Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Pawn Sacrifice

Genre: Biopic
Premise: The life story of chess legend Bobby Fischer leading up to his historic world championship match against Boris Spassky.
About: With 17 votes, this ended up number 13 on the 2009 Black List. Steve Knight, the writer, wrote 2007's gritty "Eastern Promises."
Update: David Fincher is now said to be directing this.
Writer: Steve Knight
Status: Unknown.
Details: 123 pages – August 24th, 2009 – FIRST DRAFT (because this is a first draft, there have likely been significant changes to the script, potentially addressing the issues I bring up)
First of all, in making sure I didn't step on anyone's Black List buzz, I had to read five really bad Black List scripts just to get to one I could tolerate. I guess I was a little spoiled reading The Voices and Desperados, cause I'm here to tell ya, they ain't all like that. Luckily, chess legend Bobby Fisher came along, the myth who inspired the delightful little film, "Searching For Bobby Fischer," (with a pre-Morpheus Lawrence Fishburne!). But this first draft feels more like a game of checkers, as Knight is clearly still exploring the possibilities here. It's a bit like taking a museum tour in a helicopter. It's clumsy and messy and not the best way to see things, but there are wonderful things to see nonetheless.

Bobby Fischer is cut from the same cloth as John Nash (A Beautiful Mind) and Howard Hughes (The Aviator), a brazen paranoid schizophrenic who manages his delusions by escaping into the world of chess. Even as a kid, he was an oddball, losing himself in self-played chess matches instead of making friends and playing "real sports." What would later become a central force in instigating his delusions, Bobby's openly communist mother repeatedly tried to get him diagnosed as "crazy."

But Bobby's mastery of chess eventually led to him becoming the youngest American champion ever, at 15 years old. We don't spend that much time watching Bobby's meteoric rise to fame here, but rather focus on two key events. The 1969 "Good Will" chess tournament between the United States and Russia. And one of the most famous sporting events in American History: The 1972 World Championship between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer.

Now a lot of you youngsters may be asking, "Why the hell did anybody care about chess?" Well here's the thing, back in the 60s and 70s when America and The Soviet Union wanted to blow each other to pieces, there were only a few areas where they could prove their dominance over one another. One of them was sports (in the Olympics) and the other, what many considered to be the more important venue, since its application implied superior intelligence, was chess. For this reason, there was no such thing as a "friendly" chess match between the United States and Russia. It always carried a level of subtext. Whoever won was smarter, which, by association, made their country "smarter."

The problem was, for as long as anybody could remember, nobody came close to challenging the Russians in this arena. That is, until Bobby Fischer showed up on the scene. The crazy wild-eyed swing-for-the-fences vagabond had more raw talent in his pinky toe than the entire Russian team put together. But his inner demons - his schizophrenia, his strained relationship with his mother – consistently hampered his ability to maximize his talent. Yet it was these deficiencies that turned him into such a superstar. You never knew what was going to happen when Bobby Fischer sat down to play chess.

Although the Good Will match is kinda fun, the draw here is the final act, and more specifically the 1972 World Championships. It's here where Bobby did the impossible and defeated world champion Boris Spassky. The well-documented match was mired in controversy when, having gone down 2-0 to Spassky, Fisher walked away and refused to play unless they moved the rest of the match into a back room where it was quieter and he could concentrate. After some debate, Spassky agreed to the move, and Fischer went on to defeat him. Many people call Bobby's demand one of the greatest chess "moves" in history, but for me, it left me feeling conflicted about the man. The lesson seemed to be, "If things aren't going your way, whine and throw a tantrum until they do." Could you imagine the Celtics being down 50-40 to the Lakers at halftime, then refusing to continue unless they moved the second half to a local high school? Is that really a heroic move?

And that's the biggest challenge with writing Fischer's story. You can see Knight struggling with it the whole way through. Fischer is so complicated, so all over the place, that it becomes almost impossible to define him with a single trait, that "fatal flaw" you traditionally assign characters in a dramatic story. For example, in one scene, we're told that Bobby studies how the Russians play 18 hours a day. Then later on, when somebody points out to Bobby that Boris Spassky is "…up at five every morning to study. Goes to the ocean at six to swim then back to study." Bobby replies with, "I have a routine too. Stand in the rain with a hooker. Wake up. Win." So which is it? Is he a relentless worker or a careless vagabond? Since you never really know, and since you never really understand Bobby, it's hard to find sympathy for him. It's hard to get to know him.

But one thing is undeniable. Bobby Fischer is a fascinating character. If you go over to his Wikipedia page, you'll read all sorts of stuff about his life that's hard to believe. The trick is finding a way to focus all these events into a story that's easy to digest. There's some great stuff here, but Knight clearly has a ways to go (which he very well may have in the following drafts). The key lies in staying with the Russian conflict, as I think that's where the story shines brightest. I didn't care much for his relationships with his sister and his mother, as they felt like biopic cliché (i.e. Will the parental figure show up at the sporting event?)

Pawn Sacrifice isn't there yet. But I have a feeling it will be. Fischer is too interesting of a human being.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn't for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Don't be afraid to get messy in your first draft. Throw more things in there than you plan to use. Explore a relationship you didn't initially plan to explore. You're looking for your core here. You're trying to find something, whether it be your theme or the heart of your story, that you can anchor your story around in subsequent drafts. It's okay not to know that right away. I'm a big fan of outlining before you write, but I'm just as supportive of leaving that outline in the dust if you think you've found an interesting tangent. The point is, you can always reel it back in later.