INTERVIEW: The Battle of the Sexes scriptwriter Simon Beaufoy

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New film The Battle of the Sexes retells the story of the legendary 1973 tennis match between women’s world champion Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, played by Emman Stone and Steve Carell. Simon Beaufoy, left, has written the screenplay.

Scriptwriter Simon Beaufoy is responsible for such well-loved films as The Full Monty and Slumdog Millionaire. Stratford Samaritans are hosting a charity screening of his latest film, The Battle of the Sexes, tonight (10th October) at the Everyman Stratford – sponsored by George Pragnell. Here the Studley-based writer tells Gill Sutherland about the film and his work.

What is the appeal of the story of The Battle of the Sexes?

“The plot is loosely based on the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, and stars Emma Stone and Steve Carell. It’s a fabulous mix of sport, politics and there’s a love story — all be it a rather sad and unresolved love story. Billie Jean King was in love with another woman while all this was going on. At the time you weren’t allowed to be gay. There wasn’t a single gay person in sport and if anyone found out she would have lost all her sponsorship and be vilified.

“While Billie Jean was one of the most public figures on earth at the time — the match was watched by 92 million people — she was the last person who wanted to be in the public eye because she didn’t want anyone finding out about her private life. So that’s what the film is exploring: the public battle of men versus women and the private battle going on in her own life. At the time she was married to a man, so trying to make that work, and having a love affair with another woman.”

How did you go about putting the script together?

“I went and visited Billie Jean in her New York apartment and asked her if we could tell this story. She looked me in the eyes and said: ‘I’ve seen every single one of your films, and I like them — you’re the right person to do this.’

“It’s a great deal of responsibility; I know she will be sitting next to me in the cinema so you have to be not to get it wrong, to do right by her. At the same time you have a duty to your audience to make sure they are watching a well crafted story.”

What is Billie Jean like?

“She is great fun and, with a huge amount of energy. I had script meetings with her that lasted ten hours, I’d crawl out of the room going I have to stop, but she would be puzzled as to why. She still has the stamina of a champion — you don’t get to win all those grand slams without having to have immense staying power and commitment to the task. She’s wonderful, it’s been a real privilege doing the project and getting to know her.”

As many people know who won The Battle of the Sexes match, is it difficult to maintain the tension in the film script given that?

“It’s a problem that always crops up. I did a film a few years go called 127 Hours and the only thing that anyone would know about it before they went into the cinema was that there was this guy who got his armed trapped beneath a boulder and he chopped it off with a penknife — so somehow you involve people in the story enough that they forget that, it comes at them as a surprise: ‘Oh of course that happened I forgot!’ ”

What do you hope audiences will get from the film?

“I never like to predict. But the idea is that it’s a film about fairness – and everyone knows that if they have been treated unjustly then that’s something that gnaws away at you. It’s a film about someone who all her life has combatted that: Whether that’s on the public stage with Bobby Riggs saying men are better than women and I’ll prove it, or in her private life, where society told her she wasn’t allowed to love the person she was in love with. So really it’s a very hopeful message about battling injustice from someone who has done all here life.”

Given that this happened in 1973, how does it resonate now given that equality has not been reached in tennis still?

“It’s terrifying. John McEnroe has done lots of publicity for us recently, bringing the debate up again 44 years later [when he sneerily said Serena Williams would only be 700 in the men’s seeds]. Not really as much has changed as one would hope. All those debates about gender rights and equal pay have all bubbled up to the surface again and there’s a huge groundswell among women to go back on the battle lines again.

“What is great is the debate about sexuality has moved on, that’s in a different place now thank goodness.”

It must be great when you see people of Carell’s and Stone’s caliber acting your words, did you get a say in who starred in the film?

“Yes, these days I’m old enough so I do! They were both number one on our lists and both said yes so it couldn’t have worked about better because they are both perfect for the roles.”

What’s your favourite part of the whole film-making process — is it writing alone at your desk or watching it in the cinema?

“There is nothing like being in a cinema with 400 people moving with the emotions of the film — tears, laughter or whatever. As I’ve usually seen it so many times along the way, it’s wonderful to watch the audience rather than the film!”

You’ve won various awards, including an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire, and scored huge success and an Oscar nomination for The Full Monty, which you wrote when you were just 30, how was that early success, were you a sensible feet-on-the-ground Yorkshireman?

“I’m an awkward Yorkshireman so usually go in the opposite direction! It was a lovely thing to get it sort of weirdly takes a strange pressure off — whatever happens now no one can take that away from me. What it did was open up doors to make films we were passionate about. Because its easier to make the big commercial movies rather than the ones you care about. So after Slumdog we made 127 Hours, not a film we’d managed to get off the ground before we had won eight Oscars!”

How did you become a scriptwriter?

“It was more by accident really. I had trained as a documentary maker at Bournemouth Film School and I was finding it very difficult to get various documentaries off the ground; people wouldn’t say what I wanted them to! So I thought I will write down what I want them to say! And sort of found myself writing a script and it turned into a screenplay called Among Giants… and I found myself never making a documentary ever again.”

Who are your favourite writers?

“That is such a difficult question. I am going to say my very good friend is Lee Hall [who wrote Billy Elliot]. We have co-written scripts together and our brains think in a similar way and we find the same things funny and interesting.”

Finally what does it mean to be involved with this screening for the Samaritans?

“I was a volunteer with the Samaritans for 12 years, manning the phones in central London. I’ve always admired what they’ve done for mental health issues, and for people that are lonely or have suicidal thoughts. I just think they are the best voluntary groups in the country and one of the most needed at the moment.”

The Samaritans charity screening of The Battle of the Sexes is sold out. The film is released in the UK on 24th November.