‘Challengers’ Is a ‘Pure Fantasy for Me,’ Says Screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes

Despite the parallels between both films, screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes did not mine much from his own life to write “Challengers” in the same way his wife Celine Song did for her Oscar-nominated film “Past Lives.”

“‘Challengers’ is a pure fantasy for me,” Kuritzkes recently told IndieWire over Zoom. Having gotten hooked into obsessively watching tennis after the infamous 2018 U.S. Open match between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, he added that “‘Challengers’ really came out of this desire to have information about the matches I was watching. It was really something that I think a lot of people who watch tennis do, which is that you transpose a personality onto the player from these little crumbs that you’re given. It’s what tennis commentators do all the time. They see somebody make a little motion or something, and they go, ‘Here’s what he’s thinking. Here’s what’s going on in her mind.’ And it’s, of course, total speculation, but I wanted to just speculate like that on a deeper, more dramatic level.”

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While the “Challengers” script stems from the experience of observing characters, Song told IndieWire last summer that “Past Lives” came from an experience of being observed. “It was me sitting there with my childhood sweetheart and my American husband and translating between the two of them,” Song said. “And first of all, how powerful I felt because I’m in control of time and space or of this amazing meeting of these two people in the universe with no business knowing each other. As we’re sitting there, because we were such a weird trio, I could see that in the bar, people are looking at us trying to figure out who we are to each other.”

Kuritzkes does however note that it is almost impossible for personal experience to not inform the story a writer’s telling. “All you have is your own life. That’s how you learn about people. That’s how you learn how people tick, what people are like,” he said. “But writing is always a meeting place between those things. You bring what you’ve got and you go towards somewhere else.”

'CHALLENGERS': Zendaya, Josh O'Connor
‘Challengers’Niko Tavernise /© MGM /Courtesy Everett Collection

Those choices can be made subconsciously as well. For instance, the screenwriter admits he was not thinking about his mother, who is a real estate lawyer, when he put a joke in the “Challengers” script about Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) saying to his Tinder date “tell me more about real estate law” just to distract her while he observes Tashi (Zendaya) in the same hotel lobby in New Rochelle.

“I really, really truly didn’t even think about that, but I guess that’s why I knew a lot about real estate law,” he said. “My dad’s a gastroenterologist. He would go to conferences in places like New Rochelle … Those kinds of dreary hotel lobbies where you have a name tag and stuff, I connected with that world a lot, definitely, because that is the world of those kinds of professions [my parents had], for sure.”

In fact, being present for the production of “Challengers” allowed him to test drive even more professions to give his characters. “When we were shooting the movie, we were all staying at the same hotel in Boston, me and Josh and Mike [Faist], and there was a dermatologists’ conference in the hotel, and we crashed their party one night and pretended to be dermatologists. So we all could envision ourselves in that world,” he said with a laugh.

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