Conversation: David W. Rintels talks to The Queen’s Gambit’s Scott Frank

Writing is hard

Year-round West Tisbury resident David Rintels is a multi-awardwinning stage, television, and movie writer and producer. When we heard that Rintels was a chess player, and interested in talking with Scott Frank, of Chilmark (the multi-awardwinning writer/director of ‘The Queen’s Gambit,’ one of our favorite Covid obsessions), we got them in touch for a conversation. ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ won the Golden Globe for Best Limited Series, among many other awards

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

David W. Rintels: To start, did you come to The Queen’s Gambit or did it come to you?

Scott Frank: Originally it came to me. Bill Horberg, the producer, mentioned the book to me in the mid-‘90s. He said this is something you should read. And when he described it to me, I said that doesn’t sound very interesting. And every few months, he would say have you read The Queen’s Gambit yet? And I said No, I don’t think that’s for me. And then for some reason, I read something about the novel or somebody mentioned it and I finally sat down and read the book in one sitting. It was just so amazing. And I called Bill up and I said Okay, I’m really stupid. I can’t believe I didn’t read this back when you sent it to me — it’s amazing. Can we do this? He said, Well, the rights are controlled by the British producer Allan Scott, so we’d have to reach out to Allan and I don’t know if he’s currently got the project with somebody. So many people have tried to make it over the years — Bernardo Bertolucci in the early ‘80s, Michael Apted, Heath Ledger. Molly Ringwald was going to star and they couldn’t get it set up. Because as a feature, people reacted the way I did when Bill first pitched it to me, and nobody was really interested. So I forgot about it. At one point, Heath Ledger was going to make it as his directorial debut with a script by Allan, and I thought, okay, that’ll be that, and this is probably a better idea. It seems like a good thing for Heath, he loves chess, and so on. And then when he died a year or so later, we tried to do it again and the whole universe again responded the same way it did the first time, with a resounding no thank you. And then, once I had turned Godless from a feature film into a miniseries, I realized that was probably the secret for The Queen’s Gambit as well and so Bill and I pitched it to Netflix. I had just finished working with them on Godless and we were trying to find something else to do. I wasn’t hopeful as they had said, No, no, no to a lot of things I sent their way. But somehow they said yes to this.

D: After all those years of The Queen’s Gambit declined, The Queen’s Gambit accepted. Tell us what drew you to the story. Because while of course it’s about chess, it’s about many other things as well.

S: I don’t think about a theme unless I’m adapting something. If I’m writing something that’s my own story, I will arrive at some theme accidentally. And it’s usually one of the same things. But here was this notion, two notions: one, the cost of genius to me was really interesting. It was just that sort of — it’s a story that’s been told, or certainly an idea that’s been done before, but I felt not in this way, not with this character. And not with this tone, which really felt like a thriller to me in many ways. And the other thing is this idea of family and the family you choose versus the family you’re born into, and Godless became very much that. In my earliest scripts, those sorts of ideas were really important to me and no matter how I tried to find a new theme, these would always find their way into the work. 

D: Was it part of the plan from the beginning that you would direct it? 

S: No, I wasn’t going to direct the first time. I was just going to adapt it back in the ‘90s. I wasn’t yet directing, my kids were younger, I didn’t really want to. And I had been working with so many terrific directors. I felt like, I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing. I’ll write this for somebody else. But by the time it came to be, I was directing my own projects. 

D: What challenges did you, the writer, give to you, the director? 

S: The most obvious thing is that chess is not inherently cinematic; it’s a board game. So how do you make it cinematic, and that had to happen on the page. Believe it or not, you had to be telling a story that rendered the chess almost irrelevant in a weird way. And you had to somehow think cinematically about chess whenever you were featuring chess games on screen — you had to locate places where you could open it all up and make it more cinematic, like these amazing halls for the tournaments or seeing the chess pieces on the ceiling, things like that. I was always asking, How can I make it a little more visual? 

D:  Vicki [Rintels’ wife, Victoria Riskin] tells a story about her dad, Robert Riskin, the great screenwriter, who was directing a movie for Harry Cohn at Columbia in the mid 30s, based on his own script, and he was running into trouble. He went into Cohn’s office and threw the script on his desk and said, You got to get me a better writer.

S: That’s great. And I felt that way every day. [There were] different challenges, but … I’m also very slow as a writer, and for whatever reason, when I began directing, I knew I wasn’t going to set foot on the set without knowing I had a script I could depend on. Because no matter what, I was going to get in trouble somehow. I couldn’t predict how. And so the one thing I knew I didn’t have to worry about would be the script. 

D:  Once you started shooting did you do much rewriting on The Queen’s Gambit?

S: Very, very little. I would add things, I would get ideas as we were shooting, here or there — let’s try this or try that. But for the most part, it was pretty much what was written to begin with.

D:  One of the things I most admire about what writers do that not everybody understands is that for it to work as a movie, everything has to work. Whether it’s your view of the state department, or addiction, addictive personalities, all the relationships, or the role of money or religion in chess, the cultural differences between Kentucky and Las Vegas or America and Russia, the Cold War mentality that was part of the time — it’s all got to be credible or none of it is. And I didn’t see there was a false note anywhere. At the end of the day, is there anything that you felt you could or should have done differently? Because I didn’t find that. And it’s not accidental. Can you give us some insight into that?

S: Chess was the thing that kept me up at night. We had a chess summit in Berlin, where we shot, with the whole art department, you know, props, everybody. The chess consultant, Bruce Pandolfini, the cinematographer, the editor, the script supervisor who had to learn to play chess. We went over each chess sequence. What is Mr. Shailbels’s chessboard going to look like? What are the pieces going to look like? For the first State tournament, I asked the consultants, would they be playing on paper boards with plastic pieces? For the others, I would ask, What does the hall look like? How many people would play? How many spectators? We did that with every chess sequence in the picture.

The rule for me is, right after I finish shooting anything, there’s a lot I wish I had done differently, because directing is so much about managing disappointment. You know, you’re making compromises every day. There’s this myth that the director has total control. But you’re working through so many people to get this vision you have in your head, with time and budget constraints, and you’re the only one who really has it all in your head, knows what it looks like and sounds like, and so it’s all disappointing while you’re shooting. So you learn to cope. That was the hardest lesson for me, beginning with the first film I directed. The minute I wrap, I spend time mourning what could have been. But by the time I’m done editing, I only know what I have. And it’s hard for me to remember what I did or didn’t get, it becomes increasingly difficult to even remember the production, which I think is maybe healthy, maybe sort of a defense against going mad. 

D: They say doctors can bury their mistakes, architects can plant vines, but ours show up on late-night cable.

S: Right, right. Because perfection, like control, is denied us, this absolute conviction that we can achieve anything anywhere near perfection is to me comical. Sometimes the more we try, the worse it gets. I would often say on the set, as I kept trying over and over to get what I wanted, okay, let’s stop, let’s not now improve this into a failure. We’re overworking it. And you have to trust that feeling in each phase of production and post-production. Even though the thing is changing and becoming what it’s going to be permanently. At some point, whatever potential is gone. It is what it is, what it will always be. But ahead of that point, you’re still somehow able to constantly reshape and fall in love. 

D: I think I heard you say that writing is the true act of creation. And not everybody in our world thinks that.

S: We’ve gotten overly enamored with the auteur theory. Directing is very difficult in that it’s a non-stop onslaught of decision making. It’s more physically draining; it’s difficult because you are trying to hold a lot in your head. If things are going wrong, you have to know, you have to be able to stay calm and shoot your way out of whatever trouble you’re in. And you have to have a modicum of taste. 

But there is nothing more difficult than creating a story and creating characters. It’s just like a chess. It’s this balance between improvisation and planning far ahead. When I’m writing, I know where I’m going; I’m not writing blindly. But the sort of mechanics that people have embraced over the years, particularly with screenwriting more than any other written form, are these more formulaic kinds of rules and busy making activities designed to make one feel like a writer — you know, file cards, white boards, outlines and so on. It’s always been my feeling that if we rely too much on these sorts of templates, you get stories that feel built rather than written. So the fun for me is, in both writing and shooting, even though I’m really OCD, anal retentive, whatever you want to say about prepping — I’m a real planner — there’s nothing more exciting than being surprised on set, hearing someone say it in a different way that you like better or that’s really interesting or gets you to think about it. This whole notion that originated with Hitchcock — this idea that actual production is boring, because if you’re prepared, you’ve already made the entire movie in your head and are now just executing your plan — I find that kind of tragic. Because it’s such a waste of time. While planning allows you the comfort and confidence to know you have some sort of plan to follow in your head, at the same time, you want the art to be alive and spontaneous and non-perfect. Because often “perfect” is synonymous with “dead.” 

D: There’s always a wonderful moment for me when you know it’s time to begin putting your thoughts down on paper, when you feel comfortable that you’ve got it and now you’re willing to plunge in. The two most exciting words to write are ‘Fade In.’ ‘Fade Out’ are pretty good words, too.

S: Even better. Because it’s so hard. I always say that writing is like having the flu for a year. You know that you’re going to get better. You feel miserable now, but you just know that at some point it’ll be over. And then you forget you’ve had the flu the next time some idea comes to you, and you trust it and start again. I think people increasingly take the wrong message from difficulty or challenges in their art. The message they think they’re getting from the universe is to quit, stop, abandon, bail. When the message is simply, This shit is hard. I said earlier that I write most scripts very slowly. The last one came together very fast because I took a long time writing the first episode, which I wrote here on the Vineyard. The summer before last into the fall was five months writing the first episode. Because I was figuring out all the problems in that first episode. 

D: Did you start with the decision to open in flashback? 

S: Yes, for two reasons. One, it announces this is not your father’s chess movie. And two, you know that Anna Taylor-Joy is coming, that you’re not watching a show about a nine-year-old girl, that there is more, so that’s why I did that. For some reason that idea just visited me whole cloth one day before I started writing. I knew I was going to do it and it changed very little. But once I got that first episode done, we were greenlit, I wrote the bulk of the episodes during the couple of months before prep, and then during prep, so over a period of another four months, which, for me, is very fast. Luckily I had Bill Horberg, my producing partner who is amazing help. We go back thirty years, so he knows me, and he knows this material. I would give him the scripts and he would give me very specific, really helpful notes. And he had great ideas, ideas that are all over the show. The idea of her ripping off the canopy of her bed so that she can better see the ceiling came from an early Bill read. So, with his help, I was able to go pretty quickly through the whole thing.

D: I know Allan, Allan Scott [executive producer on The Queen’s Gambit]. I’m working with him on something else, a stage play to open in England, Covid-permitting. I asked him if he would write about working with you. And this is what he said: “Scott doesn’t direct like a writer. That’s a real compliment. He is adaptable, inventive and open, plus smart. The happiest and therefore most collaborative crew I ever experienced in a long life was the crew he put together to make The Queen’s Gambit. Plus he’s good fun at the dinner table. A triple threat: excellent writer, excellent director, and civilized human being. Writers rarely make the best directors and Scott is an exception. Writers just want to shoot the script and are rarely flexible enough to improvise the really good stuff. Scott has the skill in spades.” I liked reading that.

S: Allan’s a real gentleman. 

 [Enters Maisie, bounding; she starts to lick Scott.]

 I assume I’m meeting your dog.

D: Maisie, our new puppy. Eight weeks old. A golden mini-Doodle.

S: We have a chocolate Lab. He doesn’t get out of the pool or the ocean or whatever body of water he is enjoying himself in. 

D: Maisie fell into the pool last week. Scared hell out of me but didn’t bother her.

S: Hi, Maisie … So I just heard this the other day. The average career of a Writers Guild member is something like seven years.

D: So you’d better be good at real estate … All right, Maisie, that’s enough. If you ever hope to be a TV writer, sit still and listen.

 (Maisie does not)

When I got into the Guild, there were something like 1,200 members. Now there’s over 10,000. We die off slowly and all these talented kids come out of the Harvard Lampoon. So even with all the new outlets, it’s not getting easier. But I think television’s getting better. It wasn’t possible to make The Queen’s Gambit twenty years ago, certainly not as a network miniseries. Movies, on the other hand, are not only not getting better …

Is there a kind of show you feel particularly drawn to? Do you usually start with a theme or character? 

S: Well, I make what I want to watch. And it’s the story. The genre is sort of the fig leaf for whatever the story will be.That’s really what I’m drawn to. If there’s a great character that I really want to think about and write about, that’s usually the start. Sometimes it might be a situation or something even more vague like an image or a memory. But the work always starts with the characters. 

D:  Is there a wish list of something or things you’ve always wanted to do?

S:  There is a long list and over years I’ve been slowly checking them off one at a time. My whole career has been about waiting for the right time to do this thing I love, falling love with something else while I wait. 

D: Do you still feel you’re learning? How to write?

S: Every day. I learn from looking at, you know, you can’t help but stare at other people’s writing and see how they did something. And even when you’re watching a finished film, you’re staring at the writing. I’m always looking for a way, for a new way, of thinking about a movie story. And I get it more from books, I think, than from movies. Because movies are increasingly not about story or even writing. Television is where the stories are. The limited series is — it’s interesting. It’s more, it’s more novelistic. So I feel like you’re adapting the novel into a novel. You know, that’s really what it is. You’re adapting a novel into another kind of novel, a more visual novel with only two senses, sight and sound, that sort of thing. I’m sure you feel this way. The more we do it, the harder it is. It’s like that’s the cruel trick. We’re just more comfortable with the difficulty.

D: We always compete. Not with other writers, with ourselvesAny ambitions to write for theatre?

S: I’d love to write for theater. I feel like that might be the hardest writing of all. Because you can’t hide behind anything. I would absolutely love to try it. I love theater. I love going to see a good dramatic play. The problem is they don’t make a lot of dramas anymore. A lot of straight up dramas. 

D: Everyone wants to know how you began.

S: I was making movies when I was in sixth grade with my friend Jim Bischoff. We were making our version of the “$6 Million Man” or some ‘70’s nonsense like “Skyjacked!” Later, I had a really good mentor at college, Paul Lazarus at UCSB. He changed my life by telling me to write something and then telling me yes, I was a writer.

D:The first sense I had that I wanted to write for film was when I saw 12 Angry Men by Reggie Rose, who ended up giving me my first job in the business. I still think that script is as good as it got. Also the first movie Sidney Lumet ever directed.

S: He’s a hero of mine. I’m a writer because of Dog Day Afternoon

D: Written by the great Frank Pierson. I came to this close to working with Sidney half a dozen times. My bitterest disappointment is that it didn’t happen.

So I’m thinking this movie should be wrapping up. We’re coming to the end. I’d like to go back to The Queen’s Gambit for one last minute. I told you how truthful it felt to me and how important I thought that was, and I’d like to hear what you —

S: The idea of truth is the hardest thing because it’s a high bar. You can’t cheat. You can’t have people do something because the script says so. Everything has to come from real character, not an outline. And I was taught that very early, it was ingrained in me by a series of unbelievably generous mentors. So I’m insanely lucky to have gotten off on the right foot in that regard. 

D: Thanks, Scott. I could keep going as long as you’re willing, but I see a chess set over there. Feel like a game before we call it a day?

S: Love to. Set ‘em up. 

Leave a reply

Theme developed by TouchSize - Premium WordPress Themes and Websites