinist persona—and I’m not saying he didn’t feel it to some degree—he saw he could get a lot of attention and people would be galvanized by it.
VF: Seems to work still.
JD & VF: [Awkwardly laugh]
MM: It must have been difficult to pare down the story. How much was editing and how much was pre-production in script development?
JD: It’s a good question.
VF: All along the way.
JD: We worked a lot with Simon, the screenwriter, to just focus the story on some of the elements that were most meaningful to us. That’s one of his gifts; he is a great structure guy. I personally find it very pleasing to go between the two stories. I think if I were only in Bobby’s world or only in Billie Jean’s world I might not enjoy it in the same way, but being able to cross cut—and he is very good at structure—we kept seeing how much we could take out and still have our essential story.
VF: We cut about three of four scenes in the edit. We were always paring it down in pre-production and while we were shooting. There were just a lot of characters and a lot going on. Then when you get great actors into these roles, so much is communicated without it having to be said.
JD: With just a glance.
VF: It was fun. We always talk about it like Jenga.
JD: How much before it collapses?
MM: I’m a big Sarah Silverman fan, so I was happy to see her.
JD: I know! Good! She took this on, and I think everyone felt an obligation to their character and Gladys [Heldman, who founded the Virginia Slims women’s tennis tour] is no longer alive but her daughter is. Gladys was a very important figure in the women’s tennis world.
VF: Real dynamo.
JD: Simon wrote these very tricky, cool, and fun monologues. Just when she is coming in: “Ladies and gentle ladies…” She worked really hard to get that swagger.
VF: And get it right. And it’s funny her daughter who we also meet with and also consulted with—
JD: —Gladys’ daughter—
VF: —Julie Heldman, who is also depicted in the movie. When Julie heard we were casting Sarah Silverman she said, “That is perfect casting,” and that’s her mother.
JD: Sarah’s a great actress.
VF: She’s so good, such a pro. I think that was part of casting Alan [Cumming] as Ted Tinling. Ted Tinling is a really interesting character as well. He was an English spy in World War II and then a tennis historian. He loves tennis.
MM: This is a bigger production than you two have worked on before.
VF: Bigger, but it still felt like a low-budget movie.
JD: The great thing about Fox Searchlight is that if you can deliver something for a price, they give you a lot of freedom. This is sort of their sweet spot.
VF: What they do.
JD: Creating an event with 30,000 people.
VF: Thirty thousand people that were there at the Astrodome, which doesn’t exist anymore.
JD: We actually took the original broadcast and we cut it down before we started shooting. And we made what we thought would be our sequence. We put music to it and shaped it so we knew what it might be like when we went to shoot it.
VF: What the beats of it were. But our editor Pam Martin also is a tennis player. She was great at being strict about like, “Oh no, that’s not a good point. That serve was bad.” She was really scrutinizing all the plays.
MM: It’s convincing.
VF: It’s all real.
JD: It’s real. There are no computer-generated balls. We make a real point that you are in their personal lives throughout the movie. Then when Billie Jean comes out of that tunnel we go to the broadcast. And we stay in that broadcast until she is in her locker room. We return to the person. But we wanted the sense of what the world was seeing.
VF: All eyes on me.
JD: The public spectacle and, for that matter, the public shaming that we talked about as the fall of the patriarchy. That Bobby was going to go through this, and we wanted to see what it was like to watch it then. MM
Battle of the Sexes opened for limited release on September 22, 2017, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox. Photos by Melinda Sue Gordon, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.