Basically once a year, I’d go to my agents and say, ‘There’s this movie I want to write about a gay English mathematician in the ‘40s that committed suicide.’ And they would say, ‘Absolutely not!’
Movies that try to be too many different things often fail. The Imitation Game might’ve been such a film, but thanks largely to its Black List-topping script, written by newcomer Graham Moore and the honing skill of Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, it unfurls crisply, like a beautifully architected puzzle, telling a true, heroic tale of war, science, and tragic isolation.
At its core, it’s the World War II story of how British mathematician Alan Turing (played with Oscar-polishing perfection by Benedict Cumberbatch) and a team of cryptographers and crossword enthusiasts secretly cracked the wickedly impenetrable Nazi Enigma machine code, shortening the war by as many as four years and saving millions of lives.
It’s also the tale of how, in the course of breaking Enigma, Turing basically fathered the computer and the field of artificial intelligence. Most emotive is Turing’s own wrenchingly tragic story—how his deeply hidden homosexuality combined with his peerless intelligence and the severe secrecy of his work to isolate him from the humanity he had done so much to save. In the end, draconian anti-homosexuality laws in the UK saw him persecuted only a few years after the war’s end by the very nation he had saved. Charged with indecency, he was chemically castrated by order of the court and died a few years later, at the age of 41 in what was officially ruled suicide by cyanide poisoning.
For Moore, this wasn’t just a script. Turing had been a hero to him since he was a nerdy 14-year-old from the Chicago’s North Side attending computer camp, where this unsung father of computer science was the stuff of geekily adulated legend. Graham, now 32, has traveled far from computer camp, attending Columbia University, working in music production and ultimately writing two novels based on the life of Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But the Turing story never left him. When the odds-confounding opportunity arose to pen this screenplay, he seized it. Using Andrew Hodges biography Alan Turing: The Enigma and six months of exhaustive research, he honored his hero’s story. In a conversation about the writing of The Imitation Game, he told the Writers Guild of America West website how a chance conversation in a kitchen led to him being tapped to pen the biopic of the man he’d idolized since he was 14.
Did your fascination with this subject matter make this more or less daunting to adapt?
My lifelong obsession with Alan Turing made it much more daunting because I knew how much Alan Turing deserved to be paid tribute in this way. As someone who had been obsessed with the Alan Turing story for so long, it always felt like this amazing untold story that had been told really well on the stage, in a great play by Hugh Whitemore, [and] a couple books and biographies. It had never really been told on screen before. And so I thought, Oh, I’m going to be the one to do this? Who am I to tell the Alan Turing story for the big screen? It’s a huge responsibility and burden to tell his story and to try and pay tribute to someone who history has treated so unkindly.
Briefly tell me how this story first entered your life—what age you were and how you came upon it.
I’ve been obsessed with him since I was a teenager, when I was a huge computer nerd. I was probably 14 years old at computer programming camp one summer. He was such an object of fascination that campers would talk about him. I remember people would pass around different books about him. [He] was a character in a Neal Stephenson novel called Cryptonomicon, which is great. There have been other fictional treatments of him… it was almost like the legend of Bigfoot, you know? “Did you know there’s a monster in the woods? Did you know that the computer was really theorized by this one dude and no one knew it was him because the government kept it classified and then effectively murdered him for his homosexuality?” It was this tremendous story. I just remember being obsessed with it and always wanting to tell that story, always sort of saying to myself, God, how come there isn’t a movie about this? It has not stopped feeling strange that I was the one who got to write the movie. We would joke when we were on set that I would have been a P.A. on The Imitation Game. I just happened to be the writer.
To that point, tell me how you got the gig.
If you read the script of The Imitation Game, you’ll know brevity is not actually my strong suit. That’s what Billy our editor is for. Basically once a year, I’d go to my agents and say, “There’s this movie I want to write about a gay English mathematician in the ‘40s that committed suicide.” And they would say, “Absolutely not! Please don’t write that movie. That is the worst idea for a movie we ever heard!”
What a terrible agent!
We joke about it now.
It just seemed like the least accessible, least commercial idea for a movie in the world. But I loved it so much. And then one day I went to a small party at Nora Grossman’s house, our producer. I don’t even know how I was invited. I barely knew her. We’d met a couple times before. But I was with her in the kitchen [and she told me she’d just optioned her first book], and I said, “Oh cool, congratulations. What’s it about?” And she was like, “Oh it’s this biography of this mathematician. You never heard of him, don’t worry about it.” I was like, “I know a little bit about math, who is it?” She said, “Alan Turing.” I instantly launched into this completely insufferable, 15-minute monologue of, “OMG, I’ve been obsessed with the Alan Turing story since I was a teenager. This is how the movie starts, this is how the movie ends. I love the story, please let me write it on spec, I’ll do whatever it takes!” And she’s sorta inching back to get away from me, like, “Who is this psycho? Why is he accosting me in my kitchen?”
She and her partner had never made a movie before, this was the first time they had saved up money to option something. They both had had studio jobs and this was the first thing outside of that. So I was kinda begging and pleading, and she was like, “Other people a little more experienced than you are coming to pitch. Would you come in and pitch?” They totally made me go pitch, which was a lie, they didn’t have anyone else coming in, there was no one else who wanted to do it, but they absolutely made me pitch them at Dominick’s on Beverly.
You worked up a good pitch?
No. It’s a hard story to pitch ‘cuz it’s tricky…
Well, that’s why they wanted you to pitch it. Its like, how do you pitch this?
The moment I completely fell in love with the two of them was when I said, “I can’t explain why, but I know that I want the movie to focus on these three specific time periods. It’s going to focus on his arrest and prosecution in the ‘50s, the war in the ‘40s, and his first teenage love in the 1920s. And I want to do these things non-linearly, I want to cut between the three time periods and kinda make the movie a puzzle.” I sorta said something like that to them, but probably much less coherent. I don’t even know how anyone could make heads or tails out of that, but they were like, “Oh yeah, that’s great, let’s do that.” And they were instantly supportive and got what I was trying to do, even though that’s such a bizarre thing to pitch. They just got it.
It seems to me that there are three main narrative components: it’s a science story, a World War II story, and the story of a persecuted homosexual. What did you see as the main components and how did you balance them from a thematic standpoint?
That’s a great question. When I started working on it, the first thing that clicked for me was understanding that for Turing, his scientific work was, in my view, fundamentally linked to his personal struggles. When you talked about The Imitation Game, for instance, his paper on artificial intelligence and at what point artificial intelligence could be considered intelligence, his basic theory was that something is only human to the degree that it could convince someone else that it is. We are only what we convince other people that we are. I read that paper and remember thinking, for a closeted gay man in the 1940s to say something like that is stunning.
In my mind, it was philosophically this sort of revolutionary concept that in some ways only a closeted gay man could come up with. It was so outside of the mainstream of science and philosophy. That Alan’s outsider status and his status as this guy with a secret no one could know about really inspired his work.
It was directly because of his being a homosexual in the 1940s and having to live a secret…
…having to pretend to be something he was not. He was a guy who, everyday had to pretend to be someone he was not. Then he fundamentally changed the course of science and human history by creating a machine that pretended to be something it was not…In the same way his machine imitated other machines, Alan was imitating other people. He had to. That was the role a closeted gay man at that time had to play. It was, in fact, being outside of the societal mainstream, that helped him be so revolutionary and so brilliant.
Yet there’s also the fact that he’s so unabashedly arrogant, almost Asperger’s-like in his lack of empathy that he seems to have firmly accepted the fact that he—even beyond his homosexuality —ain’t like other people, and he can’t get along in any other way than through his math.
That’s right. When Morten [Tyldum] and I would talk about the movie, we would always say if we’re going to summarize the theme of the movie in one word, it was isolation. Alan Turing was someone who was isolated from the people around him for so many reasons. He was isolated because he was just smarter than everyone else. He was isolated because he had these revolutionary theories that no one else could understand. He was isolated because he was gay at a time that was literally illegal. He was isolated because he was keeping these secrets for the government and MI6 that he couldn’t tell anybody else about. As the movie goes on, basically layer upon layer of isolation gets put upon him over the course of the story.
How long did it take you to write this script?
We started shooting maybe three years after I started working on it. When I first started working on it, there was six months of research before I wrote a word. It was just reading and notes for six months. Then I spent about six months actually writing. In those six months I did a couple of drafts to get to the first spec we took out. From that point on, there was probably another year of tweaking with Morten after he came on.
So you researched for six months, and then did you start with an outline?
Yeah. I wrote an outline that then I probably completely ignored by the time I started writing. I feel like outlines end up being—you know when little kids go bowling and they put the rubber bumper things in the gutters so that even if the bowling ball veers left suddenly, it can’t actually hit the gutter? That’s how I look at outlines. It’s just a safety mechanism. You write the outline, it should be really thorough, it should be very detailed and then once I actually start writing I never look at it again. It’s only when I get to the place where I’m [lost] that I look at it.
So it gives you the confidence and security to begin writing?
Yes. Then hopefully I won’t have to look at it. Hopefully I should just know the story well enough at that point I should have memorized it. If I can’t remember what’s supposed to happen next, then it was boring, and I should skip it.
Not to diminish you in any respect, but you’re a youngin’, you’re green, you’re not a seasoned featured writer. You’ve written a book, but this is a new thing. This material is so important to you. This must have been an existential trial on some level.
That’s a very kind way to put it, but it certainly was. I remember, I spent a long time outlining, I procrastinated with outlining for a while because I was so afraid to actually write it. I was so afraid of doing a bad job. This story deserves to be told so well, and that was a tremendous responsibility as well as a privilege.
I remember I first started writing the actual pages of the script the day I was on my book tour. It was the week my first book came out, and I was on a plane from Chicago, Illinois to Scottsdale, Arizona. It was the day I found the book was going to be on the bestseller list. Then I had two scotches on the plane and started writing. The first words I wrote on the script were, “Are you paying attention?” And I wrote the opening monologue of the movie, which is somehow still the opening monologue of the movie, which still amazes—it’s basically word for word the same thing I wrote on that plane three years ago.
So the blush of this great success gave you the creative confidence—along with a couple scotches?
Yeah, getting that call that my book was on the bestseller list and just got a really good review in The New York Times. I was able to say, “Ok, I can do this. I’m still gonna need two scotches to get in there to remove the last bit of doubt, but I have to trust myself. If I don’t do this, I don’t know who will. So let’s go.” And I was lucky enough to have people around me who were so supportive to help me through that very long and difficult process.
Did that monologue in some ways break the dam of anxiety?
Yeah, tremendously. I remember getting off the plane, and I was lonely and bored in this weird hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona, where I’ve never been, and I didn’t know anyone. I called a friend from the hotel and was like, “I just wrote this monologue. I love this so much. This is my favorite thing I’ve ever written. Here check this out.” And she was like, “Yeah, maybe calm down a little bit. That’s a good monologue. But you know you have a little more to do before this is a full script?”
© 2014 Writers Guild of America West