Interview: James Napier Robertson on the Chess Drama “The Dark Horse”

Posted on April 14, 2016 at 3:42 pm

James Napier Robertson is an actor turned writer and director from New Zealand who played hundreds of chess games with the real-life champion who inspired his film, “The Dark Horse,” and with the actor who had to learn chess — and put on 60 pounds — to play the role, Cliff Curtis. In an interview, he talked about the late Genesis Potini, the Maori speed chess champion who struggled with bipolar disorder and worked with underprivileged children, teaching them chess and a lot more.

Robertson said he considers himself “fortunate” to be a chess player. “I think it depends who the teacher is who is bringing chess to you that decides how revolutionary it might be. And I think with Genesis that was one of the things that I was immediately drawn to — his ability to take a game that normally you would think could be quite esoteric and sort of boring almost to people everyone else had kind of written off and thought that they are not going to be academic let alone interested in something like chess. He would make them love it and get excited about it and kind of open up the personality of the game and of the characters within the game. So I think that that’s what’s exciting about it for me, particularly in the way that Gen could weave his magic within it as well.”

He first saw Genesis Potini in a documentary, “and I was immediately struck by this guy, this incredible character and how intelligent and articulate and sort of philosophical he was but also how there were contradictions to his complexities and the eccentricities. So I immediately went and met with Gen and as soon as I walked into his house he was standing there in pink crocs like the character is wearing in the movie and tights and he had some nunchucks and he did like a nunchuck dance thing for myself and Tom, the producer. Of course we just sort of stood there stunned like, what do you say? And then I sat down across the chess board with him and we played a game of chess and I managed to lose but lose gracefully and hang in there long enough that I think it kind of opened up a modicum of respect for me from him that I appreciated the game and that I wasn’t kind of a tourist in that regard. I actually cared about what he cared about. We played hundreds of games of chess, hundreds and hundreds and we just talked. We talked all about his life and his experiences and things that had happened to him and in the meanwhile I started putting together a screenplay.”

Potini was taught by Ewan Green, a New Zealand master, who then taught Curtis to play for the film. “So there was a beautiful kind of symmetry. Me and Cliff still play fiercely to this day. Just two days ago we had another few games and he wanted me to very proudly state that he won the most recent one. It really depends on the day that you ask that, who is currently on top.”

Although Curtis is probably the internationally best-known actor from New Zealand and, like Potini, is Maori, Robertson did not initially consider him for the role. “I hadn’t thought of Cliff really because as talented as he is he is a slim, good-looking guy and Gen, the real Gen that I knew was a big guy with bad teeth and funny haircuts and so it just seems like such an incredible leap. Cliff actually got given the script by an actor that we were looking at for a different role in the film. And so Cliff got in touch with us and we started talking on the phone a lot for days and days and days just discussing the possibilities. And then really in the end for me it came down to two things that I felt he would need to do: one was put the weight on and the second one was to method act the role, to stay in character for the entirety of the shoot. And he thought those were both completely insane ideas and there’s no way he was going to do them and fair enough, but in the end I think I just kind of wore him down and he eventually saw the light in that sense and so he put on close to 60 pounds in a little over 6 to 8 weeks, a lot of milkshakes and a lot of beer. He read that the beer was a very good way to quickly fatten the body up and he stayed in character for the whole of the shoot. Once we were shooting, there was no Cliff Curtis there was only Genesis, he would stay and wear the clothes all the time. There were some mornings I showed up on set at 5:30 in the morning and my first ID told me Cliff’s already here, he’s been here half an hour before everyone because he’s been wandering the streets all night and he just walked to where we are shooting. So the commitment from that man is remarkable. Once he got his head around it he was in.

Copyright Broad Green 2016
Copyright Broad Green 2016

The film is wisely very frank about the realities of both mental illness and the poverty and violence of Potini’s community. “A lot of the exploration of that in the film came initially from my conversations with Gen and really discussing in-depth, as much depth as he was comfortable discussing, his own experiences, also talking closely to his family and friends about things that Gen had gone through in the past. I did an immense amount of research and very kind of respectful study into particularly what the more extreme aspects of bipolar can be. We all to a lesser or greater degree can relate to the ups and downs of bipolar disorder. Often the temptation for a film is to take something like that and then manipulate it to kind of help a narrative to tell the story in the way they want. Right from the beginning that was something I was never prepared to do. I always made it very clear and drew a line in the sand with that that the film will be an honest, respectful but unflinching look at what that really feels like and what that’s really like for someone to go through. It was important that the film not try and disingenuously portray that there’s some sort of happy ending cure to that, that in a way if we win a tournament or if we achieve our goals in life somehow that fixes all or problems because it doesn’t and that’s not how life works. And that was something that I had to really fight for because obviously in order to make a movie you need a lot of money and with that comes very strong opinions on what will work and what won’t work and what people might want to see versus what people might be put off. I know there was a lot of fear that the film’s honesty in that way might be too much for people to put up with. So I had to really kind of go on a bat for that and say that I firmly believe that people will be far more connected and moved by something that feels like a respectful and truthful depiction rather than something that’s manipulative.”

The children in the movie were not professional actors. “These kids come from backgrounds pretty similar to the characters they were portraying in the film. One of the things was finding it hard to limit how many of kids we had because there were so many incredible kids that we found out there. I feel extremely lucky that we got the kids that we did in the film but some of them like the boy that plays Murray, there was no Murray in the script but my casting director, Yvette, she was like “You’ve got to see this kid he’s just like the most amazing kid you’ve ever seen”. So I watched a clip of him and I was immediately like ‘He’s got to be in the movie.'”

Because the kids were not trained actors, Robertson drew on his own background as an actor to make them comfortable. “It’s pretty intimidating on the set. There’s all these cameras and lights and they’ve never been near anything like this before in their lives. We played a game. I told them, we were going to play a game and they would all pretend to be the characters the whole time. It was funny because about three weeks into the shoot when they had known each other two months I walked past and heard one of the girls lean over one of the boys and say, ‘What’s your real name?’ So they really took this game to heart.”

As for the Maori community, “To be honest, they have just been the most incredible supporters of it. If they weren’t it wouldn’t have been possible because again it was so crucial that it was an authentic portrayal and if it wasn’t people would know that, the real people would know that and they would hate it for that. So again I was always conscious of the fact that this has to be a film that not only can feel honest to people that watch who don’t know anything about this kind of community or the situation but has to feel utterly honest for people. And one of the things with gangs for example is I’ve seen quite a few films and really great films, really, really stunning films but the way the gangs in New Zealand or elsewhere can be portrayed in an almost sort of romantic sense or in a kind of action sense where they are all muscular, oiled up and doing kung fu kicks and fighting and they look badass and it’s all really cool. But that’s not what gangs are really like. There’s a lot of sitting around, there’s a lot of nothing to do, there’s a lot of bad health because of choices made. It’s more of a sad environment and that is what I wanted it to be in the film. I didn’t want it to feel like another version of the action hero gang members; I wanted it to be realistic and that ultimately brought a lot of support. Most of the guys in the gang roles in the film are gang members or ex-gang members and sometimes from different gangs. I was scared because you can’t have these guys from different gangs on the set at the same time, because they normally want to kill each other but the truth of the film was something they really responded to and wanted the story to be told so that so they wanted to be part of it, so it kind of brought them together. And the actor who plays Ariki, the brother in the film, had never acted before in his life, this is the first role he had ever done, he was actually in one of New Zealand’s worst gangs for 15 years and he left because he saw his own son wanted to follow in his footsteps. So for a lot of these guys that are in the film they saw the movie as an opportunity to try and show the young men coming up, this isn’t what you think it is. Like there is a truth to the gang lifestyle that’s hard for them to try and explain but maybe the movie can show. I didn’t want actors that sort of come in and pretend and portray and then leave to a completely different life. I wanted the real people.”

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