Netflix delivered a stylish tour through the world of international chess this fall with its Cold War-era miniseries The Queen’s Gambit, receiving lavish praise for its portrayal of fictional grandmaster Elizabeth Harmon’s rise to world champion. Adapted from Walter Tevis’s novel and written and directed by Scott Frank, The Queen’s Gambit has raised the bar for prestige television with a top-notch screenplay, gorgeous cinematography by Steven Meizler, and deft editing that helped explain the complex game to viewers while delivering a compelling dramatic experience.
Known for her work on Netflix’s Emmy-nominated series When They See Us and Godless, Michelle Tesoro, ACE, has a long list of credits that also includes Focus Features’ biography of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg On the Basis of Sex, Golden Globe-nominated show House of Cards, and HBO series The Newsroom.
Tesoro discusses her approach to editing The Queen’s Gambit and her ongoing collaboration with Frank in an interview with Jackson McHenry for Vulture. “When I started the project, Scott was like, ‘Here’s a bunch of films I don’t want it to be like.’ Which was, obviously, all the films that are already out there. He didn’t want it to be like anything else,” she said. McHenry writes:
“So as Tesoro cut the many different chess sequences in the show together, she tried to experiment with alternate ways of conveying what happens in different matches. In some, the focus stays on the competitor’s faces, or on the time elapsing on the clock. In others, the focus is on the movement on the pieces over the board. In one tournament in Paris, when Beth is hungover, the pieces slide around in what she dubbed a ‘Gumby’ effect. In a competition in Ohio, Beth and a rival rise through the ranks in split screens, an effect Tesoro borrowed from the 1971 film Le Mans (‘and then when I watched JoJo Rabbit, I was like, goddammit, they used the same thing’).”
One of Tesoro’s biggest challenges editing The Queen’s Gambit was setting a pace for the multitude of chess games featured in each episode in a way that would help support the storyline. “At the heart of The Queen’s Gambit, Beth’s growing chess fortunes are twinned with her coming of age. Initially regarded askance by the nerds of the chess world, these boys become friends, mentors, and lovers. No two of her matches with them are alike,” Susannah Edelbaum observes in her interview with Tesoro for the Motion Picture Association’s The Credits. “From inception to execution it was always thought of as, how can we do this differently every time?” Tesoro says in the interview, which goes on to explain:
“By the time she reaches her apex of competition, we’re as steeped in Queen’s gambits and Sicilian defenses as we are in how much a win here means to Beth in every fiber of her being. Compared to all her games leading to this moment, the most important match of all is almost stately in its straightforwardness. ‘I feel in a lot of ways that the work we did prior to that scene set you up to be in that place, to be emotionally moved,’ says Tesoro. The moment, everything we’ve come to expect from Beth and her chief Soviet opponent, Borgov, earns its clarity through all the hard work that came before.”
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Want more? Listen to this interview on The Rough Cut podcast, where Tesoro discusses topics ranging from compressing time while keeping the emotional beats and developing discrete visual styles for the different chess matches to cutting dialogue that’s purposefully hard to hear and working within a “oner:”
In the video below, The Rough Cut provides a walk through Tesoro’s various Avid Media Composer timelines and settings to explain her editorial process for The Queen’s Gambit:
In July, The Queen’s Gambit earned an impressive 18 Emmy nominations, including for outstanding limited or anthology series, lead actress for Anya Taylor-Joy, and a slew of Creative Arts categories. Editor Michelle Tesoro, sound designer Wylie Stateman and composer Carlos Rafael Rivera, all of whom received nominations, were featured in a new episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s “Behind the Screen” podcast series:
Finally, in “How ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Editor Michelle Tesoro Became So Versatile In Cutting Prestige TV,” the No Film School podcast examines Tesoro’s career working with A-list showrunners and directors within both film and television, including Michael Mann, David Fincher, Ava DuVernay, Mimi Leder, and David Milch.