Steven Knight on Tobey Maguire, Bobby Fischer and ‘Pawn Sacrifice’

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview took place back in 2014.

Pawn Sacrifice,” the movie about Bobby Fischer’s quest to beat the Russians in the game of chess, proves to be another cinematic triumph for both Edward Zwick and Tobey Maguire. Another person who deserves credit for this movie’s critical success is Steven Knight who wrote the screenplay. Knight’s previous writing credits include David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises,” Stephen Frears’ “Dirty Pretty Things” and John Crowley’s “Closed Circuit,” and he wrote and directed “Hummingbird” which starred Jason Statham. He also wrote and directed “Locke” which featured Tom Hardy in what proved to be one of the most underrated movies of 2014.

I got to sit in on an interview with Knight while he was in Los Angeles, California at the Four Seasons Hotel to promote “Pawn Sacrifice,” and it was really nice to talk with him again after having interviewed him about “Locke” for the website We Got This Covered. His screenplay showed how well researched he was in Bobby Fischer and the world championship games he ended up playing against the Soviet chess grandmaster Boris Spassky.

Ben Kenber: I read that when you found out Tobey Maguire was going to be playing Bobby Fischer in this movie that it made it easier for you to write the script.

Steven Knight: Yeah, well it was Tobey who came to me with the idea, so from the outset it was always going to be Tobey playing Bobby. That really helped because this is about a battle being fought with the face if you like. It’s the intensity of the movement, and Tobey has got that intensity so much.

BK: Boris Spassky (played by Liev Schreiber) is an interesting character as presented in this movie. This could have easily become a good guy/bad guy story, but the movie avoids that thank goodness.

SK: Yeah because that wasn’t the case. If anything, Bobby was the bad guy. He was the one with the unreasonable demands. He was the one everyone chased around for reasons that we know. But Boris was a decent person, and when he applauds at the end of game six you realize that this is a man who knows how to lose and have the dignity. If there’s any message about this Cold War, it’s that when two human beings can overcome that conflict.

BK: It’s almost scary to think about how Bobby would’ve handled fame if he were to become famous in this day and age because there would have been nowhere for him to hide.

SK: No, definitely not. If he came along today, he would get the best agent and he would get the best lawyers. They would come to him. He wouldn’t choose. They would get him than make a fortune.

BK: The last image of the movie, when Bobby Fischer wins and gets what he wants, has haunted me ever since because it’s all downhill for him from there. It’s sad to see that he’s not able to enjoy the success he earned.

SK: Yeah, and the image that’s always in my mind was he’s been running away and he’s hit a brick wall, and now they are gonna get him.

BK: It’s interesting that the movie ends there instead of following Bobby and observing what happened to him afterwards. It could almost make for a good sequel.

SK: It would make for an odd sequel (laughs).

Thanks to Steven Knight for taking the time to talk about what went into his screenplay for “Pawn Sacrifice,” and I look forward to what he has in store for us next. The movie is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

CLICK HERE TO READ THE EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW I DID WITH STEVEN KNIGHT ABOUT HIS FILM LOCKE.\

Edward Zwick on the Pressures of Fame and ‘Pawn Sacrifice’

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview took place back in 2014. This is worth noting especially when the director mentions a particular individual who has become far too famous for his or anyone else’s good.

Edward Zwick has remained one of Hollywood’s best and perhaps most underappreciated directors as he has given us such great motion pictures like “Glory,” “The Last Samurai,” “Blood Diamond” and “Legends of the Fall.” With “Pawn Sacrifice,” he takes us back to the Cold War when American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) took on the Soviet Empire and its chess grandmaster Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) in a 21-game competition in an effort to end the Soviet’s domination of the game. But as Bobby contemplates which moves he could make on the chess board, he also has to deal with his mental illness and paranoia which may descend him into a realm of madness he won’t be able to escape from.

Zwick sat down for an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California to talk about “Pawn Sacrifice,” working with Maguire and the genius of Bobby Fischer. As the interview went on, it focused more on the subject of fame and how crushing it can be. Bobby was really one of the first people who had to endure a type of fame which followed him all around the world, and we eventually saw what this attention did to him.

What’s up Hollywood reporter Izumi Hasegawa brought up the fact that, while this movie takes place back in 1972, it deals with celebrity in a way which feels very relevant to what’s going on today. We see artists like Miley Cyrus gaining notoriety for doing things which Hannah Montana would never do, and Zwick really made clear why we remain so deeply interested in famous people and the effect fame has on them.

Edward Zwick: We’re fascinated by the darker sides. We are fascinated when they reveal themselves in a way that is vulnerable or fragile or they have some sort of failures. I think we seize on that, and this was the very beginning of that. The person to ask about that too would be Tobey (Maguire) because he has had to deal with a share of it as an iconic superhero. I think that people of extraordinary ambition and single-mindedness reach a place that, at the same time, makes them more vulnerable to that glare. And as they try to retire from that glare and they turn inward, there is often this weird reaction and I’ve seen it with a lot of people I have worked with and it’s hard to describe. Most people who become artists to begin with, or who aspire to greatness, there’s often some vulnerability at the base that gets exposed, I think.

“Pawn Sacrifice” was released in a year which has seen documentaries made on the lives of Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain and Nina Simone; three brilliant artists whose lives were tragically destroyed because they couldn’t handle the pressures of fame which was thrust upon them. Since Bobby never had to deal with his likeness being plastered all over the internet, it’s tempting to say he got off easy, but this was not the case. Like those three, Bobby didn’t and couldn’t deal very well with fame as it isolated him more and more from the rest of humanity, and I remarked to Zwick how watching Maguire portray the chess prodigy here made me wonder how he would have dealt with fame in this day and age.

Edward Zwick: I think it would have been insufferable. Even the reason he disappeared even then was in some sense a reaction to that kind of scrutiny. It’s become so barbaric. I look at Donald Trump right now and I see someone who is now being considered in the political arena as legitimate who is famous for being famous. Not for his policies, good or bad, but because it is so important now in the culture to be famous or to be known, and he is now transitioning into this most serious realm. We’ve almost reached that height of absurdity.

What Zwick said rings absolutely true as our obsession with celebrities keeps getting bigger and bigger to where we are more likely to know who won the latest season of “American Idol” than the name of our current governor. This makes “Pawn Sacrifice” all the more important to watch, and it is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

BE SURE TO ALSO CHECK OUT THE EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW I HAD WITH EDWARD ZWICK WHICH I DID FOR THE WEBSITE WE GOT THIS COVERED DOWN BELOW

Michael Stuhlbarg on Managing an Unstable Genius in ‘Pawn Sacrifice’

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview took place back in 2014.

Ever since he made his cinematic breakthrough in the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man,” actor Michael Stuhlbarg has presented us with an array of characters he completely disappears into in movies like “Men in Black 3,” “Lincoln,” “Seven Psychopaths,” “Blue Jasmine,” “Cut Bank” and “Steve Jobs.” In “Pawn Sacrifice,” the Julliard trained actor portrays Paul Marshall, the manager and attorney to chess prodigy Bobby Fischer (played by Tobey Maguire). Bobby proves to be a hard man to get control of, and Stuhlbarg makes you see how exhausting it was for Paul as he was determined not to lose his most famous client even as the chess genius descended into madness

Stuhlbarg was at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California for the “Pawn Sacrifice” press day, and he talked in depth about he prepared to play a character who is based on a real-life person. Always a daunting task for any actor, Stuhlbarg appeared to handle this task with what seems like relative ease.

Ben Kenber: Your character of Paul Marshall reminded me a bit of Paul Giamatti’s character of Jerry Heller in “Straight Outta Compton” as both men are managers and forced to manage their clients under increasingly difficult circumstances. In your research, did you look a lot at different managers and how they worked with their clients?

Michael Stuhlbarg: Not so much. I stuck primarily with who Mr. Marshall was. It seemed to be enough. And also, particularly with what the script was asking of the dramatic situation, I just sort of threw myself into it and sort of said how can I get him into the next room if I need to get him there. And how can I please him as much as I can? Because it behooves all of us that he gets where he needs to go and he gets what he asks for. I tried to reason with him and just sort of placed myself in that dramatic context, so that was the dramatic result.

BK: Like Edward G. Robinson (whom he plays “Trumbo”), your character is based on a real-life person, but it’s a person most people don’t know as well as Bobby Fischer. Did this make your job as an actor harder or easier?

MS: The job is the same either way. I imagine I didn’t have to necessarily push myself to behave too much like Paul Marshall because not too many people, I believe, out there would have known him or perhaps fewer people would have known someone like him, Bobby Fischer or Edward G. Robinson. So I didn’t worry about that too much, but on the flipside of that is I tried to get as much video on him as I could so that I knew who he was, and I could listen to his rhythms and hear where he came from and try to embody it is truthfully as I could. At the same time, I was trying to be truthful to the situation.

BK: As an actor, would you say it’s more like working from the inside out or the outside in?

MS: I guess it has to be a marriage of both honestly. You ask questions enough about what you would do in a particular situation that a character finds himself in and you go from there. If he wore a particular pair of glasses which Paul did, it’s then let’s put on those glasses and how does it make me behave. Does it make me behave differently? Perhaps it does. Perhaps I hold my head a little differently. There are the outside influences that will change the way I behave, and there are questions that I could ask that he may have had to ask in his life that may also change me internally. So, I guess it’s always kind of a combination of the two for me.

Like the best character actors working in movies today, Michael Stuhlbarg shows no signs of slowing down as he has a number of projects coming up. It will be fascinating to see which role he will bring to life next.

Pawn Sacrifice” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

PLEASE CHECK OUT THE VIDEO INTERVIEW I DID WITH STUHLBARG WHICH I DID FOR WE GOT THIS COVERED DOWN BELOW:

Tobey Maguire on Chess, Poker and ‘Pawn Sacrifice’

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview took place back in 2014.

Tobey Maguire brings his usual coiled intensity to the role of American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer in “Pawn Sacrifice.” Directed by Edward Zwick, the movie takes us back to the days of the Cold War where Russia and America were constantly facing down one another. Having become a master at chess at such an early age, Bobby eventually becomes determined to beat the Soviet Empire at the game as they have dominated it for decades. This puts Bobby in the crosshairs of Soviet chess grandmaster Boris Spassky (played by Liev Schreiber), and they come to face each other in what became known as the “Match of the Century,” a 21-game competition held in Iceland back in 1972.

Maguire dropped by the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California to talk about his experience making “Pawn Sacrifice” and playing a real-life person. In addition to being an accomplished actor and producer, he is also known for being quite the poker player as he has played in various tournaments throughout the years and has won a lot of money. Front Row Features Managing Editor Angela Dawson asked him if he was able to utilize his knowledge of poker in this role.

Tobey Maguire: I think it doesn’t hurt. I mean it’s very different, and I think Bobby himself hated games if there was any element of chance. When he was six years old he would play some other games, but where there was any element of chance, whether it was cards or dice or something like that, he would get really frustrated because his skill would maybe gain him an advantage but then the chance element might take that advantage away. He almost felt that was unfair, so he no longer played games that have any element of chance and only wanted to play a strictly skilled based game which is essentially chess. He had all of the control and it was all skill, and the communication is very pure. He loved that there was this framework and essentially this pure communication with the person he was playing with. There’s no kind of manipulation or something else that could happen. It was like a safe place to communicate purely. But I also think it doesn’t hurt that I’ve played games and sort of battled with people over boards and across felt tables.

Looking at both games, it seems like there’s a similarity between them because both games require a lot of mental energy as you constantly second guess your moves and the moves you think your opponent will make. Whether you are about to move a chess piece or put down a poker bet, there’s a lot to consider beforehand as a player has to be actively concerned about making a wrong move that will have them suffering a loss they could have avoided. I brought this up to Maguire who sees similarities between the games, but he was also quick to describe how they are different from one another.

Tobey Maguire: Yeah, although with cards you’re acting on current, partial information. You have cards that I don’t see, so I’m then kind of mostly looking at your historical behaviors as it relates to betting and less on tics and moves and stuff. I think that there’s way too much put on so-called tells of poker. I think it’s much more about patterns of betting. I think that’s much more reliable than behavioral tells. I do think it’s a huge differential because in chess there is no hidden information. On a chessboard all the information is right in front of you. There is nothing hidden. The only thing you are guessing or second-guessing is really in your preparation. Bobby Fischer was extremely consistent and would play the same opening move over and over and over and over and over and over again. He actually went and I believe, although I don’t have the proof of this but based on people I talk to, that he basically studied variations that he hadn’t played before and ended up using a different opening move in game six that was very unusual for Bobby. It’s possible that he was doing what you’re talking about, kind of not counting on but anticipating that they would not have prepared to open with that. So, in that way, that’s a comparison that I could draw in relation to what you asked.

Maguire is riveting as always in “Pawn Sacrifice,” and the movie is now available to watch on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

You can also check out my video interview with Tobey Maguire below which I conducted for We Got This Covered.

Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek Make a Jailbreak in ‘Papillon’ Trailer

Papillon 2018 movie poster

Anyone remember “Papillon,” the 1973 prisoner drama starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman? Based on the autobiography of the same name, McQueen starred as Henri Charriere, a safecracker who is framed for murder and given a life sentence in the penal system in French Guyana, some of it spent on the infamous Devil’s Island, a location which more than earned its name. Well, Hollywood in its infinite wisdom has decided to remake “Papillon,” and it is set for release this summer. With its first trailer now having been released, one has to wonder if this particular remake of a Steve McQueen movie will have been worth the trouble. I mean, we all saw what happened to Alec Baldwin when he remade “The Getaway.”

Whereas the 1973 had a brutal palette of colors to work from, the trailer starts off with a beautiful image of Henri (now played by Charlie Hunnam) walking outside of the Moulin Rouge with his girlfriend Nenette (Eve Hewson), and it all looks like something out of a dream. This dream, however, is soon shattered when the police break down Henri’s door and arrest him for murder. From there he is sent to the notorious Devil’s Island where he meets Louis Dega (Rami Malek in the Hoffman role), a counterfeiter whom Henri offers to protect if he can help him escape.

The jail, as I see from the trailer, does not look like a particularly inviting place, but then again, no jail ever does. At the same time, it almost looks a little too clean compared to prisons from cinema’s past. As portrayed in the 1973 original, Devil’s Island was the most brutal of locations and one you wanted to keep as far away from as humanly possible. But in this remake, Devil’s Island almost looks like the Hilton in comparison. Furthermore, the big question I have is, how will this remake compare to one of the most brutal prison films of all time, “Midnight Express?” Every other prison film pales in comparison to that one, and watching it makes you see how smuggling hashish out of Turkey is probably not such a good idea.

Hunnam has the unenviable challenge of playing a role originated onscreen by Steve McQueen, a task almost too daunting to undertake. Still, he has proven to be a tough cookie in the past, whether it was on “Sons of Anarchy” or in “Pacific Rim.” Rami Malek, one of the stars of “Mr. Robot,” is currently seeing his stardom rise up to the heavens with the upcoming release of the Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” in which he portrays Freddie Mercury. Both actors prove to have a good chemistry at work here, so this makes me a little more eager to check out the movie as a result.

Whether or not it was a good reason to remake “Papillon,” we will find out the answer for ourselves when Bleecker Street releases the film this August. Please check out the trailer below.

Eye In The Sky

eye-in-the-sky-poster

When it comes to drone warfare, it seems like such an easier way to fight an enemy without having to put “boots on the ground.” But like Snake Plissken said over and over in “Escape from L.A.,” the more things change, the more they stay the same. Just as in previous wars, there will always be much destruction and an inevitable number of civilian casualties. The question comes to this: is war worth it? Is it worth having all these civilian casualties while trying to take out the enemy? Now some might think these are easy questions to answer, but this is not the case at all, especially to those at the front line.

This is made clear in Gavin Hood’s intense thriller “Eye in the Sky.” It stars Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell who has been tracking a British citizen-turned-terrorist for six years and finally has her tracked down in Kenya. Thanks to local operative Jama Farah (“Captain Phillips’” Barkhad Abdi) and his nifty high-tech surveillance, she discovers this spy is quickly preparing along with others to carry out suicide attacks. As a result, what started as a mission of capture becomes a mission to kill terrorists, and Colonel Powell has drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul of “Breaking Bad”) target the safe house the terrorists are in and is prepared to take them out, but then a 9-year-old girl enters the kill zone to sell some loaves of bread, and she won’t leave until she sells them all. This quickly triggers an international dispute as the United States and British governments debate over whether or not to take action.

While most war movies enthrall viewers with bullets and bombs exploding constantly, “Eye in the Sky” leaves us in sweat-inducing suspense as we wonder if and when an explosion will go off at all. What’s great about Guy Hibbert’s screenplay is it never condescends to its characters or give us annoying ones who are out to make bone-headed decisions for their own benefit. Every reason each character gives for firing or not firing at the target makes perfect sense, and it adds to how difficult the question of attacking these terrorists with this little girl nearby is to answer. On one hand, stopping these terrorists will prevent the loss of many lives, but if the little girl is killed it will come back to aid the propaganda wars being fought against governments. Everyone is looking for a way to keep the blood off their hands, but no one gets off easy.

Watching this situation play out reminded me of a scene from “Blue Thunder.” This classic 1980’s movie is about a high-tech helicopter, and the characters see it do a demonstration of a strafing run where red dummies are terrorists and the white ones are civilians. In the course of shooting at the targets, all the red dummies are blown away as well as a few white ones. This leads the government official Fletcher to tell helicopter pilot Frank Murphy, “There’s one civilian dead for every ten terrorists. That’s an acceptable ratio.” To this Murphy replies, “Unless you’re one of the civilians.”

You almost want to laugh at the government officials who keep trying to contact their higher ups to get permission to obliterate the terrorists as it comes across as passing the buck. But whether or not there is an advantage to attacking or not attacking, there’s also how the rest of the population will interpret how their governments act. This is something governments can never fully control, and they are fully aware of the consequences of doing something and of doing nothing.

Gavin Hood has had a tough time in Hollywood ever since he won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for “Tsotsi.” His abduction thriller “Rendition” received a mixed reception, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” proved to be a mess as it was undone by too much studio interference, and “Ender’s Game’s” chances of becoming a franchise of movies crashed as soon as it opened. But with “Eye in the Sky,” Hood is really in his element as he was once a soldier and has a clear understanding of the military’s responsibilities and the conflicts they endure. He’s also smart to not answer any of the questions the movie poses as he is not about to offer easy answers. Aside from the terrorists, there are no good or bad guys here, but instead, professionals trying to win a war against terrorism as well as the minds of the people.

Hood also shows how the drone pilots actually have it even harder than troops who see the action up close. They may be many miles away from their targets, but they can still see their targets up close and still have their finger on the trigger. At the movie’s press conference, Hood told reporters drone pilots have a higher rate of post-traumatic disorder than those troops who experienced armed combat up close. Having an actor like Aaron Paul playing the drone pilot gets this point across very well as we watch him suffer just as much as he did as Jesse Pinkman on “Breaking Bad.”

Mirren remains an impeccable actress, and she follows up her nasty turn as columnist Hedda Hopper in “Trumbo” with a much different character. Eager to stop another terrorist attack from happening, she undergoes tremendous stress while waiting for an answer from her commander. Mirren makes you feel her stress two-fold, and yet she never seems to break a sweat.

It’s also great to see Abdi here as he proves his Oscar-nominated performance in “Captain Phillips” was no fluke. His character is closest to the line of fire, and we watch as he does his best to do his work while under the prying eyes of fearsome soldiers. Abdi perfectly captures Jama’s desperation as he does what he can to save the little girl from a tragic fate, and he is riveting throughout.

The movie also contains the last onscreen performance from the late Alan Rickman who portrays Colonel Powell’s commanding officer, Lieutenant General Frank Benson. Rickman is as impeccable here as he has been in any other role he has played, and he will be deeply missed. He also has one of the movie’s most definitive lines which comes up towards the end, and he delivers it in a truly unforgettable way.

“Eye in the Sky” is one of those rare thrillers which thrills you just as much as it makes you think. The reality of drone warfare is hard to escape, and this is especially the case after watching this movie. As much as many of us want to leave life and death decisions up to others, Hood forces you to question what you would do in the same situation. You may not like the answers you come up with, but you can’t turn a blind eye to it forever.

By the way, in the case you were wondering, the Alan Parsons Project song of the same name is not featured in this movie. Bummer.

* * * ½ out of * * * *