“The Imitation Game” hits Chicago theaters on Dec. 12. The DePaulia recently sat down with the film’s screenwriter, Graham Moore, to discuss how his script came to the big screen.
The DePaulia: You’ve captured Alan Turing as a misunderstood protagonist in your script; it’s a great portrayal. He could have come off as unlikeable, yet you make the audience root for him. What was your process on creating the character of Turing?
Graham Moore: We always saw Alan Turing as the outsider’s outsider. He was a guy who in every moment of his life was apart from the society around him and the people around him. He was an outsider for so many reasons; first and foremost, he was a closeted gay man at a time that it was not only frowned upon but literally illegal. He was also the smartest person in every room he walked into, and he had trouble relating to people because of that. His mind would spin faster than his mind could keep up with. And finally he had to keep all these secrets for the British government, so all these things made him, sort of forced him into this lonely position. We were fascinated that they were all connected in a way, that he was able to keep secrets for the government so well because as a gay man in the 1930s he had to keep secrets to himself. There was so much inner life going on with him, and so it was great to make a film where we could bring that inner life on screen and show it to an audience.
DP: The film is based off of a book. How true is the film to that book?
GM: The film is a true story, so it’s based on history. We had a lot of sources: Alan Hodges’ biography that we had the rights to, and we got to use a lot of newer biographies on Turing as well. We also did a lot of our own research, and got to go over firsthand testimony of people who worked with him at Bletchley Park, and the workflow of the park. Benedict got to speak with a woman who was briefly Turing’s secretary in the later years of his life to know how he walked and spoke and acted. There were no audio or video recordings of him, so we had to do some smart guesswork about interpolating what really happened. On another level, there’s a scene at the end of the film where after the war everyone burns the evidence at Bletchley Park, which happened, that’s true. So we don’t have a lot of records for a lot of that, and we had to cobble together history from the sources we have. The parts that seem the most fantastical and hardest to believe, however, are absolutely true. Accuracy was very important to us; the Enigma machines were real, we used the real crossword puzzle Turing used to recruit members of his team. And we shot on as many real locations as we could. We shot at Bletchley and Sherborne School. It was all very spooky but very cool.
DP: When did you decide to make this script? What captivated you?
GM: Since I was a teenager, I was obsessed with the story of Alan Turing. I was a huge computer nerd, and so among nerdy high school kids, Alan Turing is a sort of patron saint. He was able to accomplish such great things even though he didn’t fit in. I always thought that was amazing and after I decided to become a writer, I knew I wanted to write about him. There had never been a full on, proper cinematic treatment of him and I always dreamed of wanting to make one.
DP: In the film you take on a lot of challenging mathematical practices, yet it comes off as very easy to understand. What was you process to take this big idea and make it into a very digestible form?
GM: I’m glad to hear you say that, because one of the goals was we wanted to make a film that conveyed what Turing did to an audience and (we) got it across. We wanted the film to be an intellectual thriller because Alan Turing felt like he was living through this thriller. He was plucked out of Cambridge, given this very high position in British espionage. Break a code and the fate of the world was sort of on him. Britain in the late 1930s was this sort of apocalyptic state; they really thought they were going to lose. We wanted a film that felt like a thriller and then felt like a mystery because the code was a mystery, and essentially we wanted the audience to follow along, we wanted to respect them. We didn’t want those scenes where someone says something technical and then another character says “Woah! Say that again in English!” I hate that. I think it’s condescending, and if you are going to have dialogue either expect the audience to follow along or don’t include it. The goal was to conceptually get at what Turing was doing; to describe what the machine did, and the process of decryption in a way the audience could understand while still staying faithful to how they broke the code. We condensed the big ideas.
DP: Your script was at the top of the blacklist for a few years. What was the process of getting it from there to the screen?
GM: We had attempted to make the film at Warner Brothers; they had picked up the rights first. And our film was just too small for them; our budget was the size of the catering budget for Batman vs. Superman. That’s a company that’s designed to make blockbusters, and they’re very good at it. But they’re not built to make movies about gay, English mathematicians in the 1940s. So after that we got independent financing, which was very important to us. We had a small team, so we could be lean and mean and do it all on our own. No big meetings, no conference calls. We could text with our financiers. We only wanted people who were passionate about it, no big corporation; everyone wanted to be there. We were able to make all the decisions ourselves. We got to do it our way. Morten [Tyldum] came on first, I loved his last film and knew he had to be the director, he knew what I wanted to do. Then Benedict came aboard very quickly, and was very adamant about being a part of it. It was great, it was a passion project, we loved the story and thought it was really important and felt so privileged to be able to tell it on screen.
DP: Was the script always a story about Alan’s life, or was it first a story about his work during the war and then it evolved into this whole other movie?
GM: When I started, I wanted to focus on three periods of his life: the 50s and his persecution, the 40s and his work on Enigma, and the 1920s with his first experience with cryptography. I had this idea from the beginning that since Alan Turing was obsessed with puzzles and codes, the whole film would be a puzzle. So we took these three story lines and cut them out of order, and presented them to the audience nonlinearly, so they would be actively solving the mystery of his life as the film progressed. They were trying to solve the mind of Alan Turing, like he would solve puzzles and figure out what makes him tick.