Music is typically one of the final elements created for a film or TV show, but for “The Queen’s Gambit,” it was one of the first. That’s because the Netflix hit was the third collaboration between writer and director Scott Frank and composer Carlos Rafael Rivera, who first met 17 years ago when Rivera was Frank’s guitar teacher. Rivera has since scored Frank’s 2014 film “A Walk Among the Tombstones” and the Netflix limited series “Godless,” for which he won an Emmy.
“In April of 2018, I got an email from Scott and the subject said, ‘The Queen’s Gambit.’ It said, ‘This looks like the next thing we may be doing for Netflix,'” Rivera tells Gold Derby at our Meet the Experts: TV Composers panel (watch above). “I started writing immediately because of the way I came into this world.”
When he was hired for “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” Rivera at the time didn’t know what the scoring process was, so he started making iMovies out of Frank’s scripts and scored to those, something he continued through “The Queen’s Gambit.” “I would put in the script in iMovie so you could read it, like you’re watching a film but you’re just reading words, and I started scoring those. And that was the thing that sort of evolved into a thing we call script movies. As soon as I get anything from Scott, I start scoring the script,” he shares. “The interesting thing is that it’s an iterative process where you begin to find it, look for that thing, which is the hardest part. … All the mistakes are made then.”
With “The Queen’s Gambit,” which is based on Walter Tevis‘ novel of the same name, Rivera also had the extra task of making the dozens of chess games Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) plays feel and sound cinematic. He approached it “with terror,” he quips. “Scott really wanted it to be piano. He wanted it to be, ideally, an entirely piano-based score for the whole show, but as Beth got out of the orphanage and her world started to grow, it started to feel like we needed to add instrumentation for it to kind of go with her story arc.”
One way Rivera went about doing this was writing fuller, lusher pieces for when Beth plays the ceiling games in her mind versus the more understated music for the reality-based scenes. They converge in the finale when she visualizes a ceiling game while not under the influence and plays the move to beat Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski) in the Moscow Invitational.
“Every time she looked up at the ceiling, it was kind of like when you’re a kid and you have a dream. You’re like, ‘One day I’m gonna grow up and be whatever!’ It’s a musical in your mind and everything and fully realized, and it’s gonna happen,” Rivera explains. “That sort of idea was the one I was trying to play to because the only time you hear orchestral music in that is during the ceiling games. But as she grows and she develops as a character, her world, her reality starts having more instruments being added — flutes and winds and eventually strings and brass. It gets fuller so by the time you get to the final episode and she arrives in the Soviet Union, her reality is the orchestral stuff that she kept seeing in the ceiling and the piano is now part of the color, but it’s not the main thing.”
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