Catching up with Liz Garbus, director of Bobby Fischer Against the World

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Liz Garbus is one of the most pre-eminent documentary filmmakers of the day. Her best-known film may be the prison documentary The Farm: Angola, USA, which won the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award. But more recently she collaborated with Rory Kennedy on Street Fight, which was also Oscar-nominated, and she produced the Emmy-winning Ghosts of Abu Ghraib. Her new picture is a fascinating work about a fascinating man. Bobby Fischer Against the World just kicked off HBO’s Documentary Films Summer Series, which will feature a second Garbus offering in July. She joined us to talk about making a documentary about one of the most enigmatic sports figures of our generation.

Paste: How did you first get interested in Bobby Fischer’s story?

Liz Garbus: I was actually on a plane on January 18 of 2008, on my way to the Sundance Film Festival, when I read Bobby Fischer’s obituary, and I became fascinated with his story. When I got off the plane I immediately started doing some research into what had been done already, and I just kept thinking, wow, I really want this to be my next project.

Paste: As far as the research for the doc, there’s a ton of information out there to dive into. How’d you start that?

Garbus: Well, I did a lot of reading. Books about chess, the theory and ideology and history of chess. And of course books about Fischer himself, making notes about the scenes and high points. And also looking at who was there, who could help tell this story. And I started making a kind of hit list through all of that. And then of course there’s the archival research process, which on this film was a major undertaking. But it returned some great rewards, some great 70’s gems. It was a really lengthy process. Ultimately we ended up combing the globe and turning up clues about footage that we believed existed, and wanted in the movie.

Paste: How long did that take?

Garbus: The research period was over a year, and then even through editing we were looking for stuff and finding stuff. We had a great discovery early on. You know, you do lots of still research for a project like this. We looked through a lot of Life magazines from the time. And there was this photographer, Harry Benson, who was covering the match. And we called Life for those photos, and they told us they were owned by Harry Benson himself. So we called him and learned that not only did he own those photos, but he actually spent a ton of time with Bobby Fischer, knew Bobby Fischer incredibly well, and has hundreds of Bobby Fischer photos that no one has ever seen. So that was an incredible find, and really helped create the film. It added so much visually.

Paste: Yeah, he has such a distinctive eye and his visual language really impacts and almost becomes the visual language of the film. And as you say, there are so many of them. What was it like really diving into someone else’s perspective on your subject that is so deep and rich and almost all-encompassing?

Garbus: Well, first of all it was amazing to imagine, based on everything we knew about Bobby and everything everyone said about him, that he would actually allow anyone that kind of access to his life – lying in bed, nearly passed out from exhaustion after a game, or in the shower, totally different naked. All the places that Harry went with him. It’s just hard to imagine Fischer, who really didn’t like the press, who really got anxious when someone got into his business, giving Benson that access. But when you meet Benson, you begin to understand. He’s this thoroughly charming, very witty guy, and he’s not above some dirty tricks to get close to Fischer. For instance, he told me a story once about how all these other journalists would ask him how he got so close to Bobby, and he’d say, “Oh, you know, Bobby loves to hear dirty jokes.” So they’d all go and tell him dirty jokes, which of course was the last thing Bobby Fischer was interested in. He had some good war stories like that. But it was really like Happy Birthday when I was able to make a deal with Harry Benson to use those images in the film. It was just a huge gift, and I can’t imagine what the film would have been like without them.

Paste: I was born in 1968, so I was relatively young when all the Fischer stuff was going on. Most of my experience of him was either hearing about the history, or seeing some of the wackier stuff in the news. And something that was a real jolt for me, at the beginning of this film, was that he was so likeable and charismatic.

Garbus: I know! I get asked this question about whether it was hard to make a film about someone so unlikeable. And the answer is, it wasn’t hard at all because that’s not how I felt. And you know, you get to know Bobby in his later years, remembering his rant after 9/11, maybe remembering footage after his arrest in Japan when he was completely unhinged. But for those people who were alive and cognizant during the late sixties and early seventies, they got to know a very different person. And I thought it was important for those of us who were younger at the time to go back on that journey and understand who Fischer was. And yeah, that footage was some of the most delicious stuff for me too, to sort of live with Bobby and find out how charismatic he was, and that he was good-looking, and he dressed well, and had a sense of humor about himself, and was in full command. I mean, he was always arrogant, he was always socially awkward and underdeveloped in certain ways, but he was many other things as well. And of course, in terms of unlikeability, to me in those later years, it’s not a question of not liking him, it’s a question of feeling sorrow and empathy for him that he never got treatment. There was no one in his life that was strong enough, or that he ever let in enough, that could get him to get medical intervention.

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Paste: He obviously was sick in some way, obviously needed some kind of help. How much do you think that was contributed to by that singleminded focus, and specifically a focus on chess? There has been a sad history of great chess champions having mental problems.

Garbus: And I think you see that in other disciplines as well, great artists who go crazy, or composers, or child actors today. I think we see it across disciplines, and it’s not unique to chess, but that expertise and mastery, and especially from such an early age that mono-focus on your chosen field, can be tough on people. Especially people that have heightened sensitivities or tendencies toward mental illness. Not developing those other parts of yourself can be dangerous. And Bobby himself says when he gets to Iceland, “I thought maybe I could write songs, but then I realized I had nothing to say because I haven’t lived.” Bobby himself was aware of the fact that he had no other life outside chess. So when he reached his life’s ambition, he had nowhere to go.

Paste: Another part of that, I can’t help but think, is the whole father issue. I can’t imagine what a thunderously impactful realization that must be.

Garbus: Yes. The father on Bobby’s birth certificate is Hans-Gerhard Fischer. But a journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer uncovered some FBI documents that proved that he could not have actually been Bobby’s father because he was not in the United States when Bobby was conceived. He was the father of Bobby’s older sister Joan, and he was Regina Fischer’s husband. But Bobby’s father was her lover at the time, Paul Nemenyi, and he remained in Bobby’s life and did fatherly things with him, took him to the park and such. He even went to Social Services and expressed concern for Bobby’s well-being. But it wasn’t until he died when Bobby was nine that Regina told Bobby that was his father. So Bobby was kind of robbed of that relationship, in a way.

Paste: And that makes me think of what I find to me one of the saddest and most tragic, and yet most compelling, parts of the story. In the last part of his life, he seems to first reject his Jewish roots, and then even to reject his American-ness. And then of course he stops taking care of himself, and he stops being the rakish, well-dressed figure he used to be. And he stops competing at chess. I don’t want to play armchair psychologist here, but for all intents there seems to be this sort of willful obliteration of self. Maybe self-loathing? I don’t know, what do you think about that period?

Garbus: Yeah, obviously Bobby never sought medical intervention, and no one ever treated him who could provide us with that sort of firsthand insight. But for those of us who have studied him and spoken to people who knew Bobby so well, it’s clear that he was suffering from these thoughts that had infiltrated his mind. It was Bobby’s own self that took the force of his violent, bigoted thinking. He was this American Cold Warrior, going to take on the Russians, and then of course he becomes virulently anti-American. He was Jewish, and the Jews become the subject of his venom and the really harsh speeches he gives later on. And it’s hard not to look at that and see it as a rejection of himself. He kind of gave up all of himself, and didn’t seek medical attention. He would probably still be alive today if he had fought it.

Paste: It’s tragic.

Garbus: Yes it is. And it’s tragic that the people that were strong for Bobby and very close to him in the early years were the ones he gradually cut out. And I think it eventually became very hard to be there for Bobby because he was relentless. And he would get really angry at people. So the people that could have really helped him lost access to him.

Paste: We talked a bit about the research and the shooting. Tell me about the nuts and bolts of your process in post-production.

Garbus: It’s always like a big, dark, endless forest when you begin with an editor. You just have so much material, and you really don’t see how you’re going to get through it. But the fact that you’ve done it before is the only way that you know that you will. And it’s a weeding process. It’s screening, and marking your favorite nuggets. Of course you walk in with an idea of “This is how I want my film to be structured,” and you kind of mark out where the beats are in that structure. At least that’s what I do. And you’ve watched the footage, so you understand what you have and what you don’t have, amongst those beats. And you go out and get more when you need it, or you have to lose the beat. And it becomes this screening and weeding process, and you finally get this massive thing down to some kind of manageable shape, and then you realize that your structure is totally flawed. It’s not something you can even watch. So then you get really upset and depressed and leave the editing room and decide that this is the worst idea you’ve ever had. But you try to get some sleep, you come back in, and you say, “Okay.” And that “okay” is usually putting lots of index cards on a bulletin board that are color coded to talk about different parts of life. And you re-map it again. And you do that about five times, and hopefully at the other end of it you come out with a structure. I kind of believe that every film has a natural structure, and you just have to find it. Because there’s so many ways you can put a film together that don’t work, but you have to keep throwing things up there until you find something that will work. And then once you get that structure, it seems so obvious, so natural and inevitable. But really there was nothing obvious about it.

Paste: I love that. When we were building our house, our architect used to talk about “building the house that wants to be there.”

Garbus: That’s right. I think there’s truth there. It’s a response to the material itself.

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