Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton: “It’s important to us to treat things with complexity and compassion”

Directing duo and married couple Jonathan Dayton (b. 1957) and Valerie Faris (b. 1958) have a new film out, playing at a theater near you. After their two previous screen efforts, “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006) and “Ruby Sparks” (2012), they were recently at Belgium’s Film Fest Gent to promote the release of their latest feature “Battle of the Sexes,” referring to the 1973 tennis match between number two-ranked Billie Jean King (b. 1943), and the retired loud-mouthed and former tennis champion Bobby Riggs (1918-1995), the world’s number-one for three years during the 1940s. The tennis match was held at the Houston Astrodome in Texas on September 20, 1973, and began as a publicity stunt between the 29-year-old King and the 55-year-old tennis player-turned-showman. It was viewed by approximately ninety million people around the world, with the winner-take-all prize of $100,000.

Although Mr. and Mrs. Dayton have always been very productive, primarily making videos for the music industry since the 1980s—with Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson, Oasis, R.E.M. and The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, among many others—they always hit their mark whenever making a movie. “Little Miss Sunshine” garnered two Academy Awards (Alan Arkin as Best Supporting Actor; Michael Arndt for Best Original Screenplay), and when they did “Ruby Sparks” with Zoe Kazan in the title role (who also scripted), co-starring Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas, they were once again praised by most critics.

Now they are reuniting two of the “Crazy, Stupid, Love” (2011) stars, Emma Stone and Steve Carell. For the record, “Battle of the Sexes” was shot before “La La Land” was released, which earned Miss Stone an Academy Award as Best Actress last February, and it was also shot before the 2016 Presidential election—the movie strongly connects with the political context of the time. “But the film is not a history lesson or a political argument, it’s hopefully something that engages the audience and gets them thinking,” Valerie Faris says.

“Hi, I’m Jonathan.” “Hi, I’m Valerie.” Those were the first words they told me when they greeted me warmly with a broad smile and a firm handshake as I entered the hotel room in Ghent where this interview was conducted. So let us start with the beginning.

Emma Stone as Billie Jean King with Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs in “Battle of the Sexes,” directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris | 20th Century Fox

How did you get involved in this project?

[Jonathan Dayton] Fox had brought us the script. It had been developed by Danny Boyle, but he started to do “Trainspotting 2” [2017], so we got the script written by Simon Beaufroy [Academy Award-winning screenwriter for Danny Boyle’s 2008 “Slumdog Millionaire”]. We loved it, and we remembered the Battle of the Sexes from when we were kids, so we felt it would be a very good story to tell right now.

To what extend is it a difference for you to make a fiction feature or a film about an American legend like Billie Jean King?

[Valerie Faris] It is very different, even a little bit scary, especially when that person, who is like a legend, is alive. She was involved in the project, but it was scary for us, and it was scary for Emma Stone too, I think, to play her. We all felt a huge responsibility to the real lives of these people. So I would say it was much more challenging in that way, but we still needed to take certain liberties and tell a good story. Even though it was a real-life story, we still had to have an engaging two-hour movie. We sort of approached it like a fictional story because it needed to have the same dynamics as a story that might not be real. But the biggest challenge was that we had to make her happy: we wanted Billie Jean to feel good about the movie and embrace the movie. So we all had that in the back of all of our heads. The film had to do her justice.
[Jonathan Dayton] We worked on the film for about two and a half years, and it wasn’t until we finally screened it at the Telluride Film Festival [September 2, 2017] with Billie Jean in the room that we finally felt relaxed. She saw it with an audience and loved it, and we knew then that it was okay.

Was it difficult to tell the whole story in a two-hour picture?

[Jonathan Dayton] Yes, it was. You know, the story is pretty accurate in terms of events. We took about three years of moments of Billie Jean’s life and compressed them into one year, so that was the biggest fabrication.
[Valerie Faris] Simon Beaufroy did a good job of weaving all these stories together. We worked with him for about a year just to focus in on the parts of the story that really interested us. Then, of course, during the shoot and the edit you’re still writing it, you’re still deciding, ‘Oh, we can take this out, or move this here.’ I think that process of packing it all into two hours never ends until they take the movie away from you, and they say, ‘It’s done!’ [Laughs.] You’re just always trying to improve what’s really important, you keep the film moving forward.
[Jonathan Dayton] There were a lot of elements in this story: you had Bobby’s story, there was Billie Jean’s story, and then within that, you had Billie Jean‘s love story, and the story of starting this tournament with all the women, their fight for equal pay… So there were a lot of moving parts.

I thought the scene when Billie Jean’s hair is done, is very crucial. The way you work and play with the close-ups of the two women [Emma Stone and her hairdresser, played by Andrea Riseborough] is magnificent.

[Valerie Faris] We had a wonderful cinematographer, Linus Sandgren [Academy Award-winning cinematographer of “La La Land”]. The three of us often talked about that scene being so important. We wanted it to have a kind of intimacy and get in the space with the two of them. You know, hairdressers enter your private space. They’re touching your head, your face; it’s very intimate, so we wanted to get the camera in there—with them. We talked a lot with Linus Sandgren and with our sound designers. A lot of the feeling in that scene also comes from the sound—the auditory experience.

Director Jonathan Dayton, Andrea Riseborough (playing the hairdresser), and Emma Stone on the set of “Battle of the Sexes” | 20th Century Fox

You treat all of your characters with a lot of respect, don’t you?

[Jonathan Dayton] That is how we approached the film. Even the people who are the ‘bad guys,’ we wanted to treat them with respect because they could be people we might know. It’s important to us to treat things with complexity…
[Valerie Faris] … and compassion…
[Jonathan Dayton] …and compassion. In America, in particular, right now, things are so polarized. There’s always ‘us versus them.’ Everybody has their own bubble of their own news station, and they don’t want to step outside their experience to respect anyone who disagrees with them. So we wanted this film to at least begin, to start a discussion without villainizing.
[Valerie Faris] I think all the characters are like entry points for the audience to enter the film, so the more the characters feel like real people, the more you can relate to them. Different people can relate to different characters in the movie. For our actors too: actors that we really like, they care about their character. They don’t want to play someone who’s just a cartoon; they all wanted to make their characters life-like and real.
[Jonathan Dayton] We cast Bill Pullman, who normally plays Presidents or heroic characters, and so it was important he brought dignity to the character he played.

You also focus a lot on the female characters in all of your films, don’t you? Not too many filmmakers do that. Fred Zinnemann was known back then for strong leading women in his films, as are the Dardenne brothers now in Belgium and France. And you too, you also allow them to play interesting leading roles, even in your first film, “Little Miss Sunshine,” it was all about Abigail Breslin.

[Valerie Faris] Yes, she really is the one driving the movie. In “Battle of the Sexes,” obviously, it’s Billie Jean—her desire—that moves the story forward. We like to do that. In American films, the scripts and the stories are often about men.

Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris clowing during a press conference | 20th Century Fox

Is this perhaps your niche?

[Jonathan Dayton] No, it’s not intentional. But we’re certainly attracted to these stories with strong women. I think they’re good stories.
[Valerie Faris] Maybe it’s because there’s such a need for them, there’s an absence. We have a daughter and two sons, and we couldn’t become more aware of ‘what are we putting out there.’ We don’t necessarily or consciously think about it, but I do think for children growing up in a culture when all they see are male action heroes, that starts to become then how we look at what society is like. All the heroes are men. It’s interesting to see how well “Wonder Woman” did; it’s the first example of the female action hero. I wish it didn’t have so much violence in it, but it delivers what’s expected from that kind of a movie, I guess.

Film Fest Gent, Ghent (Belgium)
October 13, 2017

“Battle of the Sexes” (2017, trailer)


LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006) DIR Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris PROD Ron Yerxa, Peter Saraf, Albert Berger, David T. Friendly, Marc Turtletaub SCR Michael Arndt CAM Tim Suhrstedt ED Pamela Martin MUS DeVotchKa, Mychael Danna CAST Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, Alan Arkin, Marc Turtletaub

RUBY SPARKS (2012) DIR Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris PROD Ron Yerxa, Albert Berger SCR Zoe Kazan CAM Matthew Libatique ED Pamela Martin MUS Nick Urata  CAST Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening, Steve Coogan, Elliott Gould, Chris Messina

BATTLE OF THE SEXES (2017) DIR Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris PROD Danny Boyle, Robert Graf SCR Simon Beaufroy CAM Linus Sandgren ED Pamela Martin MUS Nicholas Britell CAST Emma  Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Risebrough, Natalie Morales, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Lewis Pullman


R.E.M.: ROUGH CUT (1995) DIR Valerie Faris PROD Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris CAST Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Nathan December, Mark Fisher, Scott Litt, Scott McCaughey, Mike Mills, Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael Stipe