The plan was to meet Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris – the directors of Battle of the Sexes, who lit the world on fire with their directorial debut 11 years ago, Little Miss Sunshine – at a hotel restaurant in Toronto. I had gotten there a little early (as it turns out, the Toronto subway system is much better than New York’s) and asked for a table that was away from other people, since I needed to record all of this. There were two small tables in the corner, so I asked if we could have one of those. The restaurant host hemmed and hawed for a while, finally asking someone if this was okay.
I mention all of this to give you a taste of what covering a film festival is like. I sat at this out of the way table for about five minutes, then in walks Benedict Cumberbatch and sits down right next to be at the other table. And there we sat, with me trying to pretend I didn’t realize who he was. And not to “play it cool,” but more so he wouldn’t think I would try to talk to him, because no one needs that.
What’s funny is, once Dayton and Faris showed up, it would look to the observer like I was interviewing the two of them and Cumberbatch, who is not at all in their movie. It was an odd thing, but this is what happens at festivals. (Part of me thought about trying to introduce them, maybe get something cooking between them! Then I decided this would only be embarrassing.)
Battle of the Sexes, which is only Dayton and Faris’ third film, chronicles both the famous 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and King’s own internal struggles with her sexuality. But what Dayton and Faris didn’t quite realize at the time is that they were also making a movie about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The parallels are undeniable: Riggs goes around saying the most awful things (to be fair to Riggs, he openly admitted it was an act) but the audiences eat it up, which is disturbing. And, as the directing duo discusses ahead, they definitely see these parallels, too – even though, at the time, that wasn’t the full intent. But here we are.
When I was watching this movie, I could not stop thinking about Trump and Hilary. Was that on your mind?
Valerie Faris: Well, Hilary was when we started. And then as we were making it – really, this started in the beginning of 2015.
Jonathan Dayton: So, long before he was the candidate. But man versus woman, in the political arena that we knew was ahead of us, was definitely on our mind. We didn’t know that Trump would be the candidate for the Republican Party, and obviously he ended up being quite Bobby Riggs-ian. You know, I wish he was as benign as Riggs.
Faris: I mean, so many people thought this is never going to happen, until the day of, really.
I couldn’t help but notice was were the people who were listening to Bobby Riggs going, “Well, he’s got some interesting ideas.”
Dayton: Exactly, that he was voicing these outrageous thoughts…
Faris: And people were eating it up.
And he looked like he was feeding off of it. And that seems familiar.
Faris: Maybe it was more — well, actually, I don’t know. They’re both in it for personal gain, I guess.
Dayton: Yeah. So it wasn’t intentional, but our goal was to replicate the forces of the time, which seem to be still very much in play today. So it was as shocking to us as to anyone.
Right after the match, there’s a sign that says “Billie Jean for President.”
Faris: Yeah. I know, it’s so crazy.
Dayton: What’s fun about this is that you just continue to mime what actually happened. And then that takes on a life of its own. But all that was there.
But in a way, okay, it’s very unfortunate everything turned out the way it did, but for your movie —
Faris: [Laughs.] I don’t want to even say that.
Dayton: Yeah. It’s all about us. Yeah.
With all this context, watching the final match, I found myself getting emotional. I wanted him to lose so bad.
Faris: We were joking about it is kind of a wish fulfillment that happens as you’re watching. I’m like, oh, what if that happened? But unfortunately… It was funny, we had a preview before the election. It was a really early preview, like a year ago. And the movie went over really well and we were happy with the response. We had none of the effects or anything in it. But it scored okay. Then we continued to work on it and we previewed it after the election, and it was just like the energy in the room changed, you know? It was really interesting.
A lot of movies played differently after.
Faris: Everything. It’s funny, because we didn’t set out really to do a political drama. We really wanted to kind of focus on the personal.
But you did.
Faris: Personal is political, I think.
Dayton: I mean, the film was always going to have a point of view, and we were excited about that. But I think we didn’t want it to be polarizing. So we didn’t want it to be binary, so that we wanted to keep it complex so that Bobby Riggs, who had his issues, was not just simple.
He was just a clown.
Faris: Exactly. I mean, in some ways, Margaret Court, who is now a Pentecostal minister in Australia, and she’s still incredibly outspoken about…
Faris: Yeah, anti-homosexual, gay marriage.
Dayton: Oh, yeah. She has a church and she speaks out all the time against lesbians.
Faris: And there was a debate about whether to take her name off of the stadium where the Australian Open takes place. I mean, there was a whole petition back in the spring.
Dayton: She’s so homophobic, yeah.
That’s part of the story I didn’t realize. I didn’t realize there was a match before, between Riggs and Court, that Court lost.
Dayton: Yeah. No, Riggs was a great player.
Even at 55. I didn’t realize that.
Dayton: He was famous for, even in warmups before a match, just playing very sloppily so that the bets would go up.
Faris: And he would call and raise his bet, during the match, because, oh, yeah, there’s no way I’m going to lose this. And he almost never bet on something he didn’t think he was going to win. I mean, so really shrewd. And when you do the research, we just kind of fell in love with his character.
I don’t think a lot of people realize there was the first match or that there was supposed to be a third one with Chris Evert.
Dayton: Right. And for what it’s worth, to anyone who says that he threw the match, what he lost in losing to Billie Jean was far greater than…
People think he bet against himself?
Dayton: Yeah, or that he had a mob debt for $100,000.
Faris: But that he bet that he would lose.
He was going to make a million dollars playing Chris Evert, right?
So once he lost…
Dayton: It evaporated.
Faris: I mean, he was famous. There’s a really funny episode of The Odd Couple, which, I don’t know if you know that show…
The Jack Klugman, Tony Randall version?
Faris: Bobby’s in the whole episode, and then Billie Jean King comes at the end and they play ping-pong together. It’s really funny.
Was Billie Jean King really going through all she was personally about her sexuality at the same time? Or was that time-shifted for the film?
Dayton: No. We condensed some of it, but not that aspect.
Faris: I mean, Marilyn [played by Andrea Riseborough] is at the match. When you look at the picture, when you watch the match, she was sitting actually on the court. We changed it a little so she wasn’t right up there with [Billie Jean King’s husband] Larry, but she was sitting like two seats from Larry through the whole match. And at one point, she massages Billie Jean’s calf during the match.
Dayton: So you just can’t write this stuff.
The way you approach Larry is interesting. He’s played as more understanding than most people might be in his situation.
Faris: Yeah, it’s true. He’s coming to the LA premiere with his kids and his family. Well, you know, they stayed married for another 13 years after the match.
I didn’t realize that.
Faris: She was outed in ’81. So eight years later, she was outed. And then it was five years after that that they divorced. So she stayed in the closet.
Dayton: Yeah, she was in the closet for a long time. So the film ends on this moment of victory, but it’s also sort of unclear. She’s still very much in the closet, and that’s what really happened.
Faris: And that kind of was important to us, to not make light or make it feel like, oh, isn’t that great? Now triumph, victory, and then she became a hero. It’s so really bold what she did at that time. But the marriage thing, her parents were alive and her parents were very homophobic.
Dayton: So, yeah, I think certain audiences don’t understand how hard it was to come out of the closet back then.
What is Billie Jean’s relationship with this match today? I’m sure, sometimes, it’s weird for this to be one of her most famous things, after all she’s done.
Faris: Well, she didn’t really want the spotlight on her, I think, in some ways, because it was a really rough time for her. But I feel like now she’s really embraced it. And she and Bobby became friendly after the match. They spoke the day before he died, they spoke on the phone. So I think she recognized that it brought all this attention to both women’s tennis and it sort of bolstered women’s tennis. And then, also, obviously for the women’s movement.
Dayton: I mean it was this odd thing where clearly, this ridiculous publicity stunt actually made a difference. It’s not like suddenly there was equality, we’re still not there, and we don’t pretend that it was this transformative event. But it was yet another notch.
Faris: It’s a weird thing. I mean I feel like we’ve talked about it being a precursor to the way politics work now. It’s like a sporting event, and whoever wins, you know. It’s reducing politics to…
Dayton: Trump rallies.
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