Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton may not be the only husband-wife directing team making movies, but they ARE the only Oscar-nominated husband-wife directing team thanks to their 2006 debut Little Miss Sunshine.They say that marriage is hard, but making movies is harder, and the duo have figured out a way to direct hundreds of music videos together before even tackling that Sundance favorite.
They’re also the perfect directors to tackle Fox Searchlight’s Battle of the Sexes. On the surface, it’s about the famous 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, as played by Emma Stone and Steve Carell, but the movie also covers what was going on with the tennis champs off the court. King was dealing with her newfound sexuality and Riggs was close to losing his family over his gambling problem.
Battle of the Sexes opens today in select cities following its premieres at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals, but the Tracking Board had a chance to speak with the duo on the phone last week.
I guess I don’t know much about this movie, whether it was in development for a long time or a script that had been around. How did you end up getting involved?
Jonathan Dayton: Well, there was a script. You know, it’s funny, there were three different projects about this match bubbling around town. Simon Beaufoy wrote a script about it, and we read it, loved it, jumped on it, and immediately attached Steve and Emma.
Valerie Faris: Which helped us…
Jonathan: Once we cast Steve and Emma, it kind of ended those other projects…
Valerie: Because Emma and Steve were so perfect for it.
Jonathan: Everyone kind of knew, okay, they’re going to be the ones to make this. So we were very fortunate.
Valerie: We’re not sure. We haven’t talked to them about it, but I think that’s what happened.
Was it really obvious that Emma and Steve were the perfect actors to portray Billie Jean and Bobby?
Jonathan: Well, no. Emma is such a great actress. She was very interested in the role, but we sat down with her, and we talked to her about how we saw the movie, and that we would need her to really work on her tennis, and work on her just general size. She was a dancer, so she’s very coordinated, but she needed to transform herself. We had to wait awhile for her to finish La La Land, and then she trained for four months and completely committed herself to transforming her body. She gained 15 pounds of muscle, and really became a pro athlete in her whole physique.
What about Steve? Did he have to go through similar training or was that not as crucial for him to do that since Bobby was a little out of shape having semi-retired?
Valerie: Well, Steve played tennis, but he didn’t play at the same level or Bobby Riggs’ style of tennis. He trained with Lornie Kuhle, who was Bobby Riggs’ coach and training staff, as well as his closest friend. He not only worked with him on his tennis, but he also got to hear all of these stories about Bobby and the stuff he used to.. the hijincks he used to play. He got a real sense of Bobby’s character from Lornie, and Steve loved it, I don’t know how often you get to…
Jonathan: Yeah, Steve said he’s never been able to have so much time to prepare for a role. And going back to your original question, I think that both actors bring so much to their parts. Both are great at the comedic moments, but also can really deliver on the drama in the story. There aren’t many people who can do it all, and so, we were very lucky to have them.
Valerie: I think people have such a love for both of them as actors and as people. Billie Jean has that same quality as we’ve now done a few appearances with her at film festivals, it’s just incredible to feel the public’s support for her. Emma has that also.
Was Billie Jean involved or able to contribute or consult at all on the film, either before you started shooting or while you were shooting it?
Jonathan: Yeah, absolutely. She was a consultant on the movie; this is officially sanctioned and endorsed by her. She spent a lot of time with Simon Beaufoy, the writer, and then we met with her a number of times and talked to her about events in the movie. It was a very particular situation where we were telling the story of one year in her life. It was a very hard year for her, and it was hard for her to look back on some of the events of 1973. She had put them behind her, and she told us she hadn’t seen the match in 25 years. The whole reason we wanted to tell this story really was that we wanted to show what was happening in the personal lives of Billie Jean and Bobby during this time.
I have some idea how old you are, but did you actually get to see the match or the frenzy surrounding it?
Jonathan: Neither one of us watched it, but we were very aware of it at the time. Really what’s interesting about this match is that it was a big deal in 1973, but it continued to be this thing that was this marker of women holding up against chauvinism.
Valerie: That, and I think it’s come to symbolize Billie Jean’s fight for Title IX, and for her equal pay. I feel like the match, in retrospect, just became even more important.
There are a lot of great characters around the duo, including Andrea Riseborough, who I didn’t recognize at all as Marilyn, and this isn’t the first time that’s happened. She really looks and sounds completely different. What made you think of her to play Marilyn?
Jonathan: Well, we’ve loved her work for years and she was the first person we thought of. Because, She does disappear, and we wanted just someone who could meet Emma’s Billie Jean, and really hold her own, and be this intriguing character.
Valerie: She’s kind of like an outsider. She is a little like the Yoko Ono of this movie and the group. Andrea has that quality, there’s something mysterious about her, and yet there’s just an absolute lack of ego or vanity. We liked her as a person. What we’re casting to is who is the person at their core. There is something about who they are, especially in this movie when you know the real people. There’s an interesting vibration that happens between the person you’re casting and the real person that you know. She just felt so right, and Billie Jean has said that was perfect casting. So we got her vote of approval.
I couldn’t remember if she and Emma had many scenes in “Birdman,” but I know Emma and Steve worked together in “Crazy, Stupid Love.” Was it just kind of coincidence that they both ended up working together again?
Jonathan: It wasn’t so much … We were aware that … It’s funny, in both movies, Steve and Emma, and Emma and Andrea, didn’t do that many scenes together, but they respected each other. We knew there could be chemistry. You’re always looking for that chemistry. It’s an elusive thing. You meet with actors, and you don’t audition many of them. You have to just know that it’s right. We love our cast, I’ll just say that. That’s one of the things I’m most proud of, just how we were able to put together this ensemble. The original nine, all those women, are so interesting. And Fred Armisen, and Bill Pullman…
Valerie: Sarah Silverman.
Jonathan: Sarah Silverman. Elizabeth Shue. There is a lot of really substantive, substantial, people.
I really liked how all the characters interact, so it’s not always just about Billy Jean or Bobby Riggs. Was that obvious in Simon’s screenplay that this could be more of an ensemble piece?
Jonathan: We worked with Simon to really weave together some of the story, and I think when we first got the script, the relationship between Marilyn and Billie Jean, wasn’t as developed as it became.
Valerie: It made it a little more central, and maybe added a little more of the original nine into the film. They had a huge part in what Billie Jean was doing, so we felt like they needed a little more attention.
Jonathan: Obviously, Billie Jean is at the center of this. But with any kind of progress, there are a lot of people who make it happen. Sarah Silverman’s Gladys was a pivotal character, who really made that tour work.
Valerie: And bigger than life personality. Gladys, literally, was not an exaggeration. Her personality was … she was a real force. She used to run a woman’s tennis magazine, and she did everything for the magazine, and when she sold the magazine, she said, “They had to hire six men to replace me.” She was a very liberated and powerful woman.
How was it recreating the match and also just the ’70s setting in general?
Jonathan: It was hard. We made a very conscious decision at the beginning not to have a nostalgic look at the ’70s, and not play up that we were looking back. We wanted it to feel like a contemporary view, where this film is made in 1973, where you feel the events unfolding with no sense of where it might go. The Fox logo is the 1973 version, and there are no CG graphics, at the start. It’s really as if the film was shot then.
Have you two figured out what you might want to do next yet? You’ve had other projects in development over the years, so is there anything you want to go back to?
Jonathan: We have a bunch of things in the works. We’re not sure which one will actually be next. It’s always a huge commitment when you work on something like this, so you have to really be careful what you choose, because it’s two or three years of your life.
Sure, and part of the job is once the movie is done is having to go out there and promote the film and get people interested in watching it. It’s a different part of the job nowadays, because there’s so much competition.
Jonathan: That’s where you come in.
Valerie: Thank you for helping us.
Jonathan: But seriously, it is really important that writers can help expand the dialogue beyond the movie, so we appreciate your interest.
Battle of the Sexes is now playing in select cities, and will expand to other cities in the coming weeks
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor