Interview with co-directors of The Battle of the Sexes: Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton
In Battle of the Sexes, director duo Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton tell the story of the legendary tennis “battle of the sexes” between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in the 1970s. But the film does not only focus on the competition itself, but also on the personal backgrounds of the opponents, about sexism and lesbianism in a homophobic age.
I had the great pleasure to talk to Valerie and Jonathan about their movie and to ask them one or two critical questions based on my feminist doubts on the film. The result is an interview not only dealing with The Battle of the Sexes, but also with everyday sexism and filmmaking in a team.
Apart from the competition itself, what was particularly important to you about the story of this match?
Jonathan: I think most people know Billie Jean King as an advocate for LGBTQ rights and were probably surprised to know that she was married to a man and very much in the closet. Because in 1973 there was tremendous homophobia in America, really everywhere. And so we wanted to pay attention to that part of the story.
Valerie: She had her first relationship with a woman that she had to keep a secret during a time when she was really in the public eye. She was fighting for women’s equal pay in tennis and started the Women’s Tennis Tournament and also had to play this match with Bobby in middle of a media circus. I think it was a really hard time for her. But that didn’t stop her from doing the things she really believed it. That was the part of the story that we didn’t know about and that was important for us to tell.
So it is more a film about Billie Jean King as a person, about her romantic relationship and personal development, than about the actual tennis match?
But then I wonder why Bobby Riggs is so present in the film. You could have done a movie that was just about Billie Jean King.
Valerie: What was interesting to us was the two private lives of these characters and how knowing what was going on in their private lives would then load the match more. Because the match itself, the tennis match, wasn’t all that entertaining or interesting. It was really more about what pressure they were under leading to the match and all that they were going through emotionally and psychologically. Part of that also comes from Billie Jean’s attitude towards Bobby and how she feels about him now and even how she felt about him then. I think she had a lot of respect for Bobby and wasn’t interested in reducing him to just a clown.
Actually you are being more fair to him than he himself because he displays himself as a chauvinist asshole all that time.
Jonathan: That’s interesting ... But you’re right.
Valerie: He may be a self induced caricature, in the media anyway. But I think in real life he wanted to be taken seriously. Nevertheless he knew the technqiues to draw attention to himself.
Jonathan: Obviously Donald Trump is a descendant of Bobby. Bobby was relatively harmless. But we couldn’t help but make those connections.
Did you have that in mind when you made the movie?
Jonathan: Oh no, we did not. We had no idea that Donald Trump would get as far as he has. We honestly expected that Hilary Clinton would win and that we would screen the film in the White House. She and Billie Jean are good friends.
Valerie: But we did know that the election would most likely be a woman running against a man. That’s sort of why the story was on everybody’s mind.
I think in times like these, films like The Battle of the Sexes are particularly important because they also show us misogyny in everyday life that still exists today.
Valerie: Very much so. It almost feels like there is a new license to express those views. People feel more empowered to speak offensive.
Jonathan: It is shocking that you could have the story of Donald Trump talking about grabbing someone by the pussy and that wouldn’t end his political career. It’s just amazing that there aren’t consequences today.
In terms of the sexism depicted in the film, it’s almost a sad story, but you’ve decided to turn it into a comedy. Why?
Valerie: We wanted to tell a complex story and didn’t want it to be sort of an agenda film. We were hoping that we were getting a bigger audience to see this story and didn’t want to make it just for people who already agree with us. That was our interest. And to be fair about it. To present it in a complex way as opposed to a of binary polarising way.
For me, the movie has hinted that Bobby Riggs lost because he was unprepared and not because Billie Jean was the better player.
Jonathan: I think that is true.
Valerie: He didn’t train. But I think she would have beaten him even if he had trained. They probably should have done a rematch just to show that she could beat him again. She was a great player and super strategic in terms of running him. And she knew how to just wear him out. She really studied his game. I guess we could have spend more time on that but..
I would have liked it better if the film clearly staged him as a worse player and left no doubt about it.
Valerie: We heard that he threw the match. He chose to loose and then bet against himself. Which was really offensive. I think the truth was, he beat Margarete Court easily and then he thought: Ok, well, I am ready, I can take any woman on, and I don’t need to practice that hard.
Jonathan: It’s tricky because we’re bound by real events.
Valerie: Or what we know of them.
Jonathan: But it’s important to point out though that all the people involved with the match, on Bobby’s side and Billie Jean’s side, support the idea that he did not throw the match. He had so much to gain if he won.
The question is kind of obvious: You are a male-female direction team. How do you work?
Jonathan: We do everything. There is no division of labor. It’s really all about the dialogue that happens between the two of us. which isn’t really gender specific.
Valerie: I think we hardly ever think of our roles as a man and a woman. What we do is we just problem-solve together. Our focus is not on each other so much, it’s on the thing that we are working on and trying to get as close to it and understand it as fully as we can. We only pick subjects that we are interested in, that we know can keep our interest on for three or five years. As long as the subject of the story is interesting, we really enjoy the years of dialogue about it.
But you must have some battles.
Jonathan: All the time. It’s always a discussion. But it’s such a luxury to be able to get someone else’s opinion at these early stages and to be able to really debate. For instance in the love scenes within the movie between Billie Jean and Marilyn: We didn’t want this to be about the male gaze. We didn’t want this to be a love scene for men. We wanted it just to be an honest connection between two people and so by having the two of us in dialogue it just made that all the more hopefully natural. And honest.