Chess is such a mental game. How do you make it feel suspenseful and dramatic onscreen?
I was interested in having our movie structured like a sports movie. It was our job to wrap people up in the stakes of the game and what’s going on with the characters. Bobby said in one interview, “I like the moment when I break a man’s ego.” Ultimately, there’s a point when the person knows they’re going to win or lose. Bobby liked that unraveling.
That’s unusual–most people don’t think of chess as a sport.
Somebody just referenced this movie as a western–a standoff between Bobby Fischer and [his Soviet opponent] Boris Spassky. I never thought of it as a western! You can interpret each story in different ways.
The film depicts Bobby’s dark side–his paranoia, his rage–some of which comes from struggles with mental health. Did you find anything admirable about him?
He had a tremendous work ethic. He had a good sense of humor. He changed the relationship the public had with chess. He came out of this era when we were celebrating counterculture celebrities, and [becoming] that antihero is fascinating and kind of fun, in a way.
Bobby started playing chess at an early age. What were you obsessed with as a kid?
Well, I liked the Beatles a lot! I don’t have anything that I continued with. I switched off between Lincoln Logs, Legos and the Beatles.
So you’re not dreaming about Lincoln Logs the way Bobby dreams of chess pieces in this movie?
Definitely not! Although I think they’re pretty cool.
This appears in the September 21, 2015 issue of TIME.