Edward Zwick Talks Pawn Sacrifice, Bobby Fischer and How To Get Great Performances

By  · Published on September 21st, 2015

Bleaker Street Productions

Edward Zwick has been making movies since 1986. Zwick’s directorial debut, About Last Night…, doesn’t share much in common with his most famous films. The director’s sophomore effort, Glory, is the type of movie audiences expect from him: a grand, emotional period piece. We rarely see movies like Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai, and Glory nowadays, which Zwick feels both “the privilege and loss” of having made. If The Last Samurai and About Last Night… share anything in common, it’s great performances, something Zwick has been capturing since the start of his career.

The director’s latest film, Pawn Sacrifice, features Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgard, Michael Stuhlbarg, and more, all turning in excellent performances. Maguire stars as Bobby Fischer, the tortured chess genius. Steven Knight’s (Locke) script shows us Fischer’s upbringing, but it largely depicts Fischer’s famous match against Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), an immensely charming Russian chess master. In fact, a good chunk of the film consists of two men staring at a chess board. Exciting, right? At times, it is, actually.

Bobby Fischer is an isolating character. During the chess matches, because of the silence required, he’s even more distant and withdrawn. To allow the audience inside of Fischer’s head during these scenes was a hurdle both Zwick and Maguire faced. “That’s one of the real challenges of the movie,” Zwick says. “I’m as interested in the internal experience as much as I am in the public sphere. You saw the public’s sphere with the documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World, the footage, and the interviews, but it was to dramatize his subjective experience. We wanted to show his experience of many moments in his life – and we did that with sound, images, and Tobey’s performance. Tobey manages to maintain a very self-contained presentation, and yet, in the subtlest ways, dramatized a struggle. Almost in the way of a silent movie, him and Liev communicate a great deal – and that’s a real difficult thing to do. I credit them for that. I also credit the DP Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year) and editor Steven Rosenblum (Blood Diamond) for what they accomplished.”

Schreiber and Maguire really do get across that internal struggles through their physicality and expressions. The two performances ultimately mirror each other, conveying two very different men facing the exact same conflict: they both want to drain out all the noise and focus on the game. The actors and their director spent plenty of time together, discovering what made Fischer and Spassky tick. “We spent a lot of time talking to people who knew Bobby,” Zwick says. “There’s been many biographies about what might’ve been going on, internally. Spassky, on the record, has spoken many times about that match. There’s a lot to draw on. The question was: How much can we portray it? How much can we show?”

Once most of the research was completed, Zwick, in an attempt to keep the script and performances alive and fresh, evaded a common practice in filmmaking. “I like to do everything I can to avoid rehearsals even while we’re rehearsing,” the director says with a laugh. “In other words, it means spending time together, talking about things, research, and improvisation. I tend not to want to wear the words out. I like the discovery that happens. Every day and every scene, it’s never the scene that you expect. Technically, I just did my first digital movie, and there’s less surprise there.”

Although Bobby Fischer is the lead of Pawn Sacrifice, Liev Schreiber is the real star and draw of the film. Schreiber plays a surprisingly sympathetic, kind, and classy opponent – and a large portion of the film’s audience may root more for Spassky than Fischer because of the actor’s performance. For Zwick, the Ray Donavon star’s approach to the role was definitely a surprise – the kind of unexpected choice a director often needs to embrace.

“Discussing Liev, the moment when he starts going off the rail himself, he has such a great sense of comedy – and I don’t think he’s necessarily shown that in movies,” Zwick says. “It’s a very comedic moment, and he’s aware of that and plays the indignity in a way I think is really, really delightful. Another actor could’ve played that in another way, but I think it really lends itself to an important moment in the movie, which otherwise could’ve been too dour. This gives it a certain amount of fun and release to a movie that doesn’t have a lot of it. I credit him as the best stage actor of his generation. I’ve seen his work for so long. I’m awe-struck by what he does with the language in this movie. He’s speaking Russain with Russain speakers, and getting away with it – and that’s a very high bar to set for any actor.”

This isn’t the first time Schreiber has lightened up an Ed Zwick film. The director’s 2008 picture, Defiance, was about three Jewish brothers living in Belarus during WWII. Occasionally, when appropriate, Schreiber brought levity to that fairly bleak drama. On the subject of Schreiber, Zwick speaks fondly of the advantages that come with working with an actor the second time around. “There’s trust and a relaxation,” he explains. “You know what the other person is capable of and you know you’re in good hands. Sometimes when an actor and director work together for the first time, it’s not as if there’s a suspicion, but there is tentativeness, a certain amount of a right of passage you have to go through, in order to get there. When it’s already there from the beginning, it’s such a plus.”

And how exactly does a filmmaker complete that right of passage? “If you don’t know each other you spend time doing research together, having dinner, and talking about your lives,” Zwick responds. “You try to find common ground. Once you’re shooting the pressures are so intense you really want to have a channel of communication open to you already.”

When it comes to type of actor Zwick is drawn to, he’s more interested in working with a Ferrari than a truck. “There are certain actors who have never done a bad take,” the director says. “Literally, with certain actors, you could just print take one and walkaway, and it would be a good movie. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re better actors. It doesn’t mean take eight would be any better. There are certain actors who need to get there, using takes to explore. Those actors are often endlessly creative or just experimental and free. Sometimes those actors are looking for it the way you’re looking for it, and you’ll see something you respond to and say, ‘Yeah, that’s it, but what if you do this? What if you change the behavior to that?’ It’s the difference between driving a big truck with no power steering or a Ferrari you just touch the wheel of and the car screams around the corner, and the greatest actors are sensitive that way.”

Tom Cruise is certainly one of finest actors Zwick has ever directed. The actor gave a moving, overlooked performance in The Last Samurai. Listen to any audio commentary with Tom Cruise and it’s apparent he’s a very technically-minded actor, someone who knows how a specific lens or camera movement will impact his performance. “That’s rare,” Zwick says, “and often it’s an actor who goes there after they’ve directed. It was different working with Denzel Washington after he directed than before. Tom is a student of film, because he’s really gone to school with the great directors and great DPs; he’s like a sponge. That’s very, very particular to him. The great actors have an awareness of it that may not be as technical, but believe me, they know where their key is. They know how to find the mark. If it’s a focal length they have to be precise about, they’re going to hit it, because they know, without it, their performance is not going to be in the movie, because it’s going to be soft. Every great actor is also a technical actor. If they’re not, then they’re not as great as they could be. They’re hurting the movie or hurting their performances, if they’re not understanding those technological demands.”

The cast of Pawn Sacrifice sounds like they were up to those demands, but with a cast this good, how could they not be? Zwick assembled an immensely watchable group of actors. Sometimes wrangling actors together on the same page isn’t easy, and if Zwick has one last piece of wisdom to share, it’s that sometimes a director must also be a translator on set. “I do remember a scene once with Brad Pitt, Aidan Quinn, and Anthony Hopkins,” Zwick concludes, recalling his 1994 film, Legends of the Fall. “Sir Anthony is from the National Theater, Aidan Quinn studied theater in Chicago, and Brad came up in a way that was more self-taught. Literally trying to find the common language there was like being a translator to the United Nations, where you’re trying to provide simultaneous translations from English to English.”

Pawn Sacrifice is now in theaters.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.