It’s Your Move
After an unproductive summer of 2022, I was searching for answers that I should have been producing. What is the underlying cause of my indolence? How do I overcome it? Are these questions just another form of procrastination? Although I wrote several screenplays, and improved as a writer, I hadn’t directed any audiovisual material (at least not in college). Worst of all, I was entering my senior year! “It’s Your Move” afforded me a last-minute opportunity to regroup. The story, which started as a solitary image of a lonely chess player in a coffee shop, expanded into an encapsulation of my filmic obsessions: chess in the mise en scene, crises of identity, circular structure, long takes, “pure” cinematic sequences, etc. Still, even as a burst of inspiration hit me, and my fingers vigorously typed, there was the lingering question of how to film my screenplay. What followed, if the making of “It’s Your Move” could be condensed into one clause, would be an attempt to balance pragmatic and artistic concerns. That we would achieve this balance, and win best picture among 20 student films in the Carolina Film Association, was a (very) pleasant surprise.
Chess constitutes the backbone of “It’s Your Move.” I remember accompanying my Father, a competitive player, to coffee shops, dusty back rooms at the YMCA, and other oddball hosts of the Greensboro Chess Club. His eyes, furiously analyzing infinite possibilities on the board, revealed to me the narrative possibilities of chess. The unceasing tick of the chess clock provided the equivalent of a film run time. The pieces were an inherently combative element of mise en scene. The more I looked at both the board and the faces of the individuals playing on it, the more I identified a clear beginning, middle, and end to their games: oh, that’s a story alright!
Chess provides both superficial and complex qualities to “It’s Your Move.” The aesthetic appeal of the board and pieces is accentuated by the black and white photography. The game is an obstacle in the narrative that the protagonist must overcome to fulfill his relationship. Just the aforementioned placement of the board in between the characters implies a level of conflict (making my job as screenwriter easier.) However, although these functions are valuable, I wanted to penetrate deeper and weave the DNA of the game into the screenplay. I decided that chess would be embedded into the film’s structure: the beginning of the film (opening), middle (tactics), and end (endgame) reflect the progression of a chess match. This decision held pragmatic and artistic advantages. Practically, the three-act structure allowed me to easily pitch the film to prospective cast and crew, even if the screenplay held unconventional elements. Artistically, it made sense for this character, who can only understand the world through his obsession, to reflect on his relationship through the lens of chess. As the film progresses, the lines between chess and reality are blurred, and we discover that relationships, like chess games, can be undone by seemingly innocuous mistakes made at the beginning.
I have always held the audiovisual powers of film as paramount. While studying screenwriting, I was frustrated by the overwhelming emphasis on narrative techniques that can be found in other artistic mediums. This is not to discount narrative structure, which is of utmost importance to “It’s Your Move.” But I knew my practice had to be consistent with my theory, and so form would be valued.
Regarding cinematography, it took me a while to choose the aspect ratio of “It’s Your Move.” 4:3 seemed apt, but I had committed myself to refusing an aesthetic choice if I couldn’t rationalize its use. Then I realized that the square shape found in 4:3 resembled any of the 64 squares on a chess board. Our two characters are framed in a square shape, and consequently stuck in it like pieces on a board. This formal choice reflects the arc of the film’s narrative, wherein chess progressively consumes Alexander’s waking life until the two are inseparable. The choice of black and white was a more obvious quality, as chess pieces are conventionally black and white. Black and white also lends itself to more inherently expressive imagery, in a way that color wouldn’t have for our no-budget production.
The editing room was where everything came together. I made sure that there were no unnecessary/arbitrary cuts, as I wanted the performances and camera movement to feel natural. Caleb Schilly’s score, which we applied at the last minute, fit seamlessly into the film. When Uriel Jimenez-Lemus, our incredibly talented editor, put the last piece of music over the final scene, it fit so well without any adjustment that I could only chalk the result to divine intervention (the film gods could sense that our editing room activities, like Alexander and Roxies’ relationship, was on the clock.)
I was influenced by several films while making “It’s Your Move.” On two occasions, I explicitly allude to my influences. The lighting gag that accentuates Alexander’s eyes in the opening scene, though executed in slightly different fashion, is pulled from the seminal Hollywood noir Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945.) Though there are no femme fatales or murder plots in “It’s Your Move,” the allusion to Detour immediately imbues my film with the colors of existential dread and mystery commonly found in the noir genre. The close-up of the back of Roxie’s head, which introduces a long take, evokes compositions from Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie (1962), a film that is also largely set in a coffee shop. Both films, in addition to aesthetic influence, were also inspiring on a practical level. More specifically, they find creative ways to express their ideas on a low budget. Detour is famous for originating in Hollywood’s poverty row, and the cast and crew of “It’s Your Move” adopted that blue-collar ethos while making the film.
I would be remiss to exclude invaluable members of our cast and crew. My girlfriend, Dorian Varney, and roommate/lifelong friend, Justin Geletko, were the first to hear of “It’s Your Move.”. Not only were they intrigued by the heady concept, they both agreed to work on the project despite holding no prior filmmaking experience. Ben Ketchum and Zoe Matney, our leads, approached the film like consummate professionals. They came to set with their lines memorized and their characters explored; Ben and Zoe made my life as a director easy, and went the extra mile–or miles, who knows how many steps we took–when they paced around empty classrooms during rehearsals with me, in search of the truth of these characters. Matthew Gebbia–who you can read about in this feature!–talked with me for hours upon hours regarding visual approaches. There are many others–thanks Duncan for your lighting expertise!–that made “It’s Your Move” such an enriching experience. I hope you enjoy the hard work we all put into this project. I wish the kid me, absorbed in his literature as much as Dad was the chess board, could see the connection he made between the two came to fruition. Maybe he has.