Contemplating their take on the historic “Battle of the Sexes”—the famous 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs—some writers might be inclined to trot out simple displays of athleticism, emphasizing the tug and pull and sheer physicality of the match itself over a more complicated narrative. For directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris—known for critically acclaimed dramas including Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks—what was much more engaging was the personal, private story of King, and that of her opponent. In a script penned by Oscar winner Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), the pair happened upon the way to tell the less examined version of a well-known story.
“I think we were very interested in the personal story of both Billie Jean and Bobby, and that’s what Simon’s script did so beautifully,” Dayton said, appearing at Deadline’s Contenders London event alongside Faris, Beaufoy and Andrea Riseborough, in a panel moderated by Deadline’s Nancy Tartaglione. “There are many documentaries that point out the kind of timeline, but this was an opportunity to go places that no documentary cameras ever traveled to.”
While Beaufoy is a British writer, he had no trouble seizing on the fascinating American story at the heart of the film, looking to the universal themes and relationships at the film’s core. “It’s got universal themes. That’s why, to me, it could be told anywhere, really. But I had to go straight to the source to be able to tell the story, and get not permission, but cooperation from Billie Jean,” the writer said. “She was incredibly generous and gracious about somebody making a film about very intimate parts of her life. She understood immediately [that] you couldn’t just make a tennis film.”
“The whole world doesn’t want to see a tennis film, but it might want to see a film about somebody struggling with the big issues in life that stretch across every continent, really,” Beaufoy continued, “about love, and about fairness and equality, and being trapped in a place where you can’t be who you are.”
While the battle at the center of the film is an external one—between a misogynist and a champion of gender equality—the film is balanced out by an internal struggle with questions of identity, as King attempts to reconcile her marriage to a man with her homosexuality, and a love affair with another woman. “It’s a very complex love story. It’s not one with necessarily a happy ending. When I took the script to [Billie Jean], she kept picking it up and putting it down on the table,” Beaufoy explained. “I’d go, ‘What’s the problem?’ She said, ‘It’s tough. It’s hard. It’s painful to read because I was in love with my husband. I loved him, but I was also gay, and I was having an affair with another woman. It was tough then, and it’s tough to read about it now.”
Contemplating taking on the film while the American election was approaching, for Dayton and Faris, it felt like the right time to reexamine King’s story. “It was very interesting because we previewed the movie before the election and we did fine, and then we previewed it after, and even in the room, you could feel a difference in how people were viewing it,” Faris said. “Unfortunately, I think the issues that she’s dealing with in this movie haven’t changed enough.”
“We’ve talked about it a lot, but we’ve got such a great platform at the minute, because now people are not only showing interest in diversity, but they’re actually investing in diversity,” Riseborough commented. “Whatever their motivations, it doesn’t really matter. But to be able to take advantage of that—that everything in this film is such a hot topic—great! Let’s f*cking talk about it.”
While Battle of the Sexes engages with issues of gender and sexuality, it wasn’t made to be polarizing, though the directors were cognizant of the fact that avoiding political polarization is a near impossible task at this particular moment in time. “What we love about Billie Jean is that she loves to engage in a dialogue, and not be a polarizing figure, actually. If you see her speak, she’s a very inclusive person,” Faris said. “She likes to bring everyone into the conversation, and I think that was our intention with the film.”