Five Questions for Pawn Sacrifice Director Ed Zwick
The “Match of the Century” — the 1972 chess tournament between American master Bobby Fischer and Russian star Boris Spassky — is brought to life in Pawn Sacrifice, the latest drama from director Ed Zwick (The Last Samurai, Legends of the Fall). Detailing not just the history of the event but the emotions, psychologies and even paranoias of its principal players, the film casts two great actors — Tobey Maguire and Liev Schreiber — in a picture not just about the sport of chess but also the Cold War rivalries of the time. Indeed, Pawn Sacrifice premieres at a time of superpower tension new to many of today’s younger viewers. Below, Zwick talks about today’s politics and 1972’s, television vs. film, and the key to directing suspense.
Filmmaker: Taking place as it does during the height of Cold War tensions, what does the story of Pawn Sacrifice have to say to today’s viewers, the youngest ones of which are watching East-West conflict escalate for the first time?
Zwick: It’s an unhappy coincidence that we now find ourselves in a period of the greatest tension between East and West since the Cold War. One of the challenges of the movie is to make clear to a younger audience just how precarious the situation was in 1972 between the United States and the Soviet Union. With thousands of nuclear weapons armed and aimed at each another, two chess players became the least likely gladiators for their respective ideologies in this very dramatic confrontation.
Filmmaker: Your film depicts Bobby Fischer’s descent into paranoia. What tools of cinema did you use, and what tools, or types of techniques did you want to avoid, in order to capture his mental state?
Zwick: The film makes use of a deliberate juxtaposition between the public view of events and Bobby Fischer’s very personal, very subjective, at times exaggerated experience. He was always deeply concerned — at times even obsessive — about the conditions required to play at the highest level. He was also enormously sensitive to sound; in fact, many believe him to have suffered from a condition known as hyperacusis. Consequently we also paid a great deal of attention to sound design.
Filmmaker: What is the secret to maintaining a sense of tension and suspense in such a focused drama, the outcome of which is known by many viewers?
Zwick: The key to maintaining suspense, I believe, has to do with the audience’s identification with the characters. If, by virtue of the actors’ performances, we feel them experiencing events for the first time, so do we. The best way to tell this kind of story is to imagine you’re speaking to one person, sitting alone in a dark room. If you can’t keep the tension going for them, you have no business making the movie.
Filmmaker: As a director, you worked extensively in television in the early part of your career before focusing primarily on film. That’s the opposite trajectory of many of today’s younger filmmakers, who looking to the small screen for a home for character-based dramas. What advice would you give to independent filmmakers exploring television today? And what are your own interests, if any, in the field of television today?
Zwick: As a storyteller, I’ve moved back and forth between television and film throughout my career. In recent years, the studio’s abdication of serious adult drama to television and independent film has brought forth a veritable renaissance in cable TV, although less so on network. And while the opportunities for young filmmakers to make smaller, independent films are abundant, the chances of these films being seen by a large audience — especially in a movie theater — have diminished. I’ve been especially privileged in getting to make serious movies at a large scale. I worry that many upcoming directors won’t have the same opportunity.
Filmmaker: What was the most important thing about Fischer’s character or person for Tobey Maguire to capture, and how did you work with him to achieve that?
Zwick: Tobey isn’t just a fine actor, he’s a passionate student of the craft. In his preparation for the part, I think he read every word ever written about Bobby Fischer, watched every interview, every documentary, even met and interrogated many of the people who knew him. I’m a bit of a research freak myself, and sometimes I’ve had to browbeat an actor to do his homework. In this case, though, I often had to work to stay with him. But beyond all that, it was Tobey’s determination to honor the man — his talent, his challenges, as well as his psychological complexity — that made our collaboration one of the most gratifying I’ve had.