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Interview: ‘Bobby Fischer Against the World’ Director Liz Garbus Talks Taking On A Grandmaster

Interview: 'Bobby Fischer Against the World' Director Liz Garbus Talks Taking On A Grandmaster

Tonight HBO premieres “Bobby Fischer Against the World,” an absolutely phenomenal film that kicks off their summer-long documentary programming — every Monday night — you can read our review, from earlier today, here. It premiered at Sundance in January, where it won rave reviews and earned its director, the Academy Award-nominated Liz Garbus, further acclaim.

“Bobby Fischer Against The World” charts the rise and fall of the chess master Bobby Fischer — regarded as the best player of all time — as he went from captivating the world in the 1970s with his eccentric personality and oversized talent in his battle for the world championship against Boris Spassky, to falling out of the public eye and eventually reemerging as a paranoid crackpot living in exile. And don’t worry about knowing the ins and outs of chess. Garbus does an excellent job of conveying the specifics of chess to an audience that probably doesn’t know anything about the sport, making for some surprisingly captivating viewing. We recently spoke with Garbus about the film and the challenge in capturing the elusive spirit of Bobby Fischer.

The Playlist: How did you decide on Bobby Fischer as a subject?
Liz Garbus: I was on an airplane and I read his obituary – it was January 8th, 2008. And I became obsessed with the story and dug and read more and quickly became convinced that I wanted to make it as my next project.

How hard was it getting in touch with people that were willing to talk about him?
It was definitely hard, much harder than I thought. You know I’ve made films on death row and some pretty tough places and thought there would be challenges with archival footage and editing but I didn’t think I’d meet with so much resistance from potential subjects. I think that Bobby Fischer, even after he was dead, divided people, and it was tough to get them on board.

Did they each have specific reasons for resisting or was there a prevailing sentiment?
For Bobby, the world was in blacks-and-whites, like the chessboard. And I think that, for some folks, they wanted to know – are you going to paint him as a saint or as a sinner and wanted to put our foot down in one camp or the other. But for us, we wanted all of the stories. We said, “We’re not black-or-white, we want your perspective on this!” But it was a lot of grilling of us to understand what our motives would be, especially upon his death. They were, like Bobby, mistrustful of the media.

Was it hard to string together a narrative? How did you approach Bobby Fischer’s missing years?
Editing the film was a great challenge and a great opportunity. The match of ’72 [when Bobby Fischer challenged defending Soviet champion Boris Spassky in Iceland] is a narrative dream – it has all the suspense of a thriller. It’s the biggest match of his life, the entire world is watching, and then he doesn’t show up… It has all those twists and turns. We had to get it right. Narratively, the material is very rich. [But] it’s hard making a documentary about someone who doesn’t like being filmed. We had clues about his behaviour from friends and stories about his whereabouts that had been told to us, but there wasn’t a lot of archival footage from [his missing years]. So, yes that was a challenge. But between his call-ins to radio shows and friends’ stories I think we got a sense of what his life was like then. Which was really the life of a vagrant.

How challenging was it to try and convey how popular chess became because of him?
It was kind of shocking because you’d come across this news footage where Watergate would be the second story and Bobby Fischer would be the first. He was like a rock star at the time. And we wanted to convey that cultural moment as unique and would probably never happen again.

Charting his psychological breakdown during that period must have been a challenge as well.
Yes, it’s tragic. You don’t want the film to be a rise and fall story – there’s a rise, everything is great, great, great, and then there’s a fall and it’s so hard. You have to look for elements of fall in the rise and elements of hope and rise in the fall. That’s what’s more interesting. And that was certainly a part of the work that we had to do.

Was there anything that surprised you that you learned from putting the movie together or interviewing these people?
It’s something you touched on before – how, at a certain point, how incredibly cool chess was. We did know it, but finding the Polanski shot or the “Charlie’s Angels” one, or even seeing how charming was for a period of time. I think people remember him at the end of his life and going back and seeing him in the early 70s and that he was quite charming and could have a laugh at himself and he was good looking and dressed well. I think that part of Bobby has been forgotten and we kind of bring that back.

Can you talk about visualizing the film? Specifically the title cards at the beginning of the film and the scoreboard when recounting the ’72 match.
For a film about chess, most people who are coming to it don’t know much about chess. Of course there are people who do and who know about Bobby Fischer’s story, but we have to assume that most of our audience knows very little about how a chess match is run. If you’re making a movie about a boxing match, you probably don’t have to explain as much. But with chess, we created those scoreboards so people understood that it’s not just one game, it’s a certain number of games. So we had to remind people what the stakes were at each game and at what point somebody had gone over the hump. And the title cards was just to give more information, some context through which people could understand a bit more about chess without having to explain the entire game.

What was the reaction like at Sundance?
Sundance is such a great place to show a documentary. I was so thrilled to be there. And they showed the film in their new premieres section, which was great because we were in really great theaters and you could feel the film in a full theatrical setting. So that was a great experience. I’ve been traveling with the film now to different film festivals in different cities and it was great because in most cities somebody comes up from the audience and says, “I’m a chess player and I played Bobby Fischer.” And I kind of brace myself for a chess critique of the film. But so far those who know Bobby Fischer’s story really well and know chess really well have given the film their seal of approval, which is a huge relief.

“Bobby Fischer Against the World” is now playing on HBO, click here for showtimes.

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