Battle of the Sexes at Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz

Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris on ‘Battle of the Sexes’

‘Little Miss Sunshine’ creators talk about their most recent film, before upcoming screening and Q&A

Emma Stone and Steve Carell play Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in ‘Battle of the Sexes.’

Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have a special bond with Santa Cruz. The husband-and-wife directing team, who got their start in music videos and advertising, had a colossal indie hit with their debut feature film, 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine—and it got a huge boost from Santa Cruz audiences, who turned out in droves and kept it running locally for months. Dayton and Faris did a Q&A for Little Miss Sunshine back then, and they’ll do the same for their newest film, Battle of the Sexes, after the 7 p.m. screening at the Nick on Thursday, Sept. 28.

Some might wonder what turned Little Miss Sunshine into one of the most popular movies of the 21st century in Santa Cruz, but Dayton and Faris have no doubt about their secret weapon: Valerie’s dad, Jim Faris, a longtime Hollywood film editor who retired to Santa Cruz in 1983.

“It’s due to my father,” says Faris. “He wore the [Little Miss Sunshine] T-shirt, the ‘Everybody Pretend to be Normal’ shirt, almost every day for probably three or four years. Every store, particularly grocery stores, he would talk to every clerk: ‘Have you seen Little Miss Sunshine? My daughter made that.’ The epitome of a proud father.”

“It’s the power of a single person and his campaign on behalf of his daughter,” says Dayton.

The elder Faris passed away last year, at the age of 97. Having begun his film career in the 1940s, he was best known locally for co-founding the popular UCSC Lifelong Learning Institute.

“He had the time of his life in Santa Cruz,” says Faris. “It was the happiest 30 years of his life. That community is just so incredible.”

When the directors return to Santa Cruz this week, it will be for a much different project than fans of Little Miss Sunshine or their 2012 film Ruby Sparks might expect—at least on the surface. Their previous projects were small stories about quirky characters; Battle of the Sexes tells the story of arguably the most famous tennis match of all time: Billie Jean King’s 1973 victory over Bobby Riggs, the former champion who claimed women players were inferior and could not beat him even in retirement. Emma Stone stars as King, and Steve Carell plays Riggs.

But Faris says the film is not as different from their past work as it might seem.

“Even though it is a big story, and it is about a very famous event, I think what really interested us was really the personal stories, and getting intimate with these characters,” she says “Which is really what always interests us—the characters and their relationships and their struggles. And this one had a pretty great one; Billy Jean’s struggle at that time was just really fascinating to us, and something we didn’t know previously.”

“It was definitely a matter of sharing something that the public was unaware of at the time,” says Dayton. “So whether you were alive then, or coming on the story now, there’s a lot beneath the headlines.”

But wasn’t it more intimidating to take on a real-life story that so many people are familiar with?

Very intimidating,” says Dayton.

“On so many levels,” says Faris, illustrating the couple’s truly startling knack for finishing each other’s sentences. “Billie Jean was involved early on with the development of the project, and then during prep. So we were very aware of getting her approval, and wanting her to be happy with it, and wanting her to be able to support the movie. And she is fully supporting it now, which is incredible. For two-and-a-half years, we were living in fear of …”

“… Letting her down,” says Dayton. “We’re talking about a story of a woman coming to terms with her sexuality while being married and being in the public spotlight. So these are things that have to be handled delicately. And also, by having Steve and Emma in the film, we knew we had the potential to reach an audience with subject matter that isn’t normally seen in a sports movie or a …”

“ …. Mainstream movie,” says Faris.

With a strong opening last weekend and enthusiastic reviews, Battle of the Sexes could be their biggest movie yet. But they’ll have to do it without their secret weapon.

“We really miss him on this one,” says Faris.

So does Santa Cruz.

Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton will discuss ‘Battle of the Sexes’ at a Q&A session after a 7 p.m. screening at the Nick on Thursday, Sept. 28. The film opens Friday at the Nick.

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