Linus Sandgren is currently shooting First Man, the Neil Armstrong starring Ryan Gosling where Sandgren will help Damien Chazelle visualize the ’60s men and women who took mankind to the moon. The cinematographer won an Oscar for his work on La La Land, and this year his enormous talent is on display in Battle of The Sexes.
Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have brought us a celebration of Billie Jean King that focuses on the landmark 1973 tennis match between her and Bobby Riggs. The film takes us on and off the court, showing King as she fights for equal pay and equal respect in the sporting world, a fight that is still being fought, and gives us an intimate look at a woman who is coming to terms with her sexuality.
I caught up with Sandgren to talk about how he created the authentic look of the 1970s and what drew him to the film. “They approached me about the story and I was intrigued about it because I’ve always loved their work. I loved the story. I have two daughters and thought it was such an empowering story for women.”
How did you create that look and vibe?
I always like to look for how the script wants to be told, combined with the vision of the director. With the motivation of having the film set in the ’70s, I felt the only thing was to think about how they did things back then, such as how they’d approach things in a ’70s contemporary drama. The films that we loved the most that we looked at were thrillers and how they told stories back then. It was a matter of how the camera told stories through metaphor. We were going to work on film and we tested everything from 60mm to 35mm and in the end shot it in 35mm. We started talking about the aesthetics and how they wanted it to look like it was shot in the ’70s.
The other part was to add the visual storytelling aspect to it the way they did back then so we used dollys and handheld cameras rather than Steadicam. We looked for storylines in the film that could be served as a base for metaphors and we ended up working with three themes in the storytelling.
The main story was that the women are progressive and forward moving. The men were backward moving so we wanted to visualize that by having women in situations where they confronted each other, and women were moving left to right which was the classic forward motion, and men were moving right to left. In confrontations, we had men looking left and women looking right, but it was something we wanted to use as a visual metaphor.
We also had the theme of the characters private lives and we wanted the camera to be emotionally motivated in the film, if the characters let us under their skin, we could get closer with the camera, but if we weren’t then we’d feel like outsiders.
We also had the thing in the film where they felt lonely and that was something we worked on. We wanted to show Larry’s loneliness and his solitude, we stepped back for his shots.
I feel that was very ’70s to think about those things and give audiences a very subtle storytelling that still speaks to the audience without them thinking about it.
There’s a visual change when you show the love scene in the hotel room, the texture changes to a much softer look.
That is the typical example of when we went from scenes where things were shot on longer lenses and the camera wandering through in longer shots, and when you get to the hotel room, it’s the first time we cut to a handheld camera because that was the most intimate and vulnerable situation we could find ourselves in. We had Marilyn take off Billie Jean’s glasses so she’s even more naked, rather than her clothes. We didn’t want to be exposing everything, it was more mysterious to keep it with less is more.
The scene was backlit to keep it romantic. It was a vulnerable situation for the actors too, but our aim was to keep it romantic without being erotic and have you feel the romance and love.
Let’s talk about the Astrodome match, the finale. Who was your most important collaborator with that sequence?
It was a great collaboration between many departments. It was the actors learning and acting as if they were the professional players and combining the tennis stand-ins. We copied and recreated the match. The players played the important points exactly the way the match was played. That whole world was built by Judy Becker, she made the court and the bleacher. We shot in the LA Memorial Sports Arena and we used green screen.
Colorwise, it was that great collaboration with Mary Zophres, the costume designer and Judy Becker, both of whom I’ve worked with. That whole match was a bit of a puzzle to put together, but we did it, we figured out how and where to place the suspense.