Fall 2017


Directing for Sport

Resurrecting famous athletes in their prime is no mean feat


(Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/20th Century Fox)

Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton

For the filmmaking duo, the King-Riggs match provided a contrast of hearts and minds.

In prepping Emma Stone and Steve Carell to play tennis pros Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris were just as concerned about body language as they were about serve and volley.

"She wanted to work from the outside in," explains Dayton about Stone, "so she worked to get Billie Jean's walk. We didn't need her to be an expert tennis player, we needed her to have the athlete's swagger. So it was really about the moments between points that we focused on."

Nevertheless, both Stone and Carell toiled with coaches and trainers for four months to approximate the physique and style of play of the film's real-life protagonists, whose much-hyped match in 1973 drew a record TV audience.

For her part, the normally wispy Stone gained 15 pounds of muscle under the guidance of Jason Walsh, who whipped Matt Damon into shape for the Bourne movies.

Stone had the benefit of consulting with King, but Carell did not have a similar advantage since Riggs died in 1995. "We were able to pair him with Lornie Kuhle, who was Bobby's right-hand man and coach," says Dayton. "Lornie worked with Steve every day for four months, five days a week."

While Carell, who owns a tennis court, is no stranger to the sport, he had to recalibrate his skills. "Bobby had his own style," says Dayton. "He walks kind of like a duck and wasn't particularly athletic, but that was part of his game. People would look at him and think, 'I can beat this guy.'"

In the roughly four and a half decades since the match, which King—26 years younger than Riggs—won handily, pro tennis has become much more of a power game; think Serena Williams vs. John McEnroe if such a spectacle occurred today.

"It was a very different style of play [in 1973]," says Faris. "It still takes a lot of skill; it was more strategic but still really hard. So we had doubles."

For example, Stone could deliver a convincing serve, but not necessarily place the ball where it needed to go. So a close-up of the actor might alternate with a wide shot of the double, with digital facial replacement, yet another tool the filmmakers could rely on.

"The way we treated the match [mirroring the original telecast], we weren't going to give the audience any looks behind the curtain," says Faris. "You didn't really know what was happening internally with the characters during that time; your only view was the broadcast view."

(Photo: Photofest)

Brian Helgeland

The director-writer channels Jackie Robinson through Chadwick Boseman in 42.

When Brian Helgeland cast Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson—the Brooklyn Dodger great who broke the Major League color barrier—in 42 (2013), he had the benefit of an actor who played basketball in high school and was already athletically inclined.

"With baseball being this crucible that Jackie dropped into and having to perform on the field, it was really important that Chad do as much of that as possible," explains Helgeland. "If you start trying to hide the face of the guy so you can pull off the action—and in a Jackie Robinson movie—then you're in trouble."

As a result, Helgeland hired a college baseball coach, Dennis Reitz, as well as Dodgers Triple A player David Iden, who played Robinson's position, second baseman, to work with Boseman.

"It started out three times a week and it went to five times a week for three months of Chad looking like a ballplayer," says Helgeland.

There was enough existing footage of Robinson, whether at the plate or churning around the bases, that Helgeland would run videotape of Boseman and Robinson side by side so the actor could perfect his movement.

What was the hardest discipline for Boseman to get right? "It was in the batter's box," says Helgeland. "Jackie had a very distinct stance at the plate, with his elbows kind of out. [Boseman] had to be able to copy it and then sell it [so] it looked natural and didn't interfere with his acting but became an extension of it. It's having the athletic comfort so he doesn't have to think about it."

Although Helgeland stresses it was Boseman you see on the field 95% of the time, he did admit to having used a double in a couple of instances. "There was one situation where he hit a home run and we needed to see the ball really rocketing out of there, and we used a guy from behind for that."

For the other shot, Helgeland "really needed to sell some speed. We had a camera mounted on a cart that followed Jackie going around second toward third in a full-on sprint. And Chadwick was fast, but he wasn't fast like that."

Problem Solving

Directors discuss overcoming challenges and, in effect, making lemons into lemonade when circumstances are less than ideal.

More from this issue
Check out the latest DGA Quarterly, featuring interviews with Kathryn Bigelow, Joe Pytka, Jordan Peele, Todd Haynes, Errol Morris, Alex Gibney, Marc Webb, Erin Ehrlich, Aline Brosh McKenna Brian Helgeland Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.