Interviews Apr 15, 2015 | 12:00 AMby chess24 staff

Interview with "Le Tournoi" director Elodie Namer

In two weeks' time the French film "Le Tournoi" (The Tournament) will hit cinema screens. It features a brilliant central character with more than a hint of Magnus Carlsen about him and a bit part for Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. In an exclusive interview with chess24 contributor WIM Mathilde Congiu, the director, Elodie Namer, explains why she made the film and how the actors took up and got hooked on chess in the process.

Hi Elodie! First of all, congratulations on your film “Le Tournoi" (The Tournament), which is going to hit cinemas on 29 April 2015. Could you tell us a bit about yourself?   

Thanks! I’m French and I’m 36 years old. I was a journalist for eight years and then I became a TV screenwriter. Le Tournoi is the first feature-length film I’ve written and produced!

And could you tell us a little about the film’s plot…

A seven-day tournament in a big hotel in Budapest. The favourite, Cal Fournier, is 22 years old, French Chess Champion and an immature genius programmed to win, who shows impressive dominance over his opponents. Detached from the real world, Cal is lost in the game and constant gambling with his girlfriend Lou and his cronies Aurélien, Anthony and Mathieu. But then an opponent like no other comes along and puts an end to that well-oiled routine...

Michelangelo Passaniti plays the leading role in "Le Tournoi"

How did you get the idea of making a film about chess?

I met chess players and I was immediately fascinated by their intelligence: seeing a player give a blindfold simul, when you’re new to it, is truly amazing – there’s something magical about it! And, privately, I fell in love with the tribe of players, their habit of fighting mercilessly for hours and then all going out together to party, their values, their world and the atmosphere that reigns during a tournament. That’s why I tried to capture it on screen. In order to write the film I studied intensively for six months, then I started to play in tournaments, I met with grandmasters that I followed there and all in all I spent a year and a half immersed in that world!

I’m very curious: how does the production of a film work? I guess that first of all you write a screenplay? But then… what are the stages involved in making a film, from A to Z?

Making a film is like waging a war! After writing the script I found my producer, Lola Gans. She took care of convincing people to invest in the film so we could make it. Then there’s the preparation, casting and so on… Then six weeks of filming, post production (editing, mixing etc.). And here we are preparing to release the film! Altogether I’ve worked full-time on the film for four years. It takes a lot of energy!

Weren't the producers concerned when they discovered it was a film about… chess? Or, on the contrary, did they show enthusiasm from the start?

Only a few people told me that chess was unfilmable, that it wasn’t visual enough. But I already had quite a few ideas about how to film the games in order to make them look convincing. Moreover, we got financing in just six months, while the average time required to fund a film is around 3-4 years! So in this case there was enthusiasm all round. 

The film's director, Elodie Namer

There are a lot of prejudices about chess players. Do you think your film can change that state of affairs and provide another image of chess and chess players?

That’s why I made it! You now need to ask that question to the first film-goers, but seeing discussion of the first premieres and the comments people have left on our Facebook page I think we’ve probably pulled it off! People have finally realised that chess and chess players are much more fun than they imagined.

How did you prepare the actors to step into the shoes of chess players?

All the actors took chess lessons before the film. I wanted to have perfect body language when there were games on screen. Michelangelo, who plays the main character, put a lot into it. He would play six hours a day for nine months and he played in tournaments with grandmasters… And in the end the goal was achieved, since all the players have said it’s impossible to guess that the people in the film aren't genuine players! The whole team caught the bug: Aliocha Schneider, who plays Anthony, has become passionate about it, as has Michelangelo and many of the film technicians. We now regularly have chess evenings among ourselves!

We discovered from teasers that Fabien Libiszewski is one of the lead actors in the film. What’s his role? How did you find his performance as an actor?

Fabien plays one of the hero’s best friends. He’s just great, a born actor - all the professional actors were jealous of his innate talent and the non-players never imagined for a second that he wasn’t an actor by trade!

So is he a better actor or a chess player?

Frankly, he has a real gift for cinema, he’s truly impressive. So I think he’s just as good at both.

As well as Fabien, we see Maxime Vachier-Lagrave in the first teaser. Are there any other famous chess players in the film?

No-one quite like that, but I insisted all the players featured were licensed. It would have been impossible to teach everyone how to move the pieces correctly. So the 250 featured are all real tournament players, but of different levels!

You can see Grandmaster Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, second from the left, during a blindfold simul

Tell the truth: are actors as crazy as chess players? 

No! Chess players are definitely on top.

Do you play chess yourself? Are you passionate about it? Do you have a FIDE rating?

I’m passionate about it, but although the film gave me enormous motivation I haven’t really had time to take part in rated tournaments. I hope I’ll make up for lost time when the film is released!

What attracts you to this game and this peculiar world?

I think it’s the most beautiful game in the world. I like the feeling of being at a tournament, when I have the impression of belonging to a family. In a tournament you can face a child or an old man, a beggar or a millionaire, a foreigner or a Frenchman, but those differences don’t matter at the chessboard. Everyone is equal, connected by the same passion. And I find that wonderful. 

The main character faces a young prodigy...

Who are your favourite male and female chess players? 

I like the attitude, charisma and modernity of Magnus Carlsen, who’s helping to modernise the image of the game. On the chessboard, though, he has a style which I like less than the Romantics, like Morphy, Fischer, Alekhine… People who sacrificed everything, who looked to give a quick mate and were much more spectacular to watch! Today that type of play doesn’t really exist anymore due to computers, but for my amateur level the most beautiful games I’ve seen date from that period.

My favourite female player… Judit Polgar. Not for her style of play, which I don’t know, but for her feminist approach of not wanting to play women’s championships and instead playing only mixed events – I find that bold and beautiful.

Have you made other films before this one? Do you have other films planned?

No, it’s my first film. I haven’t begun to work on my second since Le Tournoi takes up all my time at the moment.

Any last words for chess24 readers?

It’s a first film, on a budget, with no casting and produced with a passion for the game of chess. We won’t have money to do a lot of advertising and the film won’t be able to exist without word of mouth and social media. So we really need all of you, chess players, to talk about it, on Twitter, Facebook and, above all, on Allocine, which people read a lot… We need you to create a buzz, so feel free to give us a little boost! 

Thank you, Elodie, and we wish you all the best with your film!

Thank you!

WIM Mathilde Congiu

Mathilde is a member of the French Olympiad team, with a very lively and dynamic style of play. She studied Town Planning, speaks four languages and currently lives in Madrid | photo: David Llada

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