INTERVIEW: ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ composer Carlos Rafael Rivera
The Queen’s Gambit, a new 7-part Scott Frank mini-series starts on Netflix on October 23 2020. It is set in the 1960s and follows Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) – an orphan and child chess prodigy – as she starts to compete at chess tournaments in the US and then internationally.
I spoke with Carlos Rafael Rivera about scoring the music for the show; including being Scott Frank’s guitar teacher, crying when he saw the finale and making a ‘seven hour movie.’
How did you get involved with the project and why did you want to be involved?
Well, it comes from the fact that I’ve known Scott Frank for 17 years now. I was his guitar teacher almost 20 years ago. I was getting my doctorate degree at the University of Southern California and I was doing extra jobs involved with music. So I put an ad out and he picked my name out of a book and I went to teach him lessons. I had no idea that he was a writer, I was up in his office and I saw these posters for Minority Report, Out of Sight, Dead Again and Little Man Tate and I was like “these are awesome…so what do you do?” and he said “I wrote them” and I said “are you kidding me?!” and I had kind of like a fan moment and then I realised that I was maybe fanning out too much for day one of lessons. So, I started teaching him guitar.
But it became an unassuming relationship, where I happened to be teaching a very famous Hollywood writer. Over the course of the years, he became a director. He directed his first movie called The Lookout and he used a composer called James Newton Howard. I told him “I’m going to prepare you, so you can talk to the composer because it’s really important to know how to communicate with them” but I never assumed that I would ever have an opportunity to work with him because he was a Hollywood person and I was a guitar teacher.
I mean, I was studying at USC, I was mentoring with Randy Newman, I was doing all of these things, but I was never one to take the step. I didn’t say “hey can you hook me up?” I’ve never been fond of people who do that and I felt that the opportunistic thing would have killed the relationship that we had. We really did have a good musical relationship, I loved his taste in music and I did feel that I was helping him understand more than just the guitar, but more of a broader understanding of music.
[This is the longest answer I think I’ve ever given!]
He started to work on something else and he said “Carlos, you’ve been my guitar teacher for 5 or 6 years now and you’ve never once asked me to hook you up. But I know you’re doing the Randy Newman thing and I know you love movie music. Why haven’t you asked?” and I said “because it’s not my role” and he said “well I’m working on something now and I was wondering if you’d help me” And he gave me this opportunity out of nowhere, but that project never came to fruition.
I moved to Miami. I started teaching at the University of Miami and I find out that Scott was going to do A Walk Among the Tombstones with Liam Neeson. I wrote to him and said “if this is really happening, I’m going to be involved, even if it’s just the temp music. I’ll write the temporary music, as you’re putting the picture together and then you’ll get a professional composer.” He sent me the screenplay and I started writing music for the screenplay, he started playing that music for the producers and that’s how it happened.
Since then, we’ve always collaborated in this way. From early on, from the script stage, I’m writing music to what he’s written. So it became an unorthodox relationship, where I’m involved very much from the beginning of the process all the way through to the end. This (The Queen’s Gambit) was very much in line with it, but by now we’ve developed a shorthand.
Did you compose the closing titles theme for The Queen’s Gambit and what did you want to say with that particular piece?
Oh my gosh, that one was a thrill because I did write it early on, it was one of the first things I wrote. Two years ago, Scott reached out to me saying “it looks like this is the next project I’m doing for Netflix but I haven’t finished the screenplay” so I read the book by Walter Tevis. Beautiful story, it’s a good read. So I started writing music and then by December of that year, after the screenplay had been completed, I wrote the main title. It’s always not a sure thing, you kind of feel good about it, but the chances are that it’s going to have to change because by the time the picture is assembled, it may take on a different tone, it may not apply. As a matter of fact, for a few months, it looked like I would have to rewrite it, but the good news about the main title hanging on there is that it was kind of an overture.
I wanted to write a piece of music that would encapsulate many of the themes that Beth had encountered throughout the whole story. It’s almost like, I’m a big fan of culinary stuff and watch all these shows like Chef’s Table and they deconstruct meals. Because the title was always going to happen towards the end of the story, the idea is that you’re hearing all these little tidbits that start adding up to the main title holistically. And we finally hear it in her final game with Borgov. And when the main title happens, it’s an encapsulation of all of the musical elements that you’ve heard, leading to it.
How does the music evolve from the early episodes, where Beth is a child at the orphanage through to when she’s older and more confident?
It’s an interesting question because this is something that I’ve never even talked to Scott about. All of these things are kinda nerdy composer stuff that you’re working out yourself. I always had the idea of Beth starting off at the orphanage, she’s alone, she’s a misfit and her environment is born out of pain and grief and loss. It was cold to me, even the colours were cold and muted. And I felt like the piano and the cello were the main elements, the piano being the main one, that really was her reality.
However, when she plays chess in her head, it’s orchestral, it’s full. It’s brass and strings and wind as she’s envisioning these games. It’s almost like the thing you want to be, the dream, that is always fully formed in your head. And as we progress slowly through the episodes, each episode starts to add more orchestral elements, little by little. Until she goes to the USSR in the final episode, her reality is what she was seeing in the orphanage. The music is now completely orchestral and there is no piano to be found. That was always the goal and the ideal. I’m glad it played itself out in that way.
If I’d told Scott this, he’d probably have said “well, as long as the cues work!” so you’re always playing an internal game. That was my goal, so I’m glad it was able to happen. I’m glad you asked that question because it’s a nerdy answer but it worked out for me so I was super happy about that.
At the first local chess tournament that Beth goes to, in Kentucky, the music becomes much livelier and more dramatic at that point. How did you use music to make chess seem more like an exciting sport?
There were about 22 or 23 gameplay sequences that I had to do throughout the story and my initial thought was that I was going to come up with a template that would apply to all of them. I thought; “If I figure this out and just score the moves like some sort of ballet then that will work” but I kept getting revisions, Scott wasn’t happy and it just wasn’t working. So I started realising that the music I was going to have to write for each game was going to have to work contextually. “What was going on before this game? Is she having personal issues or is she just competing?” and depending on the tone and the setting, the music would play itself out.
So in Kentucky, the first time she’s actually playing, we actually start to hear that main title but in piano form and the next time we hear it is probably when she’s playing the young prodigy Georgi Girev (Louis Serkis), it’s a little more fleshed out and more orchestral and even more so when she plays Borgov.
What I didn’t expect, and this is maybe the answer to your question, is that I was scoring an underdog story. I read the book, I read the screenplay, but when we got to the final sequence and I was able to see it without music, I was like “oh my gosh, this is like Rocky!” And I couldn’t believe I was getting to do this. I cried, without the music, watching that sequence. It was so beautifully assembled. You have Michelle Tesoro’s great editing and Meizler’s cinematography and the acting, of course. It was one of those things where I was like “I get to do this scene!” It’s ten minutes long, it’s super long but it was a thrill to do.
Were you conscious of trying to use different flavours of music for different locations eg. Mexico or Paris?
One of the first things I did when I realised that we would be going to Paris. In the novel, I really liked how Walter Tevis wrote about Paris. Where Beth was at, she was starting to realise, she was becoming self-aware of what was happening in her life. And I thought “ooh Parisian music, you know?” And then for Mexico, I initially wrote music for Mexico that didn’t make it. What I realised was that instead of doing the tropes of what you would expect, I would introduce the colour, maybe the instruments that are associated with their cultural usage. The full orchestra belonged in the USSR because of its rich legacy of composers like Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky – all of these amazing Russian composers who really informed music. So, there’s a lot of oboe and bassoon, a lot of flute was happening in Paris, so it was more using orchestral colours to do it, rather than the tropes to inform where we were. If you hit it too on the nose, it feels cliche and it takes you out of the story. The whole joke is for the music not to be noticed, but for the scene to be felt.
[mild spoilers for Episode 7 of The Queen’s Gambit ahead]
You’ve touched on the final episode a few times now, which is set in Moscow. How did you ramp up the tension in the finale, especially when she starts to see the board on the ceiling in that final match with Borgov? Is that when you really felt you could let loose with the music?
Oh man, when I saw it for the first time, that’s the moment I cried. Because it works without music, that’s how well-made that scene is. I’m talking like a fan, someone who is like “why am I even working on this? it doesn’t even need music!” – that’s how I felt. But it truly was inspiring because the good thing about that assembly is that it was nearing the end and I had done a lot of the work, I mean two years of working on it, leading to this, all these little themes were there and I realised that I could show these themes fully matured.
That (ceiling) moment is actually a thematic aspect of Beth’s character that I wrote. It wasn’t really a Theme for Beth, because I didn’t write one, there was more a theme for her addiction or her genius or her being up to something, which I really dug. But for her development, there was a melodic idea that was [hums the melody]. Every time she’s training with Shaibel or with Benny, she’s growing and the growing music was this melody. So when she looks at the ceiling the music changes, it goes in the wrong direction and almost goes up instead of down and that’s the moment where I thought “oh my gosh, I think it’s working, I think it’s working!”
To press send on that piece must have been the most nerve-wracking moment because I felt so strongly about it that if Scott had said “no, it’s not working” I would have been heart-broken, but I would have had to go back and write something else. But the internal conversation was that all the elements are adding up to this but if I develop and it goes bigger and higher, instead of lower like it was before, we may get there. When I sent it and he came back with “oh this is great” I was like “YES!”
My final question is: what differences are there (if any) in scoring for TV and film?
I actually think that Scott does not think of it as television, he thinks of it as a seven hour movie. Same thing happened with Godless, he had this overall arc that was like “well I guess we’re going to have to end it here and this episode will have to start here” but he’s so crafted at what he does, he knows how to make those cuts, but it is an overall story.
But the good thing about it being a series, especially if it’s an adaptation, like this one, is to get to really flesh out some characters. You don’t have to edit or converge characters, usually in novels they’ll make two characters into one because it’s easier for the audience to digest in two hours. Here we have the whole breadth of getting to experience Beth’s journey and he even fleshed out some of her background that wasn’t necessarily even present in the novel. It was exciting for me to able to help support that background, the relationship with the Mother.
What is television anymore? It’s certainly not what I grew up with. I was watching things in the 70s that certainly felt episodic. There are limited series with the same titles but different content every year. It’s a weird time but it’s as exciting as anything.