Steven Meizler interview: ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ cinematographer
The hottest show of the moment in the dumpster fire of a year that is 2020 is about… chess. Safe to say no one really saw that coming, including the “The Queen’s Gambit” cinematographer Steven Meizler.
“[The reception has] been really surreal and very overwhelming. I didn’t think it was going to be this big,” Meizler tells Gold Derby at our Meet the Experts: TV Cinematography panel (watch above). “I knew we had a good show, but it’s also about chess, which is not really the most exciting thing in the world. I know we tried very hard to make it exciting, but to actually get this reaction and this sort of moment, it feels really great.”
Based on Walter Tevis’ novel of the same name, “The Queen’s Gambit” follows chess prodigy Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) in the ‘60s and reunites Meizler with longtime collaborator Scott Frank, with whom he most recently worked on “Godless.” The Emmy nominee admits he was “more nervous” about “The Queen’s Gambit” than shooting a Western outdoors with animals and action set pieces because of the thought that everyone had: How do you make chess interesting?
The production held a three-month prep that was basically a “chess summit” with chess master Bruce Pandolfini, who served as a consultant on the Netflix limited series and was portrayed by Ben Kingsley in “Searching for Bobby Fischer” (1992). Meizler and Frank soon realized that they didn’t need to show the chess pieces — or even have people understand chess — to convey tension and stakes.
“The tension and the suspense come from people’s faces and feeling what they’re going through. And especially one of the themes our visual language was always going through was perspective and seeing her journey and seeing her, a woman, against all these men,” Meizler notes. “If you’re seeing that and you’re knowing that, you’re feeling her wanting to succeed, loving this game and seeing that she has a real strength and power when she’s playing that she gets.”
One awe-inspiring recurring motif is an upside-down chessboard on the ceiling as Beth plays games in her head, seemingly moving the giant pieces with her mind. Meizler worked with the special effects team to create the imagery. “It was challenging doing that, especially with such low lights. I had lighting balloons up in the ceiling,” he explains. “When you recreate it, there’s no ceiling ever, so any time you see the ceiling, it’s effects. The composer sent pieces to us before we even started shooting, so I even had a sense music-wise what we were going for in tone, which was really helpful.”
And yes, Meizler’s got (chess) game now. “I have been continuously playing a chess game with Scott on chess.com since the beginning of this year. I think we’ve gone about 40 or 50 games,” he shares. “We kind of go in spurts where he wins some games and I win some games. We’re streaky. I’ve definitely learned a lot of chess. I really respect the game a lot more.”