Across the board

Across the board

By Michael Pickard
February 28, 2024


Director Yan England and producer Bruno Nahon reveal how Garry Kasparov’s famous chess battle with a supercomputer inspired Rematch, a six-part series that blends psychological thrills with sporting spectacle.

While humanity contemplates its relationship with ever-advancing artificial intelligence (AI), a similar battle played out over 25 years ago.

Bruno Nahon

In 1996, world chess champion Garry Kasparov faced off against an IBM supercomputer called Deep Blue in a battle between man and machine over six games. Kasparov, a chess grandmaster, won the duel in Philadelphia 4-2.

The following year saw Kasparov square off against Deep Blue again, this time in New York. But on this occasion, he was defeated 3½-2½, marking the first time a computer had beaten a reigning world chess champion under tournament conditions.

This historical battle is now the subject of a six-part event series called Rematch, which charts events leading up to the 1997 battle both on and off the chess board – an event followed around the world thanks to a brand-new global network called the internet.

Blending sports drama and psychological thriller, the series stars Christian Cooke (The Promise) as Kasparov, with Sarah Bolger, Trine Dyrholm, Aidan Quinn, Tom Austen, Luke Pasqualino and Orion Lee.

But as much as it tells the story of a momentous occasion, making the series has been a feat in itself.

The drama is produced by broadcaster Arte France and Bruno Nahon for Unité with Federation Studios, which is also handling international distribution. Filming took place in Montreal and Budapest, with a cast made up of UK and European talent helmed by Quebecois director Yan England (1:54, True North), who created the series with André Gulluni (Sam, The Sketch Artist).

Yan England

“It’s such an original and unique way to make this show, which comes from France and then travels through Canada and Quebec, and then goes to New York, being shot in various locations,” Nahon tells DQ. “This journey is really unique and may be the first time for France, and maybe in Europe.”

Some years before Netflix’s own chess series The Queen’s Gambit debuted in 2020, Nahon and England had been looking to work together for several years when they struck upon the idea for Rematch, after Nahon suggested a dramatisation of Kasparov’s match with Deep Blue might appeal to the director’s interest in sports and working with challenging material.

“That same day [we spoke], I was reading about all those events. I called him back and said, ‘Yes, this is it.’ So from this idea that Bruno had, we said, ‘OK, let’s shoot for it,’” England says.

England has been playing chess since he was a kid, “for fun,” and compares playing the game to a boxing match. “It’s dynamic, it’s psychological. It’s war on the chess board,” he says. “With Bruno, André, myself and my whole crew, we wanted to make this a real psychological thriller but also make it so people who don’t know anything about chess would still understand it. You don’t know how much it hurts when Rocky’s hitting someone, but you feel it. We thought, ‘We’ve got to feel exactly what it is like for the chess players on both sides, for Garry Kasparov and on the IBM side – what it feels like when there’s an important move, an important strategy, when it feels like the computer’s about to lose or Garry’s not confident.’ That was the whole dynamic.”

Rematch was pitched as a feature film but morphed into an event miniseries

But at the outset, the idea for Rematch was pitched as a feature film. After digging into the huge amount of material – podcasts, books, documentaries – about the real-life event and chess in general, England and Gulluni assembled a pitch document for a movie. “But Bruno said, ‘Guys, this is good but it’s so dense that we would have to sacrifice so much material for a feature. How about we turn it into an event miniseries?’” England recalls. “We took a moment, we talked for less than 24 hours and decided, ‘Let’s do that.’ That’s how it originated.”

The series recalls a period where technology was a hot topic, not just over the development of Deep Blue but in advance of potential Y2K issues that were predicted to leave huge systems powerless when the date rolled over into the year 2000.

“The whole world was scared for many weeks and months about what was going to happen on January 1, 2000. We were scared computers would stop working and planes would fall from the sky. And we realised at that moment how much we needed computers,” England continues. “That started with that 1997 event because this was human versus machine, which is pretty much the same thing happening right now in AI. Are we going to disappear? What’s going to happen?”

But the presence of a computer – a traditional monitor on stage suggesting which moves its human helper should make, an imposing computer tower covered with wires and twinkling lights backstage – playing Kasparov gave the creative team behind Rematch its greatest challenge: how to make a game that generally consists of two people moving wooden pieces across a board visually enticing to viewers.

Actor Christian Cooke had to learn chess to championship standard

“But at the end of the day, it’s always about characters,” Nahon says. “Once you have the cleverest, most intelligent man in this moment of history facing the most powerful computer, invented by great minds, you watch it because it’s totally fascinating, and that’s what you ask for from a show and characters. Not loving or hating them, just being fascinated by them. And these are fascinating characters.”

They include Kasparov himself, his mother Klara (Dyrholm), Deep Blue creator PC (Lee) and IBM’s Helen Brock (Bolger). But it was casting Kasparov in particular that was key to the series, and the production found the right actor in Cooke.

“When we met with Christian, he had that energy, that intensity, and the beauty of this great actor is there’s a fragility to the character,” England says. “Garry’s this human chess machine, but also he’s got his flaws, as you always want in any character, and Christian was a master of digging deep into this character and understanding it.”

England also praises the actor’s dedication to learning how to play chess like a pro. “We are dealing with probably the greatest chess player of all time, so chess-wise we better be amazing,” he explains. “One of the things I’ve always noticed when you watch a film or a series on sports is you can tell right away if some of the actors who are supposedly playing sportsmen or women are not great at it.

“We really wanted to have our actors play chess at that level, meaning the way you take a piece, because now, with YouTube, you see zillions of videos of matches, so we know visually how real chess players look, how they move pieces and how they respond to moves on the chess board.”

Kasparov isn’t the only grand master featured in Rematch, however. Tom Austen, who plays American Paul Nelson, like Cooke also had to play to championship standard. To help them, chess journalist Malcolm Pein joined the project as a consultant, while Hungarian national chess champion Gergely Antal was also on set every day to make sure the show looked as authentic as possible.

Cooke as Garry Kasparov and Trine Dyrholm as his mother Klara

“Kudos to our actors because they worked so hard. They’ve all dug so much into those characters and they were on set prepared and they knew their stuff,” England says. “We had rehearsed and worked together, but there was only one thing that mattered on set and that was to try to make the best show possible, and to be as truthful and emotionally present as possible. With these actors, I was the luckiest director on earth.”

While many people might remember Kasparov playing Deep Blue, England hopes they will be drawn to a story that blends emotional tension with sporting spectacle.

“One of the greatest things is people don’t necessarily remember who won, which is great for us,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, what happened in 1997 resonates with us right now. It resonates with the same questions we have right now [about technology] but on a different level. Newsweek called it ‘Garry Kasparov: The brain’s last stand.’ Can we face machines? Are we still better than machines?

“And every character has their journey. Women and men of various ages can connect on different levels with the journey of all of these characters and their families. If we are able to have everybody on the edge of their seat for six hours – that’s our main goal.”

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