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‘Battle of the Sexes’ directors say test audiences changed after 2016 election

Natalie Morales, Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Kaitlyn Christian, Fidan Manashirova and Mickey Summer on the set of
Natalie Morales, Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Kaitlyn Christian, Fidan Manashirova and Mickey Summer on the set of "Battle of the Sexes."
Melinda Sue Gordon

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On September 20th 1973, the 29-year-old tennis star Billie Jean King entered the Houston Astrodome on a throne adorned with pink feathers, carried by shirtless men.

Her opponent that day was 55-year-old Bobby Riggs, who entered the court surrounded by scantily clad female models. Riggs was a retired tennis champ with a gambling habit who orchestrated the event out of showmanship and chauvinism. King was the former number one women’s player in the world and was waging a battle for equal pay on the tennis circuit. She was also married to a man but secretly in her first relationship with a woman. 

All of this and more factor into the new film “Battle of the Sexes,” in which Emma Stone plays Billie Jean King and Steve Carrell plays Bobby Riggs.The movie is co-directed by the married couple Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton who also directed "Little Miss Sunshine." The two were finishing the movie as the 2016 election came to its conclusion. They tell The Frame that the political climate didn't change the content of their movie but that test audiences before and after November 8th changed.

Faris: We had one preview before the election and it was fine, it went well. But then the preview after the election, jumped 15 points. It was wild. Not that we care so much about the scores but it was just interesting that the audience was so primed for it. We didn't really change our direction for the film, but the audience changed.

Our conversation with Faris and Dayton was recorded at the Telluride Film Festival where the movie made its world premiere. Also in Telluride we spoke with Billie Jean King about what she hoped the movie could do and with Emma Stone about how she approached playing this icon at a time in her life when Billie Jean was in a state of turmoil.

Below are excerpts from John Horn's interview with Faris and Dayton. To hear the full conversation, click on the player above or get The Frame's podcast on itunes.

Interview Highlights

On telling the private side of Billie Jean's story:

Faris: The thing that she said to us from the beginning was, "I just want this to be empowering for kids who are struggling with their sexuality." We really took that to heart. I think that was probably the strongest and the most important point.

Dayton: She talks about it as being the most confusing part of her life. She really wasn't very happy, and yet she was doing some very important things. So we wanted to honor that and we wanted to show a person in all her imperfection, because we idolize people and simplify them. We wanted to try to keep the complexity of her life at that time.

On getting permission to use Howard Cosell's voice:

Dayton: In studying the match, we actually took the original TV broadcast and cut it down, and made what was our version of it. Then we could show that to everyone involved, so everyone knew. We even put music to it, so we got a feeling of what it was going to be like. We grew up with [sports journalist] Howard Cosell. He was this American icon and it was very important for us not to have an imitator. We wanted the real guy. So we wrote this very passionate letter to his estate just saying, "Please, would you allow us to use him - his image and his voice."  There are moments where he talks about Billie Jean: "If she just took off her glasses and let her hair down, she'd look like a movie star."

Faris: "She's walking more like a male than a female!" And then he defends Bobby...

Dayton: It was such a pleasure to be able to put that in the movie. You don't need to write special lines. It's there.

On steering clear of polarizing politics:

Dayton: It was very important to us not to be yet another polarizing voice in the culture. So there are "bad guys" in the film, but we didn't want to just reduce people to chauvinist cliches

Faris: We want everybody to see this film and I think that's why her personal story was our guide through the whole story. As long as we stay close to her emotionally, it felt like we could stay away from politically taking sides.

On their own gender dynamic as a directing team:

Faris: It's funny because we do everything together. We raise three kids together. So we don't divide by gender really. We both do everything. We're so fifty-fifty. If anything, this film made us realize how much we do that, and how much we don't follow the typical gender roles in our relationship... For example, it was Jonathan's idea to put my name first in the directed-by credit. So I don't think about it so much because we've always worked together and we've always shared every responsibility.

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