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Husband-wife filmmakers take on Riggs-King tennis battle

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Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, center, work on “Battle of the Sexes.” (Courtesy Melinda Sue Gordon/Twentieth Century Fox)
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It might have been easy to make a typical good-girl-vs.-bad-guy movie version of the 1973 “battle of the sexes” tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.

But husband-and-wife directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris took a different, emotional approach in their new film called “Battle of the Sexes.”

“We felt like if we stick to the real story — what she’s going through and what he’s going through — audiences can decide where they land,” said Faris, who recently visited The City to promote the project with Dayton and the film’s costar Andrea Riseborough,

“The whole movie is really about two worlds, the private world and the public world,” adds Dayton. “We decided to spend three-quarters of the film building this private world, then we put you in the public arena,” he says, referring to the actual two-and-a-half hour match.

Steve Carell plays former tennis star and self-proclaimed chauvinist Riggs, who challenges Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) to a match, to “prove” men are better than women.

Faris and Dayton, who worked with Carell on “Little Miss Sunshine,” knew he’d be perfect for the role of Riggs; he could easily handle the character’s on-court clowning as well as his more dramatic moments. Carell also is a natural athlete who already played tennis.

“It really takes advantage of his full skill set,” says Dayton.

Stone, after finishing “La La Land,” put in four months of training to master King’s movements.

“She had to really bulk up,” says Dayton, adding that Stone put on 15 pounds of muscle. “She worked with a trainer whose normal job is to make actors into action heroes.”

Emma Stone and Steve Carell play Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in “Battle of the Sexes.” (Courtesy Melinda Sue Gordon/Twentieth Century Fox Film)

The film also shows how King formed her own female league and unexpectedly fell in love with Marilyn Barnett, played by English-born Riseborough.

Riseborough observed that, unlike their film’s subjects, Dayton and Faris do not have a battle of the sexes. “They’re really in-sync. It’s like watching a symphony,” she says. “When I first met them, it was really clear: The whole thing is about love. And, without getting too sappy, their love comes through in the film.”

While the studio wanted someone “hotter” for the Marilyn role — which Riseborough finds “a bit depressing” — the filmmakers fought to defend their choice.

They also wanted to acknowledge that shameful inequality between men and women persists today.

“We didn’t want to end the movie on any kind of resolution,” says Faris. “We wanted to leave it with that sense of there’s still so much more work to do.”

IF YOU GO
Battle of the Sexes
Starring Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Elisabeth Shue, Bill Pullman
Written by Simon Beaufoy
Directed by Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Rated PG-13
Running time 2 hours, 1 minute

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