Caught in the Battle of the Sexes

Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs at a press conference.

Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs at a press conference.

Zara Hayes is the co-director of Battle of the Sexes with James Erskine; both based in London. Zara’s previous credits include the BBC’s Wonderland and UK’s Channel 4 The Seven Ages of Love.

She has also directed a portrait of the artist Tacita Dean for the Tate Modern and is a guest tutor at the Met Film School based at the Ealing Studios.

Zara took time out of her current project to discuss a few of the finer points of being a director and working on Battle of the Sexes.

What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
I think that I always knew that I wanted to tell stories and I had to work out what was the best medium to do that in. I felt that to tell better stories I needed to learn about different kinds of people, and what better way to do that than to make documentaries. And watching films such as Hoop Dreams and One Day in September compelled me to start making documentaries.

How and why did you become involved in making Battle of the Sexes
James (Erskine, co-director) called me and asked me if I’d like to make a film about a tennis match. He runs a company; New Black Films, with producer Victoria Gregory and they have made a couple of sports documentaries that have been successful so I knew they’d be able to pull it off.  Not being a tennis fan (to say the least), I needed a bit of convincing, but as soon as I saw some footage of the match and read more about it, I realised that this was a perfect way to tell a much bigger story about civil rights and equality; and one that would appeal to a wider audience than just tennis fans.

What was the best part about making the film?
Spending time with such inspirational women who were pioneers in their time; learning to appreciate tennis as a sport; editing and researching the archive footage. It was a long and often gruelling process but incredibly rewarding in every aspect. I enjoyed it so much!

What was the most challenging?
The editing took forever. We were in the cutting room over a six-month period. I had never edited something for such a long period of time, so I didn’t know how to pace myself.  Luckily in the end it worked out.  We worked with Adam Recht, an editor who has worked across both drama and documentaries, and we all got to a structure that we were felt worked dramatically. Once we had that locked down it became about finessing and we could have fun with the details.

Bobby Riggs jumping the net in front of Billie Jean King.

Bobby Riggs jumping the net in front of Billie Jean King.

How was the experience of working with a co-director?
We had this running joke that we were staging our own Battle of the Sexes, which we would sometimes say behind gritted teeth, but ultimately on this type of project it is really helpful as there are so many different elements that it is useful to have another brain in the details.

We worked out the structure together and we went into the shoot clear about our aims. As that evolved, we would constantly re-calibrate that vision and structure. In terms of the practicals, we were very clear to take the role of lead director on different shoot days, so as not to confuse the crew (but we were generally both there to back the other one up).  When we got to the cutting room, we would each take a particular section and do a pass and then hand it over to the other one.

The film utilises archival footage. What were some of the most interesting discoveries you made combing the vaults?
I love some of the sexist archive that we found – some of it is just ridiculous and you can’t believe that it is real.   There were also some great things we found that we couldn’t use because of copyright issues – I really wanted to open the film with this kick-ass performance from Janis Joplin but we couldn’t get all the clearances we needed:

I also came across lots of great historical documentaries that are fascinating e.g. D A Pennebaker’s Town Bloody Hall in which Norman Mailer chairs a discussion about Women’s Lib at New York’s Town Hall:

We use a clip from this in the film, but it is worth watching in full!

The discovery of the Mother’s Day Massacre footage is quite the detective story. We had seen clips of it around but nobody knew where the full match was – it hadn’t been seen for many years.  We eventually tracked it down via someone who had been employed to keep scrapbooks for Bobby Riggs at the time of the match. He gave us the tip off about who owned the rights.  This man had died and left the footage to an archive house in his will, so we called them and they said they had no record of it. However, after some pressing, they had a look in their basement and there was a box labelled simply “Tennis, 1973”. When they (reluctantly) loaded this up, it was indeed the full telecast of the Mother’s Day Massacre!  We asked them to transfer it to a digital format for us so that we could see it in London, and in the process of doing that the film disintegrated because it had been so fragile. So the process of transferring it from film to digital both destroyed and saved it.  I find that image quite poetic.

After learning about Billie Jean King and the match, what was it like meeting and working with her?
Totally inspiring. She is a champion in every sense; quite simply, you know you are in the presence of someone who is a leader.  She gave the best life advice – she would always say to me “serve and volley”, which refers to a style of playing tennis where you serve and then run in to the net to hit a volley back to your opponent. It is a metaphor for not being afraid to run into things in life, being bold enough to go for what you really want.

Bobby Riggs seems a very multifaceted character. How do you see him after making the film?
I think he’s a wonderful character. I spent a lot of time with his dear friend (and trainer at the time) Lornie Kuhle because he runs the Bobby Riggs Tennis Museum in San Diego. I went there for a couple of weeks to do archive research. I think Bobby was actually more complex than his persona suggested, and that’s what we tried to convey in the film.

Bobby Riggs

Bobby Riggs

What’s the most important thing you learned from making Battle of the Sexes?
“Serve and volley”! Be idealistic. What this story told me is that humour is a great weapon… It is far better to seek to change things through positive means than sitting around complaining.

 Battle of the Sexes screens from Friday 10 January – Thursday 13 February 2014. 

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