Liz Garbus is a prolific documentarian. Her latest film, Bobby Fischer Against the World which premiered at Sundance is a fascinating look at chess champion Bobby Fischer and all his demons, will premiere on HBO this Monday evening kicking off the summer documentary series.
Garbus answered some questions by email about the film
Women and Hollywood: What made you interested in doing this film?
Liz Garbus: The appeal of Bobby Fischer’s story, for me, was undeniable. It combines so interesting themes that it’s a wonderful storytelling opportunity: it’s at once a great rise and fall story, an unforgettable Cold War show down/sports match, and at the same time allows one to explore deeper issues, like the links between genius and madness.
WaH: Bobby is such an unlikeable character throughout the film. Is it more difficult to make a film about someone who is this unlikeable?
I don’t feel that Bobby is unlikeable throughout film. I know that some people will have that reaction and I do understand it. But for me, Bobby was a child who grew up in extraordinary circumstances, with a monomaniacal focus and few protective factors. Circumstances that would forever shape him, and would leave his clearly fragile ego exposed and vulnerable to the mental illness that would eventually overtake him.
WaH: Bobby clearly has some sort of mental illness or was someone on the autistic spectrum. Did you think about discussing that issue at all with some of the people who knew him?
LG: We did discuss Bobby’s mental status with our interviewees. As Bobby never sought or allowed himself to receive medical or psychiatric intervention, any diagnosis of him is speculative. But, yes, there were some who speculated that today Bobby, as a boy, might be considered to be on the autism spectrum. Others felt that as a boy he was a nice, slightly awkward, neurotic, kid, who was in decent shape, and that it wasn’t until later in life that he showed real instability. As an adult, as some of our interviewees do say in the film, it seemed to be more of a full blown paranoid psychosis.
WaH: Bobby is clearly one of these people that illuminates the saying that genius and madness are intertwined. Any comment on that?
LG: The Ancient Romans did not regard acts of genius to emanate from within an individual – but rather saw it as a collaboration between a spirit of creativity and a human being. So it could be that sometimes an individual had that power, that divine inspiration, or other times not. The spirit might have moved on to some other lucky soul.
Of course our modern notion of genius is quite different – and it’s quite a load to bear. We’ve seen this story over time, in great painters, great composers, and indeed great chess players. Bobby’s monomaniacal focus on one thing to the exclusion of all else certainly left him underdeveloped in other areas, and vulnerable to the paranoia that would letter overrun his great mind.
WaH: What did you learn about him that was unexpected when you began the project?
LG: How cool he was in the early 1970s! When you get to know Bobby, as I did, beginning with the end of his life, and you have the images of him as an old man, stuck in his paranoid ideas, it’s hard to imagine Bobby, in his 20’s, in great shape and dressed in stylist 70’s threads, having a laugh, rather relaxed, with Dick Cavett and the likes. There were many moments when he truly did inhabit that rock star role.
WaH: What do you want people to get out of the film?
I want them to be entertained. I want them to enjoy the story of this incredible summer in 1972 when the entire world was watching two men sit at a chess board, and all it meant within it’s larger Cold War context.
WaH: What advice do you have for up and coming filmmakers, especially the female filmmakers?
We need you! Get out there, do it,say what you’re thinking, take risks, and make your movie. Work for other filmmakers. Learn the trade.
WaH: What are you doing next?
Too early to talk about, but I’m looking forward to it and it will be a new and great challenge for me.