The Queen’s Gambit

Released at the height of the pandemic, in the midst of a brutal election year cycle, Netflix’s breakout hit The Queen’s Gambit gave us a badly needed distraction from the tribulations of 2020. The Cold War-era coming-of-age drama follows orphaned chess prodigy Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), who struggles with substance abuse as she rises through the ranks of competitive chess to confront her biggest rival – Russian world champion Vasily Borgov (played by Marcin Dorocinski).

The critically-acclaimed series quickly became the most[1]watched Netflix miniseries in 63 countries and sparked a revival of interest in the ‘royal game.’ It represents the kind of high-concept filmmaking Netflix is now known for. Its clever script, captivating performances and stunning production values made it an award-season favorite, picking up a string of accolades including an ACE Eddie Award for editor Michelle Tesoro, ACE.

The editor says she is grateful for the recognition from her peers and noted that there was a lot of great work out there this year. Tesoro explains that she had worked with director Scott Frank on his 2017 Netflix Western Godless, which was nominated for 12 Primetime Emmys®, winning three. For his next project, the director wanted to tackle Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel The Queen’s Gambit and first brought it up with Tesoro in the summer of 2018, suggesting that she should read the book in preparation.

Pre-production on the series began in the spring of 2019, and Tesoro went to Berlin for a meeting between chess consultants and the department heads to go over how the chess matches would be presented. “The matches were predetermined by our chess consultants and they were their own little scenes, or their own kind of script, if you will,” she says. “People wonder whether you need to know chess in order to cut chess and I would say there’s only so much that you need to know.… [You can] cut dance without actually being a dancer. You can cut horse racing without actually being an owner or a jockey.

You can tell when a move is good. As editors, we work in worlds that we don’t know much about, and one of the things that I like about a new project is if it’s in a world that I’m new to. I feel like when you’re new to a world like that, you can see it in a different way than someone who might be too familiar with it.”

When shooting began in August, the editor relocated from her home in L.A. to New York. “Scott lives in New York and we did a similar thing on Godless, and so, I basically planned on being in New York for 11-12 months.” The limited series was shot mostly in Berlin over the course of 82 days, with the city of Cambridge, Ontario, Canada providing the backdrop for Harmon’s adoptive home in Lexington, Kentucky. She explains that the director doesn’t like to temp anything, so the sound team was brought in early in production, which gave composer Carlos Rafael Rivera, (another Godless collaborator), almost a year to sketch out ideas for the score.

“We were getting a score from Carlos, so there was no need for us to use somebody else’s score and try to create a soundtrack out of something that has nothing to do with our film,” she says. “Also, we don’t temp with sound effects. … Normally, you’re temping with whatever library you have and then later, when you have maybe six weeks left of production, you have the sound people – who were hired halfway through maybe – take everything and put a whole new soundscape on it, and all of a sudden, you’re looking at something completely new and that would drive Scott crazy, because all of a sudden things seem different, the cut seems different. So, he never wanted to do it that way.… There are a lot of other filmmakers who do it this way where you bring on your sound team sooner rather than later, and they build the track so that you can live with it.”

This way of working also gave her the chance to involve her two assistant editors – Charlie Greene and Phillip Kimsey – more in the editing process. “Normally, on a lot of shows, you have the assistant editors doing [temp] sound … but they didn’t have to do a lot of that …so, I was able to utilize them more in terms of actually cutting picture,” explains Tesoro.

“It was really great and they basically just stayed throughout the entire project with me. And then once we got to assembly, they sort of received more normal roles … because at that point, I was incorporating Scott’s notes into the assembly, and we were honing the cut.”

Shooting wrapped before Christmas and her first assembly – roughly nine and a half hours – was ready by mid-January. That was eventually whittled down to seven and a half hours. “We took a lot out. We moved a lot around,” she says. The director had incorporated a lot of backstory and flashbacks that weren’t in the original novel. Tesoro explains, “We were able to play with these elements in terms of their placement. Some of them stayed in as scripted, but others were moved around to where they had the best emotional impact, or [helped] explain the theme of the episode.” Stylistically, the editor says she allows the footage to “tell her what it’s supposed to be. I don’t really adhere to any particular style; it just has to fit with the footage. “The one thing I did have in mind was to make sure that we were always moving ahead and I think that’s how Scott wrote it,” she says. “I think the biggest challenge was trying to figure out how much chess was too much chess. And that was just trial and error, watching whole episodes and saying, ‘Okay, I feel we’re in this sequence too long in terms of how much chess we’re seeing and how much it’s really balancing out the drama.’ And I think we kind of figured that out along the way; we were finding that balance. What I think was successful with this project is that there was a lot of drama and that’s why we cared about what happened with chess.”

When the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March of 2020, Tesoro started work[1]ing from her apartment in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, hoping to ride out the lockdown. “I stayed in New York because I knew that at some point … we all thought that we would be working together back in the office [soon]. So I just holed up in my studio apartment, and I just ended up staying there for the whole time … and it was actually quite nice,” she says. She ended up staying there until post-production wrapped up at the end of July and she returned to L.A.

She explains that Frank likes to work with a small crew of people, each contributing a lot to the production. “Scott has a really good ability to find people who can add to his vision and people he doesn’t have to micromanage,” she says. “I never feel micromanaged by Scott. I always feel challenged and the expectation to bring more to the table than what you’re given is always there. His material is fun to work with because it has a lot of drama. It has comedy in it. It doesn’t leave you feeling like you’ve been dragged through the mud.”

When it comes to what she looks for in a project, the editor explains that “number one, you look for a world that you want to basically live in for [the] better part of a year. I mean, you put your mind and a lot of hours into these projects. They need to be something that you think is worthwhile.” She also looks for people who have the willingness to experiment in the cutting room, and people who know how to treat their crew. “That sounds like a basic thing, but there are a lot of people [in the industry] who don’t treat their crew well. So, I mean, you give a lot, and it should only be to those who deserve it. I think those are really two big criteria – working with good people and working on a worthy subject,” she concludes.

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