The incredible story of genius Alan Turing finally comes to public light with The Imitation Game, a revelatory representation of an essential chapter in World War II that was lost for horrific reasons. Benedict Cumberbatch leads the film as Turing with a fine performance, and stars opposite Keira Knightley playing a female companion of Turing, alongside talents like Matthew Goode and Mark Strong. The film is adapted from the Andrew Hodges book "Alan Turing: The Enigma" by Graham Moore, and directed by Morten Tyldum. Moore is a debut screenwriter with Chicago roots, and received acclaim for his novel "The Sherlockian," released in 2010. He is lined up next to adapt Erik Larson's "Devil in the White City" into the highly-anticipated vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio.
Tyldum is a Norwegian director on the rise, who caught the attention of viewers with his bonkers adaptation of Jo Nesbø's Headhunters, starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Aksel Hennie. In his next move, the director is set to tackle author William Gibson with the project "Pattern Recognition."
I sat down in a roundtable with Moore and Tyldum to discuss their collaboration, how to understand Turing's brilliance without understanding math, and how not being British helped two outsiders tell Turing's story.
The Imitation Game opens in Chicago on December 12.
Graham, how did you get the gig of writing the long-needed biopic on Alan Turing?
Graham Moore: In a lot of ways, I’ve wanted to write about Alan Turing my whole life. I was a huge computer nerd when I was a teenager, I went to Space Camp and computer programming camp. Among nerdy awkward computer-y teenagers, Alan Turing is sort of this patron saint. He is this tremendous symbol of this secret queer history of the second World War, this secret history of computer science that has been whitewashed out of the official record. And then I actually met our producers at a party one day after I had become a writer, and they said they had just optioned this book: “This mathematician, you’ve never heard of him … “ and one of them said “Alan Turing,” and I pounced on her and gave like this totally insufferable twenty minute monologue. I said I would do it for free I didn’t care, and I knew where it started and where it ended. They brought me on, and we started working on the screenplay, and that screenplay found its way to Mr. Morten Tyldum.
Was this your first major screenplay?
Moore: It was not the first one that I’ve written, but it is the first one to be produced. It was relatively early, and it was the first one that I had gotten really any notice in the industry. I would call my agents and say, “Hey I am going to write this story about a gay mathematician in the 1940s who commits suicide,” and they would freak out, saying that it was career suicide, or that no one would make the story. But I just think it’s such an important story, and it needs to be told and it needs to be told onscreen. We were so grateful after we had a couple drafts, and we got the movie made.
How does the story of Turing and his fellow code breakers reflect your own experience in making this movie?
Moore: We were making the movie and we were like this band of obsessives, freezing half-to-death in the south of England, just as the people at Bletchley Park were the sort of people who were freezing to death in a very small room in the south of England.
Morten Tyldum: It was a small budget movie, and I think it was very relatable. We had this tremendous time pressure, as we shot the whole thing in eight weeks. We could really relate to them. It became this family, this very tight-knit family that was on a mission, because everyone wanted to do justice to this man, and everyone wanted very little drama. Everyone was super prepared, and we had all of these phenomenal actors who wanted to come on board. They were super dedicated, and everyone wanted the other to shine, even if they were off-camera doing off-camera acting, they really delivered great performances. So that the other could be there.
When making a movie with so much math, how much of the intricate math do you guys know yourselves? How much did you have to learn?
Tyldum: We definitely had experts. I thought I was good at math [laughs].
Moore: Well, compared to Alan Turing …
Tyldum: That’s the pressure of it, is that it is incredibly complicated. I wanted to try and understand how the machine worked. And so we had this lecture, and even the people who were going to explain the machine had panic in their eyes. When they started to explain it, that panic went over to us, and me and Benedict [Cumberbatch] looked at each other like, “Holy shit.” You get real lost. I think Alan Turing is as important as a philosopher as a mathematician in many ways. His ideas about what it means to think, what it means to be alive, what it means about artificial intelligence and artificial life, I find those a lot easier to grasp onto. He was a great humanitarian. Those ideas are very fascinating to me.
And also the other other challenge is that you are trying to be accurate to the process of cracking Enigma, but at the same time make it into a thrilling, engaging scene. But the things that are in the movie are true, and Enigma was brilliant and human, and therefore you had to find the flaw. You have to lock onto that.
Considering all of the historical details within this period piece, did it seem like an advantage or disadvantage to not be British? Or was it liberating?
Tyldum: It’s a huge responsibility. There’s part of it which is challenging because it’s the part where you have to really do your research, and you have people saying like, “how open with emotion will he be?” because they’re British, and its the 1940s. And at the same time its nice to be an outsider, because the movie is about outsiders looking in. I think that actually helps to clarify that point. We didn’t want to be bogged down by a dusty history lesson, which it easily could have been. It could have sort of embraced the Britishness of it, but that would have been too much. I think we made a movie that gave it a spark, and liberated it, and hopefully that will give it a wider audience. I mean, you have that obligation to be true to what happened, which we were. And at the same time, we have an obligation to really spread his legacy wide. He deserves a big audience, the world needs to know what he did, and his staggering achievements. It was important to us to make it a thrilling story.
How did you want to approach the element of Autism that some say was also a characteristic of Turing?
Tyldum: Benedict didn’t act it that way. It can be read as a type of Autism, but what does that mean? First of all, we didn’t want to put a label on it because that goes against everything the movie is trying to celebrate. [Turing] was unique, and because he was unique, he was able to think unique ideas and unique thoughts that nobody else had.
Moore: We heard all of these family stories from people in Bletchley Park where he’d be in the middle of a conversation and someone said something that he already knew, he would just turn around and walk away. He was only engaged in conversations to the point that someone is only giving you information, he has this voracious appetite for information. He was just a completely unique individual as Morten said, I think that’s what we were going for.
Tyldum: He was hard to work with, but also came with a sense of humor. There are things that I wish we could have gotten in the movie, like that he was allergic to pollen. He liked to bike around with a gas mask on. He was odd, but he didn’t care.
Moore: The thing with the bike makes me think that his mind was constantly moving, constantly inventing stuff, and that’s what Benedict did such a wonderful job at. This mind works so much faster than his mouth could ever express, and some of … I remember there was something that Benedict said on day one of rehearsals. “I don’t think Alan Turing had Asperger’s, I think that he’s physically capable of understanding the thoughts of feelings of other people, I just think his mind is on something more important, he’s just thinking of something else.” But then when he gets to the more tender scenes with Joan, when he does latch onto you emotionally, he is passionate and emotional and sweet and caring. It’s like a full range of emotional expression.
How did you guys want to balance Alan’s personal journey with the story of how his work with others changed the course of the war?
Moore: I think one of the things from the beginning of working on it that really felt like an unlocked story, felt to be the core of the story for me, was this concept of the imitation game, and the idea that in the imitation game, you have this amazing connection and inspiration between his very extremely complicated mathematical work, and his personal struggle. The idea that the imitation game that he proposed it, that we are only what we can convince what we are; we are humans to the degree that we can convince others that we are human. For a statement like that to come from a closeted gay man in Britain in the 1930s is remarkable. And that is a statement that was the underpinning of his other work, and it is a statement that I think could only have been made by a closeted gay man, and I think only he could see the world in such a way, and have an attitude on it. And that linking of the personal of the mathematic was the core for both of us.
In regards to the devastating end of Turing, what were you thinking was most important when it came to landing the story on a certain note, but dramatically respect it?
Moore: Yeah, the final scene between Alan and [Knightley's character Joan] was the scene we did the most number of drafts of, I think we did 10 or 20 drafts of that. Because we knew what we were building towards, and we knew that Alan Turing’s story sort of has a tragic end. And we knew that we wanted to approach that sensitively and delicately and in a way of what happened to him and the tragedy of that; we really wanted to watch this vibrant, brilliant mind slowly be extinguished under this terrible medical treatment, under societal pressures and the public shaming that happened to him.
Tyldum: And the key thing, we wanted to make a scene where Joan tells him what we want to tell him on his last day. That is for me the core of that scene.