The enormous popularity of Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit” limited series took editor Michelle Tesoro by surprise. She thinks the pandemic played some part in keeping people confined to their homes, and once viewers got a glimpse of Anya Taylor-Joy as determined orphan chess prodigy Beth Harmon, they were hooked. And then, of course, the ’60s glam appeal of sex, drugs, alcohol, and rock music kicked in, along with the fascination of chess as a metaphor for power and control in a male-dominated sport.
But the editorial objective from the outset was finding the sweet spot between the right amount of chess and the emphasis on Taylor-Joy’s beguiling face. In fact, after cutting Netflix’s acclaimed western “Godless” with writer-director Scott Frank, Tesoro was particularly conscious of pacing on “The Queen’s Gambit.” “We had a lot of conversations about pacing after I read two drafts of the script, because I remember feeling that, although a lot of people like ‘Godless,’ there were episodes that were quite long and might’ve felt too slow to some people,” she said.
However, the pace of Frank’s script for “The Queen’s Gambit” (adapted from the Walter Tevis novel) was much tighter. “It wasn’t languid and really moved forward at a clip,” Tesoro continued. ” I just wanted to make sure that when he described a lot of information in one continuous shot that they were planned in such a way that they fit into the overall pace. I warned him that if you have a choreographed shot that you’ve written in, that it’s [justified]. I didn’t want to be constrained by a oner.”
“The Queen’s Gambit”
But Tesoro was quite fond of a long shot of Beth walking up the stairs of the hotel in Mexico City in Episode 4 (“Middle Game”), where the camera continues above her and then swings down to catch up with her as she checks in for her chess tournament. “We made sure that the pacing of the scenes before and after allowed us to take a breathing moment there,” she added. Yet the editor wisely broke up the 360-degree pan early in Episode 1 (“Openings”) during the flashback of the car crash, cutting back and forth between the tragic childhood memory and its impact on the chess match with Soviet world champion Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorociński).
“That’s the balance we wanted to achieve with her point of view, but being purposeful with how scenes are covered so we could manipulate them with more control later on in order to keep the pace,” said Tesoro (the ACE Eddie Award winner for “The Queen’s Gambit”). The question became: What is too much chess? In first episode, which focuses on nine-year-old Beth (Isla Johnston) learning chess at the orphanage, Frank shot two hours of footage that had to be trimmed in half, mostly dealing with complete chess games, to get a feel for the game. But, after establishing Beth’s genius (she hallucinates a chessboard on the ceiling and moves the pieces like animal friends), the editor and director found the right amount of chess so they could concentrate on Beth’s rite of passage in becoming the world’s greatest chess player.
“The Queen’s Gambit”
“After the orphanage, he said to me: ‘You know, I think the show will be much better if we play the faces and the drama and not the chess. Less chess, more faces,” Tesoro said. “So we would either turn a whole game sequence into a montage or pull [footage] into a montage about learning how to play chess.” It suddenly became a drama about studying faces, particularly Beth’s, who’s obsessed with chess yet can’t win without the help of tranquilizers and alcohol. And, like her depressed mother (Chloe Pirrie), who was a math genius, Beth is also socially dysfunctional and headed toward self-destruction.
But the cold open flashbacks, in which Beth’s mom tries to prepare her daughter for the harsh realities of life, were Frank’s invention. These help set up Episode 2 (“Exchanges”), in which teenage Beth gains early success in chess tournaments and grows closer to her adopted mom, Alma (filmmaker Marielle Haller). She travels on the road with Beth and lives vicariously through her, while battling depression and her own addiction to tranquilizers and alcohol.
“The Queen’s Gambit”
“This episode is where we find the rhythm for the whole show and also establish Beth and her new life and the way she’s going to play chess,” Tesoro said. “With having the intro of Alma in it, there was also a lightness to complement Beth’s intensity that made it a fun episode. And there was a levity to Beth as well. What I like about Scott’s writing is there’s always a sense of humor to temper the dark side in how his characters view people and interact with them, which makes them relatable.”
Thanks to the pandemic, Tesoro had more time to edit while being confined to the apartment the production set up for her in Chelsea, New York. It allowed her to get more deeply into the final cut. “The time I spent on it wasn’t as stressed because I had nothing else to do,” she said. “[Beth] spent a lot of time alone in her head and that’s what everybody else had been doing. The show was in a different time period so you could escape what was happening during the pandemic.”
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