Interview | Ed Zwick on ‘Pawn Sacrifice’ and Bobby Fischer’s Superhuman Hearing

Edward Zwick is a diverse director, to say the least. He came to major Hollywood fame in 1989 with the Civil War drama Glory, and has made several other impressive historical dramatic epics since, including The Last Samurai, Legends of the Fall, and Defiance. He examined modern day warfare with Courage Under Fire and The Siege. His newest film, Pawn Sacrifice, is a biography of the famed chess champion Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire), and tells the story of his life from childhood through his famous televised match with Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) in 1972.

Fischer was a genius at chess, but he also suffered from undiagnosed mental disorders, often claiming that he was being watched, and he would occasionally make shocking antisemitic statements, despite being Jewish. Both he and Spassky made strange venue-change and camera equipment requests during the 1972 matches, claiming that inaudible noises were disturbing them, and that they might be under spy surveillance.

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Zwick is a stirringly intelligent man, and he was kind enough to be interviewed by CraveOnline. He discusses mental illness, the beautiful ambiguity, the history within his film, Dick Cavett, and what he thinks of Searching for Bobby Fischer.

CraveOnline: I take issue with something in your movie. Not enough chess. You focus on people’s faces a lot, and the drama of the game, but – for a chess nerd like me – not enough time was spent on the gambits within the game. What’s up with that?

Ed Zwick: If you were directing that movie, how would you have done it? It would have been reduced to an instructional video. [Peter Sarsgaard] interjects to a certain degree, but – and obviously this was something I thought about – one makes a choice. Either you are preaching to the choir, or you are presenting the big tent. And I felt that those who already know the chess would know it. And there would be little point in doing something redundant. Whereas if I could actually illuminate something to a broader audience, who then might be drawn to chess and understand what it means, that was the attempt.

I would add one thing, though. The most interesting thing to me in chess are not the gambits. Or the moves. It’s the mental toughness. Great athletes of any kind – and chess is a sport – great athletes… When Michael Jordan raises the level of his game to emerge in the fourth quarter to win, or when two tennis players are playing the five-set match, it’s not the one who has the better strokes who wins, it’s the one who is more mentally tough.

Bobby Fischer looked at chess, and when he was asked about it, said “Chess is the dominance of one man’s will by another.” That’s what I was trying to capture.

Pawn Sacrifice Tobey Maguire

Bobby Fischer is a fascinating dude. From what I understand, you and Tobey Maguire, along with screenwriter Steve Knight, created this version of him together. What did you bring, and how much was fact?

Well, there is such an abundance of available material. Because all of his interviews and utterances. All of the people we spoke to who knew him. There are photographs – all the Harry Benson photographs. There are several books by psychoanalysts writing speculative psycho-biographies after the fact. So it’s not like there was any dearth of material. I think that we’re not making a documentary, though. And so inevitably what emerges is your own vision. Not just of the person, but of the themes, and the literary license with which anyone approaches any historical event. It’s historical fiction.

So, compression, elision, omission. That’s inevitable when you’re trying to do a two-hour movie. Talking about a life. That being said, every interview Tobey gives in this movie as Bobby are words that Bobby said. Every word. The Dick Cavett interview. I had Dick Cavett come to my cutting room and sit there with me and fill in some syllables that we needed to make the scene work. You know, there’s a thousand-page FBI dossier on [Bobby Fischer’s mother], and on Bobby, that was made available to us.

Wow. You read all of that?

Yeah! And you can have it too. The Freedom of Information Act. And the matches he played against whom and when. Paul Marshall had died, so we talked to his widow. And Michael Stuhlbarg who played the character met her and talked to her about the character. About who he was playing.

So the degree to which it’s possible, you do… I think, finally, it’s about intent and purposes. Is the intent to try to bowdlerize the drama and make something untrue, or is the attempt to take what is true, and find a shape in which it can be presented in the guise of drama?

Bobby Fischer was never diagnosed…

It was from before the time of diagnosis!

We can look back and say that he was paranoid. We look back and give him a modern diagnosis. Were there any storytelling challenges, when you were influenced by modern notions of psychology?

The phrases “paranoid” and “delusional.” Those existed in the late-1960s and early ’70s. Those phrases were around. We didn’t talk about the spectrum. We didn’t talk about bi-polar. We didn’t talk about those things. We certainly didn’t talk about medication, except of a very tough and cruel kind. To me, the attempt is to tell two stories in tandem. As one describes the rise to victory, one is also describing the falling apart that’s going to lead to the end. If we had not done that, and you had only tried to present this triumphant march to the world championship, it would have been utterly fatuous. Because in some sense, you were dying that which came after. So it was our job not just to describe the triumph of what happened, but to dramatize what was the seeds of tragedy. And, by the end, you had to feel it was both. That was the challenge of the storytelling.

I think that people have speculated about this. About hyperacusis, this sensitivity to sound, is something everybody always talks about with him. As a filmmaker, I tried to make that something I tried to put in the currency of the shoot.


You shot quietly?

No. I think if you see the movie, his response to paper crumpling or coughing or the whir of the cameras. He had cameras moved out of the room, cameras he couldn’t possibly have heard.

Near the end of the film, Spassky begins to exhibit similar symptoms to Bobby Fischer…

All true. That’s all documented. The flies…

Perhaps you could speculate. Was Spassky suffering from something similar, or were the two of them amplifying their own paranoia to psyche one another out?

A lot of people speculate about that. I prefer to keep it in that relative ambiguity, because I like that ambiguity. To this day, Spassky – who is still alive – says that there was the possibility of something being used [to spy on him]. He has clung defiantly to that claim.

This is an intense role, playing someone who is not only paranoid, but “always on.” There’s no moment to be relaxed an genial. How did you work with Tobey Maguire on that?

As a person, and as an actor, he has extraordinary focus, and extraordinary discipline. And that was obviously necessary. He is also a poker player who is capable of playing in tournaments for days on end, so I don’t think this experience is that foreign, necessarily. Even the game itself. Those are the actors you want to work with. The performers who are so dedicated. Whether or not that’s a dialect or a physical trait – this kind of focus you’re describing. So much of this movie was going to be made or broken in the nuance, as they’re sitting there. All you have to go on, in fact, without the knowledge of what the chess moves mean, is their reactions to them, and the stakes they brought to bear before and after. So it either succeeded or failed. I also credit Liev [Schreiber] of ability. It’s very internal acting.

Pawn Sacrifice Liev Schreiber

I would have loved to see Liev Schreiber play Bobby. Heck, as well as Spassky. But I just love Liev Schreiber.

And so do I. It’s the second movie I made with him. I agree. Although it’s hard to imagine another actor doing what he did with the language. I don’t know who else would have been quite as capable as he was.

What do you think of Searching for Bobby Fischer?

Well the writer/director, Steve Zaillian is a good friend of mine. He lives down the street from me. He’s a good guy and a good writer. Have you seen the movie recently? The actual role of Bobby Fischer in the movie is very slight. He exists as a kind of metaphor at the beginning and the end. But it is the story of a kid who has to make the choice, the cost of being a prodigy. And that’s where the resonance is very strong. So did I know the movie? Yes. Do I like it? Of course. I don’t think it bore much relevance to me and the making of Pawn Sacrifice, beyond the knowledge of who he was.

By the way, in addition, after Steve Knight began writing about three years ago, Liz Garbus produced a very good documentary called Bobby Fischer Against the World. Which is also really well done, and I think was, in many ways, helpful to us.

The film follows Bobby Fischer’s childhood through his match with Spassky. Was there ever a temptation to follow more of his life? Show the “missing years?”

We say it. It’s not like we shy away from it. So now we should have had an instructional video on how to play chess, and shown the last 20 years of Bobby Fischer’s life, and released a five-hour movie? You have to make choices always. It’s about the omission of something for the sake of another.

Tobey Maguire Pawn Sacrifice

Where are you on the next Jack Reacher film?

Yeah. We’re working on it. [Screenwriter] Marshall [Herskovitz] and I have written a draft – several drafts in fact – and we’re working in New Orleans, we’re prepping it, and we’re going to start shooting in October.

Well, thank you for making such an intriguing movie. Even if I felt like I needed to know more. I guess that’s just a compliment to your filmmaking.

I think expertise is a treacherous position from which to view art. And whether that’s about baseball or medicine or anything else, I think I am as interested in popular culture as I am in a kind of… what’s the word…? Orthodox, overly obsessive storytelling. I think the themes in this are as interesting to me as are the details.

What was the first record you bought with your own money?

Wow. Yeah, I can probably remember. It’s possibly… No, it precedes a Beatles record. It would be something like Eddie Hodges singing “I’m Gonna Knock on Your Door.” “I’m gonna knock on your door, ring on your bell, and tap on your window too. If you don’t come out tonight, when the light shines bright, I’m gonna knock and ring and tap ’til you do.” I was probably 10 years old. I remember going into the listening booths at the record store, and hearing this, and buying this 45, and going then to a concert at which The Marvelettes sang “Please, Mr. Postman.” It was right in that vintage. Early ’62, ’63.

That’s cool. Mine’s not as cool.

Well, you’re younger, and were probably influenced by mass culture in this way. Marketing, and it was targeted to you, and you went out and bought the Whatever You Bought.

Images via Bleecker Street Media

Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.