I had the pleasure of interviewing young but long-time documentary filmmaker Benjamin Ree on the new feature-length documentary Magnus, and about filmmaking in general! Magnus is a documentary about prodigy and world chess champion Magnus Carlsen, who is known as the “Mozart of Chess”. First time feature-length filmmaker Benjamin Ree managed to film this documentary despite almost every network trying to do a film on his story but not being able to get access! He gained access because Magnus felt comfortable with him, and it helped that they are around the same age. In the interview Benjamin explains how good documentaries come from being able to capture deeply personal moments. And Magnus was able to be himself with Benjamin through personal times at home, and in public during crucial career moments. The feature documentary Magnus is having it’s World Premiere at Tribeca Film Festival 2016.
JP: Is this a story more about Magnus Carlsen’s rise in the chess world, or is it more a story into the mind of a young prodigy genius?
Benjamin Ree: It is more of a personal story, a story about Magnus’s personal life; struggles and story. He didn’t fit in. He wanted to be a chess champion from very young. He wanted nothing else. He did nothing else. He thought about nothing else.
And he didn’t learn like chess players traditionally learn, with teachers or computer training or anything except for the pure love of chess, and use of creativity and ingenuity. The documentary began being filmed when he was 12 in 2004. His years before that are included using an accumulation of archival childhood footage. I was brought on to film when he was more of an adult. At first it was going to be 2 documentaries, but when the producer saw my chemistry and access with Magnus, it made sense to work together on 1 single documentary. It took over 10 years to film, from about 2004-2014.
JP: People say that what makes him different is that he relies heavily on the use of creativity and ingenuity in chess. In what ways do you think he’s different?
BR: He’s different because he’s revolutionized the game of chess. He’s brought creativity back to chess. It’s been dominated by computer calculations for a long time. In the future more and more kids will use his approach to learn chess. He learned it through curiosity and the joy of it.
He never did homework. Garry Kasparov gave him homework 1 time in his life, and he couldn’t do it because Magnus had no structure and no discipline. And they would potentially make a big mistake by working together having such different styles. But his family was always there to help and support him. He studied chess and thought about chess all the time. Most champions have become good by discipline and teachers… but he become good because he thinks about it all the time, including while he’s doing other things that are enjoyable to him.
JP: When did you start as a filmmaker, and how?
BR: The first film I made a film was 20 years ago, and I started working in film professionally at 18, freelancing for companies like BBC, Reuters. And then I got into short documentaries. I have a bachelors in journalism, and like to investigate and get the real story. Storytelling is everything.
I start with a fascination of a person, subject or society, and then research to find what kind of story there is. With Magnus I was fascinated with him becoming an Icon at such a young age. He represents something much bigger – use of creativity and intuition in the best possible way. He is a huge star in Silicon Valley because throughout history chess has been the ultimate battle of the minds, and Magnus has become an idol by NOT using computers, and using human element instead. He is a huge inspiration to so many people.
JP: What have you not accomplished yet that you would like to after this film?
BR: I hope this film will open a lot of doors for me. Documentary filmmaking is all about Access – getting crucial moments in people’s lives.
JP: I am sure there are big things ahead for young filmmaker Benjamin Ree! Magnus is premiering at Tribeca Film Festival 2016, and you can find the public screening times and more info here. Also you can keep up with Benjamin Ree at @Benjamin_Ree and BenjaminRee.com.