The Queen's Gambit made its debut on Netflix over the weekend, and viewers have had a lot to talk about with regards to the limited series. The seven-episode run brings to life Walter Tevis' novel of the same name, chronicling the life of a young chess prodigy named Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy). The show tracks Beth's life from childhood in a Kentucky orphanage to worldwide acclaim on the chess circuit, all against the backdrop of the 1950s and 1960s. The end result turns into something genuinely engrossing, as it covers years of Beth's trauma, struggles with identity, and games of chess with electrifying ease.
There's a lot to love about the series, including its score, which is brought to life by Emmy-winning composer Carlos Rafael Rivera. Rivera, a prolific guitarist, has contributed his talents to multiple projects with The Queen's Gambit creator and director Scott Frank, including the 2014 film A Walk Among the Tombstones and the 2017 miniseries Godless.
In celebration of The Queen's Gambit's debut, ComicBook.com got a chance to talk to Rivera about is mesmerizing work on the series. We talked about the creative challenge of composing for individual chess sequences, his advice for aspiring composers, and what franchise he would love to contribute to.
ComicBook.com: Your work on this series is honestly incredible. What drew you to this project? I know you have a working relationship with Scott, but, I was wondering what drew you to this story in particular.
Carlos Rafael Rivera: I was drawn to it because of Scott. I got an email two years ago, in April of 2018 actually - oh my gosh, it's been two and a half years almost - and it was Scott saying, "This looks like the next thing we're going to be doing with Netflix." The subject line was the title, The Queen's Gambit, and he goes, "I'm working on the screenplay now and finishing it up." So I got the book, I downloaded it, I read it on my phone and that was it. I just immediately started working on it.
I love the question of "[What] drew you to it?" For me, it's "I'm getting to do this, and I get to work with someone like Scott Frank." It was an email and immediate work. I just started to work immediately.prevnext
What has it been like to work with Scott across multiple projects, and have your collaboration evolve?
He even mentioned it this time around -- I think we have a great shorthand. One of the things I'm a big fan of is the way in which he can be brutal with his comments, and it doesn't feel personal ever. It's because we have developed this relationship over the years. It's like when you have a friend and your friend tells you and calls you out on stuff, that sometimes not even family can call you out. Your friend says, "Listen, come on." You're like, "Okay. Okay. Fine. Fine." That's how it feels.
Even though it's really a professional relationship, there is no hanging out, and much less now in this time that we are in. But it's always been very much removed. I've always felt like once I start a project, I'm working to help his vision become real.prevnext
What was it like to compose for so many different time periods and different phases of Beth's life, but still try to have a cohesive musical through-line throughout?
That's a really good question. I initially [approached it like how] Scott thinks, where it's like a movie. He's not making an episodic show. He's actually telling one story that has to be cut up in episodes. Because of the novel, it's an ideal format to be able to make this a seven-episode [show], because you really get to get behind the characters. Actually, he was able to flesh out a little bit of Beth's backstory from what was in the original novel.
What I intended to do, ideally, was that Beth's story begins alone. There's despair, grief, loss, abandonment, alone in an orphanage and it's many grays and very subdued colors. Musically, I wanted to do something that started like in the color of a piano and the cello, small instruments. However, what she sees in her head is always orchestral, and big and grandiose. Every time she plays on the ceiling, the full orchestra is showing the dream that she has a right to get to.
Slowly, but surely, as the episodes move forward I started adding more colors of the orchestra to the piano, so that by the time we're in the final episode, her reality is the orchestra music. There is no piano left. Once she arrives at the championships, she is surrounded by just orchestral music. So the arc is almost a straight, long view.
That was the intention and to a certain degree, hopefully, I think I was able to pull it off. I never even ever talked about this to Scott. It's so funny that I'm even talking about it to you, in a sense, because this is really nerdy stuff. But, to me, it helps keep the story together. It is an arc that the music is helping tell through its own medium, to help you see her growth as a character.prevnext
From a musical standpoint, I found the chess sequences to be really interesting in and of themselves, as the show makes watching a game of chess way more epic and thematic than it would necessarily be in the real world. What was that like from a creative standpoint, of having to score the actual chess sequences?
Actually, thinking about it, I read that you mentioned [Rocky] in your review. It blew me away when I read that, because that's something that I had not even perceived until I saw the final scene [for the first time]. I read the book, I did all my homework, I did all this research of the time. All of the sudden, when I saw the final game assembled, I felt like I was watching Rudy or one of those [movies]. There's an underdog story, at the end of the day, and I never realized that. At the time, when I got the assembly, before I added music, it was compelling. I was moved to tears and I hadn't done my job yet.
I thought, initially, that I was going to come up with a system by which the music would work on every game. At some point, Scott called me and said, "Carlos, you're scoring the wrong movie," and that was really, really a wake-up call. I realized I'm going to have to write my way out of that situation. What I had originally thought was -- if I come up with a specific template for the games, it's going to work. Every time they play, this will happen. What am I scoring? Am I scoring the pieces that they're moving? Am I scoring the characters? How do you approach this? Plus, it's such a static game. It's two people sitting across from each other, "pushing wood" as they say in the show.
I really felt that the most important thing I was going to have to do, and what got me through it, was that every game - and I forget if there was about 14 or 15 that I had to score throughout - was going to have to be its own piece. Instead of concerning myself with this template idea, the context around which the chess game was happening is what informed what I had to do musically. If it's about her playing Benny, and the context around which that game is set up where she's really mad at the fact that he calls her out on a mistake she had made years ago, or whatever, that was going to be about Benny being the aggressor in the game. Without saying how that game ends, I realized that cue was going to have to be its own thing.
Sometimes it was just her playing, and then sometimes it's a relationship where she's falling in love, or falling in like, or waking up to the idea of romantic love, if you will. Depending on the game, the music had to work contextually.prevnext
What surprised you the most with working on The Queen's Gambit?
The fact that Scott chose it. He's such an incredible writer, and I think this is a challenge for anyone to pull off. To make a story about chess compelling to anyone. There's hopefully going to be a group of folks that will break down the games or get really into it, because there's a very, very, very large chess culture, those people that just love the game and play it and follow it, but it's not exclusive. It's an inclusive show where how it's played, how the [rules of the] game work is not relevant to your being able to follow that spark.
The fact that Scott was able to pull it off - forget my role or anybody else's - the fact that he had a vision and was able to see it through is awe-inspiring for me. I got to work with him and I was concerned when I started. I was like, "Why is he adapting this?" But, again, it's Walter Tevis, who is one of the great writers too. He pulled that off. Any answer regarding that kind of question is about my awe and kudos to Scott Frank.prevnext
Is there a sequence on The Queen's Gambit that you're most proud of? One that you can't believe you were able to pull off.
The main title that plays at the end credits after the whole show, it's called "The Main on End". That was one of the first things written. It was written in December of 2018. What my intention was was to have cool chefs at my chef's table. When you go to a nice culinary event, they have these deconstructed meals. They deconstruct a BLT and it's beautifully presented. I like the idea, also, of overtures in opera, where the beginning piece has all these little snippets of all the elements that you're going to be encountering musically in the opera. The idea of an overture or something like this felt very cool to do and try.
What I did was, I wrote this main title, and then I grabbed snippets of it. A little bit of it would be Borgov's theme. The intention was to have little moments where a victory kind of theme also played, a game theme. All these little things are part of this main title. What blew me away was the fact that the main title lasted in the production all the way to the end. There was a moment where the main title was going to have to be rewritten, because this is such a fluid process, where maybe it wasn't working, maybe it wasn't relevant to some of the music that was coming around.
What I'm proud of is the fact that the main title was able to hold itself, so as you're arriving to it from the beginning, without knowing it, you're being presented all of these little elements. And in the final game, they all come together to play most of the main title. Then at the end, after the show, you get to hear it, it's like this little summary of all this little musical stuff.
Again, I never told Scott about this. This is nothing you share with a director. You're never talking to them about that. You're just making sure that it's getting approved and that it's working for the story.prevnext
What advice do you have for young people who would like to be in your shoes, and would like to compose for movies and TV?
Oh, wow. I'm thinking of Journey['s "Don't Stop Believin'"] right now. I'm not kidding you. That's going through my head right now. It's true. How I ended up working with Scott was because I was a guitar teacher. I had no idea. I was a fan of film music. I was even teaching a film music class at the Pasadena Conservatory when I lived in Los Angeles. I was studying at USC and getting my doctorate in classical music composition. I was making extra money by teaching privately and he happened to be one of my students. I would have never believed that I'd be talking to you, all these years later, and getting to collaborate with him. Because for the first five years, where I was teaching him, he wasn't necessarily directing yet. He was starting as a director. He had been writing, of course - Minority Report, Dead Again, Out of Sight - but I never assumed that this collaboration would exist. I never asked for it until years later, when he said, "Carlos, we've been doing lessons for a long time. Why haven't you asked me?" I was like, "Well, my role right now is a guitar teacher. The last thing I want to do is be that other person that you have in your life that's going, 'Hey, buddy. I got a screenplay, you want to read it?'" That kind of personality I always shied away from.
The advice is that - back to Journey - if you believe in something, I think it's about getting yourself prepared, doing the best work you can, and putting yourself out there and being open to opportunity. Life makes no sense. It's all serendipity to me. I'm always open and trying to read the signs, if you will, about what happens, but I would have never predicted that this happened. What I do know is I never quit. I never stopped, even when the writing was on the wall I was like, "Maybe music's not going to work out for you, Carlos." I'm 50 now, things didn't really start happening to me, work-wise, until my 40s and I've been doing music all of my life. So I would say -- don't stop believing is truly the most important thing, and finding that grit to get yourself back up when you've been defeated. It's how you get up from those moments that define you.
I've been lucky to have someone like Scott Frank, who's actually trusted me and believed in me. I still pinch myself that I get to work on things like this, with people like Wylie Stateman, who did the sound design. He's done Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and worked with Tarantino films. We call him Obi-Wan Kenobi basically. You get to work with people like Steven Meizler, whose cinematography was just beautiful in this thing, and the cast that was perfect, and Michelle Tesoro's editing.
Those games, they work because the editing is so fricking beautiful. It's just really well made. When you come to the game, you have to elevate yourself to that kind of quality control, to make sure that what you're providing is at the level of what they're providing. It's been more of an education for me than anything.prevnext
Is there a franchise or a movie series that you would love to compose the music for and contribute to, that you haven't gotten to yet?
Star Wars. Star Wars. Star Wars.
Honestly, I say Star Wars because it really was the first film I saw. I saw the original movie in the movie theater in Guatemala when I was a kid. In one of the original posters, there's a big face of Darth Vader, these small TIE fighters climbing up from the left and Luke Skywalker and whatever. I thought Darth Vader was going to be a giant. Then all of a sudden I see the movie and in through this massive doorway walks a tall man in black with a mask and I'm like, "That's not the giant I saw in the poster." I remember having that first feeling of, "What is this?" and being in awe and then realizing the musical something.
It defined my childhood. That, and the music of John Williams on E.T. and all of these other things. That franchise, the fact that it's still around, and I think there are so many more stories to tell. I feel like something like The Queen's Gambit, which is an unexpected opportunity to showcase underdog music -- underdog music sounds so wrong, but I hope you understand what I mean by it. It is Rudy and Rocky. Being able to do that kind of franchise, I would love.
But great storytelling, I'm a fan of it. I'll always gravitate to the kind of thing where you're engrossed in it. I've seen some amazing things that have happened watching it. I don't know if you've seen [HBO's] Watchmen, but it's probably one of my favorite things I've seen. From quality, from production value, acting, the way music was employed, the way in which the story was told, it was kind of perfect. I just saw it recently as a whole, and I was taken by it. So any kind of thing where you get to be part of a team, where they're as concerned about getting it right as the film I've just been working with, I'm in.
The Queen's Gambit is now available to stream on Netflix.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.prev