Of the many things Steven Knight has been up to in recent years as a writer, biographies have rarely been among them, but there was something different about “Pawn Sacrifice.”
“It’s not something that I seek out, but when you get an extraordinary life like that with its own beginning, middle, and end, you think that’s a great way to tell a story,” says Knight, who makes it sound as effortless as his subject Bobby Fischer made the game of chess look.
Of course, Fischer’s life wouldn’t seem to lend itself naturally to a film treatment, as extraordinary and unusual as it was — celebrated as the best chess player in the world and ultimately undone by the same instincts that led him to consider every possibility on the board. However, Knight brings an innovative structure to “Pawn Sacrifice,” dividing the story of Fischer (Tobey Maguire) into two separate sections: his upbringing in Brooklyn, by way of a single mother (Robin Weigert) whose communist sympathies and lack of attention to her young son bred anger and resentment, and his triumphant 1972 battle of wits with the Russian Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), a match that captured the world’s attention at the height of the Cold War.
Knight has shown a gift for unconventional narratives in recent years, first breaking into films when he adapted his play “Dirty Pretty Things” for the screen for Stephen Frears and more recently, ratted nerves with nothing more than Tom Hardy driving a car by himself in his sophomore directorial effort “Locke.” But with director Edward Zwick, he gets inside Fischer’s head in a way that the chess master’s opponents could not, allowing the audience to see the emotional and psychological toll of his near-constant state of paranoia with fully immersive scenes that draw heavily on clever sound design, dialogue that crackles with intensity and a fierce performance from Maguire.
In the midst of a busy season for Knight, who has the third season of Netflix’s “Peaky Blinders” and the sequel to “World War Z” to attend to, among other projects, he took the time to talk about getting recruited by Maguire for this labor of love, doing right by the eccentric Fischer, and how his burgeoning career as a director has affected how he approaches being one of the most in-demand screenwriters-for-hire.
I was meeting with Tobey [Maguire] and we were talking about other things, and he mentioned this as one of his passion projects. He really wanted to tell this story. As a kid, I remember being surprised when suddenly the first item on the BBC News was chess for a whole week – the world was watching this chess game. I remember the excitement around it and the fact that suddenly the Cold War was being fought by these two individuals sitting across each other at the table. When Tobey mentioned it, I just remembered that excitement and thought this really would make a great film.
Did the structure of it immediately come to you, where there’s a bit of Bobby growing up in the first half and the second is set in Iceland?
No. The good thing about this was the ending was in place. It was perfect already because of the true story, which is the actual tournament in Reykjavik and Bobby nearly screws it up. Bobby overcomes his own demons and wins and then destroys himself. The ending was, for me, what really clinched it as a story. But then it was a question of how do we get there and going back and finding the stepping stones that would take you from Bobby the kid to this moment.
Absolutely. This is a drama and the battle that takes place across a table is with faces and expressions. Tobey has that incredible intensity that you know will work. When people would talk about Bobby Fischer, they would say that playing chess against him was like having a brick wall fall upon you. It was just one of those perfect matches [for the character].
One might say the same for you, given how you have a knack for taking what’s in the mind and being able to show it emotionally in the scene. Was that was a difficult feat with this film?
Yeah. Because [Fischer] was such an odd person. He had so many idiosyncrasies. It’s like how are you going to get him as a sympathetic character?Because he’s not me or you. He’s someone different. There’s something childlike and honest about him. There’s also something funny about him as well, which means that you can achieve that sympathy. If you’re going to go in his head, you’re going to have to have the trouble as well – the noises and the fear and the paranoia. It was a question of trying to find ways to make the audience understand that this is someone who’s suffering, somebody who’s scared. That’s why he’s behaving the way he is.
For Bobby, I think that chess was a refuge from attention. He had this dislocated childhood. He was bullied and isolated by other people. He sought refuge in chess. Then, as he got better and better, it was chess that got him the attention and suddenly, it was the opposite – it was the thing that was making people take notice of him, so the thing that he thought was his sanctuary then became his enemy.
There’s a brilliant scene in Reykjavik at the very first match Bobby plays against Boris Spassky and you’re watching Bobby become greatly unsettled – or perhaps more accurately, you’re hearing it as all the ambient noises start bothering him. But it wasn’t until the second time I saw it, I realized the creepiest moment is hearing Spassky speak in English for the first time, which is relatively late in the film. Was that a scene you could get creative with?
Yeah. What’s good about having such a damaged hero is that it gives you permission to experiment with things because you know you’re dealing with someone whose reality is broken. Therefore, you can do stuff like that. This is what’s happening to him. A couple of people who’ve got kids who’ve got ADHD said watching that scene made them think is that what my kid feels like? Is that how they experience things? It’s great that it’s having that effect.
Do you actually have any input into designing the sound of a scene like that?
There was a phase in an earlier draft where we were considering actually seeing something that represented what was in his head. It was too far to go to actually see surreal imagery to respect. Then the sound thing does that for us. Bobby Fischer was incredibly sensitive to sound. Just imagining what it’s like for him is what we wanted to try and do.
The best thing to do is assume people know nothing, then you can’t really go wrong. At no point did we assume that anyone going to this would know the Bobby Fischer story and I think if you go out on the street, a lot of people would never have. We had to assume we were introducing this person to the audience, and just lead them towards this moment that if it were fiction you wouldn’t dare do because it’s too huge – how could this chess game become this global [phenomenon] it was.
One of my favorite moments in the film is when Peter Sarsgaard’s character Father Bill Lombardy calms Bobby down by playing a theoretical game of chess with him, like it’s a language only they share. Did you actually have to speak that language fluently yourself to write this?
Lots of things that are normally imaginary are real in this. In other words, the paranoia of Bobby is real because he is being spied on. The metaphor of chess being played between Bobby and Boris and chess being played between the United States and the Soviet Union becomes the same thing and the chess game that was being played during the Cold War suddenly becomes a real chess game. That was the beauty of how this story, in reality, unfolded.
There’s also a nice little substory between Bobby and a prostitute he meets at the hotel he stays at in California. It’s the only time you see him thinking about something other than chess and would seem to be expendable as a plot point, but absolutely integral to showing his character. How did that come in?
Again, it’s the process of taking the reality and making it work in the narrative. That’s based on the fact that he went to South America and just one day decided to lose his virginity. He got a prostitute and he slept with her. The next day, he said, “It’s very nice, but not as good as chess.” [In the film] it’s not worth going to South America to do that moment, but why not Santa Monica? The spirit of it is true. I think it is as it is meant to be, with him thinking, “I’ll try normal life.” He tries it and, “Nah. It’s okay. It’s not for me.”
You’ve said that often you’ll let dialogue lead you when finding what a scene is about and then have to rearrange plot points around it. Do you actually have that leeway with a true story like this?
You still do. Even though you are hopping between stepping stones of fact, in between and even in the factual moment, you can decide how that next step is taken and where it’s taken. You can start off with the scene in an office and you get bored with that, and you think I’ll do it somewhere else. It’s not a big choice. Sometimes that’s the only way to keep it flowing. Like with the example of the prostitute, that’s going to happen, but it doesn’t have to happen in South America. The spirit of it is it’s him sampling life. All of those moments you can still be free with the forming of it.
What was it like working with Edward Zwick on this? From his filmography, it appears he’s a real research hound.
He’s like me [when it comes to research]. It may be Ed I first heard say this really – sometimes you do all the research you can. You find out everything and then you forget it. It’s got to be there somewhere. You’ve got to know something somewhere, but you can’t feel that you’re going to recreate history. Even if you were the most meticulous researcher, you can’t anyway. Therefore, you have to say what was the consequence and how do I get to that same consequence in a similar way?
Has directing a few times yourself now changed the way that you write for others?
Yeah. I understand the brutal difficulty of directing physically. It’s a very difficult thing to do, so it has taught me to trust actors – because I’ve worked with good actors – to be able to deliver. I think as you go through the career of writing that you want to do less and less words. You want silence to work. The ultimate goal is just silence and then you just begin to use words more sparingly.
Oh, yeah. I love writing. It is a sort of compulsion. I have to do it, and I love doing it. There is at the moment a lot of things I’ve written over a period of two or three years. Suddenly, they all get made at the same time, so it may appear that there’s more out there than there is. Yeah. I love to write.
Is it helpful to jump from project to project to another?
It is. I tend not to do that like in consecutive days or something like that. What I tend to do is a chunk of time where you just throw yourself into a project and then maybe it helps to step away from it for a week. Then when you go back into it, you see all the mistakes you made.
A chance to take on a whole host of different genres as well…
Yeah, I like to do lots of different genres. I want to do a western and a comedy – all of them, really, because it’s good for me. It keeps it interesting.
“Pawn Sacrifice” opens on September 16th in Los Angeles and New York and will open in additional cities on September 18th.