Edward Zwick:

September 25th, 2015 by Karen Burg

Main Photo
Producer/Director Edward Zwick… ”Ed needs for the work to be visually right, as well as fully lived and embodied. To accomplish that, he gets involved in every aspect…His level of precision is impressive.” –Actress Robin Weigert Photo by Tkashi Seida ©2015 Bleecker Street. All Rights Reserved.


In a gripping true story set during the height of the Cold War, American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer [Tobey Maguire] finds himself caught between two superpowers when he challenges the Soviet Empire, whose players have dominated the game for decades. By his teens, the boy wonder has gone from chess savant to international grandmaster, but his meteoric rise is punctuated by unpredictable personal behavior and escalating demands.

As he travels the globe Fischer crushes the world’s top players in the relentless pursuit of his ultimate quarry: indomitable Soviet chess grandmaster Boris Spassky [Liev Schreiber]. In 1972, the volatile New Yorker earns the right to face the Russian veteran in the hotly anticipated “Match of the Century” in Reykjavík, Iceland, that could end 24 years of Soviet domination of the World Chess Championship.
But Fischer’s paranoia and growing obsession with conspiracy theories disrupt the match, and his erratic behavior unnerves the normally unflappable Spassky. With the competition increasingly mirroring the tense geopolitics of the Cold War era, even his closest advisors are unsure if Fischer’s actions are the calculated antics of an antisocial eccentric or signs that he is truly unstable. The film chronicles Fischer’s terrifying struggles with genius and madness, the rise and fall of a kid from Brooklyn who sparked an international chess craze

–Bleecker Street

Director/Producer Edward Zwick made the world of chess accessible and even exciting in this riveting and revealing portrait. 

To do so, he relied on Director of Photography Bradford Young, Production Designer Isabelle Guay, Head Set Decorator Paul Hotte, LA Unit Art Director/Set Decorator Lisa Clark SDSA, Costume Designer René April and their crews to establish the film’s authenticity. That the visual representation was grounded in realism, yet artful, both enhanced the credibility and added to the soulfulness of this compelling film.

Actress Robin Weigert describes Zwick’s passion for filmmaking. “He needs for the work to be visually right, as well as fully lived and embodied. To accomplish that, he gets involved in every aspect…His level of precision is impressive.”

On a recent Sunday morning, Zwick graciously chatted with SET DECOR re: the making of PAWN SACRIFICE and other of his many outstanding productions.

SET DECOR: You have directed and you have produced some pretty incredible films. Could we talk about the importance of the sets for you as director or producer?
Definitely. I’ve been lucky, from the very beginning, to work with great designers and great decorators.
SET DECOR: Your films show it…
Well, I do care about it. The default position of a movie has to do with authenticity…and the actors’ performances, I believe, are very subtlely but ineffably affected by that surrounding ambience and even the specificity of the fabrics, the shapes and the nature of the rooms themselves. I’ll give you an example. On my very first movie, ABOUT LAST NIGHT, I walked into a set that was about two girls living in an apartment building. I was just touring the set after they had finished decorating it the day before we shot. I walked into the girls’ bathroom, and on the sink were the smudges of mascara and in the medicine cabinet were prescriptions and birth control pills with their names on them, and I said to myself, ‘Well, there may never be a chance or a moment where these girls actually open their cabinet, but if they [the actresses] did, their ability to feel present and to be in that moment would be so helped by this that eventually the performance can feel like cheating.” You’re just living within that context.
SET DECOR: What a great description! And of course, that is every set decorator’s intent, to inform and share the character and place and time…
Yes. And it leads to ideas. It leads the actors to ideas and the director to other ideas. By the way, that’s not just the decorator…it’s also the designer and the propmaster and all the people together conspiring to do that.
SET DECOR: Exactly. It is a collaboration...
Yes, and the best ones are all storytellers. They’re telling the story with me. They’re not interested in showing themselves off…they’re thinking of  “What can I add that will amplify, sometimes subliminally, the story that you’re telling?”
SET DECOR: It’s so true. For instance, in this film, of course particularly when you’re doing a biography of any sort, the accuracy is important.
Oh yeah.
SET DECOR: Producer Gail Katz mentioned that you were able to visit a hotel in Reykjavík where Fischer had stayed in 1972 for the match of all time, “They had the original chess board, signed by Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer…” And we understand you were able to have the original table used for their match…
Yes. We were able to bring that [table] from Iceland to Montreal. And we also had the exact Herman Miller chairs made. The final match between Tobey [as Bobby Fisher] and Liev [as Boris Spassky] is played on the actual table in the film. It’s a nice thing for the actors and for all of us to know that we’re somehow being informed by the truth to that degree.
Look, I have a thing that I wear that’s a coin from the past. What power does a talisman have? It exudes this certain kind of mystical aura that you’d like to think has an effect. Whether it literally does or not, doesn’t matter, if you feel it does. No one but a few of us and Tobey and Liev knew that that table was what it was, but the fact that they were sitting there at that very place, I think in some way inspired to complete that magical reality, that sort of illusion that you are trying to create.
SET DECOR: In this case you literally crossed that barrier.
Yes! And I remember that once, in Savannah, Georgia, shooting a scene [for the film GLORY] where a black man is being whipped by a white man, we were within spitting distance of the caves where slaves had been put when they had been transported from Africa. Now, I don’t know what ghosts are, but it had the feeling.
When we were in Lithuania shooting about the Holocaust [DEFIANCE], we chose a forest which is described as a scene of great horror, and we discovered a little commemorative marker on the ground there. It had been grassed over and forgotten, and here we were in the act of this Holocaust remembrance. That becomes part of what you’re doing…
SET DECOR: Absolutely. We talked with Véronique Melery, the set decorator, about that film and what these people had in their homes and then had brought with them to their camps and hideouts…
Yeah, in fact, I remember she had a number of pictures of young people who had been taken, and she gave the pictures to the actors as to somehow carry in their wallets or their pockets as something they could use to prepare. And that was amazing.
SET DECOR: Yes, that kind of research is what the best set decorators do, the best propmasters and art directors, costume designers …and, of course, the best production designers do the most extensive research and then they all collaborate…
Yes, and you’re finding these days, everybody does the research—the actors are doing the research, the DP’s are looking at clips on YouTube, we’re talking to consultants. You end up assembling this trove that everybody dips into, and I know, for me, when I want to escape, I will escape into the art department, and I’ll walk around looking at pictures, and picking things up, and I’ll get ideas from that.
SET DECOR: Once again, trigger points, catalysts…
Your chess consultant for PAWN SACRIFICE, Richard Berubé, states:
Accuracy is essential in chess. If there is a mistake, it will be noticed. Ed captured the real sensation of a chess match. He understood the tension. I think he directs like a chess player. He’s always well prepared, so he sees the moves he will need to make in advance.”
That’s really interesting. Okay, I appreciate that. I think it’s not far from true. You are gaming things out in advance…
SET DECOR: “150 moves in advance,” as Bobby’s mentor/coach Father Lombardy states in the film…
Yes! Certainly a director has to know where he is at a given moment, because you don’t shoot in sequence. You have to know what came before and what’s coming after, and you have to be out of time in some way. And I’ve often described the preparation as 3-dimensional chess…you’re reconciling all sorts of conflicting agendas.
Having someone like Richard who are experts in whatever field, whether a military consultant, or a psychologist, linguists and dialogue coaches…all these people…having them around is just another bulwark of the kind of authenticity that we were talking about.
SET DECOR: Such as those pictures being handed out…
SET DECOR: As we mentioned earlier, because of the time period depicted, you were able to get some of the exact pieces used, but then there was the other side of that…the Brooklyn home…and portraying the emotional as well as physical setting.
Yeah. I mean, it starts with trying to figure out, “How can we create Brooklyn in Montreal?” So you’re looking for a kind of brownstone, you’re looking for a kind of stoop, and if you don’t have it, can you provide so it would seem to be that? And then you go into the house and you say to yourself, “Well, what were the fabrics, and what did the furniture look like?” But even more than that, “What were the magazines?” and “What posters and chess things would be around?” And again, you’re trying to further embroider something.
SET DECOR: And make it the audience’s experience.
Yes. And I also think that the best people are also idiosyncratic in the way that life is idiosyncratic…in other words, we’re sitting in this room, and this room is a nice suite in a hotel, but you look over there, and there are the remaining dishes from breakfast. You look over here, and there’s the bag from the make-up person, and those sort of textures give us a sense of reality. Because if it had been perfect, I think, inevitably an audience, without knowing it, would have somehow noted that.
SET DECOR: Yes, for instance, with the Fisher apartment, in the early scenes we see it’s not the furniture of that time, because in a place like that with their income, they’d have old furniture…
That’s right, exactly.
SET DECOR: And you can see the wear. You can see the faded blankets.
Yes. That’s what gives the credibility. And the layers of stuff…all those details…
And sometimes I get upset because I want to show more of it, but, finally, it’s about the telling of the story, and it’s best when it’s peripheral…it’s best when it’s not forefront, and yet there are times when I say, “Oh my god, I love this and that’s gorgeous, but the light’s too dark…or we need a close-up here and it won’t show…” To be a designer or a decorator, you just accept that…
SET DECOR: Sure, you learn to be thrilled by what IS up there. And, once again, know that hopefully you helped inform everyone else, whether it was on camera or not…
That’s true. Yes, essential.
SET DECOR: Well then, we have the change of time recorded through the Brooklyn apartment set…and also the palette. It seems like that the apartment was basically dark but with hints of red or yellow evolving with the times…
Yes…bits of color, because you want things to change…
But when I saw the movie all put together, what is really beautiful… and this was Brad and Isabelle together…there’s a use of blue, which is a very difficult color to use in a movie. There are blues and orange…unexpected colors that, to me, evoke the ‘60s…and no other time in design that I can think of those colors really being used…and they do it in a way…
It’s that turquoise-blue and salmon orange …
Yes, exactly. We use it in the motel…
And then repeated in more sophisticated, pulled back hues in the Beverly Hilton hotel…underlining the juxtaposition between Fischer and Spassky
Of the same palette, that’s right.
Brad says: “We really embraced the colors that are typical of the different eras and grounded it all in an overall cyan blue ambiance.”
And, look, they’re both sophisticated artists. Brad photographs installations for the Metropolitan and Isabelle is a real artist, so together I’m sure they were scheming the entire time. And I’m not sure that I even knew the degree to which they had done it until I actually saw the movie put together…and then I thought, “Oh my god, there’s even more forethought and planning there than I realized!”
We’ve covered the last two films that Bradford shot, SELMA and A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, working with other fabulous set decorators and production designers. This is a third example of that teamwork and ability to visually give a slice of absolute reality but still be artistic in doing so…
Absolutely artful. And those 3 movies, if you take ours as the third, could each have been shot by a different cinematographer.
He’s doing something else in this movie…he’s always combining cool light and warm light always in the same shot.
Wow. Thanks for sharing that.
Yeah. It’s a very nice thing that he’s done. And that’s a look. It’s a feel.
And that ties back into to the set decorator’s job, which has expanded in terms of lighting, because it used to be more peripheral as a source…
Oh no, not now… are you kidding?
Exactly! Now it’s often lit mostly by our practicals…
Yeah, I would say three-quarters of this movie was lit by practicals. The sensitivity of that Alexa camera and what he was doing. It was like he was reductive.
And that ties back to the collaboration we talked about earlier. Now there is a much deeper, more interactive collaboration between the set decorator and the DP…
Yeah. And by the way, when I go on a set—I’ve been schooled by the best people, I’ve had some pretty fantastic teachers—I will walk into a room, and I will start to think of how we’re going to present it and light it, even as I’m thinking how we’re going to stage it, because I know the value I’m going to get from that…
Liev Schreiber says,
“Ed is brilliant and very strategic. He has a great talent for action, and he even found a way to unlock action in a board game.”
We love that description!
And you are quoted as saying:
I wanted this movie to have a different visual signature and it was thrilling to take myself out of my comfort zone.”
Yeah, well look. First of all, it was the first digital movie I ever made. So there’s that.

And also, I had seen a documentary called CROSSFIRE HURRICANE about the Rolling Stones. It combined narrative footage and interviews and concert footage and all these things, and I thought, “Well there’s an idea. If we created a mosaic of the public sphere and the private very-subjective sphere, the fragmentation of this mosaic would in someway mirror his fragmentation.” And at the end of the day, that would somehow have given a particular look to this movie that I had never done before.

Photo 3
1972 World Chess Championship, Reykjavik, Iceland… Boris Spassky [Liev Schreiber], Soviet & world chess Grandmaster, defends his 8-times world title against American Bobby Fischer [Tobey Maguire] in what was dubbed The Match of the Century... Photo ©2015 Bleecker Street. All Rights Reserved.

Photo 4
Brooklyn Chess Club, 1951… As his mother [Robin Weigert] and sister [Sophie Nelisse] observe, young Bobby Fischer [Aiden Lovekamp] demonstrates his proficiency to chess expert Carmine Nigro [Conrad Pla], club president… Screen image ©2015 Bleecker Street. All Rights Reserved.

Photo 5
Brooklyn Chess Club, 1951… Chess club details…the long, narrow room allowed for rows of simultaneous play… Photo by Tkashi Seida ©2015 Bleecker Street. All Rights Reserved.

Photo 6
Bobby Fischer’s bedroom, early 1950s… Basically a neglected child, somewhat traumatized by his mother’s activities and a seemingly ever-present FBI surveillance, Bobby immersed himself in the very logical world of chess… Photo by Tkashi Seida ©2015 Bleecker Street. All Rights Reserved.

Photo 7
Bobby’s mother’s bedroom, early 1950s… This childhood apartment became a permanent home for Bobby. As a teenager already deeply dedicated to his career in chess, he subsequently kicked his mother out because of her incessant partying… Photo by Tkashi Seida ©2015 Bleecker Street. All Rights Reserved.

Photo 8
Russian bookstore, Brooklyn… With the Russian domination of the world of chess, the books and magazines Bobby discovered here were great resources for his understanding of the game… Photo by Tkashi Seida ©2015 Bleecker Street. All Rights Reserved.

Photo 9
Pavey Simultaneous Chess Exhibition, 1951… Bobby Fischer [Aiden Lovekamp] plays in his first exhibition and is able to hold on for 15 minutes… Screen image ©2015 Bleecker Street. All Rights Reserved.

Photo 10
Washington Square Park… Bobby Fischer [Tobey Maguire] meets attorney Paul Marshall [Michael Stuhlbarg], an extreme patriot who becomes his agent and manager… Photo ©2015 Bleecker Street. All Rights Reserved.

Photo 11
Fischer recruits his second… Fischer [Tobey Maguire] asks former champion and mentor, who gave up chess for the priesthood, Father Bill Lombardy [Peter Sarsgaard] to become his second in seeking the World Championship… Screen image ©2015 Bleecker Street. All Rights Reserved.

Photo 12
Pre-tournament, Piatigorsky Cup, Santa Monica 1966… At first, Fischer [Tobey Maguire] enjoys the attention, including appearances on popular TV interview shows, but his paranoia begins to take over… Photo ©2015 Bleecker Street. All Rights Reserved.

Photo 13
Bulgaria International Tournament, 1967 … Bobby Fischer suspects the Soviets are purposely paying to a draw, which prevents him from gaining enough win points to advance to the top… Photo by Tkashi Seida ©2015 Bleecker Street. All Rights Reserved.

Photo 14
Santa Monica Beach, CA… Boris Spassky [Liev Schreiber] was like a rock star… This and a few other establishing scenes were actually filmed in CA, with Lisa Clark SDSA as Art Director and Set Decorator. Paul Hotte was the Head Set Decorator for the film, shot mostly in Montreal, Canada… Photo ©2015 Bleecker Street. All Rights Reserved.


director's chair archives

Craig Gillespie: DUMB MONEY 2023-10-03
Chris Robinson: SHOOTING STARS 2023-07-07
Gina Prince-Bythewood: THE WOMAN KING 2022-09-22
Emma Holly Jones: MR. MALCOLM'S LIST 2022-07-11
Euros Lyn: DREAM HORSE 2021-05-22
Clea DuVall: HAPPIEST SEASON 2020-12-07
Michael Engler: DOWNTON ABBEY 2019-12-31
Robert Eggers: THE LIGHTHOUSE 2019-10-28
Tanya Saracho: VIDA 2019-08-01
Bradley Cooper: A STAR IS BORN 2018-12-30
Drew Goddard: BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE 2018-11-20
Tamara Jenkins: PRIVATE LIFE 2018-11-06
Drew Pearce: HOTEL ARTEMIS 2018-06-17
Joe Wright: DARKEST HOUR 2017-12-06
Bharat Nalluri: THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS 2017-11-28
Greta Gerwig: LADY BIRD 2017-11-06
Ken Biller: GENIUS 2017-04-27
James Gray: THE LOST CITY OF Z 2017-04-17
Niki Caro: THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE 2017-04-03
Ken Olin: THIS IS US 2017-03-27
Theodore Melfi: HIDDEN FIGURES 2017-01-27
J.A. Bayona: A MONSTER CALLS 2017-01-03
Kelly Fremon Craig: THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN 2016-12-02
Warren Beatty: RULES DON'T APPLY 2016-11-25
Jeff Nichols: LOVING 2016-11-02
Derek Cianfrance: THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS 2016-09-10
Stephen Frears: FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS 2016-08-15
Susanna White: OUR KIND OF TRAITOR 2016-07-03
Gareth Neame: DOWNTON ABBEY 2016-06-13
George Miller: MAD MAX: FURY ROAD 2016-01-13
Tom Hooper: THE DANISH GIRL 2015-12-15
Sarah Gavron: SUFFRAGETTE 2015-12-15
Bill Pohlad: LOVE & MERCY 2015-07-10
Alex Garland: EX MACHINA 2015-06-11
Richard Linklater: BOYHOOD 2015-02-04
James Marsh: THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING 2014-12-19
Bennett Miller: FOXCATCHER 2014-11-30
Michael Hirst: VIKINGS 2014-06-14
Amma Asante: BELLE 2014-05-06
Brian Percival: THE BOOK THIEF 2013-11-26
Alfonso Cuarón: GRAVITY 2013-10-13
J.J. Abrams: STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS 2013-06-27
Juan Antonio Bayona: THE IMPOSSIBLE 2013-01-17
Joe Wright: ANNA KARENINA 2012-12-18
Ang Lee: LIFE OF PI 2012-12-01
Ben Affleck: ARGO 2012-10-27
Sacha Gervasi: HITCHCOCK 2012-10-27
Luc Besson: THE LADY 2012-01-10
Tomas Alfredson: TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY 2011-12-13
Michel Hazanavicius: THE ARTIST 2011-12-08
Joe Wright: HANNA 2011-04-11
Mike Leigh: ANOTHER YEAR 2011-01-20
Tim Burton 2010-01-20
director's chair archives 2008-08-21