Directing duo Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton are the couple you want to talk to all day. In just fifteen minutes we conversed about millenial movie attendance, Judy Garland, and getting a sandwich board together to promote the film. The two’s love for cinema is palpable and they’re eager for everyone to see Battle of the Sexes not just as a sports movie, but a timeless tale that will appease fans of their previous works – Ruby Sparks and Little Miss Sunshine. Read on to hear what they said about filming their first tennis scenes, their directing style, and what they’re hoping to work on next.
It’s funny, I’ve been telling so many people about the film and I hate to date myself but many of my friends didn’t know the story.
Valerie Faris: I hope those people will still be drawn to see it even if they don’t know about it because it doesn’t really matter if you know about it or not.
Jonathan Dayton: In a way it’s better to discover it all.
VF: I’m curious, do you think people your age will go see it?
I would say that with the political climate being what it is, I’m hoping my generation will want to check it out to see how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. And if anything Emma [Stone] is such a crowdpleaser.
VF: It’s incredible, her appeal.
JD: If I can say this, I think her performance is….
VF: Doesn’t disappoint.
You two have talked a bit about how the movie connects to the political context of the time. You filmed this before the election obviously, but how did it feel to start filming it at one point in time and releasing it now when so much has changed?
VF: We have very mixed feelings about it because I think in some ways it directs the conversation to the election and to the current climate. That’s maybe a good thing but we also don’t want it to totally overshadow some of the other elements of the movie.
JD: It’s a blessing. I certainly think some of the ideas in the movie are more important to talk about than ever, and we hope the movie stimulates that conversation. I hope people find the movie entertaining and that they can have it as something they can enjoy on a Friday night. It’s not medicine.
VF: It’s not a history lesson or a political argument, it’s hopefully something that engages them and gets them thinking.
JD: It’s a conversation starter.
The marketing really hypes it as a tennis movie, but while watching it there’s way more going on. You take time to spotlight Billie Jean, Bobby Riggs, Margaret Court and her role as an athlete and mother. How did you juggle telling all these stories?
VF: We were alive when the tennis match happened and that wasn’t enough to make us want to make a movie about a tennis match. It’s our first sports movie and we never thought we’d do one. What interested us in this were all the other stories, particularly Billie Jean’s story of her marriage and her awakening, getting to know herself and having her first affair with a woman while being under the pressure leading up to this match. There were so many interesting ways in to this story and so many interesting aspects that made us want to make the film.
JD: I love that there were two love stories inside a sports movie, and also an important political story, as well.
VF: Billie Jean finding herself, or at least beginning to find herself was really interesting. Not just the love story but her personal awakening was a story we didn’t know. We knew about the match. It’s sad to me that people’s perception of [the film] will be that it’s a tennis movie because….
JD: That’s why we need you!
There’s a five-year gap between Battle of the Sexes and Ruby Sparks, and a six-year gap between Ruby Sparks and Little Miss Sunshine. Do you feel the need to take a break between projects or are you just very selective in waiting for the right project?
JD: We’re very selective. And it also takes us a long time.
VF: We like to spend time on things.
JD: We don’t want to just rush through it.
VF: And sometimes we work on things that don’t happen. We might work for two full years on something that, for various reasons, doesn’t come together. We don’t do five things at once; we’re single-minded when we go to do a film.
JD: Part of the pleasure of doing a film is immersing yourself in it and not thinking about anything else. We’re one film at a time team, even though there are two of us.
What is your directing process like? Are there particular things you each feel individually suited to?
VF: Jonathan answers his phone more than me.
JD: I’m Val’s personal receptionist. It’s a very messy process and we both do everything. We started working together in college and it’s a constant dialogue, a constant exploration. It’s fun. It’s all I’ve ever really known and filmmaking is always collaborative whether it’s official or unofficial. With us it just starts with the two of us but it very quickly becomes a collaboration with the cinematographer, wardrobe, the actors.
VF: We don’t really divide our home life or family life either. We both play mother and father roles; you should probably ask our kids about that. It’s a constant balance really.
JD: I thought you were gonna say it’s a constant battle.
VF: I would never say that!
The trio of films you’ve directed are fantastic at exploring relationships. How do you chart relationships in your films as you’ve aged and as you’ve gained more experience in the industry?
VF: I think that’s the root of what we love is relationships. This movie had so many interesting relationships in it: relationship to yourself, and relationship to your partner, professional relationships. The dynamic is endlessly interesting to us probably because our relationship traverses our professional and family life, romantic life. We’re interested in what relationships bring.
JD: The truth is we don’t think about it. You just follow your interests and after awhile the pattern starts to make sense.
There’s a method to the madness.
VF: Most of the time it just feels like madness.
What was it like working on the tennis sequence in this movie having never done that before in your careers?
VF: We watched a lot of tennis movies and what we really didn’t want to do was overdramatize the tennis, or see it from an ultra-cinematic point of view. What interested us was the actual match, the way it was photographed, was dramatic to us. When you watch it from that broadcast point of view you realize the whole world, 90 million people, were watching it that way and all those eyes were on our two main characters. The more we could underscore the way this was being played around the world, and that you were in this public view, was more interesting.
JD: It’s not about the filmmaking. We told the story so just the action on the court is dramatic enough, and we didn’t need to make the camerawork flashy because that would, in a way, take you out of it. We didn’t want you watching the tennis saying, “Wow, cool shot!” We worked for years in music videos and we loved doing them, but if you film dance in a music video typically you’ll cut it all up and shoot cool angles, versus an MGM musical where you get to see they’ve actually done it. Now you can make anyone look like a great dancer with fast-cutting. We wanted to let the tennis, let the body speak for itself.
VF: We were also inspired by movies of the ’70s and they do that. They wouldn’t try to fabricate the drama. We shot a lot with these long zoom lenses and we felt like it actually heightened the drama by stepping back and seeing it the way it was seen back in 1973.
You have an extensive music video background. How has that influenced your filmmaking, if at all?
VF: Once thing we take from those years is the importance of music and the love of music. How much fun it is to put images with music. Even though it’s working backwards, as we’re making a film or in development and preparation for a film we gather music for the movie; we have a playlist that makes us feel like the movie feels in different places.
JD: We play that for the actors and the cinematographer. In a way we throw that out when we start to cut but then we get new music in. The score in this film was really important; the Elton John song and the George Harrison song…
You’ve done comedy, romance, sports. Is there a genre you two would love to tackle someday?
VF: So many!
JD: One of the things we’re talking about is a little bit science fiction, set in the future.
VF: In the near future. There’s a horror element. That’s the fun part of this job, you never feel like you’ve done it before. Every film is like “Okay, how does this one work?”
JD: You feel, in a way, like you’re starting over.
VF: We’ve never really made a genre picture, but that could be a fun experiment to go into a more straightforward genre. This wasn’t a straightforward sports movie, so that could be fun.
Well I’m excited for everyone to see the film and hopefully my generation will come out for it!
JD: We’re holding you personally responsible!
VF: We’ll never speak to you again!
Battle of the Sexes is in theaters now