By Audrey Kelly
Writers and directors always hope that their work will not only be entertaining in the moment but will also break through and become part of the larger social conversation. Last fall, Scott Frank made just such an impact on the global zeitgeist with the limited series he wrote, directed and produced, The Queen’s Gambit. He adapted the story from Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel. Reportedly Netflix’s most-watched series ever with a worldwide audience of more than 62 million viewers, the show made a superstar of its lead actress, Anya Taylor-Joy, sparked a whole new level of interest in the ancient game of chess and won two Golden Globes, including Best Limited Series.
Refreshingly modest, Frank’s past works include Get Shorty, Godless, Logan, Minority Report and A Walk Among the Tombstones. He took time from his ridiculously busy schedule to talk to us about the making of Queen’s Gambit and what he’s learned in his more than three decades in the entertainment industry.
All right, Scott, it’s your move….
The Queen’s Gambit is a work of art, Scott. Well, thank you.
How do you feel about it becoming a cultural phenomenon? What do you attribute that to? It’s just the timing when things become a phenomenon. We can look back and guess, but it’s what people needed or wanted right now. It’s just that simple, and I don’t know why people are responding to it. It makes no sense to me. None. Zero.
Interesting. Yes. I don’t get it. [Laughs] It’s weird.
Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you go about securing the rights to Walter Tevis’ novel? Allan Scott, a British writer/producer who worked a lot with Nic Roeg, had the rights and had tried forever to get it made as a film. Bernardo Bertolucci had tried. All sorts of people were in and out over the years. Heath Ledger was going to direct it, and then he passed away. I knew Allan had it, and Allan had a relationship with Bill Horberg, who’s a producer and a friend of Allan’s. So Bill was able to go to Allan and say, “How would you like to work with Scott and I to make it?” And we tried to get it made as a feature before and after Heath and couldn’t do it. Then, after I made Godless, I realized that the limited series was the best way to go. [Then] Netflix said yes. By the way, I’m burying the lede on that. I was shocked that they said yes, but Cindy Holland — God bless her — loved it, and so very quickly it came together. I was writing many of the episodes during prep.
Is that how you typically get the rights to intellectual property or can it get more complicated? Sometimes they do. Sometimes I chase them, because I tend to like really old IP. I’m doing Laughter in the Dark; I’m going to adapt the Vladimir Nabokov book, so I’ll see if the rights have lapsed. In the case of Nabokov, two producers had just gotten the rights and knew I had been sniffing around for years, so they reached out to me while I was shooting Queen’s Gambit in Berlin. I’m doing a series based on Sam Spade and a couple of producers came to me because the Dashiell Hammett estate had given them the rights to the character. So you never know. It can get more complicated, obviously, but people, a lot of times, don’t know how to even go about getting IP. I don’t even know how. Other people do it for me. [Laughs]
Chess is obviously not a camera-friendly sport. How did you go about pitching the project? I gave people the novel to read to [grab their interest], and it did. God bless them. [I gave it to] the cast and crew too, because I hadn’t written anything yet. I cast Anya Taylor-Joy by giving her the novel. I gave Bill Camp the novel. Then I started sending them scripts. So that was the sell. I just thought, “They’re going to read this book, and they’re going to love it.” The book reads like a thriller. It’s amazing, and Beth Harmon is an amazing character from the opening page.
What was the hook for you? It was about the cost of genius. I would always say, “You don’t have to know anything about chess. You’re going to love the book even if you don’t know because it’s not about chess.” It’s about what it means to have this gift and what it costs. That’s what it’s about for me. It’s not about the woman succeeding in a man’s world. I know a lot of people wish it was. It’s not about that. It’s not really even about chess. Chess is the contest, and she is her own antagonist. She is her own worst enemy — that’s what the focus was for me.
Even though the story is ultimately about the cost of genius, were there any discussions or concerns about how to market a series that showcases chess to a non-playing audience? If so, what were they? Yes. And all the marketing materials show that it’s not your dad’s chess show [laughs] — that it is a sexier, darker, stranger thing, and she is a chess player, but all the materials lean hard into her own issues. In fact, the book opens slightly differently, and I thought, we have to open the [scene] to show you that this isn’t going to be what you think it is.
When casting, were any of the actors that you ultimately decided upon entirely different from what you had envisioned while writing? Some of the smaller parts, maybe. Rebecca Root, who plays Ms. Lonsdale — she’s amazing, and she was so different from what I had in my head. In fact, she was so great that I kept creating things for her to do every day we were shooting and I knew she was on the set. Some of the teachers in smaller roles, such as Harry Melling as Harry Beltik. When I met Harry — and I saw him in the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, their western anthology — he was so instantly sympathetic, and he had a face that was great. I wrote the Benny part for Thomas Brodie-Sangster; I always wanted Thomas to play that role.
You’re an avid chess player, right? I was. I’m playing more now. I played a ton when I was younger. My dad and I play all the time. Actually, my dad and I had a pretty good rivalry going, and we had a friend whose dad was Irving Chernev, who’s one of the most famous chess writers, and so my dad started reading Irving’s books. But his game got worse, which was awesome for me. [Laughs]
What, if anything, did you have to learn to make the story more credible? Chess-wise, I had to learn a lot about chess tournaments, rules. There were a lot of things. Garry Kasparov was a chess consultant, and Bruce Pandolfini, who’s an amazing chess teacher here in New York City, so we did a chess summit in Berlin before we started shooting where we looked at everything from the chess boards to the chess pieces we were going to use. Bruce would comment on how many people would be at a tournament and what the materials of the boards and pieces would be, and he taught the actors how to hold the pieces if they didn’t play. Some of them were very good chess players already, and many of the background players, especially on the immediate boards around the main actors, were chess players. It tended to look pretty good but he helped us with all of that, and Garry designed some of the games at the end, because I wanted it to be authentic.
Would you say it’s imperative to research every story that you write, or are there times when you can just wing it? There are certainly times when you can just wing it. It depends. The good thing about research is, you learn all of these telling details, these little bits of business and things that you didn’t know about that you can then incorporate into your story — whether you’re writing or directing — and it’s really helpful. Research is great. You can also get lost in the research. You can learn so much that you’re changing your story too much to just incorporate all this research that doesn’t matter. You’re really trying to figure out what’s the most important thing: What do I need? What’s the most interesting? People don’t have to know everything. What’s the minimum amount that people need to know in order to follow?
The original novel is rather short — approximately 240 pages. You got a series order from Netflix for six episodes, but that quickly turned into seven. Did you want even more, and why did you need seven? The same thing happened to me on Godless. I wrote six scripts and turned it into seven episodes. I told the story I wanted to tell in both instances. It didn’t feel long to me. When I looked at it all, it was really long, and I thought I had learned my lesson on Godless, and I swore that it wouldn’t happen again on The Queen’s Gambit but, lo and behold, there was just stuff that I really felt we needed. There are all these other little stories and more with certain characters and so on, and I felt like it wasn’t landing right. A rhythm thing was off, and if we rebalanced the episodes, pulled a little out, you ended up with seven of them, and it moved much better. The first one actually ended sooner than it did on the page, and it just made it play so much better. Michelle Tesoro, the editor, and I worked a lot on just trying to figure out how to rebalance it so that you don’t feel stuck. The first episode is always going to feel somewhat slow because you’re adjusting to it, but hopefully we’re keeping it interesting.
Now that chess has become part of the cultural consciousness and the show Netflix’ most-viewed series, haven’t they asked, “Scott, is there any way you can do another season?” No, they haven’t yet, and by the way, I don’t want to do another season. It would ruin the season. This season finished just where it was supposed to, and I really don’t know what else I would want to say or have to say about her and her life. I’m not even sure I know whether she goes on to live a well-adjusted life or not. [Laughs] I just know that in that moment everything is just right for her, and she has that, and I’m so happy with what we did.
That would be a lot of pressure. It would be, yes, and we don’t need it. It’s a nice thing as it is, and it is what it was designed to be, albeit a little longer. [Laughs]
You’ve been in this industry for thirty-six years. What do chess and the film and TV business have in common? Well, they’re strategic. [Laughs] You’re plotting. You’re trying to guess; think three moves ahead. One could say glibly that you’re trying to kill your opponent, but what you’re really trying to do is game your opponent. You’re trying to game the system and figure out what people are going to do and what they’re going to respond to — but, unlike chess, it’s a fool’s errand in the movie business to guess what people are going to like, as this show proves. We just don’t know. You never know, and so you can’t game the system. Marketing tried and still does; they figured out [how to] guess what people want and don’t want. But what that does is, it makes everything look like the same thing and everybody go for the same thing because everybody’s market research is going to be the same. Chess, though, is a beautiful thing because there are infinite variations. There are so many different moves and combinations and openings and endgame versions and variations and so on. In chess, the only thing you’re worried about is accomplishing this task; “I’m going to spend the next eight moves to capture that queen,” “I’m going to spend the next ten moves to get the king,” or whatever it is. You’re always planning ahead. It’s not trying to shortcut anything. There are no shortcuts in chess.
Maybe those who want to break into show business should start playing chess. If they want to break into show business, if they want to write, they need to just focus on the task of writing. Just like in chess, you’re focusing on the moves. You want to focus on the writing, not what you’re going to do if you win the game and what tournament you’re going to play in next week. You’re in the game right now. We focus too often on, “How do I get an agent?” “How do I this?” Well, have you written something really good? If you just focus on creating something meaningful that is specific and singular, in other words, that is what makes you different from the billions of other people writing scripts. Anybody can come up with an idea, but very few people can actually write it and make you read something that, no matter what the idea is, reads really well. That makes you a writer. That makes you a storyteller, able to spin yarn in a way that makes people want to listen to you or read you. That’s all you should focus on. That’s it. Period. The end. Just focus on being a better writer, and learning — and that doesn’t mean reading scripts or watching movies or television shows. It means studying words, which is more about reading novels that you really like. You don’t have to read Dostoevsky. You should just read something that feels like what you’d want to do in the vein of what you’d want to see, because authors tend to have a very specific voice, good authors. You need to have an ear and learn what makes good dialogue. In a screenplay, unlike a novel, you only have sight and sound, so you only have two senses. How can you say a lot with a little? You also only have 120 pages, use the tools you have: transitions, sight, sound, tone… To learn how to be a writer that people want to read and keep reading, reading novels teaches you more than reading scripts. Scripts teach you the tricks. You can learn some format ideas, but there are no rules as long as it reads well. What makes it read well? Why do I want to keep turning the page? Is it hard to read? Is it distracting? Is it full of boring details? What makes you a good storyteller? How do you spin yarn? Focus just on that, and everything else will change at the right moment for you, magically. It’s the “if you build it, they will come” argument. [Laughs] Just do it.
Frank’s limited series Godless and The Queen’s Gambit are currently streaming on Netflix. His 2016 novel Shaker is available here.