Not every documentary gets a theatrical release, which makes TV such a terrific repository for finding amazing nonfiction films. For the past few decades, no one has done documentary as consistently well as HBO, with the inimitable Sheila Nevins at the helm. This summer, HBO Documentary Films will present new, original feature-length docs every Monday night, starting on June 6 with the new film from Oscar® nominee and Emmy® winner Liz Garbus (The Farm: Angola USA, The Execution of Wanda Jean), Bobby Fischer Against the World.
(The film also opens the Stranger than Fiction series at IFC Center on Thursday, June 2, at 8 pm. Director Liz Garbus will be on hand for a Q&A following the screening. Find tickets.)
Bobby Fischer is a departure for Garbus, marking her first look at the life of the chess master who became one of America’s most eccentric champions. Though Bobby Fischer himself is a known enigma—from his discovery at age 6 to his famed match with Soviet Boris Spassky in the summer of 1972, to his exile in Iceland—Garbus pieces the puzzle together, painting an intricately layered portrait of a the sad recluse who life was a prime example of the link between genius and madness.
We sat down with Garbus at the HBO offices to talk chess, the correlation between madness and genius, and the wonders of HBO.
Tribeca: What inspired you to tell this story? What’s so compelling about Bobby Fischer?
Liz Garbus: His life and his work and his matches are great material for storytelling. They have elements of all the great dramas—massive success, tremendous failure, pathos, tragedy—his life encapsulated such huge highs and lows. The match in 1972 was such a compelling match—from a pure entertainment point of view. It didn’t look like it would happen, and then it did; it looked like he was losing, and he came back; it was really great material for a documentary filmmaker.
Tribeca: How did you learn about him, aside from just general knowledge?
Liz Garbus: I was sitting on a plane to the Sundance Film Festival, and I read his obituary in the New York Times on January 18, 2008. And I got off the plane, and I was like, I’ve got to make this movie; I’ve got to know more. I think we all know little bits about Bobby Fischer’s life, that are just part of our American unconscious—he’s part of the Cold War, he’s part of history—but there was obviously a lot more to know. For me, it was a different kind of film, a new storytelling challenge that I was excited about.
Tribeca: Did you like this kind of filmmaking?
Liz Garbus: Yes, I really enjoyed it. From an editing process, it’s really fun work. I always wanted the match of 1972 to be the spine of the film—to bring out the great sports thriller elements of it, and then to wrap the psychology of Bobby around it. But you never know if that’s going to work—where is the 3rd act going to come from, that sort of thing. The editing room was a challenge, but it was really fun to go through all that.
Tribeca: It’s really amazing to see this worldwide fascination with something that doesn’t seem like a logical spectator sport. How much of that do you think was about chess, and how much was about the Cold War, US vs. Soviet Union sort of thing?
Liz Garbus: I think it had very little to do with chess, per se. I don’t think anything like this could happen again. The Soviet Union was our mortal enemy at the time, and they had made chess their national sport, a demonstration of their intellectual prowess over the rest of the world. The U.S. paid no attention to chess, but here came this lone Brooklyn kid, like a weed through the cracks, sprouting up and becoming this indomitable force. All of a sudden, everyone starts paying attention: “Okay, we could hand these folks a real embarrassment.” So it starts to take on this incredibly intense cultural and political meaning. Bobby is almost just a character in that story.
He said it in an interview we include in the film: “This is a war of the board. We’re just using chess pieces, not bombs.” The black and white of the chess board reflected the black and white world order at that time, and chess is a war game: you’ve got your two armies, you’ve got your pawns that are sacrificed first in the field, you’ve got your king, chiefs of staff, queen, a battle between two societies. The metaphors just roll out.
Bobby was significant—during that time, he kind of embraced the rock-star lifestyle. He was good-looking, he was fit, he could kind of have a laugh at himself. That was one of the most surprising things, I think—when you know what happened to him later in life—to see how charismatic he was, and appealing.
Tribeca: There are so many historical instances of genius being accompanied by madness. For Bobby, do you think the madness was always inevitable, or did it come from his experiences?
Liz Garbus: I think our modern conception of “genius”… is an enormous mantle for one human being to inhabit. With all that “specialness” comes enormous responsibility, and your estranged relations to the rest of the world. You never know if people are friends with you because they like you, or if they want a piece of you, or if they are trying to get a story out of you, or if they just want to be in your “glow.” Your relationships are skewed. He started at age 6, having no social development with other kids, after school—everything is chess. He had a single mother, working outside of the home, so he was largely unsupervised. The whole social/emotional development is about this game—64 black and white squares on this board. There is a total lack of perspective.
Once that life goal was achieved [winning the world championship], there was nowhere else for him to go. He’d never had girlfriends, love relationships, family, friends—none of that stuff operated as a support for him. So I think in 1975 when he refused to defend his title, it all began to unravel.
Tribeca: The film opens the HBO summer documentary series. Can you talk about your relationship with HBO?
Liz Garbus: It’s a great pleasure, and honor, to start off this great series with other great filmmakers rolling out over the summer. It’s a real treat for viewers! I have worked with HBO pretty consistently over the past 10 years, and all I can say is: whenever I start working someplace else, I always go, “HBO doesn’t do it like this!” HBO is always so much more classy—he way they treat and support the filmmakers is unparalleled. It’s TV—I know it’s not TV; it’s HBO—but every film is treated like a film: every film should be as long as it wants to be, and it should have the style the filmmaker wants to bring to it. HBO is really a home for filmmakers and filmmaking. They have set the bar incredibly high, with their creative support and nurturing. Every day, I thank my lucky stars for Sheila Nevins, Nancy Abraham, and their whole team.
Tribeca: What makes Bobby Fischer Against the World a must-see?
Liz Garbus: I think it’s hard to imagine that in 1972, the entire world was chess-obsessed. And this match that took place that summer was an unbelievable nail-biter; I think it’s a Cold War thriller in that way. Fischer and Spassky played 21 games over the course of 2 months, and it’s a duel. The film is also about this reluctant Cold Warrior, Bobby Fischer—his whole life story has Shakespearean proportions and levels of tragedy.
Tribeca: Do you play chess?
Liz Garbus: I do play chess, but I’m not very good at chess. I played when I was a kid, and now my daughter’s starting to play, and she kind of brought it back into my life. Making this movie makes me know how little I really know about chess. [laughs]
The rest of the 11-week schedule, which includes 2 Tribeca Film Festival alumni films, is as follows (it’s worth noting the terrific ratio of female filmmakers):