- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
Despite breaking Netflix viewership records and raising star Anya Taylor-Joy to the A-list, The Queen’s Gambit‘s path to success was as unlikely and hard-won as that of its protagonist. Executive producer William Horberg does not exaggerate when he says, albeit jokingly, that it “took 30 years to get paid.” From novel to seven-part Netflix series, the story of orphan chess prodigy Beth Harmon (Taylor-Joy) and her battles with addiction, rival players and a slew of condescending men changed hands many times before it ended up with writer-director Scott Frank. Only two people saw the project through from beginning to end: co-creator and EP Allan Scott and Horberg. Horberg recently spoke with THR about how his Emmy-nominated original song came to be, working with the world’s greatest chess players and why he thinks the show struck such a chord.
How did you become involved with the project?
In the early ’90s, [producer and screenwriter Allan Scott] acquired the rights to Walter Tevis’ novel. Eight or nine years later, author Michael Ondaatje told me that this was one of his favorite books, [which] he read every couple of years to remind himself how to write. That was such an incredibly powerful endorsement. I started to track down the rights, and lo and behold, I found out that they were controlled by my old friend Allan. [When] I reached out to Allan around the year 2000, he already had several attempts and different talents interested. We just kept running into the same wall in the marketplace. Because of the nature of the story — it’s [a period piece], there’s a lot of big crowd scenes, it takes place not only all around America but in several foreign countries as well — it just wasn’t perceived as commercial by people who were financing movies. Allan came very close to making it with Heath Ledger, [who] was going to make it his directorial debut, and then, tragically, he passed away right before they were about to start preproduction. At that moment, it kind of felt like maybe this thing was just not meant to be.
The game-changer was the advent of streaming content, [which] brought back the limited-series format as a viable option. Scott Frank had made Godless, a very successful show, and Netflix was looking to extend their relationship with him. He remembered The Queen’s Gambit, and he called me up and said, “I’ve always kept that in the back of my mind as a story I’d love to tell.”
How did you know the novel would make for good television?
I was hooked from the first page. There was just something uncanny about Tevis’ talent to immediately clue you in to a situation and characters. You’re walking in Beth’s shoes, and you care so desperately about her. It had such a compelling personal, emotional narrative. I was very convinced that if we could break through the barriers of prejudice against seeing the material as having commercial potential, we could have something special. Having said that, nobody can claim that they ever, in their wildest dreams, could imagine that [the show would become] the global cultural phenomenon it became when it dropped last year.
You don’t need to know what’s going on in the show’s many chess games to understand the stakes. How did you appease chess fans who would actually understand what was happening while keeping newcomers entertained?
Fear is a great motivator. Scott and I were just terrified given the volume of chess games in the book. I give Scott a tremendous amount of credit because he came up with the key to the whole thing, which was that any game we actually featured had to have a super clear emotional stake and the kind of raison d’etre in terms of [Beth’s] character development and arc. Every game had to have variety in every detail.
Because I was involved with Searching for Bobby Fischer, I’d gotten to know this wonderful man, Bruce Pandolfini, who served as the consultant on that movie. When Scott revived this whole thing, the very first call I made was to Bruce. Twenty-five years after I met the guy, he told us that he actually had worked on the book with Walter Tevis. Pandolfini brought in Garry Kasparov, who’s probably the greatest chess player of all time. He became a valuable consultant to us; anything that you saw onscreen in the way the games played out and the way the pieces were moved had to pass his smell test.
You are also the lyricist of “I Can’t Remember Love,” which is performed by Anna Hauss in the background at a restaurant Beth frequents during episode six. How did this collaboration come about?
I’m a music school dropout [who] kind of wandered into the film business, so I’ve always had a real passion for music. Scott had me in charge of getting [Marielle Heller, who plays Beth’s adoptive mother] piano lessons and figuring out what classical songs she should play. Our second AD said, “We need a hand double who can play the piano because we need to do close-ups and Marielle doesn’t have the technique in her fingers yet to shoot her. My sister [Anna Hauss] is a music student graduating from the University of Leipzig, I’ll bring her down,” and she came to the set. I went to the club [to see her band perform], and I was totally blown away. I came back the next day and said, “Scott, we’ve got to find a way to get her into the show, what if there was a way to stick her in the background?” Anna, her boyfriend, Robert [Wienröder], who plays piano in her band, [and I] put our heads together to come up with a song. I had those lyrics in mind because of the story. She’d gone to that restaurant [in] episode two with her mother when she had won the state championship, and that was a big celebratory scene. And now here she was, years later, alone and wrestling with her demons. That idea of memory being an orphan twice — I kind of tapped into that.
Much of the show takes place from the late ’50s to late ’60s in the South. What were the greatest challenges in convincingly re-creating that era?
Uli Hanisch is just one of the great production designers. Originally we thought, “Maybe we’ll do Paris and Moscow over here in Europe, but we just [aren’t] going to be able to cheat that in America.” But then once we got to Berlin and started looking around, all of the sudden we realized, “Hey, we’ve got hotels, ballrooms and high school gymnasiums. We have a lot of sets to build, we could build them here.” The very last thing I kept saying was, “We can’t do Mexico City in Berlin.” Uli came back with some sketch, and he took us over to this place that was really just [a] swimming pool and a courtyard. He said, “We’re going to put some palm trees here, and I’m going to put a bluescreen there, and the hotel’s going to be behind this,” and he just created it, like a magician.
Besides being a massive hit with fans, one of the tangible impacts of Queen’s Gambit is that it brought more people, and especially women, into chess. What is it about Beth’s journey that you think resonates with people in this way?
Her resilience. She’s a survivor and she’s somebody who’s fighting her own demons — she is her own antagonist. And she’s kind of wrestling with the cost of being a genius, of being an outsider, of being so different. I think that’s something that, today more than ever, there’s a heightened sensitivity to and interest in. And then, the whole world was just going through such a massive crisis last year — seeing somebody who had that resilience, to fight their way through all this adversity and find themselves and be happy in their own skin and make peace with themselves, I just think that was a very timely satisfaction that people were craving.
Also, Anya was just an incredible gift. Once in a generation, you catch somebody at that moment where she had a body of work, but she wasn’t well known, and this just catapulted her to stardom. You couldn’t take your eyes off of her, which is why Scott cast her. And he needed somebody who you could park the camera on their face and just watch the wheels [spin], and believe her intelligence and the thunderstorms that are going on inside her personality. She had all of that and more.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
And the Odds Are…
Embedding itself in the zeitgeist almost as soon as it premiered on Netflix in 2020, it truly seemed like checkmate for Scott Frank’s cerebral yet addictively watchable period chess drama. Golden Globe wins for the miniseries and lead Anya Taylor-Joy were never in doubt, and Emmy love seemed just as inevitable. And while it’s still favored to win, the category’s robust showing this year may make the path to victory a bit more complicated. — Mikey O’Connell
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day