Graham Moore’s screenplay for “The Imitation Game” just won the coveted Writers Guild Award for best adapted screenplay, topping a field of contenders including Jason Hall’s “American Sniper” Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman and “Wild,” whose screenplay was written by Nick Hornby.
Based upon the book “Alan Turing: The Enigma” by Andrew Hodges, the Weinstein Company film vividly brings to life a little-known story about the attempts to bring down the Third Reich during World War II – the efforts by a group of English mathematicians working in secret at a compound called Bletchley Park to crack the code of a German encryption machine which would enable them to learn where the Nazis were next planning to attack.
With England’s fate hanging in the balance, and countless lives at stake, the group’s leader is the brilliant yet eccentric Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who must hide his homosexuality or risk arrest and persecution by the country he is fighting to save.
With eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, and noms for Cumberbatch and costar Keira Knightley, the film is directed by Oscar contender Morten Tyldum with a screenplay by Moore, who is nominated for adapted screenplay.
Moore and producer Teddy Schwarzman sat down recently to discuss the extraordinary and compelling story behind “The Imitation Game.” Here is an edited version of our conversation:
Hillary Atkin: Congratulations on all the acclaim the film is receiving. How did this project originate?
Teddy Schwarzman: The idea for the project originated in 2009 when Prime Minister Gordon brown issued a public apology to Turing. Historians, gay rights activists and scientists had been lobbying for years to get him his due. When that apology reached our team it became very clear this story needed to be told, not just to tell the tragedy of his life but his legacy and how he changed our world.
Graham Moore: Everyone on the film knew from the beginning five years ago that it was going to be one of the most important things in our lives. Alan Turing’s story had been told before on the page and stage but never in narrative cinema. If anyone’s story deserved a film, his did, and we wanted to do a film make his legacy proud. There was a tremendous responsibility to tell it well.
HA: What were the biggest challenges in re-creating the character of Alan Turing, who died in 1954 and is considered the father of modern theoretical computer science?
GM: There was no audio or video of Alan, which means we had to put together the character from his own writing. One of his nieces who was 18 when he passed away was very helpful, along with other people’s accounts. I was able to put together elements of his character from what he wrote. Alan was also a good prose stylist, his papers translate ideas into layman’s terms. One of my favorite scenes is where Alan explains the big idea of the Imitation Game —a thrilling monologue to write and see Benedict perform. It was almost helpful that there was no audio or video, especially for Benedict. He couldn’t do an impression, he had to find Alan from the inside. We had some photographs, and Benedict wore prosthetic teeth to make them more like Alan’s. There were enormous mouthfuls of dialogue with that, yet it’s very subtle. Sammy, our costume designer, used mismatched patterns in his shirts and ties. In his wallpaper, there was some binary code.
TS: Our greatest challenge was to capture his spirit and accomplishments and ultimately capture his character without making it feel like a laundry list–without a sense of who he was. Intertwining three different time periods was the best way to do it justice, in our opinion. We went to London for 14 weeks and reached out to Alan Turing’s family and Bletchley Park. His nieces meet with Morten, and Benedict was able to hear firsthand accounts of his cadence, how he was with children, and listened to recordings with colleagues talking about Turing, which we were lucky to have as a resource. Turing’s great nephew is even in the film, dancing in the background.
HA: Along the way, there must have been some surprises you discovered about him in addition to the secret life he led as a gay man.
GM: It was really the sheer breadth of his accomplishments: we knew he cracked the Enigma code, and theorized the computer, but what we didn’t know is that in his off hours he did algorithms on how tigers got their stripes. When do you find time for that? You got the sense his mind was constantly analyzing, breaking codes and patterns in everything. He was a great botanist, and had an amazing garden he tended. He was an Olympic-level marathon runner, who qualified in his 20s. Where do you have time to also run marathons? I just loved idea of his mind working–that he couldn’t stop if he wanted to stop having ideas. That was something, that there was so much constant activity in his head that it was hard for others to get a fraction of his attention, like what he wanted for lunch. There were so many big concepts and brilliant ideas floating around in his head.
HA: Tell us about the casting process for the film.
TS: What we tried to do instead of casting the biggest names was to find people who were incredibly passionate. We had a director who displayed all the tonal balances and he also understood and fell in love with the character, the man and the role. We put pieces in place that felt organic to the story that needed to be told and respected. We just went through a process of getting the best ensemble that creates chemistry. Benedict and Keira give the performances of their careers.
HA: How did you design or obtain the World War II-era and other period elements you needed for the production?
TS: We had a tremendous props department that spent months working. We had the original Enigma, and the listening stations originally used to intercept Morse code. Everything was sourced. We didn’t use replicas. There were memorabilia collectors who donated items for the shoot. We did have World War II experts, uniforms, weaponry, vehicles, and we met a number of veterans, and people who worked at Bletchley, who are just now figuring out what they did there. It was very compartmentalized.
HA: How do you feel the story of Alan Turing resonates today, especially his persecution by the British after the war?
TS: His treatment by his government was terrible. He was one of 49,000 men who were convicted of gross indecency under British law between 1885 and 1967, people forced into jail time. Turing was given the option of chemical castration injections instead of going to jail. It’s a tragedy we wanted to highlight. We’ve come so far yet there are still religions and countries where being gay is a crime. If his genius contributions can help show that discrimination by sex, gender or race is something of no merit, we would love that message to get out there.
GM: I’m extremely proud as an American what great progress in gay rights we’ve made in the last few years, tremendous advances. I think the film hopefully shows audiences there was a gay man at the very heart of the computer revolution, at the heart of the Second World War. Historically, gay figures have been written out of narratives, so the goal was always to correct that, to say that gay men and women have been at heart of our history for a long time, and hopefully there are more gay figures we can recognize. In technology, it was only a few months ago that Apple’s Tim Cook came out. Now there are 37 states in the union that have legal same sex marriage. We have made a lot of progress since Alan Turing’s time.