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‘Battle of the Sexes:’ ‘We Wanted This to Feel Like a Film Shot in the ’70s, Not a Film About the ’70s’

Part of effectively conveying the feel of a 1970s film came from originating on celluloid.

When the Bobby Riggs/Billie Jean King “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match took place in 1973, the event was witnessed by some 50 million viewers domestically and nearly twice that many across the globe. King’s victory was seen by some as a repudiation of Riggs’ chauvinistic views, a blow to insecure men everywhere after he had trounced top-rated Margaret Court, while others rationalized his defeat as simply a matter of age. (At 55, he was nearly twice her age.) What was not in dispute is how the match legitimized women’s tennis in the eyes of the sports fans worldwide.

Noted music video, commercial and film directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris signed on to direct a big screen version of this story, Battle of the Sexes, with Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs. They turned to Linus Sandgren, FSF, to lens their project. Before his Oscar win for Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, Sandgren had shot the Gus Van Sant film Promised Land and a pair of features for David O. Russell. The Swedish-born cinematographer logged numerous music videos in the 1990s, later branching out to various TV projects and his first feature, Storm, in 2005.

Battle of the Sexes
Photos by Melinda Sue Gordon

The directors and DP were in immediate accordance over the stylistic choices open to a re-creation of 1970s life. “We wanted this to feel like a film shot in the ’70s, not a film about the ’70s,” DP Linus Sandgren recalls. “We did watch films, like Robert Altman’s Nashville [shot by Paul Lohmann], for atmosphere and authenticity, then discussed how the look could be rather like a thriller from that period. All the President’s Men is a classic reference for me. I was inspired by lighting in other films shot by Gordon Willis, like Klute and The Parallax View, but I found most of my references in still photographers like Ernst Haas and Joel Meyerowitz. We wouldn’t try to accentuate the craziness of the era, but present a rather muted version. Jon and Valerie didn’t want to make this about how wide the jeans of the era were. That may be how it is remembered, but they had old cars from the ’50s and ’60s too, so there is a mix of looks, not just big sideburns.”

Part of effectively conveying the feel of a 1970s film came from originating on celluloid. “We all felt strongly that this had to be shot on film,” Sandgren says. “I was fortunate in having collaborators who are very experienced with the film workflow, like film loader Renee Treyball. My 1st ACs, Jorge Sanchez and Keith Davis, know how to pull focus on film without watching a monitor.”

Emma Stone and Steve Carell in Battle of the Sexes

Sandgren tested Super 16mm with Hawk 1.3x anamorphics alongside 3-perf 35mm, selecting the latter, with Camtec supplying ARRICAM cameras. He then embarked on what he smilingly describes as a “research project to find the warmest, most glowing flared lenses for handheld intimate situations.”

He ultimately went with Kowa Cine Prominar sphericals. “We had HR zooms as well, and also used the Canon K35 25-120mm [2.8] zoom, which has beautiful falloff wide open, similar to Cookes, with a fantastic macro function. There is a second ring on the lens, closer than the focus ring, that you can click on to override the lens setting and focus closer. You can zoom on the fly with the left hand clicking this control, which lets you do a super-fast rack that snaps from this extreme macro foreground to 20 feet distant.”

Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs smile during a news conference in New York to publicize their upcoming match at the Houston Astrodome, July 11, 1973. (AP Photo)

The cinematographer’s go-to lens was a 25-250mm Angenieux T3.5 zoom, which he notes is both smaller than the HR and more golden-hued with its flare. Camtec CEO Kavon Elhami turned up a choice addition to the lens set. “We needed a very long zoom, and [he] found this perfect, really interesting old and unique Angenieux 20:1 zoom, 25-500mm. We also had modern 50-1000mm Canon zooms to cover the matches.”

Daylight shoots were handled on Kodak 5207 250D film (rated 160) and nights with 5219 500T film (rated 320), pushing one stop to 500 and 1000 ASA, respectively. “The push helped us to gain color saturation and contrast so we didn’t need to add it in the DI,” Sandgren notes. “The push also helped to get more grain, which we wanted for the ’70s look. I am not keen to tweak too much things in post, preferring the look be established chemically.”

Part of the DP’s shooting plan was to use the 2.40:1 ratio to visually define the theme of male/female conflict. “We let women, the progressive force, stand on left and look right, while men stay on the right and look back left,” he elaborates. “There are two main visual themes in the film, actually. The second theme was about contrasting the principal characters’ public lives versus their behind-the-scenes private lives. That theme inspired us to let the characters decide the distance we would be from them with the camera. Basically, if the character let us under their skin, we would be very close physically with a handheld camera. When they were public and not so inviting, the camera would step back and have to zoom in. The ultimate distance would be when they are viewed through a TV. With the King character, she hides her sexuality, while Riggs has secrets about gambling that he even hides from himself. So there’s a lot more drama than a straightforward sports film, and that comes out of looking beneath their public facade.”

Sandgren availed himself of handheld shooting to facilitate the more intimate moments. “We had to be delicate,” he admits, “and sometimes that meant changing from dolly and zooms at the usual distance. The Canon zoom/macro function helped out here, such as when Riggs [Steve Carell] tries to get his relationship with his wife to work. I felt that it was so intimate a moment that I couldn’t get any closer with the camera because it would be invading his space. So the zoom was useful to get into the eyes, going very close from a close-up. It was kind of like eavesdropping—trying not to be voyeuristic but letting the camera react emotionally to what was going on.”

Although some films with tennis scenes trot out all the tricks to enhance the visuals when shooting matches, Sandgren and his directors felt the drama was already on display in the story. “We decided to avoid making sensational cinematography,” he states. “A good tennis match is suspenseful, and from reviewing the actual match, we saw the best way to understand what is going on is with one camera at the baseline to cover the action. You can cut in tighter on the serve and then after the point for the reactions, but putting the camera on the tennis ball or using visual effects to stop the action would distract from rather than enhance our story.”

For the most part, visual effects were limited to re-creating the crowds and venue. While the original match took place at the Houston Astrodome, that venue had been badly damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, so Los Angeles’ Memorial Sports Arena doubles for the Astrodome in the film. “We used VFX for both the set extension element and adding people via greenscreen,” says Sandgren. “We used helium balloons and PAR HMIs to light the set as if there was a floodlight toplight.”

Sandgren and his gaffer, Brad Hazen, prefer tungsten incandescent fixtures and cool white fluorescents, but they also carried LEDs from Mac Tech in their lighting kit. “Sometimes I’d key off practicals, but on this film I used them more like props or accents. We worked with mercury vapor colors, so if we encountered LED streetlights, we would color correct them to match the era.”

The film was a mix of location and studio work, with an office and three hotel scenes shot on sets. “There was also a piece of hotel corridor we built on stage,” recalls Sandgren. “We couldn’t find a practical location that worked for the shot as designed, which is a kind of funny scene, with two people walking through and separating as they go around this circular area in the center, then they wind up back together again at the end of the passage.”

The DP cites a few lesser-recognized behind-the-scenes partners for helping him facilitate a credible period feel. “The set decorator is an especially important collaborator for me, both with fixtures and textures [such as] window fabrics. I also love the collaboration with the on-set dresser and the on-set painter, which I use a lot for hiding cables—and I love to age sets.”

Workflow issues with originating on film were minimal in post. “I have a system for digital dailies with Matt Wallach of EC3 [Deluxe’s EFILM/Company 3 dailies lab]. I use a calibrated iPad for stills, having the film developed overnight at FotoKem and then scanned at EFILM. We get CDL settings that can be taken right through editorial. They match up printer lights, essentially duplicating the chemical process. I give notes on the stills, and I’d occasionally go in on weekends and watch dailies at EFILM. We liked adding blue and cyan into the blacks, which gave us a very subtle print-like effect, very unlike the crazy stuff that sometimes happens in a DI.”

EFILM colorist Mitch Paulson handled the DI, while Sandgren, along with Dayton and Faris, would revisit periodically and provide new notes.  Sandgren adds, “Adding color during the DI can makes things saturated rather than colorful, so I avoid that, preferring colors to exist rather than be forced or created after the fact. I try to avoid changing skin tones to something unrealistic. That’s very risky business to me.”