The Story of IS 318: Interview with the Director of Chess Movie
By Jennifer Shahade   
April 5, 2010
Katie Dellamaggiore, director of Chess Movie
The first of the Spring Scholastics, the Junior High Nationals (April 9-11, Minneapolis, MN) is approaching. Meanwhile, the chess community is abuzz about Chess Movie, a documentary in progress about the Championship team IS 318 in Brooklyn, New York.

Chess Movie Director Katie Dellamaggiore has conducted hundreds of chess interviews by now, so CLO turned the tables on her. Read the behind the scenes story after watching the clip.
Also visit the kickstarter site where you can sign up for updates and learn about how to contribute to the project.

CHESS MOVIE (working title) from Rescued Media on Vimeo.

Jennifer Shahade (JS): How many chess events have you attended in the course of working on this movie? Which was the most memorable?  
Katie Dellamaggiore(KD): Wow, too many to count.  We started shooting last April, a year ago, at the USCF Supernationals in Tennessee.  That was our official introduction into the scholastic chess world and probably the most memorable. 318 traveled over 45 kids there and we were just getting to know all of them as individuals.  It was kind of a scramble trying to keep up with who was playing in what section, how many points they had and how they were handling their wins and losses.  Having the support of coaches John Galvin and Elizabeth Vicary was invaluable. We would have been lost without them. They would check in with us and say  --- hey, so and so has a chance of placing in the top 5 you might want to follow them or someone just broke their winning streak and is getting a pep talk back in the team room.  

Since that first trip we've been to at least 15 Chess in the Schools tournaments, 10 Marshall Chess Club tournaments, 2 U.S Chess School summer sessions, 1 New York City Championship and 1 New York State Championship.  

JS: What do you expect to see at the 2010 US Junior High School Championships? Are there any crucial match-ups or events that you are particularly looking forward to? 
KD: Well last year at the 2009 Supernationals I.S. 318 placed 2nd in the open section.  A few of the kids in this section like Pobo Efekoro and Alexis Paredes have become main characters in the film and now that they are in the 8th grade this is their last chance for 1st place (team and individual) in the open section. So we are definitely going be focused on their matches.  Also in that top section are 6th graders James Black and Justus Williams.  Both have been performing strong all year and could very well become Junior High National Champions - which wouldn't be a bad way to close out their first year at 318!   

JS: What were you most surprised about when you delved deeper into the chess subculture? 
KD: When I started out it seemed that the chess subculture here in the US was spread so wide and so deep that there was no way I, as a newcomer, would be able to fully infiltrate it. But as time went on I found that this huge subculture is also a very, very tight community. I've met so many passionate chess players along the way that have been so excited to help us out in whatever way they can.  Just a few minutes into talking to someone and I would have five new websites or contacts to add to my list. This helped make the delving process a lot easier. Also, contrary to popular misconception most chess players are not introverts! 
JS:Can you name one or two particularly touching or funny incidents from your filming, something that instantly pops into your head when you think about Chess Movie

Rochelle Ballantyne at the US Chess School in Saint Louis, Photo Elizabeth Vicary
KD:At last years 8th grade graduation John Galvin was calling the chess team up on stage and he saved the team's #1 player & under-16 girls champion Rochelle Ballantyne for last. He gave her such a warm and touching introduction, calling her one of the smartest girls he knew. She just seemed so happy and proud - her smile said it all.  

Another memorable moment would be the trip to the New York State championship this past month.  If you remember there was an enormous blizzard that hit the metro area the same weekend as states. The 318 team was to travel that day (the day before the tourney). However they just ended up stranded at home with the hopes they could get out on the first train to Saratoga in the morning, which we did.  There were some delays along the track on the way and the team ended up pulling into the station 15 after the clocks started in the first round.  Running out of the station the kids grabbed their luggage and jumped in cabs trying to make it to their tables hoping all was not lost and that there would be enough time to salvage at least a draw.  Turned out even though each kid missed 20-25 minutes of his or her first match every single player won that round.  Now that's impressive. 

The IS 318 team at the 2010 New York State Scholastics

JS: What types of projects did you work on prior to this movie? Did any of them have anything in common with Chess Movie in terms of either spirit or content?  
KD: There are two films I worked on prior to starting Chess Movie that mean the most to me. In 2007I spent six weeks in New Orleans with Director Hilla Medalia co-producing a documentary called After the Storm. After the Storm follows twelve young people who, after Hurricane Katrina, are chosen by Broadway professionals to perform in a community production of the musical Once on This Island-itself set in the wake of a hurricane-as a benefit to fund the restoration of a local community center.  At the time the city of New Orleans was still so raw and just beginning to heal that the time we spent documenting these kids and their stories was as much a cathartic experience for them as I think it was for the entire crew.

After the Storm
went on to premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival last summer and continues to be used as a fundraising tool for The After the Storm Foundation, offering assistance and support to relief organizations serving the youth of New Orleans.  

After wrapping in New Orleans I received a phone call from a good friend of mine asking if I would direct and produce a 1-hour documentary for A&E Classroom. This non-profit division of A&E produces education programming used in classrooms across the country. The subject of the documentary was "internet safety" but the format and style was left for me to create. To get this kind of support and creative freedom at a big network is a dream job! I even got to hire my then fiancé Nelson Dellamaggiore as editor. We worked side by side for weeks writing and editing what became "Your Life Online" and not only did we stay engaged through the "creative differences" but Nelson was even nominated for a Single Camera Editing Emmy award.  So all in all a great gig.  

Both of these films' main characters were young people and I think it is becoming a theme in all the projects I'm attracted to.  TV is littered with young reality stars doing things of no social value, so to find stories of young role models who have endured difficulties and handled their circumstances with a maturity well beyond their years is just so compelling to me and hopefully our audience as well. 
JS:As a filmmaker what is your strategy at these massive events? There are so many strong players at IS 318, how do you choose what to focus on and how do you maximize your time at the event?
KD:The first day of a tournament is always the hardest. Everyone is getting settled in and we have to cast a wide net in terms of how many kids we follow. Usually by the 2nd or 3rd match the prominent stories become clear and we can focus on maybe 2-3 kids.  The biggest challenge is not trying to get everything, but rather committing to those 2-3 kids we've identified as the key subjects for that tournament. It's always better to have one really great story from start to finish than lots of little pieces of story that don't resolve.  

JS: What was your level of chess prior to working on Chess Movie? Have you had time to learn much about the game?
KD: My chess level prior to Chess Movie was zero. When I first met the team I has no idea how they were playing or what they were talking about -- but their passion for the game was just pouring out and that is what hooked me in. The mass audience I envision for this film doesn't need to understand the x's and o's of the game to appreciate the effort and determination they put forth. I want our audience of non-chess players to have the same experience I did the first day I met them - which was a sense of wonder watching these young kids one, do something I can't and two, perform on such an intellectual level at such a young age. 

Right now I know how to move the pieces and I understand their value. I keep saying when we finish production I am going to get proper chess lessons. I have been collecting all of these strategies and tactics thanks to Elizabeth Vicary's lesson plans. I hope when I finally sit down for a lesson there will be a wealth of subconscious chess info in my brain ready to be tapped! 
JS: What was the biggest chess or life lesson you learned from filming the IS 318 team?
KD: Losing is never fun (in chess and in life) but you can let your losses make you stronger.  

JS: Chess players and chess itself has trouble breaking into mainstream markets. How do you think the chess community can help to make the game more popular? 
KD: I think nurturing the young chess community is really important. This current generation of young chess players are not the same as their parents or grandparents. They are extremely social and don't want to play in isolation. They want to be around their friends while they play - whether it's online or in face to face. So however the chess community can continue to encourage this younger generation is one way into the mainstream market. I also think breaking down stereotypes is really important. The I.S. 318 chess teams are the heroes of the school and I think that's part of what draws so many kids to the program. I hope Chess Movie does its part in presenting chess in a new and fresh way to young audiences and helps to increase its popularity.  

JS: When will the film be on TV or the theater? How can we track its release?
KD: Great question! Although I'm married to the most talented editor in the history of moving pictures (and BTW the most handsome to boot) we still are going to need another 6-7 months after we wrap in September to dig through the 500 + hours of footage we've shot and complete a rough cut to submit to festivals and broadcasters.  I wouldn't expect anything till fall 2011.  To follow the film's progress, you can checkout or blog / website or our fundraising site at kickstarter.