I like to make films that are like Trojan Horses, audiences go in thinking it’s one thing, and they find out that there’s something else that you smuggled in.
The most striking aspect of Battle of the Sexes, the new film from Oscar-winning writer Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) is how much has changed since the famous 1973 match between tennis legend Billie Jean King and chauvinist showman, ex-champ Bobby Riggs, and how much hasn’t.
Nearly a half-century after the match that drew 50 million American TV viewers when it aired on ABC, the event seems like an almost churlishly anachronistic farce, with a 55-year-old Riggs (Steve Carell) saying in the run-up to the spectacle, “I want to prove that women are lousy, they stink and they don’t belong on the same court as a man.”
Even then, Riggs played the clown, donning a shirt on match day that read “Sugar Daddy,” granting the proceedings more than a tinge of self-mockery. Steps might have been taken toward gender equality since then, but sexism not only remains, it’s re-emerged at the center of American life in ways few would have expected.
While Beaufoy does diligent work recounting the history of the match with unflinching fidelity, he also underlays the main event with surprising and beautifully complex love stories between the real-life characters. In preparation for the script, the Brit from West Yorkshire, England immersed himself in 1970s America, as well as the life of Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), who beat Riggs in three sets, changing the course of women’s tennis forever, while also confronting her own deeply personal questions of identity and fidelity.
Beaufoy spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about what he learned from the “incredibly brave” King, why he feels a “fourth wave” of feminism is underway, and how, underneath it all, Battle of the Sexes is a story about fairness and love.
When you started this film, did you anticipate how resonant this battle of wage and equality and sexism would be in the Trump era?
I wish I could say I predicted the Trump presidency, but I can tell you there was something in the air. I have a 16-year-old daughter who has become very politicized. All her friends are very politicized. There’s a fourth wave of feminism coming, and it just felt as if these issues were alive again, suddenly, having fallen away. My generation was kind of politically apathetic, really. The generation coming up is way more politicized, particularly the women. I could see all this going on in my daughter’s generation. Suddenly, the Battle of the Sexes match has so much resonance to what is going on now that it seemed like the perfect time to tell the story.
How long ago did you start this?
It must be three and a half years ago I suspect, maybe four years ago. Quite awhile now from when we first met Billie Jean.
So well in advance of the Trump-Clinton circus?
Yeah. He wasn't even a joke at that point, let alone a Republican candidate or indeed President.
But even at that stage, you felt this film’s relevance surging?
Very much so. There was a kind of fourth wave of feminism bubbling up from an apathetic place. Something really interesting and strong and powerful was happening [that] suddenly made this story resonate in a way that it probably wouldn’t have done six years ago, five years ago even. And it’s become more and more relevant ever since, which is why people like [John] McEnroe suddenly pop up and say the things they say. It’s kind of in the front of everyone’s consciousness at the moment, way more than I could have predicted. You can feel something in the air, but I had no idea it was going to become so focused.
You couldn’t script it, for want of a better pun.
Yeah. It’s sort of uncanny. Even John McEnroe, with his comments about Serena Williams being number 700 if she was being compared to male players, suddenly, the things that were being said in ‘73 are being said again now. Really? Has nothing changed at all? They’re even using the same tennis language that they did in 1973.
One of the most surprising aspects of this story is the relationship between King and her hairdresser Marilyn Barnett. Did you have any trepidation approaching this as a writer?
How did you grapple with that?
Well, we were very open with Billie…I said, I can’t make a film that’s just about a tennis match that has sexual politics involved in it. It has to be a story that everyone in the audience can understand. It has to be a love story, no matter how complex a story that is. I have to tell the story about what you were going through personally at the time because that, to me, is as interesting as anything else, that there was an internal battle going on inside of her. It was much less binary than the “men are great, women are useless” battle that was being played out in public. There was this internal battle about how she could deal with her marriage, whether she was gay or straight, and how the world wouldn’t allow her to be gay, simply wouldn’t allow it.
That inequality was as great as any other inequality about pay, about women’s rights. That story was just as important, if not more important than any of the other stories. So I was really open and said I had to tell that story to make a great film, and she was incredibly trusting. She said, “Okay, I trust you guys.” She watched all our movies—me, Danny, Christian—she watched every single movie I ever made and said, “I’ve seen what you do, I trust you.” But I still approached it with huge trepidation because I’ve become a friend of hers. It’s really personal, it’s very intimate stuff we’re telling, and we have to get that stuff right. When we’re writing stories about real people, we as writers, have a duty and a responsibility to get that sort of thing right. Otherwise you’re really disrespecting their life.
When you say “get it right,” even that becomes a question. Is it a matter of complete historical accuracy? Or is it a matter of capturing the spirit and essence?
That’s a really good question. What does “right” mean? Does “right” mean historically accurate? Timeline accurate? Does it mean authentic? It’s a mixture of all those things. Emotionally authentic it certainly has to be, and I talked about what Billie gained from her relationship with Marilyn and what that relationship was like. She said on stage the other night that I got that absolutely right and absolutely true, which was great. Obviously, you know what writing is like. You have to shift timelines around, you have to shape things to form a satisfying structure, but somehow you need to remain authentic to the spirit of people, and more so, I had to remain authentic to the relationships, which is even more of a responsibility. You’re always shaping, shifting, squeezing things around, and going, “Is that too much, is that too little?” Bottom line: Billie read every word. If she had said, “Please don’t say that, that’s too close to my personal life,” I would have taken it out. She was incredibly brave as a person. She was like, “No, I understand. You have to tell the story, and you have to tell it right. I find it hard to read, I find it hard to watch, but you should tell that story.”
She found it difficult to resurrect and read?
Yeah, she kept picking the script up and putting it down. I asked, “What’s wrong, Billie?” And she said, “I find this so painful to read.”
Was it painful because she’s a very private person…or was it difficult because it had been painful time?
I think it was painful because she always loved Larry…but she was a gay woman and married to a man. She said, “I didn’t care about sexuality. I was being unfaithful to my husband. I feel as bad about that now, as I did then.” She said it was never something she wanted to do. She’s a really honest person. She’ll never hide emotional things. She’s a dream for a writer because she’s also a sportswoman. So you give her a game plan, and she goes, “Okay, I get it. I know what I need to do.” I told her that I have to tell this story. She asked why and when I told her she said, “I see, I understand, thank you.” And then she let me get on with it.
Did she just read your final draft, or did she read as you were going along?
She read an earlier draft, and then she read a late draft. Then she saw early cuts of the film as well. She had a voice in it, and she could have said, “I don’t like this, I don’t like that.” She never ever said, “Don’t do that.” If she had, we wouldn’t [have done it]. I have so much respect for her. She would just say, “Why do you have to show that?” If I said, “I think we do for the following reasons,” she’d say, “Okay, just needed to understand.”
You were explaining to her that, from a narrative standpoint, to compel the viewer, to bring them into these characters on a personal level was essential?
Yes. I gave her the example of 127 Hours. I said nobody in that audience has gotten stuck down a canyon and had to chop their arm off. I mean literally nobody in the audience. But everyone in the audience has done things in their life that they wish they’d done differently, that they wish they could go back and apologize [for], or go back and rerun the past differently. That’s what audiences respond to. That’s where you draw them in emotionally because we’ve all been there. The same way that everyone’s been in love. Battle of the Sexes is really a love story at the heart of it. Bobby Riggs and his wife Priscilla, and Billie and her husband Larry, and Marilyn— they’re all love stories. There’s nobody in the story that doesn't love the other person. They might not be able to live with them, but they all love their partners in various, complex ways.
So the match is really just your way in?
Yeah. I like to make films that are like Trojan Horses, audiences go in thinking it’s one thing, and they find out that there’s something else that you smuggled in. I’ve never quite been able to figure out if I smuggled the tennis in or smuggled the relationship in, or smuggled the gender politics into this one. It’s kind of a bit of everything.
There’s obviously historical context to this match. How did you approach the research here? How much do you need to have that sorted before even beginning a draft?
It was really important for me to get the flavor of 1973. I spent a lot of time looking at commercials from that period and all the magazines from that period. The commercials were astounding, the sexism is overwhelming and in your face, and completely unashamed. Reviewers sort of accused Bobby Riggs’ dialogue [in the movie] of being way to over the top, but we put in the nicest bits of Bobby Riggs. I mean the sexism was absolutely unashamed in ’73. And the commercials and advertisements in those days were really astonishing, really demeaning to women.
So it was a really interesting time in terms for gender politics. The mainstream women were sort of accepting of it, and there was a small wing of radical feminism who were fighting, but they weren’t making much headway, to be honest. Then the real research was sitting down with Billie and talking about her life at that time, about what it was like to go solo on tour and break away from the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association, and everything she was doing around that period. For me, that was the most important thing, to get that right. The rest of the stuff you can research, and it was sort of fun to do the 1973 research.
How much time did you spend interviewing Billie?
Plenty of days. Billie was a proper sportsman. She would sit down for 10 hours a day going over the script. I would say, “Billie, stop. I can’t even speak let alone think about the script!” And she would go, “But we’re only on page 75.” And I was like, “Yeah, I know. That’s why we need to stop, I can’t go on.” Every line she would examine and talk around. It would bring back huge amounts of memory for her. So we spent a lot of time together, which was a great privilege. She’s a truly fantastic woman.
The deal was, if I was asking questions about her private life, she could ask me questions about mine. So we both got to know each other really well, and we were both really honest. I was being as honest back as she was with me. She’s really interested in other people. She’s quite unusual in iconic figures. They normally are quite egotistical, and she’s the opposite of that. She knows all about my kids, she wants to know their exam results. The first thing she said when I saw her last night was, “How are your daughter’s exam results?” She knew all about it. Amazing, to remember and to care, and to be interested.
How important for you to have a very clear, set idea thematically what the story is about before you start writing, or is it more evolving and malleable as you write?
Such a good question. I always think it’s really important to have a clear idea before you start, otherwise you wouldn’t have chosen the story in the first place. But what happens is, as you’re writing, they kind of change, you see things as you’re going and the story shifts around. Suddenly, it’s about something slightly different or a different perspective and angle than what you thought it was going to be about. So I’m always awake to the possibility of change. I used to try and force the script back on track, and say, “No, no, no! I want to write about this! Don’t make me write about that! This is what interested me, that’s why I chose this project.” But these days I’ve learned to follow where the story goes, and the themes will shift and other things will grow out of story that you weren’t expecting. Suddenly, you’re writing about something else, and someone will go, “Oh, it’s about loneliness, isn’t it?” And you go, “Is it?” Then you’ll take a step back, and go, “Oh, it is! Weird.” Of course, the next draft through you’ll say, “Okay, this loneliness thing is coming up. I'll nurture it a bit more because it seems right.”
If you were to distill this film’s central theme down, what is this story about?
It’s about fairness. Bottom line: fairness and love. Fairness about being able to love who you want to love. It’s about respect between men and women. It’s about equality in its broadest sense, which is really treating people equally and fairly, in love, as well as pay and politics.
When, where and how do you write? What’s the anatomy of it? Do you have any idiosyncratic rituals? Do you do it a certain way or time? What’s your writing routine?
I work everywhere and anywhere. Sometimes I need complete silence, sometimes I’m fine having children bouncing around the room. I try and spend a week on my own without talking to anyone when I start a project. That’s the only oddity I have. I go somewhere very deliberately foreign where I can’t speak a word of the language, so I have to be on my own and no one can talk to me. I bury myself in the world. After that I can take any amount of interruptions and phone calls. But that first week of conceiving and coming up with an idea, I need to be in a really quiet place. That’s my only oddity. I’m mostly normal apart from that. Well, as much as any writer’s normal, which is not very much.
© 2017 Writers Guild of America West