Ahead of the TV premiere of festival hit Bobby Fischer Against the World on HBO tonight, Emmy-winning doc director Liz Garbus (pictured) talked to realscreen about the late chess grandmaster and the challenge of assessing his life on screen.
Bobby Fischer was one of the greatest chess players of all time – indeed, many would call him the greatest. Sporting ruthlessness and a creativity for improvisation that few could match, the young Brooklynite rose quickly through the ranks of the world chess leagues, becoming a grandmaster at 15, and the most dominant American chess player by far throughout the 1960s and ’70s.
His greatest triumph came in a series of highly anticipated matches against Russian-French grandmaster Boris Spassky during the 1972 World Chess Championships. Taking place during the height of the Cold War, the games were viewed the world over as a major event on par with the space race, with Fischer’s subsequent victory viewed as a win for Western individualism over the Russian National Character.
Fischer’s later life, however, saw mental illness taking hold. He became a recluse, largely turning his back on the international chess community and emerging only occasionally to make rabid anti-American and anti-Semitic remarks. By the time of his death, he had become a divisive and controversial figure.
Bobby Fischer Against the World sees Sundance- and Emmy-winning filmmaker Liz Garbus (The Farm: Angola USA) exploring the life of the chess genius, using a combination of new interviews and archive footage. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and played last month at Hot Docs in Toronto.
When did you first decide to make a documentary about Bobby Fischer?
The idea for the film came to me right after he died, which was January 17, 2008, and since then that I’ve been running around with my proposal in my pocket, fundraising and developing the idea.
What inspired you to make the film?
I think like all Americans and probably many citizens of the world, Bobby Fischer is a name that we all sort of know something about. He exists in that little space where you know something but you don’t know everything – and it was that way for me as well. I play chess a little bit, so I knew of him – I’d read one of his books as a kid.
But I didn’t really follow his life, and as an adult chess is not a part of my life. Then, reading his obituary, it inspired me to make the film. I looked at what else had been out there, and nothing really complete had been done about his life, so I felt it was the time to do it.
And it was an incredible story. For three months in the summer of 1972, the entire world was mad for chess, and the geopolitical order seemed to hinge on these two men: this lone, arrogant, John Wayne-style, self-taught guy taking on the Soviet machine. It was a great storytelling opportunity.
There’s a terrific moment in the film where you have archive footage of the newsreader saying, ‘Coming up – news on Watergate, but first…’
Right! At some point I thought, I’ve got to call the film But first, Bobby Fischer, because that’s what it was like – it wasn’t just [about] sports or politics, it was everything.
What difficulties did you face in making the documentary?
Challenges included finding unique footage of Bobby that hadn’t been seen. There had been stuff that had been out there, but it was the same material you had seen over and over, and the question was how to get beyond that. Talking to people and reading about him, we knew that there were cameras in various places, we knew that various things had been shot, and it was a question of getting them and finding the right person who was willing to put in the time and go through the box and find the tape.
Even the main footage where you see Bobby actually playing that first game against Spassky, nobody knew where it was. It was literally a case of turning over every stone and months and months of persistence to get the material.
What is your view on Fischer? Do you think that the film portrays him sympathetically? Neutrally?
I hope that the film portrays him empathetically. Bobby was an extraordinary mind and an extraordinary creative figure. In his youth he was incredibly charismatic and could have a good laugh and self-referentially laugh at himself. And then there’s the tragedy that as life went on he clearly had mental illness that was untreated, and there were people around him who were more interested in their own motives than in intervening and getting him some help.
Psychologists would say he didn’t have protective factors to shield him from the world that was trying to take advantage of him – having been a child prodigy and had constant limelight on him from a very young age.
What was the reaction from the chess community when word got out that you were making a Fischer film?
In the chess community there are really two warring camps – one is that he’s a saint and he’s deified and you can’t say anything about him, and the other, that he was mentally ill and it was a great tragedy but they couldn’t put up with him anymore.
But everybody knew him. In the New York chess world we started hanging out in some of the chess clubs and getting to know some of the characters there, and everybody had a story about Bobby Fischer. Everybody had played him, he was around and people liked him, they went to have hamburgers and milk with him, and everybody had stories about him that were very approachable. But then people became intolerant – they couldn’t deal with him anymore at a certain point.
On the other hand there were those that deified him, and it was difficult – every time you walked into the room everybody said, ‘What are you going to say? How are you going to portray him?’ They were mistrustful of me, in the same way that Bobby would’ve been. And my take was: ‘I need all of your stories, I need all these sides of Bobby in the movie, it’s all of what Bobby was.’
But it was certainly a challenge. I’ve made films in prisons and getting access to death row is a big challenge, and this was equally as difficult.
How do you think the film was affected by the fact that your starting point was after Fischer had died? Would it have been an easier doc to make if he were still alive?
There are filmmakers, great ones, who wanted to make films about Bobby while he was still alive and I think the film needed to be made, sadly, after he died. A lot of people didn’t want to talk about him while he was still alive because they felt he would become angry with them. Not because they were going to say something bad about him but because of his position about it – he waged lawsuits against this film Searching For Bobby Fischer just for the use of his name.
He was incredibly litigious, so I’m not sure that he wanted a film to be made. There were certain producers that approached him and got his cooperation for a certain period of time, but then he would become angry and mistrustful and things would go south very quickly. There were projects that would start and then stop.
So there’s a way in which we can’t totally know Bobby because a) I couldn’t sit with him and b) he was always alone – he kept everybody away. But at the same time the story’s not just about him – it’s about the cold war, it’s about what Bobby meant, it’s about that match [with Spassky], and it’s about Bobby being almost a figure in his own story.
Was the doc fully funded by HBO?
HBO was a partner on the film for the U.S., BBC ‘Storyville’ editor Nick Fraser was involved early on, ZDF/ARTE was involved for Germany and France, and I had a producer, Stanley Buchthal, who was an investor in the film. So it was a bunch of different partners.
And is it lined up for a theatrical run beyond the festivals?
Here in Canada Mongrel is releasing it, Dogwoof is releasing it in the UK, Madman is releasing it in Australia, and Ealing Studios International in the UK is handling worldwide sides.
What else do you have coming up?
I have another film that will be on HBO later this summer [July 25] called There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane, which is quite an American subject – it’s about an accident where a woman drove the wrong way down a road and killed five people. It’s an examination of that story, recreating the conditions of that day.
What do you look for in potential documentary subjects nowadays?
Bobby Fischer was such a great project because it was such a great storytelling opportunity, and to be able to pull on not just the human story but the socio-political and the conflict in his life… it was such a great, rich, meaty story. So I am looking for stories like that at this time.
I’m also looking, personally, to really have every film push me creatively. As documentary filmmakers who do this for a living, we have to stay on our game – the price of entry into our world is much lower; there is a lot of product, a lot of films that are out there. So I just want to approach every film anew as a creative aesthetic challenge, and approach it and challenge myself and work with new cameras, with new storytelling modes and devices, and I think in my next film I’ll be pushing that again – to always be a little bit underwater.
“Bobby Fischer Against the World” kicks off HBO Documentary Film’s summer series tonight at 9 p.m. EST.