Coming off a triumphant year with an Oscar in hand for La La Land, Swedish cinematographer Linus Sandgren is back in awards contention this year with a very different project, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ biographical drama Battle of the Sexes. Chronicling a historic moment in the world of tennis, in which world champion Billie Jean King faced off against self-styled chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs in a high-stakes match—setting a precedent for the way women would be treated in tennis, and in the world at large—Battle of the Sexes is a naturalistic counterpoint to La La Land‘s heightened world of musical magic.
Reteaming with Emma Stone on the project, Sandgren brought a documentary feel to the drama, with gorgeously soft film grain and an interesting goal in mind: To create a film that not only depicted the ’70s, but was shot in the style of movies made in that period, a pivotal and still influential moment in American cinema.
How did you come to Battle of the Sexes?
I had worked with John and Val on commercials, and was very keen to work with them on a film at some point. This came up, and what intrigued me when we started to talk about the film was that they wanted to do a film that was set in the ‘70s, but also should feel like it was made in the ‘70s.
That was intriguing, and they were very keen to shoot on film, like myself. It’s always been great working with them, so I felt like it was very easy for us to move ahead with this. We went into testing different formats of 16 or 35 [mm] to see how we could shoot that look from that time.
We basically came into the project thinking we should think like we would have thought about things if we were making a normal contemporary film back in the ‘70s. We tried to avoid steadicams or cranes—we had some cranes, but a lot of dolly-and-zoom kind of storytelling, and blocking scenes with the actors.
The story behind this film is well documented. What kind of research process did you go through in preparation?
We obviously had real events that we portray, and there were a lot of discussions about how to proceed with the film. I guess it really came down to making things quite authentic, but as we told the story, we found that there’s a few different storylines where we got an opportunity to focus on different themes—visual themes and visual rules for ourselves, for different points in the story.
The main story is about the fight for equal pay. We created a theme for that, where we wanted to visually show that the women were progressive, while the men were resistant to the natural progression. So, the women are always moving left to right, while the men are moving right to left. We really tried to get a sense that women were always in forward motion.
In the story, the main characters have their official selves, but then they have their private secrets. In that theme, we felt that the characters would let us closer in, physically, with the camera, if we were more private with them. And farther away, the less private we could be with them—the less they wanted to let us under the skin, so to speak.
For us, the ultimate distance away from them would be to go on the tennis court, in the TV light, with a long zoom lens, while, when we’re with Billie Jean and Marilyn in the bedroom, we would be handheld, and very close, on a tiny lens.
That was something we worked with, as well, and then we had a theme that was about loneliness and solitude, where we tried to be responsive to their emotions in When we were there in the scene, we stepped back to find them, with a lot of negative space and dark, black foregrounds, and they’re just sitting far away in that little frame, or behind bars. Steve Carell’s character, Bobby Riggs, is also behind bars. At home, we’re outside the windows, seeing him eat dinner alone. He’s actually with his family, but in the frame, he’s alone, and he’s behind bars.
That was the idea, to have a very ‘70s approach. You sort of assign metaphors for yourself—a way of thinking—and with those rules, the film evolved.
What camera and lenses did you land on for the film? It feels very authentic in its documentary approach.
We did a lot of testing for the quality and the look of the film. I felt like when you watch films from the ’70s, a lot of times, it didn’t feel like a studio movie. They were shot with fluorescent tubes, and the same thing here. We designed the sets in a way that we could use very few film lights. We actually lit with practicals, to a large extent. To create the film look, we tested different ways to get grain, and a softer feel to it.
What we ended up doing was looking into 16mm and 35, and we ended up liking 35 best because we could have a lot more lens choices, which also was important. For the warm look, we used old Angénieux zooms, and old Kowa lenses that all kept warmer flares and highlights. We had Angénieux 25-50 zoom lenses that were from that period. We also found a 25-500mm Angénieux that’s very rare. We shot a lot on 500 ASA, and pushed it a stop to get a little bit more grain, and also color saturation, and color contrast.
When it came to the tennis match, we really wanted the cameras to feel like we were in the position of the TV cameras, and have those limitations in how you can capture the emotions of the tennis players. It was important for the authenticity to not be like a movie camera nearby. It should feel more as if you were observing, like filmmakers that tried to make a documentary about this event.
A repeat motif in this film is the use of mirrors, where characters are seen mirrored at the side of the frame, reacting. What inspired that choice?
For one, we felt that it was important that Billie Jean sees Larry find this bra. He doesn’t know she sees that, and he doesn’t confront her with it, so it’s like they have secrets about it. You know that she knows, but he doesn’t know. It was a way to make it appear that she looked at him through the mirror there, but it also felt like a beautiful, quick reaction.
Mirrors are always interesting for that reason—that you can sort of surprise the audience a little bit. You don’t think you see something, and then suddenly, something is there. It was nice to think about it. Sometimes, back in the day, they did much more blocking. The character was blocked with the camera, and the camera didn’t ever really cut. It could be one long take, but it feels like it’s many shots. You see that there’s perhaps an interesting way to tell the story without cutting.
The same when Marilyn and Billie Jean making love by the mirror—that is also one take. Actually, that is cut off—it was longer—and it just feels sort of beautiful, I think. That was part of our aesthetic, too, to shoot that way. I think Bertolucci shot a lot like that in the ‘70s, with [Vittorio] Storaro.
How did you conceive of the film’s color palette? It feels like certain connections can be made to La La Land, with its yellows and purples
In this film, we didn’t want to have a mood light. For the exterior nights, we didn’t want it to be like movie moonlight, or artificial light. In La La Land, we used the street colors at night, but we did it sort of theatrically. I think in this case, we wanted to not be so theatrical, but very realistic.
Steve Carell’s character, Bobby Riggs, lived in New York. We wanted that world to be orange at night, while Billie Jean’s world was more of the mercury vapor type of lights for night. We worked with really normal street colors, but I just love to mix colors and make films not monochromatic—to define things with colors.
If you use orange streetlights coming in, when [Riggs] goes to his son, and he’s with his son in his apartment at night, I loved to use a blue-green color, and contrast that. It’s the same for [King’s] world, which was more blue, but you could add yellow or pink if it made sense.
But it had to be connected to where you were. In this case, it was like, “Well, can the bar be where [Billie and Marilyn] meet? The discotheque, and they fall in love.” Perhaps that is sort of a go-to, to go pink/blue or whatever, but it also was missing in the film a little bit. It was a color we had not seen much. It was an opportunity to make that world a little pink, in the disco. But it felt like it was justified by being at a dance club.
In La La Land, we would do something at the theater, where Emma has her play, that was more pink and cyan colors, which were sort of realistic, but it’s theatrically lit. It’s colors that could have been there but it was totally to add to the romance of the whole movie, being that LA is romantic. In this film, it was more adapting to each scene, but I still love the rich colors—lots of orange floodlights, like in the phone booth. When he’s in the car, it’s orange light, but when he’s inside the phone booth, it’s green. It’s realistic—that’s how those colors look on film—but it was also enhanced by the color contrast, and enhanced by the film being pushed. It became much more naturally saturated.
You reteamed with Emma Stone on Battle, and are now working on First Man, working again with Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling. What has this kind of continuity been like for you?
I love working with lovely people, but it’s also fun to get to know each other better, and it’s easier the second time because you have the relationship already established. It’s interesting to see how different things can be—like, Emma was so different from La La Land to Battle of the Sexes, and that was amazing, just to see how she acts differently. The same with Ryan on this one. That’s what I think is interesting in movies, that you can make them so different. I’d rather do that than just shoot the same thing over and over. It’s much more fun to just look at the script, erase your mind, with any ideas of how you know things are supposed to be made. It’s nice to do the opposite.
What can you share about First Man? Where are you in the process?
We’re just about to start shooting. We’ve been prepping for like 13 weeks now, and it’s a very complicated project, but also a very intimate story. It has both scale and intimacy, which is something we’ve worked hard on in prep.