Interview with Liz Garbus
What drew you to the story of Bobby Fischer?
I got the idea to make the film sitting on an airplane on the way to the Sundance Film Festival on January 18, 2008, while reading Bobby Fischer's obituary on the front page of the New York Times. Like every American, I knew something about Bobby Fischer, but I realized that I only knew about a very small part of him. When I got off the plane I became obsessed with his story and researching and writing about it. By the time I left Sundance, I knew it was going to be my next film.
What was it about him that captured the nation's interest?
I don't know if it was about Bobby as much as it was about the time. The Soviets had made chess their national sport as a way of demonstrating their intellectual superiority over the West. Nobody outside of Russia had held the title for decades. And here came this self-taught Brooklyn kid who was unbeatable. All of the sudden, the U.S. had someone who could take on their enemy in the sport they had claimed. Even chess itself was a metaphor for what was going on at the time. It all dovetailed into a perfect cultural storm which may never exist again. Maybe if the Taliban was producing world chess champions for centuries and Obama decided there was a kid from Brooklyn who could take them on.
How popular was chess in the country at the time?
It's hard to imagine, but in 1972 America was chess-obsessed. Its popularity was the product of this "Let's go beat the Russians" anti-Soviet feeling that fueled Bobby Fischer's fame. When the World Chess Championship was going on, it was front page news and even bumped Watergate from the lead spot on the nightly news. A survey of bars in New York City at the time said that 14 out of 18 bars had the chess match on, while the other four were tuned into the Mets.
What was it that made Fischer such a phenomenal chess player?
He had a relentless killer instinct. He didn't look for draws or to prolong matches, he always went for the win. In that sense he was a creative and risky player. He also didn't have any weaknesses in his game either. His openings, middle games and end games were flawless and beautiful. He was unpredictable on the chess board, and that made it difficult for his opponents to study him and beat him.
Do you think his brilliance and his paranoia were two sides of the same coin?
There's a wonderful line from an Icelandic neurologist we spoke to for the film, who put it very well: "His genius and his madness were connected at the hip." Some people think so far out of the box, that it's very hard for them to get back in it. So yes, I think they're definitely interrelated.
There are moments captured in the film that are uncomfortable to watch, particularly with regard to Fischer's anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism.
We had about 200 hours of audio of Bobby calling into radio shows from all over the world. I was looking for some clue, a psychoanalytic insight that might reveal the cause for his beliefs and behavior. But sadder than any clue I would've found is the fact that he revealed nothing. His mind was just a scratched record that couldn't get off the groove of the Jews and the Americans. His ideas were so far removed from reality that you can't help but feel empathy for him.
Were people eager to talk to you about him?
I've filmed people in prison and on death row before and getting into Bobby Fischer's inner circle is as hard as anything I've done. There were a group of people in Iceland who were with Bobby around the time of his death and they were very protective of him and offended by anyone saying that he suffered from mental illness.
One issue the film doesn't really delve into is the fight over his estate after he died.
We covered that in an HBO On Demand special feature. We interviewed a Filipino woman who claimed Bobby fathered her child, and another Japanese woman who claimed she was his wife. There's also Bobby's brother-in-law and his children. All of these people have claims to the estate and the courts are still figuring that out.
What is Bobby Fischer's legacy?
His legacy is his extraordinary chess play. The things he did -- get people to pay him more money, get better conditions for matches -- were often perceived as difficult or arrogant, but would ultimately make chess into a self-sustaining sport that others could go into full-time.