In a key scene from The Queen’s Gambit, chess champion Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) faces down her Russian opponent Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski).
Viewers don't realize it at first, but a provocative bit of foreshadowing opens The Queen's Gambit.
The very first scene of the Netflix limited series reveals the lead character, Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), awakened by a knock at the door and muddling her way out of a bathtub where she'd been passed out in her waterlogged cocktail dress. Who is she, and how has she landed in such a fix?
When that scene reappears in episode six — placed this time within a proper chronology of Harmon's life — more is known: Harmon is an unlikely chess prodigy who develops into a first-class competitor despite sexist attitudes governing the chess world and a childhood riddled with tragedy.
Following its release last fall, The Queen's Gambit quickly proved itself an international success. Some 62 million households around the world watched the series in its first 28 days; it made the Netflix top 10 in 92 countries and ranked number one in 63, including the U.K., Argentina, Israel and South Africa.
That wide viewership is likely due, in part, to the show's can't-turn-away opening, which more or less concludes on this image (above) of Harmon anxiously engaged in a match at a high-stakes tournament.
Emmy contributor Ann Farmer spoke to three principals of the show about that sequence: executive producer William Horberg, director of photography Steven Meizler and editor Michelle Tesoro. Their conversations have been edited for length and clarity.
As a teaser, it's less than three minutes. But as written and directed by Scott Frank, it's fast, thrilling and unexpected. It practically guarantees that viewers will keep watching. Take us through the opening action to the point where the camera lands on this image of Beth gazing at her opponent.
William Horberg: So, we open with someone staggering out of a bathtub, clearly hungover, in the dark. We don't know what country she's in. We don't know anything. And then she enters a dark room and throws open the curtains, and we see she's in a fancy hotel room.
There's a body in the bed. We can tell by the expression on her face that maybe she remembers — and maybe doesn't remember — how the body got there. She takes a quick swig from a mini-bar bottle, pops a pill and does a quick presto change. Then she starts running out of the room and down a corridor.
We don't know where she's going. She's clearly distraught and late for something. We follow her in one continuous movement into the least expected destination possible. Which is a very elegant, immaculately quiet room set up with a chessboard and a clock. She's late for a chess tournament....
We were just thrilled. We felt like this sequence started the engine for the whole narrative. It certainly made you curious about this woman and how she got there. It was sexy. It was fun. It was a bit irreverent. It wasn't how the book [The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis] opened. But it just seemed delicious to us.
What were the advantages of showing this intense scene before we know anything about her?
Steven Meizler: I think it was a bit of a red herring — it's more to get the audience off their guard.
If I can guess what Scott was after... you see her hungover, and the last thing you'd think is that she's going to go play a chess match. When you see the chess board, that's the surprise. And I think Scott would say that if he had just shown a young Beth for the entire first part of the series without showing this, it would have had a different feeling.
The image here, taken from that sequence, shows Beth with her hands clutching her head and staring fretfully at her opponent Vasily Borgov [Marcin Dorocinski]. What's going on?
WH: Beth Harmon is a wonderfully contradictory character. She's a chess nerd, but she's an elegant fashionista. She's ruthless but vulnerable. She's brilliant but naive. And I think this is the moment where we are really seeing her very raw. You know, there aren't too many things that intimidate her. She's kind of a cool customer.
The fact that she allowed herself to get drunk, allowed herself to pull an all-nighter on the eve of what is probably the most important match of her life certainly has to be weighing heavily on her. She's got that pitcher and glass of water next to her, which is constantly being refilled throughout the match as she's trying to pull herself together and figure out a way to play the best game of her life.
A lot of this game is played in closeups. It's a very nonverbal scene. Yet it's a very rich scene in terms of sound. And it's very carefully designed. The audience is a character. The clock is a character. The breathing is a character. And all of those elements combine to kind of place us inside her head and give us a very subjective experience of what she's going through.
On an emotional level, what do you think viewers experience from this opening?
Michelle Tesoro: That they're in the middle of the rock-star life of this woman, whose life is clearly falling apart. And it is in the most unexpected environment — a chess tournament. And that maybe, whatever their previous thoughts about chess were, maybe they should rethink them.
She's playing opposite Russian grandmaster Vasily Borgov, who takes close heed of her frazzled demeanor. Tell us about him.
SM: The way Marcin played him, he added depth. In the original book, he was much more of a stereotypical Russian, kind of one-dimensional. What Marcin brought is that there were other things going on in his mind. There wasn't a supreme cockiness that he could have gone to. I felt that Borgov was disappointed in seeing Beth and knowing that she wasn't in top form — I felt that he wanted her to be. I think he connected with her.
WH: He's a wonderful Polish actor. We watched some of his Polish film work and then met him. He just had that thing. He's like an iceman. He had a quiet strength and chiseled features, and we really felt like he was what we'd imagined in terms of this formidable Russian intellect.
How was Taylor-Joy chosen to play the orphan who discovers a passion and talent for chess?
WH: We needed someone who could convincingly play from 14, f15 to their early 20s. Somebody who could play whip smart. And somebody we could observe in quiet moments and see a rich interior life.
Scott sent her the book, then met with her in London. He came back from that lunch saying, "She's it and she's in." We were super excited, and Netflix was supportive. But I think it's fair to say that she fulfilled — and wildly exceeded — our hopes and expectations.
It's a dramatic and anxious chess scene from start to finish. She's late. She's hungover. She's not thinking clearly. She's gulping down water. She and Borgov stare wordlessly at each other. There are also rows of chess fans silently watching their every move. Which camera angles did you use to heighten the drama and tension in the room?
SM: I relied on more closeups to make us feel the claustrophobia of the moment and the complete out-of-sorts that she's feeling. I was getting close enough to make the audience feel uncomfortable and really feel it in their stomachs. I almost feel like I captured the similar feeling I get when watching Roman Polanski's films. He gets you to feel that tightening of your chest.
What were some of your preparations as DP to ensure that the opening sequence, starting in the hotel room and ending in the chess match, resulted in such fluidity?
SM: We actually shot in three different locations. The interior of the hotel room was a stage, and the elevator was a stage. When she emerges from the elevator, it's a different location. It's a restaurant in Berlin that had a Parisian sort of feel.
The day that we shot her for the first episode — running down the hall, running out of the elevator — we shot her from the front. For the sixth episode, we followed her from behind. That was with a Steadicam on a rickshaw. I was very fortunate to have a very good Steadicam operator and a dolly grip to achieve those shots.
What were the challenges of editing this sequence to make it appear so seamless?
MT: That's really hard to explain. Because it's my own internal rhythm, wanting to make it flow together. I knew it had to move. Because Beth is in a rush. She's late. She's got to get there. Especially at the beginning of the show, it's a bit of an action sequence, really. What are the essential pieces?
Knowing that you're setting it up at the top, and because you're going to have to recall them later, these elements have to stick out. Whatever I read in the script, I imagined it moving fluidly. And I did my best to do that with the footage.
When you edited this same scene for episode six, you chose different shots. We don't see her climb out of the tub, for instance. But we experience other details.
MT: When we come back, there's a lot of that mise en scène that's already set up from what people have seen in the beginning. We hear the knock. But now, instead of only hearing the knock, we see who's knocking. Which is the tournament director. Then when she's running, instead of seeing the front of her, I followed her from behind. This gives you a different perspective of the same thing. It makes it fresh.
By the time we reach episode six, we've watched a lot of chess matches. What did you do in your edit to give this one its own personality?
MT: What I really wanted to focus on was making sure that we were clocking her anxiety and clocking that it 's going bad. The way Scott covers it is with a lot of her sweating — and Borgov noticing her sweating and noticing her taking a really long time to make decisions.
Actually, the only time Scott really covered the chessboard was in the sequences with the display boards and the little pieces were moving on their own. [In some scenes done with CGI, Beth lies in bed and imagines a chess game on the ceiling, moving the pieces in her mind.]
So I thought, how do we show this long passage of time? At this point, I think people are really familiar with the clock [used in the matches]. Maybe that is an insistent thing. The ticking clock gives you the tension. So, I sort of locked into the rhythm of the clock for everything in the sequence. Normally you can make any rhythm that you want. But I let myself be locked into the rhythm of the clock.
Did you prepare in any special way for editing this series?
MT: Right away, I dove into reading the book. I tried to get into chess. Though it sort of lost me, I have to say. I guess I 'm a checkers girl. But I needed to know how all the pieces moved and get an idea of how it 's played. I 've done this before with other shows. I cut a horse racing show. I had no idea about horse racing. But I learned while being on the show.
When they were prepping, [the Queen's Gambit team] had a chess summit in Berlin. I met the chess consultant. We were looking at all the props — the clocks and the boards. It was a lot of fun to have my hands on everything and think about how to get editorially prepared.
Much has been said about Anya 's big, expressive eyes. What was your strategy for filming them to your advantage?
SM: Every angle works for her face, so I could be wherever I wanted. Anywhere I went with the camera, something interesting was always happening. You just need to photograph her eyes and you know exactly what 's going on.... She was extremely intuitive with the camera, very smart and very aware of where the camera was without it feeling staged or like she's playing to the camera. She was really fantastic to work with.
Were there strategies in the edit room to use her eyes to the best effect?
MT: We used flashbacks a lot. And her eyes really helped us get in and out of them, and to show what might be going on internally.
What did you hope people would take away from this scene?
WH: The one thing we know of Beth Harmon is that she hates losing. She cannot abide losing at any cost. Yet she's also got a strong degree of self-destructiveness in her behavior and her choices.
I think all of those tensions are right here in this image. You can feel like she feels she 's losing control, and that is intolerable to her. And I think we just love her and feel her pain and her anxiety in this moment.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2021