Back to IndieWire

Director Ed Zwick Goes His Own Way with Tobey Maguire Comeback Movie ‘Pawn Sacrifice’

Director Ed Zwick Goes His Own Way with Tobey Maguire Comeback Movie 'Pawn Sacrifice'

Set during the 1972 World Chess Championship, in “Pawn Sacrifice” (Bleecker Street, September 18) Tobey Maguire plays brilliant but troubled Brooklyn chess maverick Bobby Fischer as he faces off against his level-headed Russian rival Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) in the most famous chess match ever. Fischer struggles to keep his head on straight, which drives his various handlers nuts, because he can’t be counted on to even show up.
Ed Zwick is a director who can handle intimate television (“Relativity,” “Once and Again”) and epic spectacle (“Courage Under Fire,” “The Last Samurai,” “Blood Diamond,” “Glory”); this drama combines both. Zwick got a great performance out of Schreiber in “Defiance”; he is also strong here. Maguire has never been better; this could mark a comeback for him. The movie scored at Toronto 2014 and was acquired by Bleecker Street which has so far delivered modest art-house hits aimed at adults such as “Danny Collins” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” This movie makes riveting entertainment.
In our wide-ranging phone interview, Zwick reveals the struggles of many veteran Hollywood filmmakers as the industry focuses on tentpoles at the expense of complex adult dramas. 
Anne Thompson: You debuted and sold the movie at Toronto.

Ed Zwick: Toronto played well, I’m pleased with Andrew Karpen and Bleecker. They understood the movie, the material’s shape is strong and true. The movie is going out in a very different way, it’s maybe my first movie at a scale similar to “About Last Night.”
What I got to do, and want to keep doing, is stretching myself and challenging myself. Here was a movie, subjectively told, about a difficult subject, an antihero who culturally apes so many things in our culture: He was difficult, at times inappropriate, arrogant and yet so genius. The Beatles in 1963 came to America and became international celebrities, but Bobby Fischer was one of the first, as Elvis was, more in terms of the message created around him. 

This kid from Brooklyn was the most famous person in the world. He was so self-contained, so determined to do things on his own terms. He was anti-authority and anti-institutional, a rebel. The culture embraced him in an interesting way representative of that moment. I was a kid in college at that point. As I came to understand, the story also was his isolation. Even as he was doing these things, he lost hold of his center.

What was his mental diagnosis?

I had known a couple of people in college who went off the rails, who had significant bouts with mental illness. I came to understand, in my own anecdotal way (I am not a therapist, my sister is), that this kind of madness is congenital, it’s brain chemistry and psychological issues. The paranoid reflects back on what his experience was. That’s the form it took. At the height of the Cold War, there was surveillance, there was a 1000-page dossier on his mother. One thing he chose as his salvation, chess, obliges you to become so utterly internal, as to be something that would both save him and damn him.
When did you start developing this project?
In the beginning, I got to Steve Knight. “Marshall” was to actually to be Steve’s first movie in America, which I still hope to do, we developed it after “Dirty Pretty Things.” We hired Steve to come to America, I got to know and adore him, I so deeply admire his writing.

I love “Locke” and “Peaky Blinders.”

Think of that Locke” metaphor for all of us, on a dark long road at night with a ghost in the back seat, aware of those we have loved and betrayed, headed for an uncertain future. And we’ve also built edifices with a building foundation that may be faulty. The imagery and poetry of that is so moving and inescapable.

“Locke” got lost.

This is the art house ghetto that Steven Soderbergh refers to, movies like “Locke” have been balkanized and ghettoized. I appreciated and adored “The End of the Tour,” a great movie that will struggle, I fear. These movies become rarified in popular culture, and that becomes self-fulfilling as we stop developing an audience that comes in numbers.


Why take the independent route with “Pawn Sacrifice”?

The privilege I’ve had over 15 movies over a very long time has been to make movies that were ambitious or grown-up, complex, that had themes in them that were sometimes political, sometimes challenging, to make these movies on a scale.
Which costs money?
Yeah. Scale is not just something that a director wants so as to play with all the toys. Scale also lends verisimilitude, to put together a real world. I made a joke with someone once: if I were to be given the means to make “Glory” it would not be about a regiment it would be about a platoon in the woods, I would have to make it independently to be able to make it with African-Americans in an 1863 regiment—I’d be getting $16 million to make that movie, maybe less. It’s not like it wouldn’t be an interesting movie, but some of the images from that movie that lend it its power would not able to be done.
Spielberg had trouble getting “Lincoln” made!
Every now and then people are given the means to do it. But that used to be the norm. It’s not totally gone. When we made “Blood Diamond,” a movie that was profitable, after it was over it was very clear, however profitable it had been, that it wasn’t enough to justify one of those slots—they’re worth a tremendous amount of money in order to put their marketing and focus on the operation. The movie made money but it didn’t move the needle on the stock price of a multinational cooperation. That’s the game for the studios. They are obliged to meet very determined P & L projections quarterly, and so that’s the business they’re in.

That’s why Soderbergh’s making cable series “The Knick.”
What’s really interesting is that once the studios began to abdicate more grown-up material, it’s no coincidence that the rise of comic books coincides with the rise of adult cable television, that audience migrated. The suggestion is that the audience is there.

Are you not interested in making television again, as you’ve thrived in that medium?

Actually it’s just about what you have to say and the best way to say it. Certainly the television shows were a particular kind of storytelling currency. The best way to tell those stories was in television. Of course we may need to someday go back, I won’t say never at all.

If you take four years of “Thirty Something,” a year of “My So Called Life,” three years of “Once and Again,” that’s eight years of television and it’s grueling. I think there’s just some fire to keep challenging myself with different forms and kinds of stories even as a brief segue, this movie is very different not only from the TV but from all the other movies I’ve done.
At what point did you climb on board “Pawn Sacrifice”?
When I heard that Steve had been asked to rewrite the movie “Bobby Fischer,” written by Chris Wilkinson and Stephen Rivele, I was very interested. Then I asked to read the script, and loved it. Fincher was attached to it. I called my reps, and I knew both Gail [Katz] and Toby. I said, “David is aways working on lots of things; if he’s not going to do that movie, consider me.” Said the same to Liev. Lo and behold it came to pass. That’s how it happened. Steve and I kept working on the script, because Toby devoted himself to every utterance that Bobby ever made, everything written about him. He became the self-proclaimed canon of Bobby Fischer, we kept working the script—it was a long process to find somebody to give us money to make it at $19 million.
Why so hard? 
It needed to have certain period things. And finally we were able to hit upon a lovely man—who ran this fund and was willing to equity finance it. We had to go to Santa Monica to the AFM to sell foreign, it was handled by two agencies, CAA and WME. The third leg of the stool of indie production: one leg is equity, two is foreign guarantees, and three is tax rebates. Almost any indie that is being made has some form of tax rebate; that’s how the equation works. Montreal is a vibrant film community—French and Quebecois —which is used to making small and big movies to save money. Crews are good, it was a place we were able to find enough period architecture so it looked like the 60s, Brooklyn and Eastern Europe, all of the above. We were able to go to Iceland for two days and come to California for two days for those locations.

You hired a gifted rising cinematographer.

The smartest thing: I credit my son, who is an indie filmmaker, with Brad Young the cinematographer. He had shot “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and I met Brad. He and I went to Montreal along with my production designer, picked up a crew there, and we were able to save money to make the movie.

What genre is this film? 
To me the movie is character study, very subjectively told, and I’d not done that before. So I think as a filmmaker trying to think differently, it feels different from the other movies I’ve made. It’s an experience as an artist to still challenge yourself: that’s what you want to do.

You’re making a studio sequel with your old pal Tom Cruise?
I liked Tom in “Jack Reacher”; I’d never worked in the thriller tough guy genre. I always liked it, it’s something else great to do.
“Mission Impossible” was very well done; it gives gifts to the audience at every turn, whether a stunt or a joke or a location or a sequence. That’s generosity: it’s Tom and Chris McQuarrie.

Do you enjoy your independence?

Here’s the thing: when you make a studio movie, no matter who you are—with notable exceptions—it’s inevitable that there’s a certain amount of political landscape you have to negotiate, involving  execs, other producers, movie stars and their reps and managers, that you have to reckon with. We went off and made the movie we wanted to make, in that blissful vacuum of creativity—if it sucks, if it’s shit, it’s our shit.

This Article is related to: Interviews and tagged , , , , ,