For “The Queen’s Gambit” executive producer William Horberg, the hit Netflix chess series presents a universally appealing “story of survival.”
The cast and creatives of the most-watched Netflix limited series to date — Horberg, star Anya Taylor-Joy, costume designer Gabriele Binder and editor Michelle Tesoro — joined senior editor Michael Schneider in the Variety Streaming Room presented by Netflix for an exclusive Q&A. The panelists discussed the show’s three decade-long creation process, the making of Beth’s character, the viral success of the series and, of course, its iconic costuming and editing, which have globally renewed fervor for chess.
The series, about an orphaned girl in the 1950s who discovers an extraordinary talent for chess, tackles addiction and the cost that comes with the gift of genius. The show won best limited series or TV movie at the Golden Globes, as well as the category’s best actress trophy for Taylor-Joy.
“The chess world was fascinating, but it was really her story and her coming-of-age story that made me feel like this was a story that could connect universally,” Horberg said. “You didn’t have to know the rules of the game of chess, or even be that interested in it, because it was really a human story at heart.”
For Taylor-Joy, the character of Beth was as enticing as it was intuitive, and the actor said it wasn’t a challenge for her to embody the role.
“Often when I read something, if the character is meant for me, I’ll either hear their voice, or something will sort of hit … With Beth, I just felt her, just within my whole body,” Taylor-Joy said. “I think especially her inherent loneliness, especially at the beginning, was something that I connected to a lot. And I just thought I could tell the story right.”
“The Queen’s Gambit,” which is based on the 1983 book of the same name by Walter Tevis, was initially slated to be a feature film in the early 1990s, with a script penned by Allan Scott, who co-created the series. Throughout the years, Horberg said there was various interest from different talent and directors, but ultimately the two couldn’t gather the necessary financing, being told that the story wasn’t “commercial.” After Scott’s successful Netflix limited series “Godless,” the streaming service looked to extend their relationship.
“[Scott] called me up and said, ”Queen’s Gambit,’ is it still available? I love that. But I think the way to actually do it is as a limited series,’” Horberg said. “And it almost just took the marketplace catching up to the format and the advent of all these streaming services, to be able to do it proper justice.”
Given that the series is centered around the chess world, Tesoro and Binder said their craft was influenced by the movement and look of the board. For Tesoro, it was important to make the game “sexy” and imbue each game with a unique subtext. For Binder, each costume was symbolic of chess’ lines and squares.
“Chess is a very aesthetic game, and chess is geometry,” Binder said. “Chess is a contrast. It’s something sexual. It’s something graphical. And I thought, of course she would love all this. And luckily, the ’60s have a lot of graphical things in the fashion … And because it’s all men, and she’s the only woman, she, in my feeling, could present herself however she wanted. And that’s her evolution to find her own way and to use this aesthetic from chess.”
In closing out the conversation, Taylor-Joy said she hopes viewers take away the idea that help is always available to overcome obstacles: “I also think [the show] has the dual aspect of sort yourself out, deal with your demons and you can win against them. But also, it’s okay to accept a little bit of help, and life is better when you do things together, essentially. And that’s my corny sendoff for everybody.”