'Pawn Sacrifice' director Edward Zwick on 'pre-punk hero' Bobby Fischer
People have been searching for the real Bobby Fischer for more than 40 years. The arrogant and enigmatic late chess grandmaster, who was the Mozart of international competition as a teenage champion in the 1950s, was thrust into the zero-sum political rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war. But his personality was actually more Beethoven—genius tinged with madness—and when he challenged world champion Boris Spassky in Iceland in 1972, he was pushed to his limits as the world stopped to see which man, and which political system, was superior.
In Pawn Sacrifice, Tobey Maguire plays Fischer, a beautiful mind whose obsessive understanding of the game of chess raises him to a prominence that the rest of his psyche isn’t quite prepared to deal with. Liev Schreiber plays Spassky, the cool Russian rock-star champion who defended his title in an historic world championship that was covered on the front pages of major newspapers and followed with great interest in corridors of power in Washington and Moscow.
Director Edward Zwick remembers Fischer’s years as a heroic rebel, as well as his sad and ugly decline. The film, which debuted at the Toronto Film Festival and opens in theaters on Sept.18, focuses on Fischer’s singular drive to be the greatest and the cost of his great talent. The revered producer/director shared the film’s exclusive poster and chatted to EW about Fischer, Maguire’s performance, and the failure of Hollywood to produce films that help younger audiences understand the wider world.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Are you or were you a chess player?
ED ZWICK: Like everyone, I was a kid who played chess when I was young. And I am admittedly old enough to have been around during the fervor of the match in Reykjavik and the rise of Bobby Fischer, so those two things conspired to pique my interest.
Well, talk about that. Because I think it might be hard for younger people today to imagine just how big the chess summit was in 1972, when the cold war was intense and a chess match was front-page news. What do you remember most?
Those of my generation who grew up in the midst of the cold war had a very, very strong awareness and very much were sort of influenced by the demonization of the Soviet Union, whether that was through the Cuban Missile Crisis or duck-and-cover, or any of those things that so effected us then. But the other thing you have to realize, the idea of international celebrity was relatively new. The Beatles had come to America a couple years before this, and [Fischer] was one of the first, I would call him a pre-punk hero. He was in some ways unruly and he was unpredictable. He was anti-authoritarian in certain ways. He was also kind of stylish and great looking and homegrown, so all of these conspired to give him this cache. We were all aware of him.
Bobby Fischer was all those things, but pardon my language, but he was also an a–hole.
Absolutely. That’s the pre-punk thing. There’s a certain amount of a–holery that came to be a very important part of his character in popular culture.
Of course, that’s nothing new in terms of cinema. Some of the greatest movies ever made are about extremely unlikable people. But did you wrestle with the challenge of making Bobby Fischer your protagonist?
Obviously, you could evoke Raging Bull, which is an amazing study of someone who you would be hard-pressed to call sympathetic. But listen, more important than being sympathetic is that Fischer would be knowable. And that, in some way, was even harder, because he was introspective, he was self-contained in this way. To me, one of the most moving parts of the story is how isolated he was and how alienated he was, even in the midst of this international spotlight. The question was, Could we understand him? That would certainly open the door for a compassionate perspective.
It certainly helps to have Tobey in the role. People like Tobey Maguire and feel like they know him. What made him a good match for this character?
He has a very particular intensity about him. He has the necessary intelligence and the focus. He’s a research fanatic and had come to know the games and all of the things that [Fischer] had said and people who had known him. So in a way that a great actor can internalize something — something ineffable even — no matter how recognizable they are, after five or 10 minutes, you are watching a story about someone else. You are watching this character rather than watching the movie star. And they are the best kind of movie stars, those who can somehow reimagine themselves before your very eyes.
Steven Knight, who also penned Locke, wrote the script, and clearly he has a gift for untraditional storytelling. How did the two of you make chess cinematic?
I’m never going to be able to teach an audience the nuances of chess, but I think audiences are very much attuned to the struggle between two athletes, as indeed these two chess players are. There’s a line in the movie, when he says, “It’s the domination of one man’s will over another’s.” And that is always dramatic, the idea that it’s as much about mental toughness as it is about memorization and acuity. What I was trying to do, and what I think Steve does wonderfully well, is get inside their heads and really watch what is happening emotionally.
To me, it also works as a sports movie. This kid, comes out of nowhere, faces the champion, loses, fights his way back, and makes it to the rematch. That’s a familiar trope and I think one that plays exceedingly well. I think the challenge will be to have people understand that this isn’t just a movie about chess… but I guess that’s where you come in.
This was not an easy movie to get made, which I find discouraging because it has an Oscar winner behind the camera and an A-lister as its star. But that isn’t enough these days unless the main character is wearing a cape, it seems. It makes me think that so many of your great movies, like Glory and Legends of the Fall and Blood Diamond, wouldn’t have a chance with the studios in 2015 either.
It’s true. Listen, there are a lot of us that are struggling with this. And I’ve had the privilege of making grown-up movies or movies that had complex or ambitious themes. The idea that things can be serious minded but must be somehow balkanized in the art-house ghetto is very upsetting because I think it limits not just the audience who was already going to see it, but those who might have had their tastes developed at a younger age. You know, I went back not long ago and looked at the movies when I was growing up, and there was nothing targeted to me. I watched aspirationally. I looked at movies that maybe I didn’t entirely understand but which developed in me some thirst for their subjects or for their context, and that became part of how I came to understand the world. Now you have things so demographically in niches that I don’t think that there’s that same impulse even to sort of be ambitious in the things as a kid that you look at. But the privilege that I had was doing things that I cared about. … and I’m determined to keep doing that. And if it means having to do it on a smaller scale, then so be it. But that’s the great reward, feeling passionate about your work and interested enough in the subject that you can spend two years on it with the supposition that maybe you can get people interested for two hours.