During World War II, British mathematician Alan Turing and a secret team of cryptologists eventually succeeded in using an early electronic computing machine to crack the seemingly uncrackable German Enigma machine code and help bring the war to a swifter close.
In 1952, Turing, his immeasurable contribution to the British war effort still a state secret, was arrested and charged with gross indecency under Britain’s laws against homosexuality.
It is that tragic juxtaposition of Turing’s professional and private life that has made him a posthumous hero to both computer scientists as well as gay-rights activists. It’s also what drew young screenwriter Graham Moore to Turing’s story.
Moore’s script for The Imitation Game is based on Andrew Hodges’ book Alan Turing: The Enigma, and takes its name from the famous Turing test that measures how well an artificial intelligence can mimic human thought and behavior–an especially resonant notion for Turing, who not only had to mask his sexuality, but is suspected by some to have been somewhere on the autism spectrum.
Sliding back and forth in time between Turing’s war experiences, his teen years in school, and his questioning by police in 1952, The Imitation Game is directed by Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum (Headhunters) and stars Benedict Cumberbatch in what is sure to be an Oscar-nominated performance. The film also stars Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, and Charles Dance.
Another writer and I sat down in Chicago a few weeks ago with both writer Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum about their film and both its historical and human subjects.
The Imitation Game is currently playing in select theaters and will be expanding wider in coming weeks.
Graham Moore: In a lot of ways, I wanted to write about Alan Turing my entire life. I was a huge computer nerd when I was a teenager; I went to Space Camp and computer programming camp. My parents were like, “Who are you, where’d you come from, who are your real parents?”
Among nerdy awkward computer-y teenagers, Alan Turing is sort of this patron saint. He is this tremendous inspirational symbol of this sort of secret queer history of the Second World War, the secret history of computer science that has been whitewashed out of the official record.
I always wanted to write about him, and then I actually met our producers Nora Grossman and Peter Heslop randomly at a party one day after I had moved to LA and become a writer. I heard Nora talking in the kitchen, saying, “Oh, I just optioned this book,” and I asked what was it about, and she said, “this mathematician, you’ve never heard of him… “ and I said, “I know a little bit about math, who is it? and she said, “Alan Turing,” and I instantly pounced on her and began this totally insufferable twenty minute monologue. “Oh my god, I know everything about Alan Turing, please let me do this, I’ll do this for free” and so on. And she started backing away from me like, “Who is this psycho, who invited him?” 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,” and they were like, “No, you’re not,” that it was career suicide, or that no one would make the story. But I just think it’s the most important story, and it needs to be told and it needs to be told on screen. We were so grateful after we had a couple drafts and would show it to people, and we got the movie made, which has been tremendous.
How much of the math covered in the film did you guys personally understand?
Morten Tyldum: We definitely had experts. I thought I was good at math… but… [laughs]
Moore: Well, compared to Alan Turing …
Tyldum: That’s the thing, that it is incredibly complicated. I wanted to try and understand how the machine worked. So we had this lecture, and everybody who was going to explain the machine had panic in their eyes, because it’s so complicated. 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. He was obsessive about artificial intelligence and artificial life—I find those ideas a lot easier to grasp onto. He was a great humanitarian. Those ideas are very fascinating to me.
It’s one thing to understand it, but the 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. Enigma was un-crackable—it was brilliant, so you have to find the human flaw in the system. You have to lock onto that. That is Turing’s genius.
How does the story of Turing and his fellow code breakers reflect your own experience in making this movie?
Moore: When we were making the movie we were like this band of obsessives, very committed people freezing half-to-death in the south of England.
Tyldum: It was a small budget movie, and I think it was very relatable. We had this tremendous time pressure—we shot the whole thing in eight weeks. It became this very tight-knit family that was on a mission, because everyone wanted to do justice to this man. 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.
Tyldum: Benedict made a very deliberate choice not to 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. He was unique, and because he was unique, he was able to think unique ideas and unique thoughts that nobody else had.
Moore: Anytime you diagnose someone after the fact, it’s murky, and we didn’t want to do that. But at the same time, we heard all of these famous 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 was giving him 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 he 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 he had this mind that was constantly moving, constantly inventing stuff, and that’s what Benedict did such a wonderful job at, showing this mind that’s going so much faster than his mouth could ever express. 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 [Knightley], when he does latch on emotionally, he is passionate and emotional and sweet and caring. It’s this full range of emotional expression.
Tyldum: It’s a huge responsibility. There’s part of it which is challenging because you have to really do your research, and you have people saying, “how open with emotion will he be?” because they’re British, and it’s the 1940s. And at the same time it’s nice to be an outsider, because the movie is about outsiders looking in. I think being outsiders ourselves looking in 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; it would have been insanely boring. [Laughs] I think we gave it a spark that liberated it a bit, and hopefully that will give it a wider audience.
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 for us to have humor in it and make it a thrilling story.
We wanted to tell the story as a mystery: Who is Alan Turing? Because that’s how it is for most people, how it was for me when I came to this project. We wanted it to be a puzzle, as he was obsessed with puzzles—so you puzzle him together.
How did you both 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 the process of working on it that really felt like it unlocked the story for me, 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 and difficult mathematical and theoretical and cryptographic work and his personal struggle.
The idea of the imitation game as he proposed it is we are only what we can convince what we are; we are human to the degree that we can convince someone else that we are human. For a statement like that to come from a closeted gay man in Britain in the 1950s is remarkable.
And that statement is the underpinning of his other cryptographical and computational work, for his computer science and AI work, and it’s a statement that I think could only have been made by a closeted gay man. I think only a man going through that could see the world in such a different way, and have such a new attitude on it. And that linking of the personal of the mathematic and cryptographic 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 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 has a tragic end.
And we knew that we wanted to approach that sensitively and delicately and portray 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 is we wanted to make a scene where Joan tells him what we ourselves today want to tell him on his last day. That is for me the core of that scene—if somebody could sit down and say those words to him, which nobody did. “This is what you did.”