Photo by Takashi Seida - © 2015 - Bleecker Street
FM Chris Chase recently interviewed Ed Zwick,
director of "Pawn Sacrifice,"
which opens in Boston this weekend.
Interview with Ed Zwick for the movie “Pawn Sacrifice” (9/15/15)
Chris Chase: Hi, Chris Chase here.
CC: Hi, how are you?
Zwick: Fine thanks, how you doing?
CC: Great thank you. I appreciate your taking the time.
CC: To give you some background about myself, I’ve been playing chess since 8th grade.
CC: I grew up with Bobby Fischer.
Zwick: Oh my goodness.
CC: I wanted to be Bobby Fischer. And so…
Zwick: When you say grew up with him—did you grow up knowing him? Or just… as a contemporary?
CC: As a contemporary.
Zwick: Ah! Okay. That makes 2 of us.
CC: So I was wondering, you know, I watched every game of the match, channel 13 in New York, broadcast and channel 2 here in Boston picked up every game of the match. It was the highlight of my 8th grade. And I was wondering, what brought you to Bobby Fischer and chess? After all these years? I’ve looked at your IMDB…
Zwick: Well, I mean, yeah I was a little bit older than you—I was in college, in the dorm. I had played as a kid. I wouldn’t say passionately, but I played a bunch. And, you know I guess, I was very attuned in addition to chess to the political landscape—
Zwick: It was the time of SALT II, and because I’m a little bit younger than you, I was actually maybe in 8th grade or even a little bit younger than that when we were doing duck and cover and you know my friends and I built bomb shelters and so, my awareness of the Cold War, and my interest in it was pretty strong. So—to then see these two men, this young kid, and go out there as a representative of their respective ideologies—certainly captured my imagination then. But, like many things, and by the way other movies I’ve made, I’d also read the story of Robert Gould Shaw when I was at Harvard, and didn’t make the movie about it for twenty years later, so these things, they reside in your imagination some place and then something sparks them. In this case, Steve Knight, was a guy, a screenwriter I’d worked with before, and Tobey Maguire, who was someone I knew because I’d made a movie with his best friend, Leonardo DiCaprio, were involved in this project that I’d heard about—through Steve, and through Tobey, and for all I knew, that they were already to talking to David Fincher, to do it. Only, David Fincher decided to do something else, and I got a call, from everyone saying would I be interested in joining them? And the answer was an unequivocal yes.
CC: Huh. No, I understand that movie was in—I don’t know if production hell is quite the word for it—but a long time coming.
Zwick: The financing was. I mean, it was financing hell. I mean, yes, there were two other writers, and then Steve wrote it, and then getting the financing and all of us working together on script was a long process, and it finally, you know, found its way.
CC: I understand Tobey Maguire’s production company had 10 years involved in this? I want to make—
Zwick: Yeah, I think that’s true.
CC: And what do you think Tobey’s motivation for this—for spending so much time on this?
Zwick: Uh, it’s hard to find a movie that really interests you ever as an actor or filmmaker. When you find one that has your imagination, you stick with it, I mean—
Zwick: In my experience, Shakespeare in Love took, nine years, and—
Zwick: Traffic took six, yeah. And Legend of the Fall took 7, and this is something that we’re all, unhappily resigned to as part of what our lives are like, and you often work on several things at once, waiting for one of them to sort of become real.
CC: Did you ever, I was trying to think earlier about who’s surviving from that, and I could only come up with two names. And one’s Boris Spassky, and he’s living in Moscow, and I believe, early stage Alzheimer’s.
Zwick: He was not someone we could talk to, and actually, Father Lombardy is alive—
CC: Yes, he just put out a game collection. A book recently, which I have. Bill Lombardy is no longer a priest, he put out a game collection, a book.
Zwick: Yes, I heard that, and by the way, we spent a lot of time talking to Paul Marshall’s widow. She was lovely. Paul Marshall died about 3 years ago, but his widow was enormously helpful and forthcoming. I met other people that knew Bobby, and Saidy, and others. And Tobey went out of his way to meet people who’d known him. And there’s a lot been written, and Liz Garbus made a wonderful documentary.
Zwick: And there are the speculative psycho biographies, and there are the things that Bobby himself wrote and his interviews, and its not like there was any lack of material to try to draw upon, but at the end of the day, a film is finally a leap of imagination. It’s not a documentary.
CC: Right. So there’s no particular one source document for the movie.
Zwick: Not one. There were so many.
CC: Right. It’s a very good looking movie. I saw the screening here in Boston last week; it’s a handsome movie.
Zwick: Well, that’s nice. We didn’t have a lot of movie, but Brad Young is really one of the rockstars of his day as a cinematographer, and we had a great group of people in Montreal. It’s a very vibrant film community there, and they’re used to making do with very little. And so, we did our best.
CC: Well, you certainly got your money’s worth, because it’s a very good looking movie. I was very impressed. And you actually did some filming in Reykjavik? In Iceland?
Zwick: Oh, we went to Reykjavik for about two days—it’s all we could afford—for about 2 and a half days. Actually, we arrived and started shooting at night, and went through the day. And then shot the next day and night. And then we flew—we had 2 days in Los Angeles at the end I did the pickup crew to get those shots at the beach and at the Hilton.
CC: I was surprised. I was thinking much higher budget, based upon…
Zwick: Well, the reality, you talk about net and gross, because you try to get tax rebates. We had about 19 million dollars to make the movie, really.
CC: That’s all?
Zwick: That’s all.
CC: That’s amazing. You all did an amazing job on that then, because it looks much more expensive than that. You have, I think A-list stars on it.
Zwick: Everybody on the movie liked it. Well, every movie an actor loves, so using that phrase is a bit clichéd, but people did this because they liked the material and they wanted to do it, and nobody was doing it for the money.
CC: Well, that’s good. I’m very amazed by that. I had another question. Most of you movies are sort of what I call earthy. But this movie is very intellectual, in a sense. How do you, as a filmmaker, how do you handle that? In A Beautiful Mind, they had some color things with numbers flashing across the screen, and I’ve found it always hard when people try to represent chess in movies. That seemed to me a challenge for you.
Zwick: It was. I knew that it would never be possible to teach the audience chess. I could only hope that those who knew it would understand that we had some sense of what we were doing, with other errors hopefully forgivable, or compressions, or omissions, or oversimplifications because when you’re in a world of film, everything is necessarily reductive, and so things stand in for other things, almost like poetry—this means this, this, and this. That being said, I believe that there was the ability to do something that would be accessible on an emotional level, or maybe better said, on a subjective level. And I think what you’re maybe suggesting is this is the first movie that I’ve done that is more of a character study, and that dominates over the historical context, or even the plot context. It is deeply introspective in that way. Trying to capture his subjective experience. And I think that was based on things Bobby had written himself, when he said that Chess is the domination of one personality by another, or a book that I read, which you might know, many years ago, that John McPhee wrote, called Levels of the Game, and he was writing about a Tennis Match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner, in 1968 or so, in which finally, his thesis about who won was about mental toughness. And I tried to say there was a way to juxtapose this internal experience with a larger political context in which it took place, and to even suggest that there was some kind of spill some kind of resonance between the two. Because Bobby Fischer, if you think about it, was really the very beginning International media culture—how someone who was unknown could suddenly become a household name within weeks. And Bobby Fischer was the least prepared person for that—
CC: of anybody. Chess players are like that too, although now it’s different, with Magnus Carlsen being a fashion model.
Zwick: Although, I met Magnus actually just the other day.
Zwick: We saw a demonstration in which he played four players, he played blindfolded. Four players at random played against him, and he had a clock, and he took them all each within 10 minutes of his time. It was really a remarkable moment.
CC: There’s a fellow in Las Vegas who’s a Grandmaster, and he’s trying to set the record for blindfold simultaneous of 58 boards.
CC: It’s that much. He came here and played 10 boards at once, at the Waltham Chess Club in Waltham, MA. He’s working hard on that. He’s going to play 50 boards in October at a Mensa meeting in Chicago.
Zwick: In any case, he is a sociable person, but you can also see that there seem to be certain social anxieties that anyone who becomes that sort of reluctant media star has. I sensed a little bit of that.
CC: In Magnus? Probably?
Zwick: Just a bit, yeah.
CC: Bobby certainly had that. Bobby was just—he’d be very happy on a run by himself with someone else playing.
Zwick: Yeah, and that’s the point, that someone like Magnus, or today, people who are magnificent Olympic swimmers, or people who are even ballerinas, they do have some opportunity to develop other aspects of their personality or to be socialized, and you have the feeling that really, he was so involved, from such a young age, and that chess became such a refuge to him, and devoted himself, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, to this extraordinarily draining mental exercise.
CC: It’s a very hard game. And one thing about Bobby, and most chess players of his era, was that they had this artist mentality, because there was no money in chess. No social standing.
Zwick: Although Kasparov and Magnus both said that, in fact, even in the midst of all of his demands, you know, he would make 20 demands, and five of them became so important to legitimize and professionalize chess that, in fact, it was a remarkable way in which the game did gain stature and respect by virtue of what he did.
CC: That’s true. His demands, seemed unreasonable at the time, but actually were very reasonable, in effect. When he forfeited the championship, he had 3 or 4 demands, which they wouldn’t meet, and all 3 or 4 of them are quite reasonable. Not the demands of a crazy person. Very reasonable. But the Russians have always controlled, more or less, the International chess organization. So they weren’t going to agree to anything. Not for him. At that time. A couple of other questions. My understanding is that you’re Jewish?
Zwick: I am Jewish, yes.
CC: I was wondering how you handled Bobby’s, personally and cinematically, his virulent anti-Semitism.
Zwick: What can I say? I know a little bit about what it was to be those Jewish communists in New York in that period, and to be a red diaper baby. I was not, although I’ve known many people who were. I’m very interested in what the currency is of that kind of madness as it declines. I have anecdotal experience with people who’ve had breaks. And it was very interesting to me in both of those cases, other cases, in which they chose something regressive as the currency of what they would focus on, obsess about, be delusional about. Something from childhood. Something unexpected. In this case, the idea that he would seize on surveillance, but also his Jewishness, was not surprising to me.
Zwick: Yeah. We also know that anti-Semitic self-loathing is something that people think about who are not having mental health issues. And the idea that there could be some. Now again, I’m venturing out way past my area here. I’m not a mental health professional, I’m a writer, and I’m not a physician, I’m a poet. This all just the kind of speculation that one makes. But as far as the Jewishness went too, there was great ambivalence toward one’s Jewishness even among the American Communist Party.
CC: Right. We’re just all puzzled by it. Most chess players will discuss that, and they’re really quite puzzled by how Bobby could be so anti-Semitic and yet be Jewish himself.
Zwick: Yeah. And we didn’t even get to, because it just didn’t seem to be what the point of the movie was, where he got to by the end. I also did try to talk a little bit in the movie about the world wide church of god and that fascination that he had with that really nutty voice too.
CC: When he spent the night in the Pasadena jail, he put out a pamphlet.
Zwick: Exactly, I know.
CC: He was arrested and stripped down, and beaten, and all these terrible things, which have to be fantasy. I would think they would be fantasy.
Zwick: I know.
CC: Going into this, what did you think of Boris Spassky?
Zwick: My impression was that Boris Spassky was quite a like a wonderful sportsman. That he had a great sense of the game and the sort of the honor of the game. I know that he was not an ideologue. I know that as soon as the Soviet Union broke up that he moved to Paris. I know that he probably stayed and didn’t defect because his wife and children were there during this time. And the fact that he then developed this peculiar friendship with Fischer for the next years that followed I think spoke enormously well of him.
CC: Right. No, he was actually friends before that. He actually recommended—
Zwick: He and Fischer were friends.
CC: Yes. They went on a grand tour of South American Chess Tournaments somewhere in the 50s. And I remember, the one thing I remember is that Bobby used to come to the board with blue jeans and t-shirts on, looking like a teenager. And Boris recommended that, why don’t you look better? Why don’t you dress better? And he started wearing suits.
Zwick: I love that, because he ended up being quite a dresser. That was one of his great trademarks.
CC: That’s right, and that basically comes from a comment that Spassky made to him—a friendly comment made to him.
Zwick: Huh. Well, boy, you certainly have immersed yourself in all of the Fischeriana.
CC: As I said, I grew up with, you know, for or better or for worse, right? I mean, after 75’ though, he disappeared completely. He sort of broke our hearts. I think it’s a great American chess tragedy.
Zwick: Maybe really just an American tragedy and not just a chess tragedy.
CC: That’s true. One last question, if I could. You mentioned that Paul Marshall, actually a fine performance, one of the strongest performances in the movie, I think, by Michael Stuhlbarg.
Zwick: Yeah, Michael Stuhlbarg.
CC: You mention the fact, you imply that he might be CIA, or a government agent.
Zwick: Well, what I imply, at least, what I look at, at that period of time, if you think about 1970, 1971, and what you know about the connections between the White House and business, and whether it was Bebe Rabozo, or whether it was money in a slush fund that ended up dirty tricks, or Watergate, or any of these things, there was money, and the actual tracing—there wasn’t nearly the same kind of scrutiny and/or ways in which money was traced. And the fact that they may have funneled money to Bobby, so as to help him represent, even before that English guy raised the purse, you know, heightened the purse, I was led to believe, and I think it was Dotty Marshall who even suggested to us that, yeah, there was help given. I mean, look at all of the things that were talked about in terms of some of our athletes even around that time or later, you know, it would not surprise me at all, that there would be some kind of assistance.
CC: Okay, so that was the point you were trying to get across.
Zwick: Yeah, it’s like we said, Bobby wants limos, he gets limos. I’m not suggesting that there was a great scandal about it, but I—the anticommunism of a certain group of people, including in the Nixon administration was pretty strong.
Zwick: Here was an opportunity to give the Soviets a bloody nose. I think Nixon did have a TV put in the White House, and Kissinger did call them. These are the facts.
CC: Actually, where did you get the fact about Nixon having a TV in the oval office?
Zwick: Uhh, forgive me, I don’t remember.
CC: Because I mentioned to a couple of people, and they couldn’t remember it.