Home Page arrow Chess Life Online arrow 2015 arrow October arrow “Embrace the Quirkiness”-Interview with Pushing Wood Filmmakers
“Embrace the Quirkiness”-Interview with Pushing Wood Filmmakers Print E-mail
By Christian Glawe   
January 24, 2015
The challenge seems impossible.  How does one capture the inner drama of a chess game, and put it on the big screen?  Could fianchettoed Bishops be "cool"?  Are filmgoers ready for sacrificial mating attacks?  I recently had an opportunity to catch up with Jeff Plunkett and Andy McAllister, the filmmaking team behind the new chess documentary "Pushing Wood".    The film profiles Grandmaster Maurice Ashley and his efforts to popularize chess.  I asked Jeff and Andy how they planned to help make chess the Next Big Thing.

Q:  What was your initial inspiration for a chess documentary?

JEFF: I'm always on the lookout for a good underdog story, and on some base level, that's what this felt like to me.  Here was a promoter trying to turn chess into a spectator sport.  I mean, from an outsider's perspective, my initial thought was: ‘C'mon, no way!'  It seemed improbable.  But it also caught my attention.  I was really intrigued by Maurice Ashley and his whole vision for what chess could become.  

ANDY: As soon as Jeff asked if I wanted to help, I knew immediately there would be some interesting characters involved.  And I wanted to find out what drives them and what their world looks like.  There's such a unique intensity to the game that I thought it'd be really challenging and rewarding to attempt to capture it.  It's an epic game, an internal game.  How could we externalize this and make it visually compelling?  Other than historical, archive-driven docs or the occasional narrative feature - which are different beasts in their own right - it's not something I felt I've seen.  And I loved the idea of shooting in Vegas as a backdrop for this timeless, universal game. 

Q:  Do you play chess?

JEFF: I didn't before but I've just started playing online.  I'm terrible.  I've been getting slaughtered by players from around the globe.

ANDY:  I don't like to plan things too much far in advance so I make for a horrible chess player.  So no.

Q:  Any early memories of the game?

JEFF: I played a bit with my brothers but we were never serious.  When I lived in San Francisco, I remember stopping along Market Street sometimes to watch the chess games.  It was cool.  And crazy.  There were folks crowded around the different boards, homeless dudes talking smack, money changing hands, all sorts of side bets, but there was always great energy. 

ANDY: I learned from my math teacher during Jr. High.  I went to Catholic school and I vaguely remember he had us play randomly for one week, but then never again.

Q:  Have you found any similarities between chess and filmmaking?

JEFF:  Oh man, I think you can draw similarities between chess and anything.  Seems to me that the best filmmakers, like the top grandmasters, are really prepared and also incredibly flexible.  No two games and no two scenes are the same, so you have to be ready to improvise.  It always helps to study what the greats are doing so that you can start to make equally good choices when you're in the middle of the action. 

Q:  Has anything surprised you about chess and/or chessplayers?

JEFF: Playing two matches in a day is insane.  I had no idea a chess tournament was so stressful. 

ANDY: Just how exhausting it is, 4 hour games, twice a day.  The emotional roller-coaster.  And also, some players almost plainly admitting "Yeah, we're nerds", but in the same breath having unbelievable confidence, real swagger and just a deep love of totally crushing their opponent's ego.

Q:  Do you consider chessplayers to be 'athletes'?

JEFF: Not in the traditional sense but I think chess players are as competitive as any athletes I've ever met.  I've been watching a lot of Bobby Fischer interviews and it's amazing how much swagger he had.  He doesn't talk like a mathematician or an artist. He talks like an athlete.  He's got that cockiness, that competitiveness, that hunger to be the best. 

ANDY: You know the word "athlete" to me has always been attached to physical activity.  So no.  I actually think of them more in terms of being a renaissance (wo)man, philosopher or almost like a conductor when you see them completely in control of the game. 

Q:  This year's United States Chess Championship will be held in Jeff's hometown of St. Louis.  Are you planning on going?

JEFF: I hope so.  I stopped by the St. Louis Chess Club over Thanksgiving and the folks were great.  We'll be planning the rest of our shoots in the next couple months, so we'll finalize plans then. 

Q:  Like Maurice Ashley, you also have a challenge:  Make chess exciting for the screen.  How do you plan to do that?

JEFF: Lots of Timur Gareev.  That dude is a riot.

ANDY: Never enough Timur!

Q:  If it were up to you, what would you do to popularize chess in the US?

JEFF: Embrace the quirkiness.  Celebrate the big brains in the room.   

Q:  If you were a chess piece, which piece would you be?

JEFF: I'd like to be a Bishop.  There's something really smooth about sliding along the diagonal.

ANDY: The knight.  L pattern.  Pretty magical.

Q:  Any good anecdotes/stories that happened during shooting?

JEFF: I never realized that cheating was such a big concern at chess tournaments.  I mean, it makes sense, but I just hadn't ever considered it -- and I got a chuckle every morning as we passed through the metal detectors. 

ANDY:  Jeff thought the gear was stolen at one point when I moved a backpack and the look on his face made me laugh.  I will say everyone we filmed - from Maurice to the players, coaches, announcers... everyone was very cool and gracious - even under enormous pressure.  Which doesn't happen all the time in documentary filmmaking.  Everyone usually says ‘OK, great, we'll let you film' but then things get stressful and people worry they aren't looking their best.  And it didn't happen.  So we're thankful for the support.

If you'd like to learn more about "Pushing Wood", and view a short preview of the film, please visit https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/pushing-wood-a-documentary