Dayton, Faris wage their own ‘Battle of the Sexes’

The married couple, known for helming ‘Little Miss Sunshine,’ returns with this weekend’s 1970s tennis comedy

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Toronto -- With 28 years of marriage under their belt and a professional partnership that stretches back even farther, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris know a thing or two about navigating the battle of the sexes.

“We both have very strong opinions,” says Dayton, seated next to his wife inside a conference room inside the Park Hyatt Toronto hotel earlier this month during the Toronto International Film Festival.

Married couple Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris directed “Ruby Sparks,” released in 2012, and 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine.”

When asked who has the stronger opinions, he immediately gestures with both hands toward Faris.

“I just had a twitch!” he says.

“Or maybe because I’m a woman,” Faris retorts, “my opinions seem stronger, because I’m asserting myself.”

And here we go.

Dayton and Faris are here to talk up their movie “Battle of the Sexes,” which opens Friday and tells the story of the 1973 exhibition tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. The film stars Emma Stone and Steve Carell, and while it takes on themes of gender equality and King’s closeted sexuality, it does so with a playful sensibility, like a good pop song.

“Obviously, we have a very strong point of view regarding these events, and I think the film reflects it, but we didn’t want it to be this piece of propaganda or this polarizing movie,” says Dayton.

Adds Faris: “We thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could make this story a mainstream movie?’ Because if you can get an audience to go with a movie, all the personal stories, what she was struggling with, what Bobby was struggling with, all the issues at play, and to have a mainstream audience experience that, that was exciting to us. If it was just a little movie that nobody sees, it would be fun for us to make, but sort of the point is to get people to see it and discuss it.”

Valerie Faris, left, Jonathan Dayton, Alan Cumming, Billie Jean King, Emma Stone, Austin Stowell, and Elisabeth Shue of “Battle of the Sexes” attend the 2017 US Open with King in August.

Dayton and Faris’ last film was a little movie that nobody saw. Released in 2012, “Ruby Sparks,” starring Paul Dano as a novelist and Zoe Kazan as the character he writes that springs to life out of the pages of his book, came and went with little notice and earned just $2.5 million domestically. It was a huge comedown from “Little Miss Sunshine,” the duo’s debut film, which was a runaway hit in 2006 and earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Alan Arkin.

This time out, Dayton and Faris have their fingers crossed for a hit, because hits make it easier for them to work.

“We’ve always been able to make the movies we’ve wanted to make,” says Faris, “but, hopefully, it will get a little easier.”

Dayton, 60, and Faris, 58, grew up in California and met at UCLA film school in 1979. As a team, they worked on projects including the MTV series “The Cutting Edge” and “The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years” (which they produced), and they tied the knot in 1988. In the ’90s, they became household names among the MTV set after directing a series of iconic music videos, including clips for Extreme (“More than Words”), the Smashing Pumpkins (“Tonight Tonight,” “1979”) and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (“Otherside,” “Californication”).

In conversation, they’re warm, friendly and engaging, nothing fussy about them. Dayton dons a straw fedora hat and they both wear round, thick-framed glasses, and look as though they could be hipsters at a cool vintage shop.

The couple has three children together who are studying to be filmmakers.

“They keep us very humble,” Faris says. “They’re very supportive, but they don’t go easy on the criticisms.”

Working with Dayton, Faris knows she has been able to avoid many of the roadblocks that her fellow female directors have faced and continue to face.

“I don’t think I’d have the opportunities I’ve had if I was working alone, there’s just no question,” she says. “It’s always interesting to me because I get invited to these panels of women filmmakers and I always feel a little bit like an imposter, because I haven’t had to face the same kinds of discrimination.”

Dayton cuts in: “You’ve really held me back, is what’s happened,” he jokes.

“Oh yes, I’ve held you back,” Faris says with a roll of the eyes.

“Yep, I’m serious,” Dayton says. “I could have been Michael Bay!”

And back and forth, the lobby continues.


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‘Battle of the Sexes’

Rated PG-13; opens Friday

Return to The Detroit News on Friday to read film critic Adam Graham’s review of the move