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

‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ is a Better than Expected Reboot

The Amazing Spiderman poster

When “The Amazing Spider-Man” was finally released in movie theaters everywhere, we finally got to answer the question nagging at us: isn’t it far too soon for a franchise reboot or remake or whatever the hell you want to call this? Well, the answer ends up going both ways here as Marc Webb’s film does tread familiar ground, but it gets better as it goes on. This time, our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man has a lot more edge to him and is a little more complex than he was in the Sam Raimi-directed movies.

This version starts off with a very young Peter Parker being left in the company of his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field) by his parents, Richard and Mary Parker (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz), who are forced to leave town under mysterious circumstances. Forward several years later, and Peter is now a sullen teenager played by Andrew Garfield, one of several actors who should have gotten an Oscar nomination for “The Social Network.”

Like before, Peter is a social outcast who is not exactly the most popular person on the high school campus. But unlike Tobey Maguire’s interpretation, Peter here is sullener this time around; sensitive and shy while dealing with anger at the life he has been dealt which is anything but normal. In essence, he is more of a real-life teenager than he was in previous incarnations; confused about his place in life and unsure of himself. “The Amazing Spider-Man” hence becomes the story of a young man on a journey to find himself, and this helps ground the superhero in a reality we all know and understand.

The first part of “The Amazing Spider-Man” made me a bit impatient as it travels through all the things leading up to Peter adopting his alter-ego. Sam Raimi’s first “Spider-Man” movie may have come out ten years ago, but its images are still fresh in our minds. I’m not just talking about Kirsten Dunst kissing Maguire while he hangs upside down. Still, Webb and company do their best to make the material their own. The moments where Garfield develops his power to swing from place to place is exhilarating to watch, and whereas Raimi’s “Spider-Man” movies were like a comic book brought to life, Webb deals with Peter Parker in a more realistic fashion.

Speaking of Garfield, he has repeatedly said how happy he was to get this role, and the thrill he gets from playing this iconic comic book character is clearly on display. Throughout “The Amazing Spider-Man,” the actor looks to be having the time of his life, and he certainly has earned the right to enjoy himself based on his excellent performance here as he makes this role his own. I also really liked was how he wasn’t afraid to make Parker unlikable at times. Clearly this is a young man with issues, having lost his parents in a way no child should, and the actor makes Parker’s confusion over what is expected of him all the more palpable.

Matching Garfield scene for scene is the wonderful Emma Stone who plays his highly intelligent love interest, Gwen Stacy. Stone shares a strong chemistry with Garfield, and she gives the role a feisty kick which makes her so much fun to watch. She also infuses her Gwen with a strong humanity which keeps her from being just another love interest, and her performance goes way beyond what we could have expected.

Rhys Ifans portrays Dr. Curt Connors, once a friend of Parker’s father, who is developing ways to regrow limbs and human tissue. But something ends up going terribly wrong, as it always does, with an experiment, and he is soon turned into The Lizard. The dilemmas this character faces are not too different from what Norman Osborn/Green Goblin character dealt with, but Ifans makes the character a fascinatingly complex one as his intent to test his experimental serum on himself is not about proving oneself to a whole bunch of doubters as it is about taking responsibility for one’s creation when others are more interested in results and profit.

While I miss seeing the late Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris as Uncle Ben and Aunt May, both Martin Sheen and Sally Field fill the roles wonderfully. I also really liked Denis Leary as Gwen Stacy’s father, NYPD Captain George Stacy, who gets into an argument with Peter as to why he considers Spider-Man a vigilante. After watching him on “Rescue Me” and as an endlessly cynical standup comedian all these years, Leary once again reminds us of just how effective an actor he can be in playing an upstanding citizen and a strong family man.

Previously, Webb was best known for directing music videos, and the only other movie he made was “(500) Days of Summer.” You can’t help but wonder what the studio executives were thinking when they hired him after he made a $7.5 million indie movie to helm a summer blockbuster with a reported budget of over $220 million. Maybe all the other big name directors were busy or something. Then again, when you look at both “(500) Days of Summer” and “The Amazing Spider-Man,” they have strong similarities. Both feature main characters in the process of figuring themselves out while moving on to the next stage of their lives, and they also have them romancing a female who is as intelligent as she is attractive. Each movie succeeds in giving us relationships which were not the usual dopey romantic kind, and they are all the better as a result.

With “(500) Days of Summer,” Webb also showed a keen understanding of how important it is for the audience to be emotionally involved with the characters in a movie. This ended up making him an ideal choice to direct “The Amazing Spider-Man” as we need to care about these characters in order for the movie’s story and its special effects to work effectively. Webb succeeds in getting us emotionally involved in what goes on, and it makes this reboot stand out from the typical summer blockbuster which invades our local movie theaters more often than not.

Another thing I have to point out is the film score by James Horner. Danny Elfman had done such a brilliant job defining the sound of Spider-Man in Raimi’s movies, and this gave Horner a hard act to follow. But Horner succeeds in giving us music which is as adventurous and invigorating to listen to as Elfman’s was. Of course, this doesn’t keep him from stealing from himself as there is a musical cue from “Star Trek II” in here, and it is instantly recognizable to those who have listened to that soundtrack over and over again.

It would have been nice if Raimi and Maguire got to make a “Spider-Man 4,” if for no other reason than to make up for the huge disappointment that was “Spider-Man 3.” But in retrospect they must have seen the writing was on the wall as there was nowhere else for them to take the character. While a reboot still feels way too soon for this franchise, “The Amazing Spider-Man” is a very entertaining movie which looks to get this series back on track. Now that we got the origin story out of the way once again, we can get to an even more exciting chapter in Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy’s lives.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Spider-Man 3’ is a Major Disappointment

Spiderman 3 poster

After the brilliance of “Spider-Man 2” one of the best comic book movies ever made, “Spider-Man 3” proves to be an astonishing disappointment. Even though this sequel has the same actors and directors as its predecessors, they are faced with a screenplay with too many characters, too many subplots which don’t reach a satisfying conclusion, villains who are not very satisfying, and some character choices which feel out of place in a movie like this.

I already had a problem with “Spider-Man 3” before I went in as there were too many villains for one motion picture. It would have been better for it to have just one villain for Spider-Man to face because it allows the filmmakers to give more attention to the characters to where they can become unforgettable. You can get away with two villains sometimes, but you are better off with one as this movie shows.

This ended up being the last “Spider-Man” movie Sam Raimi directed, and my original thought was he knew this would be the case, so he ended up putting in everything but the kitchen sink. In retrospect, I think the studio forced him to add characters who were big comic book fan favorites, and Raimi obliged even though there was little chance of those characters getting enough screen time. In the process of pleasing the fans, “Spider-Man 3” succeeded in alienating them by throwing things at us the filmmakers assumed we would like.

Spider-Man’s first nemesis is the New Goblin, same as the Old Goblin. We all know the New Goblin is actually Harry Osborn, played once again by James Franco, and he ends up giving his best performance in all of the “Spider-Man” movies here. Franco revels in going all over the place as he seethes at Peter Parker whom he is still convinced killed his father. In the process of trying to kill Peter, Harry gets amnesia and forgets about what Peter supposedly did. But this doesn’t keep Harry from messing with Peter’s life or stealing away those closest to him.

Then comes Spidey’s next darn nemesis, Sandman/Flint Marko played by Thomas Haden Church who was on a roll after his Oscar nominated performance in “Sideways.” This is an interesting villain as you can clearly see what drives him: his love for his sick little girl. While Church does what he can with an underwritten part which has him disappearing from the screen for far too long, he is nowhere as compelling as Alfred Molina was as Doc Ock was in “Spider-Man 2.” Flint never gets the chance to revel in his new-found powers, and he doesn’t feel as threatening as a result.

After that, we get yet another antagonist in the form of Eddie Brock who later turns into one of the most famous comic book villains ever, Venom. Now while I can see how Venom is such an immensely popular character in the “Spider-Man” universe, his appearance in “Spider-Man 3” feels like an afterthought. Furthermore, he is portrayed by Topher Grace who, while having given terrific performances in movies like “Traffic,” is completely miscast. Eddie Brock/Venom feels too broad as he is portrayed here, and we don’t get to invest emotionally in this character as much as we would like to.

Tobey Maguire has long since proven to be one of the best Spider-Man’s we have ever seen on the big screen, and the best acting he does here is with his eyes and face. He can get you right in the heart with just one look, and he never gives you a false emotion in any scene. This is especially the case in a pivotal moment between him and Mary Jane Watson which is truly heartbreaking to watch.

“Spider-Man 3” also sees the famous web-slinger exploring his dark side when an alien symbiote lands down on earth in his vicinity and infects him and changes his behavior. But things soon degenerate as Maguire is forced to play Peter as if he is some sort of emo dude to where he is suddenly struck with the urge to dance in public for no particularly special reason. Some of these scenes are amusing to watch, but they belong in a different film.

It also sucks to see the female characters underused here. Kirsten Dunst is back as Mary Jane Watson, and it’s great to see her again as she has been fantastic in this series. But in “Spider-Man 3” she doesn’t have much to do here other than end up in a perilous state and hanging on for dear life. You’d think at this point Mary Jane would realize she’s better off without Peter as her life remains in constant danger while they are together. How many times do you think you could take fighting for your life when your boyfriend is Spider-Man? Well, if you’re Jack Bauer, I guess you could do it quite a bit. This is regardless of the fact Mary Jane Watson is not Jack Bauer’s girlfriend, but anyway…

Bryce Dallas Howard co-stars as Gwen Stacy, a huge fan favorite of the Spider-Man series, but she gets even less to do than Dunst. I think Gwen ended up here because Marvel and Columbia Pictures insisted on her inclusion as they figured the fans were ever so eager to see this character in any “Spider-Man” movie at that point. Howard is a fantastic actress and makes for a very good Gwen Stacy, but this character has little purpose for being in “Spider-Man 3” other than to please the most die-hard fans.

There are other welcome returns in “Spider-Man 3” like Rosemary Harris who plays Aunt May, the Yoda of Peter Parker’s life who gives him the wisdom he needs to hear. J.K. Simmons remains the consummate scene stealer as J. Jonah Jameson, and he had me in hysterics from his first scene where his secretary reminds him to watch out for his high blood pressure. And yes, Bruce Campbell does his usual “Spider-Man” cameo, this time as a waiter desperate to help Peter and Mary Jane have the most wonderful of times at a restaurant. It’s always good to see Campbell in a movie no matter what kind of role he plays.

The climax has the Sandman teaming up with Venom to take down Spider-Man, and while it is an emotionally charged climax, we still come out of this movie very disappointed as it feels like there are so many missed opportunities. Once again, each of these villains are very underdeveloped to where the stakes don’t feel high, and everything ends up feeling far less exciting. Plus, we have seen Mary Jane in danger far too many times to where everything going on begins to feel boring and redundant. I ended up going on a bathroom break during the movie, something I usually never do, but I’m positive I didn’t miss much.

For what it’s worth, I liked how Raimi deals with the futility of revenge and how it destroys the soul, and he also shows how it is better to forgive. This is something I need to remind myself of more often. It makes for a strong moment between Peter and the Sandman as well as with Harry. It’s these moments where you feel the strength and pain of the characters ever so purely, and this movie could have used many more moments like these.

I couldn’t help but come out of “Spider-Man 3” feeling completely let down. “Spider-Man 2” was so good to where I couldn’t help but come into this one with high expectations. The fact everyone involved screwed this motion picture up feels utterly baffling considering what came before, and the disappointment this sequel generates really stings. I’d like to think that “Spider-Man 3” stands as an example of how not to make a comic book movie, but after watching “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” it is still a lesson everyone needs to learn.

* * out of * * * *