Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe winning screenwriter, Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog MillionaireThe Full Monty127 HoursSalmon Fishing in the Yemen) delivered a thought provoking masterclass at the NFTS hosted by the School’s Head of Screenwriting, Brian Ward. Prior to the Q&A, students were treated to a screening of his well-received latest film, Battle Of The Sexes, which is directed by Little Miss Sunshine directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton and is based on the true story of the 1973 tennis match between world number one, Billie Jean King and ex-champ and serial hustler, Bobby Riggs.

Critics have widely praised the film with Variety describing it as “boisterously entertaining” and Empire summing it up as “a light, funny, blissfully entertaining flick about heavy, sadly still relevant themes”. It is to the relevance of the time that Simon spoke to first: “Every issue that Billie Jean King was fighting against then has popped up again.” Simon met with Billie Jean King to discuss the project and persuaded her that the film couldn’t be made without dramatizing her private life as well as the match between her and Bobby Riggs. He explained: “It was very important to get that part right and makes it possible for non-tennis fans to enjoy the film as it’s about relationships. She was so open and up for the challenge of telling her story; she was a fantastic collaborator.”

Brian asked Simon how he dealt with researching Bobby’s character as he is no longer with us. Simon replied: “I took my cues from Billie as she was friends with him until he died which is strange given the awful things he said. Billie described Bobby as a clown and an actor playing a part and his coach who I also spoke to said everyone loved him and that he had a strange innocence and nothing was done with malice. It was the Jack Kramers (Head of the US Lawn Tennis Association) of life according to Billie who were the real misogynists and hard to combat.”

One of the students asked Simon how he gets people to open up and achieve such a level of honesty in his films. Simon puts this down to starting life as a documentary director, “I am just nosey! For example, with Slumdog Millionaire, I couldn’t just parachute into Mumbai and say I understand your life. I asked people there what they would shoot a film about. In fact all the stories in Slumdog came from other people. I could have written that film five times over with the stories I heard. I’ve learnt how to shape the stories and decorate them. Everyone’s life is fascinating, you just have to dig around and listen. With Battle of the Sexes, I had my arcs of story for each of the themes: Sports, love story and politics and had to create a symphony of them interweaving.”

Billie was very clear she wanted her husband, Larry to come across as a good man. Simon took this request to heart so much that he is “one of my favourite things in the film; he comes across with so much dignity.” 

Simon then talked about how he likes his films to have layers but also attract the broadest possible audience: “For example, with The Full Monty, people thought they were going to see a film about stripping but the stripping was the Trojan horse as the film was really about the disenfranchisement of men.” And on how to deal with a story where the audience knows the outcome, Simon had the following to say: “You have to get people so involved in the story so they forget what’s coming up whether it’s the guy in 127 hours cutting his arm off or Billie winning the match with Bobby.”

Replying to a Directing student asking about how to best work with screenwriters, Simon said: “I’ve realised that storytelling is very elastic; you can push it, squeeze it, twist it and still get what you want but also get what others want into the bargain. My job as a writer is to find the middle ground. It took me a while to have the confidence to see that a story can be told in a million different ways and not to be defensive. You need the ability to stay on course while being flexible; it’s the screenwriter’s job to navigate through to the screen without losing your way.”

Another student commented that all Simon’s films have a love story at their heart and asked if that was intentional. Simon replied: “It’s all about love and hope. They are the two things that keep me going in life. All the great stories are about love and hope.”

Simon’s next project is a 10-part TV series called Trust, which is directed by Danny Boyle and is currently filming.