This story about The Queen’s Gambit first appeared in the Limited Series & TV Movies issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
The Set-Up: American chess whiz Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), rising like a phoenix from the ashes after battling lifelong drug and alcohol addiction, bucks up and heads to Russia for the match of her life. The tense showdown, which includes one dramatic adjournment, leads to (spoiler alert) her triumphant victory against Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorociński) at the 1968 Moscow Invitational Chess Tournament.
Four behind-the-scenes experts involved with writer-director Scott Frank’s blockbuster Netflix limited series spoke to TheWrap about shooting the heart-racing battle of wills.
THE PRODUCTION DESIGN
Uli Hanisch, production designer
“This sequence looks a little different than the rest of the series. It’s very solemn and churchlike: lots of blacks, whites, grays. We had to illustrate visually that Beth was playing for dear life. There are no bright colors anymore, no more fun.
“We shot in a turn-of-the-century state building in Berlin, with a lot of offices and this big space in the center. We had to shoot on the weekend, though, since it is actually a fully operational public building. The idea was to create something like a temple of chess, like a cathedral. And to situate everything so that the audience is sitting higher than the players. Everything is very, very serious, very stern, very intimidating. As the chess player, you are sitting in the middle of it and everybody’s watching you. We wanted to create this intimidating atmosphere.”
THE COSTUME DESIGN
Gabriele Binder, costume designer
“Scott Frank said Beth’s attire in this scene should be effortless, like a dress she would wear to play at your kitchen table. Nothing super special—just elegant and simple, to give us the feeling that she’s really confident after learning about style through her travels, especially in Paris. It’s a warm color, meant to recall the very first scenes of the series with her mother. We bring back this color to her because she feels her mother is with her, and she’s at peace with everybody, and she knows she can win.
“For the Russian players, they were supported by the government, of course, and they represent the state. So they had really good suits. Plus, the people outside were quite poor, but they made the best out of it and had their own style.”
THE FILM EDITING
Michelle Tesoro, editor
“We had to visually establish that the stakes are higher for Beth. There is an international broadcast, and the BBC announcer is in the wings, the display boards and all the people watching inside and outside this grand hall. We basically go back to the playing of classic chess and recall the matches we saw in Las Vegas and Mexico City, in many ways.
“The character of Luchenko (the penultimate player before Beth’s face-off with Borgov) is played by our line producer, Marcus Loges. Scott really loved his look. I cut to him a lot because I just loved him, he’s such a warm guy. Also, I was very surprised by the portrayal of Borgov. It’s not what I pictured reading the book. I pictured something like Gru from “Despicable Me”. When Marcin (Dorociński) came in to play him, I was like, ‘Wow, he’s kind of hot!’ And that makes (the scene) more intimidating.
“I always go for tension, no matter what. Because if you don’t have tension, then people won’t stay to watch it. We always want to wonder whether she’s going to crack like she did before. We’ve seen her so many times in these major moments, so we just want her for once to do it.”
Carlos Rafael Rivera, composer
“Scott Frank’s initial idea was to create a completely piano-based score. But as Beth’s character grew and moved into the world, we started adding things like flute and orchestral instruments. She’s now a fully developed character and so her world is fully orchestral. And when I got that final sequence, I cried. There was no music, but it was already working.
“I worked quite chronologically, so that by the time this sequence came, the music came quickly because all the things had been approved. All the things had been assigned for different aspects of Beth’s character. I had a theme for Borgov. I had music for (another chess competitor) Benny. So you have this sort of convergence of different ideas that just laid themselves out and really helped flesh out the scene.
“I didn’t even realize it was a sports film until I saw that scene in it. I’d read the novel, I read the screenplay. But when I saw that moment where she looks up at the ceiling (where Beth visualizes the match), I realized, I’m gonna need superhero music, because she is a superhero. It needs to be that big, almost over the top.
“And if you pay attention to that scene, sound design also goes along for the ride. Once she looks up and starts seeing the gameplay (on the ceiling) without the use of pills, when the camera goes back down to her and she makes that first move, there is a sound of a whip. That’s the kind of stuff our sound designer (Wylie Stateman) does that really blows me away.”
POSTSCRIPT: WHAT’S NEXT FOR BETH?
TESORO: “I hope that she doesn’t fall into a pattern again. I think that maybe she goes out into the world just a little bit better than when we first met her.”
RIVERA: “She’s a product of decisions that were made for her from the time she’s 8 years old, so there’s a lot that she has to work through and unpack. I would hope that she’s better for everything, and that she found comfort in her friends.”
BINDER: “Life could be her chessboard, and she can win on the chessboard. So maybe she can also make it in life.”
HANISCH: “When Beth wins the game against Borgov, he turns around and embraces and congratulates her. Even he loves her, you know? It’s a very important moment. She’s understanding that she’s truly welcomed in the world, and now she can embrace the world. She’s ready for it.”