‘The Queen’s Gambit’: Scott Frank Deconstructs the Netflix Global Blockbuster and Emmy Frontrunner

The screenwriter-turned-showrunner is now writing a sexy Nabokov film for Anya Taylor-Joy and wants Clive Owen to play Hammett's Sam Spade.
The Queen's Gambit
"The Queen's Gambit"

Hollywood has long admired film noir enthusiast Scott Frank’s gifts as a screenwriter. His career stretches from Kenneth Branagh’s “Dead Again” (1991) to Oscar-nominated turns for Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 “Out of Sight” and James Mangold’s 2017 “Logan.” However, Scott never expected to become the creator-director of not just one Netflix limited series, Emmy-nominated feminist western “Godless,” but a second, global Netflix breakout “The Queen’s Gambit.” Frank is still struggling to accept that his brainy, stylish adaptation of the 1983 Walter Tevis novel about pill-popping orphan chess prodigy Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) could become Netflix’s most-watched limited series ever and sweep the precursor awards (USC Scripters, PGA, DGA, WGA) that presage a win at the Emmys.

“I don’t have the faintest idea how that happened,” Frank said. “I don’t know what I did differently this time than every other time. I suppose it’s what many people were looking for but might not have known it: ‘You’re going to love a show about a girl playing chess in the ’50s and ’60s.’ They wouldn’t know they would like it, but once they started watching and responding and sharing their reaction, something happened. I don’t know what I did: No clue. It will never happen again!”

After “Godless” — a smart western that Hollywood had spurned as a film project for a dozen years — hit big on Netflix (and won villain Jeff Daniels an Emmy), the screenwriter pitched yet another favorite story that he, producer William Horberg, and veteran writer Allan Scott had wanted to make since the late ’90s with a series of interested directors. But no studio would finance “a two-hour movie about a young female chess prodigy,” Frank said. But Netflix said “yes” again — to another miniseries.

Jeff Daniels with Russell and Matthew Dennis Lewis, "Godless"Godless
Jeff Daniels with Russell and Matthew Dennis Lewis in “Godless”Ursula Coyote/Netflix

When the writer first tore through the semi-autobiographical Tevis book, Frank was surprised that even though he didn’t understand the chess play-by-play, the book was “riveting reading,” he said. “Somehow, the character and the tone of the book I had never encountered before. It was a real thriller, because you’re worried about the protagonist who was also her own antagonist, wondering when she will destroy herself, hoping that she doesn’t. You’re exploring darker parts of her as she goes. It’s fascinating to read about the darker side of genius.”

Like “Godless,” Frank found it gratifying to expand the material instead of having to contract it into two hours. “I read the script that was developed,” he said. “As a film it becomes more of a sports movie with cut-out characters: it’s simply, ‘Is she going to win [or] won’t she win?’ I had wanted to focus on the cost of genius ever since ‘Little Man Tate,’ trying to get at that story in a better way. I set about reimagining it in six parts and turned it into seven parts in post-production, because clearly I am undisciplined!”

The writer had to thread a tricky balance, allowing us to take some pleasure in Harmon’s bad habits, as we ask: ‘Will she make it or won’t she?’ without letting the addiction tropes get old. “As you are watching her play and drink and get high,” he said, “I needed to figure out a way to make it somewhat real. While you are watching someone destroy themselves, we need to have enough for you to believe it, but not so much that you get turned off.”

“The Queen’s Gambit”Phil Bray / Netflix

The series is not as dark as the book. Frank upends expectations so that nothing bad happens with the janitor (Bill Camp) who teaches Harmon chess at the orphanage, or the adoptive single mother (writer-director-actress Marielle Heller) who sees the upside of her daughter’s chess winnings and roots for her success while falling under the influence of alcohol, or the would-be romantic swain Townes (Jacob Fortune Lloyd) who turns out to have a boyfriend. “I thought it would be funny during that intimate moment in the hotel for them to be interrupted by another guy,” Frank said. “The look on Anya’s face in that scene when Roger the boyfriend comes into the hotel, looking from one man to the other, makes me laugh every time. It’s a sexy moment, you think they’re going to kiss each other. It was fun to subvert that.”

From the start “The Queen’s Gambit” telegraphs that the story is “about this girl’s journey,” Frank said, “not, how poorly treated kids were in the orphanage, or how women are treated in a man’s world. It’s not even about chess, which is contextualized. It’s really about this girl who is dreading her future. She’s seen it, she inherited it from her own [addicted, math genius] mother.”

The framing device was designed to lure the audience into where the story was heading — a sophisticated, stylish chess master wakes up hungover before a championship match in Paris  — and away from the first episode’s orphanage origin myth. “I wanted you to know about the chess but it was not your Dad’s chess story,” Frank said. “This grown up woman is who the story is about, but for now you can watch her as a young girl. I was worried if we started the way the book did, with her coming to the orphanage, you’d think that was what the show is. You don’t want to watch seven hours of a girl in an orphanage.”

Isla Johnston and Bill Camp in “The Queen’s Gambit”Phil Bray / Netflix

One of the most visual elements in the series is introduced at the orphanage. “In the book, she looks at the ceiling and imagines playing chess,” Frank said. “It’s a one-dimensional thing, imagining a chess board as she is moving the pieces around. I realized the potential of chess playing in her mind as an extension of her mind, so you see, in a way, the character of her mind. It was a great way to get inside her head in a more entertaining visually interesting way, and show her progression and how uses it. The chess ceiling is her imaginary friend. I was trying to figure out how to do it, sitting talking to [director] Brad Silberling and he said, ‘You should it animate it. [The chess pieces] should be like bats hanging upside down.'”

Frank pulls the audience into complicity with Harmon, rooting for her success despite the addictions that threaten to drag her down. Her mother joins her quest to win championships, as do a series of men, including several romantic conquests, but they all come around to wanting her to win. “Even though she beat them,” Frank said, “they respected her. One thing I added: Each of them is worried about her drinking and cares about her. They’re not throwing her over, nobody is being horrible to her, plenty people in the world treat her well, the men in her life genuinely love her.”

The series has the spirit of “Let’s put on a show,” as everyone gets caught up in pushing for the ultimate win. “You watch someone who is an underdog, struggling,” Frank said. “That really triggers us in a deep way. We can’t accept that. Her superpower at the same time is that everyone underestimates her. The pleasure in the story is watching people underestimate her. But she always defeats herself. It’s her anger that gets in the way, or some other thing that clouds her thinking. Drugs help her visualize, but it’s too much of good thing, as they say. But it’s not just the drugs; she begins to really get busy with alcohol.”

“The Queen’s Gambit”Netflix

While actioner “Godless” had been a logistical challenge to direct, with exterior locations and volatile weather and hordes of horses, Frank had so much fun shooting “The Queen’s Gambit” in Toronto and (mostly) Germany that he told his wife “I really don’t care if anyone likes it or not.”

He marveled at what Taylor-Joy could do. “She’s in control of every aspect of her body,” he said. “She was a quick study and surprised me with additions every day. She can change her movements in a subtle way that’s interesting. She has an instinct of how to move her head or change her walk. Just out of the orphanage we see her crossing the street with a thumpy walk. She just started doing it. Later she sits on a couch, then coils at the end of the couch. She picks up the chess pieces and studies them. Her face draws you in, you never grow tired of studying it, she has no bad angles. I knew so much of the story was told on faces, to show the least amount of chess. That amazing face is the face that launched the sales of millions of chess boards and a million new chess players.”

As for breakout Heller, Frank met and became friends with her when he was an advisor at at a Sundance lab for “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.” When he gave her a small acting role on “A Walk Among Tombstones,” he said, “I couldn’t believe how great she was. I was embarrassed I gave her such a small apart, she was out-acting everybody. Mari said to me, ‘You’re going to cut this.’ I said ‘No,’ and I did.”

Years later, as he was casting “The Queen’s Gambit,” Frank kept describing Alma as being like Heller, he said. “She has an old-fashioned face that conveys a lot of emotion, intelligent, with a lot of sadness.” Finally he brought her in and had her audition for the real mother: “We can use all those attributes to show how expressive and smart she is. They all look related to one another.”

At the last minute, when the actress set to play Alma dropped out, [Executive Producer William] Horberg reminded Frank that he kept wanting someone like Heller for the role. “Why not just cast Mari?” “Will Netflix let me do that?” When Netflix asked for film on Heller, Frank gave them a Hollywood Reporter director roundtable interview with her outshining a bunch of men. Netflix and casting director Ellen Lewis both said “Go for it.”

The hardest thing to shoot, of course, was the chess. “We prepped it, thought about it, broke down each chess game,” Frank said, who leaned into a heightened reality for the film, inspired by a photograph. “We were scouting this Toronto hotel lobby; the DP [“Godless” director of photography Steven Meizler] was taking a picture of a chess board as a little girl ran by in yellow dress. He sent me the photo. ‘This is the show!’ I gave it to every department for the palette.”

Frank’s close collaboration with German production designer Uli Hanisch (“Babylon Berlin”) also pushed him “in directions I haven’t gone,” said Frank, who was also inspired by Mike Leigh’s “Vera Drake.” “The costumes, the tea cozy, everything, the wall paper, worked together,” Frank said, “without being distracting. I loved the Douglas Sirk movies that convey a heightened reality. The Wheatley house needed to feel like that.”

Next up:  Frank has nothing to do with turning ‘The Queen’s Gambit” into a musical. “I’m not sure how that will work,” he said. “I wish they wouldn’t. They’re gonna. But not everything has to be a musical or a play.” Certainly, no “The Queen’s Gambit” sequel is in the offing. (“I feel like it ended in the right place.”) Nor will he revisit “Godless.”

He is more excited to bring back to life some projects he’s been sitting on for years. “I want to try something else,” he said. “The world is my oyster, the pearl is in there for me. I’m lucky to check off things I wanted to make for years and years. Things I’d lost have come back to me. I’m doing the things I wanted to do.”

Frank is working with Tom Fontana on the six-part series “Monsieur Spade,” centered on the mature, ’60ish Sam Spade (Clive Owen), the iconic hardboiled detective character created by novelist Dashiell Hammett and memorably played by Humphrey Bogart in “The Maltese Falcon.” Set in the 1960s, Spade is living in the south of France when his past comes to haunt him. “It’s just as the Algerian war is ending,” Frank said. “He’s a widower, he’s inherited a winery. His quiet life is about to get busy.”

The writer is also adapting sci-fi novel “The Sparrow” by Mary D. Russell as an FX limited series to be directed by “Chernobyl” director Johan Renck. “I had a ball writing that, it’s good not to worry about having to make it,” he said.

Frank is returning to his favorite format, the two-hour movie, developing his film noir take on “Lolita” author Vladimir Nabokov’s 1932 novel “Laughter in the Dark,” with Taylor-Joy (cast as Furiosa in George Miller’s in-the-works Mad Max sequel) returning to star as Margot Peters, a 17-year-old aspiring actress and model who attaches herself to middle-aged art critic Albert Albinus, abetted by Margot’s old flame Axel Rex. (Some of this material fed “Lolita,” which Stanley Kubrick adapted in 1962 from Nabokov’s screenplay.) “We’ll go back to Berlin,” Frank said, “during the Weimar years of German cinema talkies. I’ve been trying to do this since the 90s. It is kind of erotic. It’s an old-fashioned movie within a movie.”

And Frank is collaborating with film noir scholar and novelist Megan Abbott (“Dare Me”) on “an incredible female centric noir series,” he said. “I’m having the time of my life!”

“The Queen’s Gambit” is currently streaming on Netflix.

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