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Focal Point

In-depth interviews with directors and cinematographers by Jim Hemphill

“Most of the Movies You’ll Want To See This Fall Will Be Independents”: Edward Zwick on Pawn Sacrifice

Live Schreiber and Tobey Maguire in Pawn Sacrifice

in Columns, Directors, Interviews
on Sep 23, 2015

Writer, producer, and director Ed Zwick is a singular presence in the American media landscape – and a presence whose gifts become increasingly valuable as they become less and less common. He’s a filmmaker committed to serious, important subject matter who never succumbs to didacticism or pat conclusions; he has never once compromised the complexity of the issues his films address or the people whose lives are affected by them. What’s all the more remarkable about his work is that he achieves this complexity via mass entertainments that are as straightforward and involving as they are ambitious and adult – in films as wide-ranging as Glory, Courage Under Fire, The Siege and Blood Diamond, Zwick has evolved an approach by which the sophistication of his ideas is matched and complemented by a surprising emotional accessibility. His first feature, About Last Night, set the tone for what would follow in its seamless blend of raucous, hilarious comedy with thoughtful emotional and psychological inquiry; after that, he quickly added a historical and political component to his work without losing his ability to move or entertain his audience. I can think of few other directors whose movies are simultaneously so intellectual and so rich in emotion, and Zwick’s filmography is all the more impressive when one takes into account that as a writer and producer he has been involved with several of the best television programs of their era (Thirtysomething, Once and Again, My So-Called Life).

Zwick’s latest picture as director, Pawn Sacrifice, is in perfect keeping with his effort to find “the intimate in the epic and the epic in the intimate.” It tells the true story of American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer (played by Tobey Maguire), a Brooklyn whiz kid who becomes an international celebrity when he takes on Soviet champion Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) in 1972. The match becomes both an extension of and a metaphor for the Cold War, a situation that’s perfect for a director of Zwick’s temperament – as is Fischer’s tragic deterioration as he succumbs to depression and paranoia. Using a variety of film stocks and digital formats, Zwick and cinematographer Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year, Selma) evoke an era as well as a state of mind, finding surprising but entirely appropriate visual corollaries for Fischer’s disjointed, contradictory existence. I spoke with Zwick by phone the day Pawn Sacrifice opened in New York and Los Angeles; it goes wide on September 25.

Filmmaker: One of the things I admired about Pawn Sacrifice – and that I think it has in common with almost all of your films – is that it strikes a delicate balance between the personal and the historical/political. That intersection is something that comes up again and again in your films, from Glory to The Siege to Blood Diamond.

Zwick: You’re right to identify that, though it’s not as if I ever consciously set an agenda. It is something I’m drawn to, because I think that when you have both an intensely personal story and some kind of larger canvas, it allows each to resonate against the other. The stakes of an intense historical or political or cultural moment elevate the intensities of the relationships and the dilemmas and the dramaturgy of the characters. It creates a circumstance in which the actors don’t have to push to create drama, the drama simply exists as the default reality all around them; things don’t seem histrionic or melodramatic, because that ambient universe is already at a certain pitch. So that’s part of it. Also, in the moments I’ve been able to write or direct, there are ideas – whether they’re philosophical ideas or psychological ideas or political ideas – and having a theater of ideas allows the characters to become more complex as they wrestle not only with the common business of living but also how it relates to their place in the world. To give you an illustration: when we were writing Blood Diamond, the idea that each of those characters had something they were seeking that would animate their lives – whether it was a journalist seeking a story, a father seeking a son, or a soldier of fortune seeking a diamond – when put into conflict those things created a certain kind of energy and dynamism. Obviously the characters had other issues in their life that were more classically psychological, but those were informed by their relationships to the world around them.

Filmmaker: It works the other way too, in that you’re one of the few filmmakers able to take extremely complex and sophisticated ideas and make them accessible to a mass audience. I think that’s because often your characters and their relatable interpersonal dramas serve as a kind of gateway for people who might otherwise be turned off by political or historical films.

Zwick: There’s a glib way to say this, which is that I’m interested in what is epic in the personal and what is personal, or one might say relatable, in the epic. Obviously the Freudian model or any kind of psychological or metaphorical model of personal dynamics has often been to find some kind of classical or mythological reference, whether that was the Greeks with Oedipus or various other sorts of tropes. It also allows for stories about a different kind of heroism that’s maybe a little more counterintuitive and less obvious.

Filmmaker: That certainly applies to Pawn Sacrifice. How did that project come to you? Maguire was already attached, right?

Zwick: Yes. I knew Tobey because he was DiCaprio’s best friend from childhood, and [screenwriter] Steve Knight is someone I had worked with when he first came to America [with] a script we have yet to do. So I knew both of them, but I also knew they had been talking with David Fincher about directing the movie. Then David went off to do something else and they called me. I was interested not only because I’m old enough to remember the coverage of the real story from when I was a kid, but because I could see it as a particularly American tragedy; there was the notion of this remarkable person who was not just affected by the Cold War later on but who was a red diaper baby — his mother was involved in the American communist movement at the time of the Rosenbergs and he was under surveillance as a child. His life has been touched by these very important events of the Cold War and he then becomes its gladiator on the American side. I was moved by the story of his isolation. He had both the good fortune and the misfortune of discovering chess at a young age and being prodigious; I think it became a respite and a salvation for him, but it also taxed him unduly over the years and weakened what was already fragile in him.

Filmmaker: It seems to me that one of the challenges in terms of both performance and direction – and writing – with a character like this is that you’re dealing with a protagonist who doesn’t really relate to other people in the conventional ways that we’re used to seeing on screen.

Zwick: I thought about that a lot, because everyone is in a relationship with Bobby but Bobby isn’t in a relationship with anyone but himself or his opponent. The idea was to have a movie that was told in two voices: there’s the public voice, the world of media and interviews and footage and matches; then there’s the very, very subjective experience we were trying to capture juxtaposed to it. So the louder the media and cultural noise, the more difficult it was for him to find that stillness internally that he was struggling with. That creates a tension, and we played on that tension often in the movie. Remember, this was the very beginning of media culture; we’re talking about the late sixties and early seventies. The Beatles had been here in ’64, but there had never been an American superstar that was created within weeks. There was this kind of wildfire touched off where Bobby Fischer became famous more quickly than anyone was accustomed to people becoming famous. I think that happens all the time now because we accept media culture as a given, but it really didn’t exist then in the same way, and if ever there was somebody who was less prepared for it I can’t imagine who that might be.

Filmmaker: How did you work with Tobey Maguire to get all that across? I know the two of you banged heads a little, but I also know you’re someone who believes a little head banging can be productive.

Zwick: Listen, it is a privilege and a challenge when you’re working with someone who is as talented yet as intelligent and determined as Tobey. Our discussions had to do with his sympathetic identification with the character’s predicament, with Bobby’s place as someone whose contributions dignified the game of chess — he became an important ambassador for it — yet who had this internal problem. It’s a slippery slope for an actor to try to dramatize something that is ineffable and mysterious having to do with mental illness or paranoia or delusions; the risks of looking clichéd or foolish or doing something obvious are great. So together you have to find ways to be very specific and take a big leap of faith.

Filmmaker: Another challenge on a movie like this is deciding what to include and what to skip over when you’re telling the story of a man’s life. Did the film’s focus shift at all from the time you came on board, or had the decisions about what to leave in and what to leave out been made at the script level already?

Zwick: Well, inevitably there are things you’re leaving out when you’re limited by two hours. It was important to us to tell the story in two parallel tracks: the professional success, which is told in the shape of a sports movie; and the gradual decline that leaves him at a point where that victory is in fact the beginning of the end for him. You’re telling those stories in tandem, and everything you keep serves that approach. Obviously there were many things that happened afterward that were deeply upsetting, but not dramatic in a sense, because once a person goes into free fall in their life, it’s a very ugly and redundant story. Things just go from bad to worse. What I was interested in trying to dramatize was the struggle — a struggle that he both wins and loses.

Filmmaker: I want to get back to something you touched on earlier, which is the different levels at play in the storytelling, from the media culture to the more personal, internal story. You have a lot of different looks here, from the various forms of footage to the ways you approach different eras, and I’m wondering how you achieved that. Did you shoot on film or digital?

Zwick: We did everything. Brad Young and I decided we wanted to shoot some of this stuff just as it was, so we found old Tri-X reversal film from a lab in Germany and shot on Bolexes. We shot some Hi-8, we shot some two-perf, we shot on the Alexa – all kinds of formats. The idea was to create a collage, a fragmentary portrait that may have in some sense been appropriate to the fragmentation of Bobby’s experience. The idea of combining interviews, documentary footage, mock documentary footage, narrative scenes, and subjective exaggeration was to tell the story in a postmodern way where all of those things could live together.

Filmmaker: Did that create any issues in the editing? Did the movie change considerably in post at all?

Zwick: The narrative scenes were there so strongly in the script that they didn’t really change, but the transitional material that wove in and out of them – the games, the documentary footage – that changed a lot. Steven Rosenblum and I, who have worked together for twenty-five years now, were in a sense continuing to write the film in the editing room. We were able to weave the more traditional narrative scenes together with the internal story that we always intended to tell but wasn’t always there in the script.

Filmmaker: Your camerawork is quite unassuming here, as it is in all of your films. I’ve always been impressed by the way you think very carefully about how to tell your stories visually, yet do that without resorting to self-consciousness. The style is intentional and elegant but invisible.

Zwick: I know there are directors who believe that directing means putting themselves out in front of the story. Calling attention to the pyrotechnics and the camera moves is their choice. Mine is the opposite; I want to put the story at the center and place the actors comfortably in it, and then I want to disappear. In fact, I believe that it’s more difficult to humble yourself before a story than to stand in front of it.

Filmmaker: I would think that would be particularly challenging in material like the chess matches here, which you have to make interesting without resorting to gimmicks, and without repeating yourself even though there’s an abundance of them.

Zwick: Some of the choices were visual and some were editorial. In certain cases we created a technique where you looked at the chess after it was done; it was a retrospective view that you saw. Bobby Fischer once said that chess was the domination of one man’s will by another, and that was a key to us – to say that these were extraordinary contests between the mental toughness of two people. That was something the audience could understand; I couldn’t possibly begin to teach an audience chess, but I could put them inside the experience. For Liev and Tobey it was almost like silent movie acting, a deep, internal experience of something that the audience could see and understand.

Filmmaker: You also take a fairly subtle and elegant approach to period, in that the design choices are all very precise yet not overstated – it’s not one of those movies where you get thrown out by particularly “dated” elements. I know your budget and schedule were limited on this picture for what you were trying to do, so how do you create a sense of period with less funds than you might like?

Zwick: We shot the entire movie in Montreal, so it took a very artful group of people to create a look that was appropriate and real. It was a challenge to recreate Washington Square and a hotel in Malibu in Montreal, but that’s part of the fun of it too. When you have more limited resources, as we did on this movie, the way you get around it is to do less and do it particularly well. You design around specific shots rather than sets by saying, “in the lens I can create the 1940s,” or, “in this apartment if I stick to these two directions and only use this specific reverse I can make it 1962.” Maybe in a certain case you don’t have a reverse at all but shoot a motel from one angle that looks perfect. The scale in terms of the number of extras or the size of the sets isn’t there, but you try to create great variety and size in terms of different locations and different juxtapositions. I also felt that some of the documentary footage would give you a sense of size, though in fact if you break it down the scale of the film is quite modest. It helps if your ideas are big.

Filmmaker: Back when you started making these kinds of films, you were doing them for big studios and big budgets. It was more possible to have that sense of scale.

Zwick: Oh yeah, it’s a very different world. I was very privileged to be able to do adult dramas at scale. If I were to try to make Glory today it would have to be a regiment, not a platoon. I’m not sure if I could make Legends of the Fall now; I don’t know if the studios would make movies like that on that kind of large canvas anymore, and I don’t think the independents have the resources. So in that sense I have to be clever and find those stories that still interest me in the same way and still have in them the same values and yet can be done on a smaller scale. That’s just the truth of it, and it’s why many of my peers have migrated to cable television, where you can at least tell a story of a certain size over time. The themes are more adult, and there’s a greater complexity than in the normal studio movie. Look, there are still a handful of studio movies – you’ll be seeing them this fall – that have scale and adult themes, like Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs. But just a handful. Most of the movies you’ll want to see this fall will be independents.

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently available on DVD and iTunes. His website is

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