The Queen's Gambit creator on 'bringing sexy back to chess' and the series' long journey to TV
It's taken almost 40 years for Netflix’s limited series The Queen's Gambit to wind its way to the screen. The story of Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), an orphan who discovers an astonishing talent for chess and ascends through the male-dominated competitive field, was first published as a novel by Walter Tevis in 1983. The film rights were quickly scooped up, but the project languished in development hell for decades. Such auteurs as Bernardo Bertolucci and Walter Hill were attached at points, and Heath Ledger was preparing to direct an adaptation at the time of his death. But for the last decade or so, it’s been the passion project of writer-director Scott Frank, who connected with the story immediately when he first read the book.
“The very first script I ever wrote was [the 1991 film] Little Man Tate, and originally I wanted it to be about the cost of genius, and I didn't quite get there with it,” says Frank, who also penned such films as Out of Sight and Minority Report, and wrote and directed every episode of The Queen’s Gambit. “I was too young, and I didn't quite understand what I was writing about. And when I read [The Queen’s Gambit] I thought, ‘This is a much better way to tell that story.’ This notion that she's both the protagonist and antagonist in her story, I thought, was really, really interesting, and chess was actually the perfect vehicle to tell this, [with] a chess genius.”
It wasn’t until he completed the 2017 Netflix miniseries Godless, however, that Frank realized he should adapt the novel for television instead of the big screen. “I realized that what's challenging about it is making it into a movie,” he explains. “[If] it’s a movie, you're going to lose a lot of what makes the book wonderful. And so, I pitched it to Netflix, thinking they'd never want to do a book about a little girl playing chess, and they immediately, of course, said yes.”
Once greenlit, however, there were plenty of other challenges to surmount. One of the biggest: how to stage the many, many chess matches that the story required. One would think there are only so many ways to film two people sitting across a chessboard, and yet The Queen’s Gambit finds a new way to do so with almost every game: long takes, quick cutting, time-lapses, split-screen, and more.
“The chess was my biggest worry,” admits Frank, who’s an experienced player himself. “It was the thing I spent the most amount of time on in prep. I was obsessed with finding a way to capture the games, but make them dramatic for people who don't know a whit about chess.”
His solution, he quickly decided, would be to focus on the games’ emotional stakes and the players rather than the pieces.
“I'd watched Pawn Sacrifice, Ed Zwick's film [about Bobby Fischer], and he made me believe that I didn't have to show the board a lot,” Frank says. “So much of that was on Liev Schreiber's face or Tobey Maguire's face that you got everything you needed to know. And I realized watching that film, ‘We have to give each tournament its own personality that reflects where [Beth] is at.’ So the vibe of each tournament became different — the feeling, the look, everything. We would start with, here's the drama of this game, when this happens. And we would always build toward that, and figure out how we're going to arrive at that.”
Here, star Taylor-Joy’s physicality as an actor came into play. “She has eyes in the back of her head,” says Frank of the Split actress. “If the camera moves, she knows how she needs to move. She knows where to be, always, and she's not afraid to be still and to be quiet.”
On top of that, Taylor-Joy and the rest of the cast had to maintain extreme accuracy in the movement of the chess pieces. Every game was designed by one of the show’s “chess consultants,” who included such masters as Bruce Pandolfini and Garry Kasparov. And every game, even the rapid rounds of “speed chess,” was actually played by the actors.
“They're always real moves and it's always very accurate,” Frank says. “You can freeze frame anything, and it's a real chess setup. There's even a whole sequence where you never see the board, but they're still actually moving the pieces where they're supposed to. The actors always knew exactly where every piece was supposed to go.”
There’s more to the series than chess, of course. The Queen’s Gambit is also a coming-of-age story and a luscious period piece — it’s set at the height of the Cold War in the 1960s — and Frank also brought his meticulous nature to the show’s visuals.
“When it comes to colors, and so I don't like to have too many,” the director notes. “We were on a scout in Toronto, looking at a hotel lobby, and the cinematographer was taking pictures. There’s a chessboard in the lobby, and he took a shot, and he caught in the background this girl in a yellow dress running by. The image is so beautiful, and it had five or six colors in it. I said, ‘This is what we're going to use for the whole palette of the show.’ We would kind of amplify it or turn it down, but it was basically the palette. I kept saying, ‘We're making a Douglas Sirk chess movie.’ In between tournaments I would always be walking around saying, ‘We're bringing sexy back to chess.’”
Having now completed his long journey to adapt The Queen’s Gambit, Frank couldn’t be prouder of the finished product. “This was the single best experience I've had in a 30-some-odd year career full of really nice experiences. So it's saying a lot,” he says. “I have no idea how people are going to take it, but it's the first time I'm willing to admit just how happy I am. Normally I'm afraid to ever say that,” he adds with a chuckle.
The Queen's Gambit is currently streaming on Netflix.
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