Director Edward Zwick and Screenwriter Steven Knight Discuss the Personal and Political of ‘Pawn Sacrifice’

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Bobby Fischer remains one of recent history’s most captivating figures. In 1972, the chess master grabbed the attention of the world, as his showdown with Boris Spassky had the Cold War playing out on a chess board. Though victorious against his rival, Fischer soon found himself losing another battle, a battle for his own sanity. The build up towards Fischer’s Game 6 against Spassky, commonly referred to as “the greatest chess match in history,” is the subject of Pawn Sacrifice, the new film from director Edward Zwick and written by Steven Knight. The film stars Tobey Maguire as the tortured genius. Zwick is no stranger to historical drama. Likely his most famous film is the historical drama Glory. Knight is no stranger to historical drama either, having created the show Peaky Blinders. I recently got to sit down with Zwick and Knight to discuss the film, the larger context of its story, and more.

“We decided very early on that there would be a kind of mosaic – there’s the public realm, which is the media, interviews, and, you know, all the doc footage, and then there’s the narrative, which is these people having this experience, and then there’s the very private internal experience, which is Bobby’s alone,” the director explains of his approach. “And the idea was to create kind of view of those things that maybe would approximate his experience, which was also fragmented.”

“I remember when I was a kid the madness that happened for a couple of weeks when the whole world was – the first news item on the BBC was chess,” Knight says of his memories as to the time Fischer’s chess matches were world news. “I remember the Cold War. It was the Russian versus the American. It was almost as if it had been written.” The natural drama even presented the writer with a fitful finale, “Even just scratching the surface you get the ending of the film – Game 6. All of it just so perfect for drama.”

“We wanted to have a look of things that was really authentic,” Zwick says of the film’s aesthetic. “So we found a lab in Germany that had old Tri-X film that we could shoot on with Bolexes in the way that they really did it, so it had that authenticity. On the other hand, [cinematographer Bradford Young], you know, he’s one of these young guys that’s trained in digital, and it’s the first time I’ve ever shot on digital with an Alexa. He was so reductionist in his process of almost all practicals.”

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“It’s always good to use newspapers at the time,” says Knight of his own search to bring authenticity to his script, “because you get what people then though rather than what history thinks. The best, most useful thing was looking at footage of [Bobby] being interviewed, because you just got the hint what he was, how weird he was, how unusually wired he was. You can tell from his behavior and from the way he developed and eventually imploded was that he sort of chose chess over sanity, and chose chess over reality. He went further and further into this place where it meant he could beat Boris Spassky but he couldn’t carry on after that. If you look at his life subsequent to ’72, you can see that was the end of any vestige of a normal person.”

But the story of Pawn Sacrifice is one of a political intrigue surrounded by personal demise. “What appeals to me is having a larger context to a personal story,” Zwick says. “I think they then can each amplify the other. And I think a lot of my movies have tried to do that, where you see very personal dynamics in the midst of some kind of struggle.”

“We had a story where the facts of the story really conform into really good dramatic shape,” Zwick says of the astounding true story. “We didn’t have to really invent that much. Obviously, shooting what you dramatize. So that’s authentic. What else can you surround him with? The table that they’re playing with at the tournament is they played with in Reykjavík. We reproduced the Herman Miller chairs, and that’s all to give the actors a base in which to find their own truth.”

“This story is one of the classic personal and political combined stories,” Knight elaborates on his fascination to the story. “In many ways, first of all, his mother’s a communist. He has a rift with his mother, suddenly the Soviet Union is his mother. He’s attacking the communists, so he’s attacking his mother. And then, he’s just got this ambition to win. He does hate the Russians, but that’s sort of – it’s not a political thing; it’s because they cheat at chess.”

“He wants to win this tournament,” Knight continues, “but, again, because it ends up that he’s playing a Russian suddenly it’s as if it’s destined. ’72, probably the height of the Cold War, and suddenly this event is happening where an American and Soviet are going to face each other playing a war game, which chess is. There’s something perfect about the events as they unfolded. In other words, the reality combined the personal and political.”

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“I knew that I’d never be able to teach chess to those in the audience that didn’t know it. And I assumed that those who know it would fill in,” Zwick says about trying to convey the nuances of the chess matches. “There was a quote that we all based on something that Bobby once said. He said, ‘The nature of a chess match is the destruction of one man’s will by another.’ That you can photograph. You can find the dramatic stakes of that.”

“The attempt to have them oscillate, vibrate together,” Zwick explains of the film’s personal and political elements, “because this man who had a fear of being surveilled is now under the microscope in the spotlight. This person who only wanted to be a great chess player is now suddenly being used as the gladiator of his ideology. I don’t know, I think it was deliberate to have those things juxtaposed – the public and the private. I felt both of them made the movie work.”

The process to bring Pawn Sacrifice to the screen isn’t just from preparation and delving into 20th Century history. It’s also about getting the right actors. “[Tobey Maguire] has that kind of concentration and discipline. He also plays in poker tournaments for hours with great intensity,” the director says of his star who is also a producer on the film.

While Liev Schreiber had been playing for a long time, the director tells us that he wasn’t even the finest chess player in the cast. “You know, Peter [Sarsgaard] is the one that’s the real master. Peter is ranked as a player.”

“The other actors – Michael Stuhlbarg, Peter, and Lily Rabe – it’s not a surprise that they’re all stage actors, frankly,” Zwick elaborates on the actors that he’s drawn to, “I’m drawn to people like that. I’m drawn to actors who are just able to be grown-ups, and, on a short schedule, do their homework, and be prepared, and bring something really particular to each scene and character.”

Was there a chance for Bobby Fischer to ever overcome his demons? “No,” the director responds quickly. “I think it was fated. I think when he discovered chess or when it discovered him – when you have a psychological, a mental challenge and there’s something degenerating, whether it’s brain chemistry or whatever you want to call it, there is an inevitability to that. I do think that chess, maybe, spared him for a while because it was something else. Yet once he accomplished something that it almost creates like a vacuum that just allowed the rest of it to fill it.”

“Unfortunately,” Knight elaborates on the demons that destroyed Fischer, “a lot of people know of Bobby Fischer from after that, the rantings and the ravings and the madness. It was just a question of we’re not pretending it didn’t happen. It did happen, and to see the real person you sort of see that’s a man that’s lost his mind.”

Ultimately, Zwick explains how he sees the story as another metaphor for the filmmaking process, “It’s an American story about somebody so ambitious and the ambition carries with it the seeds of their own destruction. I think there are certain ways in which filmmakers always make movies that are about making movies, about the struggle and trying to accomplish things over odds, and people trying to stop you, and whatever. So I guess in that way this also has elements of that.”

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