TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest Scott Frank is the cocreator, executive producer and director of the Netflix limited series "The Queen's Gambit," which was one of the most watched shows of the year. He spoke with FRESH AIR guest interviewer Arun Venugopal, who's a host and senior producer at WNYC in New York. Here's Arun.
ARUN VENUGOPAL, BYLINE: Over the course of seven episodes, "The Queen's Gambit" tells the tale of Elizabeth Harmon, a young girl who is orphaned and who discovers by and by that she is also extraordinarily gifted at the game of chess. Her gift and her addiction to prescription drugs follows her out of the orphanage and on a path to the heights of international chess in the 1960s and '70s.
Since it launched in October on Netflix, "The Queen's Gambit" has hit the streaming services' number one spot in 63 countries and has been downloaded by more than 62 million households. The series, starring actress Anya Taylor-Joy, has also sparked a boom in the sale of chess sets. It's based on a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, and it was brought to the screen by our guest, Scott Frank. He's written the screenplays for "Minority Report," "Get Shorty" and "Wolverine." He also received Oscar nominations for writing "Out Of Sight" and the "X-Men" film "Logan." He also created the TV series "Godless."
Scott Frank, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
SCOTT FRANK: Thank you so much for having me.
VENUGOPAL: What drew you to this story in the first place?
FRANK: Well, the novel is fantastic. And it reads - it's a real page-turner, and it almost reads like a thriller in many ways. She's such a fascinating character. And you - even if you don't know a wit about chess, you can't put the book down. And for some reason, when I read it, bizarrely, I thought it was cinematic. Even though it was about chess, it just felt like a movie to me. And I could see it, and I could see her. And so it really became - it sort of became mine in a way because I'd always been fascinated since my very first script, "Little Man Tate," with sort of the cost of genius. And this felt like the ultimate expression of that theme.
VENUGOPAL: How does a project like this take decades to make?
FRANK: Well, I think it's not obvious. When the book came out in 1983, I think it was Bernardo Bertolucci who wanted to do it. And then a series of directors came in over the years - Michael Apted, Tom Tykwer. There were all sorts of people who flirted with it over the years. Heath Ledger was going to do it as his directorial debut before he died. And so it's been around. And I think everybody faced the same battle, which is when you reduce the novel to a screenplay - just an hour-and-a-half, two-hour movie - it really becomes a sports movie, period. Is she going to win? Is she not going to win? You know, oh, she wins - that sort of thing - and whereas if you can do something longer with it, it can be about so much more.
VENUGOPAL: Let's play a clip from the first episode, when young Beth, Elizabeth, is being brought to the orphanage where she's going to spend several years of her life. Here we encounter the administrators of the orphanage as they review her file before meeting her.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Orphaned by yesterday's collision on New Circle Road, Elizabeth Harmon surveys a troubled future. Elizabeth, 9 years old, was left without family by the crash. Her mother, Alice Harmon, was pronounced dead at the scene.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) And the father?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) It doesn't say.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) I would guess that, like most men who live around there, he was yet another victim of a carefree life.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Poor dear.
VENUGOPAL: We expect the orphanage to be run by monsters - Ms. Ratched, right? But it's not quite that, is it?
FRANK: No. I think aside from the fact that they do drug the girls - there is that - they - you know, to keep them compliant, they - if anything, they're just sort of rigid, not evil, and very religious. And so that's really, you know, what she's up against when she's there and this kind of misunderstanding of her and who she is. And I think that's really sort of the issue for her there.
VENUGOPAL: My wife was watching "The Queen's Gambit" with me - her first time, my second time. And over and over again, in reference to the main character, she said, she is so peculiar.
VENUGOPAL: And I was wondering, how would you characterize Beth Harmon?
FRANK: I think that's perfect. Anya and I would talk about her as a creature. You know, she is someone who - you sit across the chessboard from her, and you're instantly unnerved. And so I think that she is peculiar. She's very strange. She doesn't speak a lot. Sometimes she's very awkward in what she says, a little too direct. And she, you know, just wants what she wants. And she's almost feral. You know, she is this sort of feral genius in a way.
VENUGOPAL: So a lot of this really has to do with how you and Anya Taylor-Joy, the lead actress, I guess, drew upon who she is as an actress - her features, her huge eyes - to kind of embody this person with that sort of strangeness.
FRANK: Yes. We definitely leaned into all of that visually. And I needed somebody - because so much of it was going to be on her face, which is different for me - you know, I don't usually like to shoot too many close-ups, and this was going to live in a lot of close-ups. I needed somebody whose face you just couldn't stop studying, who was just fascinating. And Anya has an amazing, amazing face, and she - it's so expressive, and you can read so much into it. She can do so much with those eyes.
VENUGOPAL: Early on, young Beth has to journey into the dark, desolate basement of the orphanage by herself. And this is the first of many instances where we experience a sense of dread on her behalf. You know, who is this surly custodian figure, and what's he going to do? It's the first of many instances in "The Queen's Gambit" where we suspect the motivations of all the men she encounters as if sexual violence were almost inevitable in the story of a strong, spectacularly talented woman. How consciously were you creating this particular dynamic?
FRANK: Very much. I mean, I wanted to play against expectation. And it's pretty apparent what anybody would think when she goes down into this basement and there's this older gentleman sitting there and this young girl asks him to play - teach her how to play chess. I thought so much of that was familiar that I could use that in a way that just kept flipping it on its head and not avoiding conflict because there's plenty of conflict in her life. But the truth is that Beth is her own antagonist. And so you think the worst is going to happen, and it's not done to her by other people so much as she does it to herself.
VENUGOPAL: And traditionally, we don't really get a lot of female characters like that, do we?
FRANK: No, I don't think so. And it's a tricky line to walk. I mean, I've talked about this before that her kind of addiction and obsession - it can get weary. It can get tiresome if you don't play against it. And - you know, and we were using humor, and the tension of the chess matches and everything in her intellect to kind of play against that because it does - watching somebody be an addict and self-destructive repeatedly can get old fast. It's like watching someone angry or grief-stricken. It gets old really quickly on screen.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview guest interviewer Arun Venugopal recorded with Scott Frank, cocreator, executive producer and director of the Netflix limited series "The Queen's Gambit." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "4 ON 6")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our interview with Scott Frank, co-creator, executive producer and director of the Netflix limited series "The Queen's Gambit." He spoke with FRESH AIR guest interviewer Arun Venugopal.
VENUGOPAL: "The Queen's Gambit" is actually a chess opening, a strategy. And it's mentioned, I think, once early in the series. Why'd you name the series "The Queen's Gambit?"
FRANK: Well, the novel's named that. And it's interesting because Bruce Pandolfini, who is one of our chess consultants, along with Garry Kasparov - and Bruce is a well-known chess player and chess teacher. And he taught Josh, the young boy from "Searching For Bobby Fischer." And he's been around for quite a while. And he, back in the day when Walter Tevis was writing the novel - I think it was Simon & Schuster asked him - or Random House asked him to be a consultant for Tevis to make sure that the chess was accurate. And he spent a lot of time with him working on the book. And as Bruce would tell it, Tevis ignored most of his suggestions and corrections. But the one thing he loved was Bruce suggested the title, "The Queen's Gambit."
VENUGOPAL: So you mentioned some of the grandmasters that you could lean on or you, I guess, employed quite actively for the series. And you staged a whole lot of chess matches over the course of the series. How did you do this in a way that was both interesting and true to life?
FRANK: It's a kind of involved answer because it was my biggest fear. And so during prep, it was the thing I spent the most amount of time on was, how can you render these chess games both cinematic and part of the narrative in a way that people who don't play chess understand what they're seeing and are able to at least feel what they're supposed to feel during those matches? And we came at it from a couple of different directions. First, in the writing of the script, I realized I had to see, what is the least amount of chess I can get away with? What are the fewest amount of matches in order to tell the story and see her evolution?
There were more chess matches. And every time I would rework the script, I would lose them. And even within the matches, I was very disciplined in terms of just how many specific games we saw her play. Second, I realized that you had to root or contextualize each of these matches or games in some sort of emotional context, you know? You had to understand what the stakes are not just about winning and losing, but for her personally. And so if she self-destructs or if she's playing somebody who is really important for her to beat, it's not because of she needs to beat them to rise up in the chess world, there's always some sort of personal thing at stake.
And then, in terms of making it, we did a couple of things in prep to get ready to shoot the various tournaments and games. And at one point we had a chess summit where, as we were scouting locations and I was - you know, we were, you know, picking crops and things, we had different chess sets for every single tournament.
And we had this chess summit where Bruce came over, and we went over each game. And we would ask Bruce, OK, it's the Kentucky State Championship. We're thinking they're playing on paper chessboards with plastic pieces. And he would say, yes. And - or he would say, no. Or he would say, it would be this color or not that color, you know, would be realistic as we would show him what we've been working towards. He would tell us how many people would be there. And we would say, this is our location. And we're - can we make this work? And he would tell us how accurate we were. And we would go through every single tournament because there is a kind of arc to them.
VENUGOPAL: Do you, Scott Frank, have to be pretty good at chess to pull off a series about chess?
FRANK: No. I play chess. I would not describe myself as pretty good. I would describe myself as very average. But I do understand chess. And I do understand certain things that are interesting about chess. But I learned much more talking to Garry and Bruce as we went forward. I mean, Garry gave me so much information and insight into the Russian players and what they might be thinking. And tons of dialogue ideas, I got from Garry. The whole idea of the Russians playing as a team versus the Americans being individualists was terrific, which made me want to bring all - everybody back at the end when we were talking about that, and just various things about the guys on the elevator when they're discussing how she's an orphan, so she's just like them. She has nothing else but this. Things like that were all from Garry and really, really helpful to me.
VENUGOPAL: And this point that he made and which the series makes, which culminates in this sort of realization by Beth that being individualist doesn't pay off in various ways, and that this sort of American side to her is sort of self-destructive and limiting, whereas the Russians - or the Soviets, I guess - have this sort of team, collectist (ph) effort. That's not a point you could have necessarily made 20 or 30 years ago during the Cold War - is it? - in mainstream entertainment?
FRANK: No. And the show's a huge hit in Russia right now because the Russians aren't necessarily the bad guys. And they're sort of her opponents. But for me, you have a character who wants to isolate, who isolates herself, who can't help but push people away all the way through. She was an orphan for reasons - for almost deliberate reasons on the part of her parents. So she doesn't trust anybody. And she keeps pushing people away and keeps behaving badly.
And when Townes says to her late in the day that, you know, I just wanted us to be friends and you kind of broke my heart, and she says, well, you know, I have a habit of doing that. So this is a person who's isolated herself the whole time. And Benny, when he tells her the speech about playing as a team, what he's really saying is, you can't be alone forever. No one can. There's an emotional payoff there, and it was a really wonderful thing to mine. And it's in the book as well, I think.
VENUGOPAL: Beth keeps on getting interviewed by the press, especially as she begins her rapid ascent through the chess world. And during an interview with the reporter from Life magazine, she's confronted with a very dark idea. Let's hear that.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT")
SAMANTHA SOULE: (As Miss Jean Blake) Do you imagine that you saw the king as a father and the queen as a mother - I mean, one to attack, one to protect?
ANYA TAYLOR-JOY: (As Beth) They're just pieces. And anyway, it was the board I noticed first.
SOULE: (As Miss Jean Blake) The board?
TAYLOR-JOY: (As Beth) Yes. It's an entire world of just 64 squares. I feel safe in it. I can control it. I can dominate it. And it's predictable, so if I get hurt, I only have myself to blame.
SOULE: (As Miss Jean Blake) How interesting. Tell me, Elizabeth. Have you ever heard of something called apophenia?
TAYLOR-JOY: (As Beth) No. What's that?
SOULE: (As Miss Jean Blake) It's the finding of pattern or meaning where other people don't. Sometimes people with this condition get feelings of...
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Over here.
SOULE: (As Miss Jean Blake) ...Revelation or ecstasies. Sometimes people find patterns or meaning where there aren't any.
TAYLOR-JOY: (As Beth) What does that have to do with me?
SOULE: (As Miss Jean Blake) Well, creativity and psychosis often go hand in hand - or, for that matter, genius and madness.
TAYLOR-JOY: (As Beth) You think I'm crazy?
SOULE: (As Miss Jean Blake) No, of course not. I was just asking...
MARIELLE HELLER: (As Alma) I think that's enough. Beth has homework to finish. She is, after all, still a young woman in school.
VENUGOPAL: The exchange is abruptly brought to an end by Beth's adoptive mom, Alma, played by the actress and accomplished filmmaker Marielle Heller. What I'm wondering is, this idea that we are presented with here - the thin line between genius and madness - is this just an overbearing journalist talking? Or is this the series itself?
FRANK: It's the series itself. I mean, it's her greatest fear. And the story of her mother is kind of, you know, a little bit the "Flowers For Algernon" story piece where she sees her future. And she's doing everything she can to avoid it. And she doesn't want to go insane like her mother. And yet everybody keeps bringing up chess and insanity, genius and insanity, whether it's the Life magazine reporter or Harry Beltik, who, you know, talks to her and, you know, about the same thing, about various players who lost their mind. And I think that's her greatest fear. And she's very worried that she's going to become like them.
VENUGOPAL: It's not entirely clear what Alma, her adoptive mother, is like and whether she has Beth's best interests at heart or if she just wants to profit off her daughter's genius. Is it true that the actress, Marielle Heller, wasn't herself sure of the character's motivations as she played the role?
FRANK: Yeah. She would ask me, and I wouldn't tell her because she's both, you know? I think the - I think Alma is confused as well and trying to sort it out. And then, at a certain point, they land on a real friendship. And I didn't want it to be one way or the other. And Mari is such a great actor that she kind of worked with that, you know, confusion and in a great way.
And I think that that - I think it's better because you don't know. And again, it speaks to what you were talking about before with, like, Mr. Shaibel in the basement. You expect the worst from this couple. And, you know, Mrs. Wheatley is inattentive, probably. That's her biggest crime. And Mr. Wheatley's a jerk and ends up abandoning them. But she is sort of also lonely. And they connect, you know, through their mutual loneliness. And, yes, she does see it as a way of making money. They are in trouble. They are broke. But at the same time, I think a real friendship develops.
VENUGOPAL: Often, Beth is really hard to read. And she's not very communicative to the people who care about her. She seems unsure how to respond to their interest or just unwilling. Affection isn't something she understands very well. So why do we care about her?
FRANK: We care about her because we know she's trying, because we know that she doesn't want to be alone. And we know that what she's doing is something that she can't help. But it's something that she's trying to fight against. She keeps trying to, as I said, locate herself in the world somewhere and find who is her family, you know, and where does she belong? And I think we care about that because we see her searching for that. And we don't see her gleefully being cruel. We don't see her gleefully pushing people away. We see her clumsily doing all of that.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview our guest interviewer Arun Venugopal recorded with Scott Frank, co-creator, executive producer and director of the Netflix limited series "The Queen's Gambit." After a break, we'll hear more of their conversation, John Powers will review "Elizabeth Is Missing," a new television film on PBS' "Masterpiece," and Clint Smith will read a poem about growing up in the shadows of Confederate statues. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CARLOS RAFAEL RIVERA'S "MOSCOW INVITATIONAL 1968")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with more of our interview with Scott Frank, co-creator of the Netflix limited series "The Queen's Gambit." He worked for years to get the series made. Based on the 1984 book of the same name, it's about an orphan named Elizabeth Harmon who learns as a child that she's incredibly good at chess. The show follows her as she rises in the world of international chess during the 1960s while dealing with self-doubt and addiction. Scott Frank also created the series "Godless" and has written many screenplays. He received Oscar nominations for writing "Out Of Sight" and the "X-Men" film "Logan." He spoke to guest interviewer Arun Venugopal.
VENUGOPAL: You've clearly put a lot of effort into the production design and the beautiful interiors and the furnishings. Everything is just so lush. Is there a particular function that you see the production design serving in the series, aside from just being really gorgeous?
FRANK: Yeah. It's character. And this was an amazing collaboration. And Uli Hanisch is a genius. And I saw "Babylon Berlin" and flipped out over the production design. I just thought it was amazing. And so he was the first choice I wanted to talk to, even before I knew we were going to shoot in Berlin. And Bill Horberg, the producer, had worked with him before many years ago. And so we sent him the novel, and he loved the book. And we had a conversation, and he signed on.
And I tend to operate from a place of - I have a very specific, you know, vision, if you want to call it that. There's usually a photograph or a painting or some image that I land on at some point where I say, OK, this is the show, or this is the film, and, you know, this is our palette. There's a photograph that inspired me for "The Queen's Gambit." It was a photograph we took, though.
And then I give it to really talented people, and they take it from there. And it's a wonderful thing because it's a kind of one and one is three sort of collaboration. And his idea and being from Germany, thinking about America from Germany, was a fascinating thing for me to see.
And what we really agreed on was that you would know where you were. In other words, the Wheatley house said a lot about the Wheatleys. And I kept thinking about Douglas Sirk. And I love those films, and I love the way they look. And we kept saying the Wheatley house is really our kind of Douglas Sirk stuff. And when you're in Mexico, that had to have a very specific feel because we weren't really in Mexico. So we were going to use production design to - as this kind of sleight of hand to make us feel like we're in Mexico. Same with Russia. And so there's - and the orphanage.
And we had kind of different color scheme and lighting scheme for each of these things. Both the orphanage and Russia, for example, there's not a lot of color. But when you're in Mexico, there's these bright oranges and things. And the Wheatley house, obviously, it's a riot of wallpaper and, you know, that blue everywhere. And Paris is yet another thing. And then Moscow, we lose the color again.
VENUGOPAL: You mentioned this photo you took for "The Queen's Gambit," something that inspired you. What was the photo?
FRANK: We were scouting a hotel lobby in Toronto, and so we were up there looking. And what was interesting is that the hotel was chess-themed, which we found too much. So we...
FRANK: ...Even for us. But there was a little corner of the lobby, this little nook, and there was a chess board set up there. And Steven Meizler, the cinematographer, would always bring his RED camera. And he was taking a still with the camera. And we were using these large format lenses. And he was taking a still of this chess board with this arm chair in the background. And as he took the picture, a little girl in a little yellow dress ran by - blurry. And it's an amazing photograph. And if I showed it to you, you would say, oh, yeah, that's the show.
VENUGOPAL: There's a nice exchange towards the end of the series between Beth and her friend Jolene. Jolene is Black and is one of the few people in Beth's life who isn't white and doesn't navigate the rarefied world of competitive chess. And they formed a bond as kids in the orphanage. But this scene is set later on when they're grown up and have reconnected. Beth needs money to travel to Moscow for the Moscow Invitational. And she's broke, so Jolene very generously offers to lend her the cash. And Beth is touched. Let's hear that.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT”)
TAYLOR-JOY: (As Beth Harmon) You're, like, my guardian angel.
MOSES INGRAM: (As Jolene) For crying out loud. Hey, Beth. [Expletive] you. Shaibel isn't the only one who kept after you all these years. I know how you lost to Benny Watts in Vegas and then beat him in Ohio. I read the papers. Even on a group trip into town, I spent my ice cream money on a damn chess magazine had your ugly face on it.
For a time, I was all you had. And for a time, you was all I had. We weren't orphans, not as long as we had each other. You understand what I'm saying? I'm not your guardian angel. I'm not here to save you. Hell, I can barely save me. I'm here because you need me to be here. That's what family does. It's what we are. Someday I might need you. It's doubtful, but you never know. But if I do, you'll come, won't you?
TAYLOR-JOY: (As Beth Harmon) I might.
VENUGOPAL: Scott, the Black savior, or the magical Negro, is a pretty well-established trope in American fiction. Did it come up as you were writing these scenes?
FRANK: Sure. And, you know, and a lot of people have bumped on that scene and bumped on Jolene as a character for exactly that reason. And I understand it, but I really thought I was writing against it, believe it or not, because I want to Jolene to come back. I just did. And she comes back in the novel, and she's actually much more of the savior character in the novel than she is here. They - you know, she really helps her liquor addiction and so on and so forth.
But I thought it would be ironic if, in the limited series, if she comes back but she's super successful (laughter). She's sort of lived her own life. And they've gone off, and they were both - you know, they started life - she was never her guardian at the orphanage so much as she kind of taught her how to hide the pills. She taught her - you know, kind of was just sort of a big sister to her more than anything there. For a long time, they were both, you know, lifers, as Jolene called it.
And I just really - I missed her, and I wanted her to come back. And I want her to be a part of the story when she did. But I was well aware that I was going to get in trouble for that. But I love the character, and I thought it's what she would do. And she's not a device. She's - I don't feel like she's a device. I feel like she comes back. And she comes back originally because Mr. Shaibel died, and she's going to go to the funeral. And she sees that Beth has completely wrecked her life, and they have a conversation about it. And then Beth goes to the funeral and goes into the basement and sees that she's also not appreciated fully what Mr. Shaibel did for her. And she falls apart.
And even in that scene where she falls apart with Jolene, I had had her say and shot her saying, help me. And I cut it. I took it out because we didn't need it. And maybe I kind of failed. And I wrote that whole speech about them being sisters, them being family, them - because that's what they were. And so I really thought I was working on the family you choose, which is kind of a favorite theme of mine. But, you know, some say that I fell into the same old trap, but I'm happy with it. I really like it that way, the way it is.
VENUGOPAL: Can you imagine a second season of "The Queen's Gambit?"
FRANK: Not without ruining the first season. I don't know what that would be. I really felt like this was a complete story, and I liked the way this ended. It just felt really good. I'm worried that by getting concrete in sort of the next chapter of her life, it kind of takes away what - for me, at least - was so lovely about this story.
VENUGOPAL: You wrote the screenplay for the Steven Soderbergh comedy "Out Of Sight," and it earned you an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. It stars Jennifer Lopez as a U.S. marshal. George Clooney is a bank robber she's trying to catch and who, against her better judgment, she's falling for. It also has all these other stars like Ving Rhames, Don Cheadle. The chemistry between J-Lo and George Clooney really pops. It's funny, but you said it didn't do nearly as well as you maybe expected it to. Do you think there's any rhyme or reason to why movies or series click with the public or don't?
FRANK: Well, I think you're talking about then versus now (laughter) because it's very different.
VENUGOPAL: That was the late '90s. Yeah, sure.
FRANK: Yeah. In the '90s, we came out - we - I think it was just not why people went to the movies. And I remember "Armageddon" came out the following Wednesday and did more in its opening four or five days than it did - than we did in our entire theatrical worldwide run. So - and people really - I remember sitting in a theater with my folks, actually, and watching - you know, we'd gone to the movies, and the trailers came up for what was coming out. And "Out Of Sight" was plunked among all these other giant movies and things like that. And I remember when the "Out Of Sight" trailer finished, the person directly behind us said, rental.
FRANK: And yeah. And it wasn't - you know, I was with my parents, which really hurt. But it was true, and they were right. They were prophetic. That's what it was. It was a rental. So you just don't know. And I think it's very hard to tell what's going to connect with people. I think now movies have become more - movies in theaters have become more about spectacle - you know, people in capes and sort of broader, bigger, more expensive, a reason to kind of get out of the house to go see for the most part. And streamers are showing more of the kind of adult genres.
And, you know, it's been - we've had these weird historical things. You know, television was a different thing in the '60s. And so to compete with "Green Acres" and "The Beverly Hillbillies" and shows that were doing so well and just eating the lunch of the movie studios, movies just became more adult and more provocative starting in the late '60s. And you had a run of brilliant movies until "Star Wars." And, you know, maybe "Raging Bull," I think, is kind of the watershed last sort of, you know, kind of brilliant American movie of that period before everybody began chasing "Star Wars" and chasing, you know, the 100 million mark then. Now it's the billion mark now.
But it was - it changed everything. And they were competing with television. Now it's the opposite. Now movies have become sort of the "Green Acres" and "Beverly Hillbillies," and television has become where you go for adult, provocative entertainment for the most part. And it's changing every day. It's very hard to know. I certainly don't know, you know, what's going to happen with theaters or whether or not people are going to go. I don't go as much anymore.
And when I made "Godless," I remember I was mortified if anybody didn't watch it on at least a big-screen TV. And now I'm really kind of agnostic as to how people see things as long as they see them. I don't know that we can control that anymore. And my kids - my three kids watch everything on their laptop, everything sitting in bed on their laptop.
VENUGOPAL: Scott Frank, thanks so much for joining us today.
FRANK: Thank you for having me. What a pleasure.
GROSS: Scott Frank is co-creator, director and executive producer of the Netflix limited series "The Queen's Gambit." He spoke with FRESH AIR guest interviewer Arun Venugopal. Arun is a host and senior producer in the Race and Justice Unit at WNYC in New York. Check out his recent piece in The Atlantic called "The Truth Behind Indian American Exceptionalism." After we take a short break, John Powers will review "Elizabeth Is Missing," a new television film on PBS' "Masterpiece." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF KEVIN EUBANKS' "POET")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new psychological thriller "Elizabeth Is Missing" stars Glenda Jackson making her first TV appearance in nearly three decades. In the film, she plays a woman with Alzheimer's trying to track down a missing friend. It airs on PBS' "Masterpiece" on Sunday. Our critic-at-large John Powers says it's worth seeing simply for Jackson alone.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Although growing old is the most common of experiences, there are surprisingly few good films about old age, maybe because there's no audience. The young are too busy being young to be interested in those with gray hair. As for people over 50 - at least the ones I know - they shudder at the thought of watching comedies about cute bucket listers or dramas where the aged spend their days grappling with disease, death and loss.
My own heart sank when I first heard about "Elizabeth Is Missing," a new television film on PBS' "Masterpiece" that stars Glenda Jackson as a woman battling dementia. Even when a hypercritical London friend told me I should watch, I remember thinking, sure, if I live to be a million. But somehow, I wound up with time on my hands. And guess what? "Elizabeth Is Missing" was not what I feared.
Based on a novel by Emma Healey, this BBC production is a strangely cockeyed psychological thriller, a disease-of-the-week movie crossed with "Memento." Jackson plays Maud, a proud woman whose grasp of reality is slipping away. Post-it notes line her walls and pockets to remind her of everything. If she feels bound to anyone, it's her friend Elizabeth, with whom she likes to garden.
One day, Elizabeth doesn't turn up for their meeting at the local thrift shop. Maud is beside herself. Elizabeth has vanished, yet no one else seems fussed by this - not Maud's beleaguered daughter, Helen, who looks after her mum and gets little kindness in return; not the local police; not even Elizabeth's son, whose dark nature scared his mother.
As Maud tries to trace Elizabeth's movements, she plunges down the rabbit hole of memory. She keeps recalling - no, make that reliving - the great trauma of her teenage years, the unexplained disappearance of her stylish older sister Sukey. As these two time periods merge in her head, Maud must solve two mysteries - what happened to Sukey decades ago, and what has happened to Elizabeth now? Meanwhile, she keeps forgetting the basic facts of everyday life and then pretending she hasn't. Here, after Elizabeth has missed their rendezvous, Maud walks into the Salvation Army store where she'd once worked.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “ELIZABETH IS MISSING”)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Oh, Maud. It's you. Hello.
GLENDA JACKSON: (As Maud) I've been outside for ages waiting on Elizabeth. She's late.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) You sure you've got the right time?
JACKSON: (As Maud) What time is it?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Twenty past 10.
(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER RUSTLING)
JACKSON: (As Maud) Elizabeth, 10 o'clock - Sally Army. She's late, and she's never late.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Where are you going?
JACKSON: (As Maud) I was going to make a cup of tea while I'm waiting.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Now, Maud, I thought we decided you weren't to do that. You don't work here anymore. Remember?
JACKSON: (As Maud) Oh, of course I remember.
POWERS: Of course, she doesn't remember. Now, while it's terrible to have Alzheimer's, if you're an older actor, it's great to play. When you're young, you can do Hamlet or Hedda Gabler or Blanche DuBois. But aside from King Lear - whom Jackson actually played on stage in 2019 - most roles for the old aren't very juicy or challenging. Playing dementia is. You get to inhabit blurring layers of consciousness, get to slide from warmth to abusiveness to humor at warp speed, and you get to register how it feels to have reality suddenly drop away beneath you like a trapdoor.
Jackson's performance, which has already won the International Emmy and a BAFTA award, elevates the film. With her trudging walk and features that veer between slack confusion and ferocious certainty - flinty impatience is a Jackson trademark - her Maud has none of the decorous radiance that Julie Christie and Julianne Moore brought to their dementia films. Instead, like Anthony Hopkins' scorching turn in the upcoming film "The Father," the 84-year-old actress gives us a lost soul who, in trying to stay afloat in reality, becomes an exhausting, sometimes cruel burden. Both victim and victimizer, she hurts her daughter and everyone else who loves her.
What stops the show from being punishing is that Maud's dementia isn't the only story. "Elizabeth Is Missing" doesn't wallow in misery. Approaching dementia on the angle, it lets us see Maud's unlikely heroism as she struggles against her own declining faculties to find out the truth. It keeps us guessing about the fate of the missing women who haunt Maud's mind. And it makes us wonder if everything will tie together in the end.
The whole story does tie together - in truth, far too neatly. Yet I didn't mind, for such closure feels positively merciful. You see; the great thing about a mystery story is that you can solve its puzzle. With dementia, there's no solution.
GROSS: John Powers reviewed "Elizabeth Is Missing," which airs Sunday on PBS. After we take a short break, Clint Smith will read his poem about growing up and walking down streets named after Confederate generals. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL FREEDMAN'S "LOVE TAKES TIME")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. As 2020 comes to an end, we ask Clint Smith what he's thinking about as he looks back at this year. He's a staff writer at The Atlantic. His book of poems "Counting Descent" won the 2017 literary award for Best Poetry Book from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. His forthcoming book "How The Word Is Passed" explores how different sites across the country reckon with or fail to reckon with their relationship to the history of slavery. Here's Clint.
CLINT SMITH: Obviously, a lot has happened this year. But what's top of mind for me as we end 2020 is the sort of racial reckoning that this country has experienced over the last several months and really over the last several years, both since George Floyd was killed and since Black Lives Matter has begun. And within that is this interrogation of Confederate monuments and memorials and statues. And should they be taken down? Should they stay up?
And in 2017 in my hometown in New Orleans, we removed several statues and memorials of Confederates, including Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard. And those statues were taken down. And I began thinking about, what does it mean that I grew up in this city, you know, where there are names of hundreds of people who were Confederates or owned enslaved people that sort of ornament the iconography of the place I grew up, in this majority Black city? And what does it mean that we have a city that, in many ways, honored and memorialized enslavers more than it did the enslaved?
So I began thinking of that and thinking about how different places across the country, including my own hometown - to what extent are these places being honest about their relationship to this history, and to what extent are they hiding from it? And this ultimately became the book that I've written that comes out next year, which is a narrative nonfiction book. But with me, all things begin in poetry. And, you know, that's how I was trained as a writer. And so while the book is a narrative nonfiction project, the poems are the things that help me ask the questions. And so I wanted to share a poem that I wrote. And I've been writing, in many ways, for the last few years that served as a sort of entry point to this interrogation because we can take down these monuments, but if we don't address what led the monuments to be put up in the first place, then we're not actually solving the issue.
(Reading) Growing up, the iconography of the Confederacy was an ever-present fixture of my daily life. Every day on the way to school, I passed a statue of P.G.T. Beauregard riding on horseback, his Confederate uniform slung over his shoulder and his military cap pulled far down over his eyes. As a child, I did not know who P.G.T. Beauregard was. I did not know he was the man who ordered the first attack that opened the Civil War. I did not know he was one of the architects who designed the Confederate national flag. I did not know he led an army predicated on maintaining the institution of slavery. What I knew is that he looked like so many of the other statues that ornamented the edges of this city, these copper garlands of a past that saw truth as something that should be buried underground and silenced by the soil.
After the war, the sons and daughters of the Confederacy reshaped the contours of treason into something they could name as honorable. They called it the Lost Cause, and it crept its way into textbooks that attempted to cover up a crime that was still unfolding. They told us that Robert E. Lee was an honest man, guilty of nothing but fighting for the state and the people that he loved, that the Southern flag was about heritage and remembering those slain fighting to preserve their way of life. But, see; the thing about the Lost Cause is that it's only lost if you're not actually looking. The thing about heritage is that it's a word that also means I'm ignoring what we did to you.
I was taught the Civil War wasn't about slavery, but I was never taught how the declarations of Confederate secession had the promise of human bondage carved into its stone. I was taught that the war was about economics, but I was never taught that in 1860, the 4 million enslaved Black people were worth more than every bank, factory and railroad combined. I was taught that the Civil War was about states' rights, but I was never taught how the Fugitive Slave Act could care less about a border and spell Georgia and Massachusetts the exact same way. It's easy to look at a flag and call it heritage when you don't see the Black bodies buried behind it. It's easy to look at a statue and call it history when you ignore the laws written in its wake.
I come from a city abounding with statues of white men on pedestals and Black children playing beneath them, where we played trumpets and trombones to drown out the Dixie song that still whistled in the wind. In New Orleans, there are over a hundred schools, roads and buildings named for Confederates and slaveholders. Every day Black children walk into buildings named after people who never wanted them to be there.
Every time I return home, I drive on streets named for those who would have wanted me in chains. Go straight for two miles on Robert E. Lee. Take a left on Jefferson Davis. Make the first right on Claiborne. Translation - go straight for two miles on the general who slaughtered hundreds of Black soldiers who were trying to surrender. Take a left on the President of the Confederacy who made the torture of Black bodies the cornerstone of his new nation. Make the first right on the man who permitted the heads of rebelling slaves to be put on stakes and spread across the city in order to prevent the others from getting any ideas.
What name is there for this sort of violence? What do you call it when the road you walk on is named for those who imagined you under a noose? What do you call it when the roof over your head is named after people who would have wanted the bricks to crush you?
GROSS: Clint Smith is a staff writer at The Atlantic. He's the author of the poetry collection "Counting Descent" and the forthcoming narrative nonfiction book "How The Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With The History Of Slavery Across America." It's scheduled for publication next June.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll feature our interview with Stephen King about writing his horror story "The Stand" about a pandemic and now living through a pandemic. And we'll hear from Patrick Stewart. After playing Captain Jean-Luc Picard on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and in four movies, this year he starred in the series "Star Trek: Picard." I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineers today are Audrey and Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOMINIC MILLER'S "CHAOS THEORY")
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