Critical Thinking executive producer Carla Berkowitz talks first impressions and second chances
How long would you wait on a project to get started before you just gave up? A week? A month? How about 20 years? 20 years for a project to take hold and get done?
Critical Thinking is a movie produced by Carla Berkowitz about a group of minority students who excel in playing the game of chess, not for fun, but as a true sport. These players made it their life, and that life helped them get out of a rough childhood. Everyone, including the coach, director John Leguizamo portrayed in the movie, was on set to help with the film. According to Berkowitz, it had to be done to ensure that the chess was perfect.
Berkowitz says the original idea for the film came in 1998 when she received the Sunday issue of the Miami Herald newspaper.
“It blew my mind. Who is this playing chess now? This is not coming from all the chodes, this is coming from the inner city, and it is behind my back, like five blocks away, and I don’t know about this?” Berkowitz says. “By the end of Sunday, most people—what do they do? They throw the paper away. I made a movie.”
During the two decades it took to make the movie, with actual filming beginning in 2017, Berkowitz claims the project always had funding and was ready to go, but it felt like something was missing.
“The film was waiting for John,” says Berkowitz.
The “John” that she is referring to is none other than John Leguizamo, who was fresh off of his “Latin History for Morons” tour and still wanted to teach.
“A producer dropped out of the picture and 17 years later came back with John and said, ‘John wants to do this,’” says Berkowitz. “John is very erudite—also very cultured and knows a lot of shit and has a very strong point of view that I agree with.”
The film, which was the only chess movie to have perfect chess played in it, according to ChessBase.com, was guided by members off-screen. Every actor had to memorize the moves, even if they had never played. Every chess game in the film was played exactly where and how it was in real life.
“Because in every chess movie you know, including Searching for Bobby Fisher, which is the worst culprit, the chess is wrong. They make the movies for chess people, so I don’t know why they would make such stupid mistakes,” says Berkowitz.
Berkowitz says that Marcel did leave everything behind when he migrated over from Cuba, except for his chess books, and that the actors treated it like it was worth $5 million. Jeffry Batista, who played Marcel in the movie, never played chess at all prior to filming and had to memorize the final game, every move, and every action to ensure that the game was recreated to perfection.
According to Berkowitz, the movie was adapted to offer a different representation. The real-life principal of the school was a Black man. The film was changed to portray a white woman after Berkowitz felt that the movie was too male-heavy. She claims she wanted to “make sure the people’s stories were treated with dignity and elegance and to make sure the story was as true as possible.”
It was the side story of a billionaire, who wished to remain unnamed, that was on his treadmill in 1998 when the real-life carwash interview happened. Berkowitz says he saw the interview on CNN and sent a check worth $18,000 to help get the team to Los Angeles. Berkowitz assured that the airline taking care of the team’s tickets also happened, but because the billionaire wished not to be named, he was subsequently cut, which everyone was fine with.
“Every day for those 17 years, I made an action towards this film. I worked on it, even if there was nothing to do, I just kept moving the energy around the universe and kept it alive. Even if it meant taking a trip to LA to meet with someone, just to keep the energy alive.”
Berkowitz is Venezuelan and worked for the anti-defamation league for 11 years, which she says she’s loved since ancestors on both sides of her family were Holocaust survivors. She felt it was her way of honoring the memory of those who had died. In 1990, she got into the fitness industry before it peaked, releasing 15 videos worldwide and finishing her last video in 2004. She still resides in Miami, Florida. Currently, when she is not making films, she has her own yoga clothing brand called Perfect Balance, which she says “is yoga clothing that combines physics, engineering, and spirituality.”
She calls the film her “second chance to make a first impression.”
Critical Thinking is now available on all major streaming platforms.