An Interview with ‘Magnus’ Director Benjamin Ree

Benjamin Ree doesn’t play chess. In fact, the Norwegian filmmaker finds the game a bit boring.

“For me, watching chess is like watching paint dry,” Ree said.

But that doesn’t mean Ree wasn’t fascinated by the game; an ancient game played by more than 600 million people today around the globe. In particular, Ree was intrigued by a chess player’s mind — his or her thought process and intuition. That’s why in early 2013 he approached Magnus Carlsen and his management to film the Norwegian chess prodigy.

What started as a five-minute short film evolved into a full-length feature film that made its world debut at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. Magnus, a documentary on the life of the two-time World Chess Champion and current No. 1 player, opens in theaters in New York City on Nov. 18, and in additional cities and in the United Kingdom on Nov. 25.

“I’ve been fascinated with Magnus for a long time,” Ree told Culture Trip. “In Norway he’s a big celebrity and has been since 2004 when he became the third-youngest Grandmaster in the world. I was drawn to the story because he learned chess in a different way — he learned through joy and curiosity, voluntarily where the other great players have learned through strict teachers, discipline and structure. His approach was new and fascinated me.”

Carlsen, 25, began playing chess when he was 5 years old. Despite being bullied in school he never lost focus and moved up the rankings in the chess world. He defeated Viswanathan Anand of India in November 2013 to become World Chess Champion. Carlsen, the highest-ranked chess player of all time, has also beaten Bill Gates in nine moves and bested 10 Harvard University professors simultaneously while blindfolded.

Carlsen is currently in the midst of defending his title against 26-year-old Russian Sergey Karjakin in the 2016 World Chess Championship in New York City.

Through home movies, archival footage and his own filming, Ree compiled nearly 500 hours of footage that was edited and parsed to the 75-minute feature film; Ree’s first feature-length documentary.

“I began filming and got more and more access to Magnus, so the film became bigger,” he said. “… It was a totally different working process to make a feature-length documentary. It’s more difficult to keep the audience’s attention for such a long time, especially when it’s about chess. Chess is a very introverted sport, and the conflicts are happening most often inside a player’s head and mind. Film is a visual, emotional medium. That was a new learning experience for me.”

Magnus movie poster | © Magnus
Magnus movie poster | © Magnus

Carlsen playfully questioned Ree’s task. When Ree approached his subject about converting his five-minute short into a feature-length film, Carlsen said “a film like that will be very boring,” Ree said. Carlsen then suggested the chess Grandmaster make a film about Ree’s film. That, of course, didn’t happen and Magnus was born.

With chess being the ultimate battle of wit, strategy and calculation, it was up to Ree to take the introverted sport and make it appealing to viewers. He said initially he had more scenes with a Carlsen voiceover describing what the player felt during a given match or situation. But it wasn’t captivating enough. Instead, Ree utilized visuals, sound and music to showcase and magnify Carlsen’s emotions, struggles and success.

“Most of the time the players don’t reveal any emotions when they’re playing; its like poker, if you reveal too much your opponent can take advantage,” Ree said. “Occasionally during the process I thought, ‘I should have done a boxing film instead, it would be so much easier.’ We used cinematic language to convert the introverted sport to an extroverted media.

“We wanted the audience to feel the same tension Magnus was feeling at that moment. We used techniques like that to make the film more dramatic.”

Magnus will be released in approximately 60 countries worldwide. It won Best Film at the 2016 Norwegian International Film Festival and was nominated for Best Documentary at the 2016 Moscow International Film Festival.

NOTE: This first appeared on Culture Trip

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