You will be redirected back to your article in seconds
Back to IndieWire

‘The Imitation Game’: from Black List to Crowdpleasing Oscar Contender

'The Imitation Game': from Black List to Crowdpleasing Oscar Contender

The fall fest audience-award-winner, rather remarkably, weaves the true character behind a history we think we know but we don’t know. It believably sets up the huge stakes and emotions of the desperate need to save lives by beating back the Nazis and ending World War II. Its smartest-man-in-the-room hero, played by Cumberbatch, is often unlikable, yet credibly sympathetic. That’s partly because he’s seems to have Asberger’s tendencies and is persecuted for being gay. The other tragedy of this movie is the degree to which Turing didn’t receive recognition, partly because he was involved in top secret activity, but also that he was a homosexual at a time when sex between men was illegal.
The entire concoction unwinds beautifully, but you don’t get there overnight.

Ostrowsky and Grossman first read a newspaper apology written by then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown on behalf of the government for the treatment of Alan Turing during World War II and in the aftermath. “Our first reaction,” says Ostrowsky, “was ‘how is this the first time we’ve heard Alan Turing’s name? How is this the first time we’ve learned of his contributions, and why didn’t we learn about him in school?’ The more we researched his story, the more obsessive we became about telling it and getting the message out there. That was sort of the first step and, shortly thereafter, we realized one article was not enough source material to go on.”

Grossman dug up a biography that Andrew Hodges wrote in the ‘80s about Turing and a BBC film starring Derek Jacobi and a play, “Breaking the Code.” The book rights were available, so they flew to London and met with Hodges and his team and convinced them that they were the people to tell this story, “even though we had no credits and we’re coming from television,” she says, “and, at that point, not working.”
The duo slowly realized that a period piece starring a gay mathematician as the protagonist was not studio material, admits Grossman. “I had met Graham Moore, the screenwriter, in a general meeting when I was working in television. He stayed in touch, and he actually wound up working with my roommate at the time. We were having a party, and he came to the house, and overheard me do the song and dance you do when you’re not working. He interrupted and said, ‘Oh, my God, I love Alan Turing. I’ve been obsessed with him since I was a teenager and have always wanted to write that script.’”
Grossman called her partner and said, “I think we might have someone who will do this for us.” They brought him in and had him pitch them, because he was writing a half-hour comedy show. “He was really passionate about the material,” she says. “We worked on it together for about a year, went through a few drafts, and then we showed it to people.”


Moore wanted to find a way to tell this story, says Ostrowsky, “in a way that felt unconventional and that threaded all the different layers of Alan Turing’s life. He approached Alan with a great sense of humility, because how can you possibly, in one film, tell the story of such a brilliant genius? It’s near-impossible. He’s trying to keep all those balls in the air and tell a story that isn’t reductive — that still lets us sit with Alan Turing, but hopefully by seeing it through three different storylines, we get as close to his essence as we can in that time frame.” 
The script generated heat and attention, so the producers tried to go down the studio-system route with Warner Bros. and Leonardo DiCaprio as Turing. “We had interest from a lot of great actors and a lot of great directors,” says Grossman, “but we decided to go with the studio. We had a strict Progress of Production language, which is that if they didn’t make it within a certain amount of time we got it back, so, when we were there, they had three months to get a director, another three months to get an actor, and if they weren’t in production for twelve months, we got it back. We ended up getting it back.”

“We were very naïve then,” says Ostrowsky. “After about a year, the studio came to their senses and thought, ‘this isn’t the commercial, all-four-quadrants movie we should be making.’ So, fortunately, we were able to get the project back, which isn’t always the case. It was during that time the script topped the Black List, so there was a lot of interest, and it felt like we could definitely find a way to finance it. But what we needed was to partner with somebody who really shared our creative vision and was passionate about it, and absolutely determined to make the film.”

That’s where financier Teddy Schwarzman (“All is Lost”) came in. “It’s a strange thing where you read thousands of screenplays each year, and there are a few that you read and just need to be a part of,” he says. “I was lucky that, when the opportunity really arose, the three of us just connected from an understanding of the movie that we wanted to make.” They decided to shoot it completely independently and filmed it for $15 million dollars in the U.K., completely financed by Schwarzman with a few foreign territories sold upfront, but no bank to lend against it. 

Along the way several directors were in the mix such as Ron Howard; with three American producers and one American screenwriter they preferred to hire a British director. They needed someone who “could understand the drama,” says Schwarzman, “but who could bring a level of playfulness and appreciate the humor of this film while, at the same time, understanding that there were tremendous stakes and a great importance, and that we needed to have some tension.” 

Norwegian Morten Tyldum, who directed indie hit “Headhunters,” had moved to L.A. and was being wooed by the studios to make his first English-language film. The producers had a Skype meeting with him. “We knew Morten was capable of winding this into one film,” says Schwarzman, “but would he understand the emotion and what was driving this story? It was apparent within 48 hours that he was our director.”

“The movie is a testament to Morten,” says Ostrowsky. “It’s really about keeping that sense of tension alive while still hitting the character study, which is a more nuanced, slow burn in the film.”

Benedict Cumberbatch was Tyldum’s first choice for Turing; when the director read the script, that’s who he had in mind. It’s hard to imagine anyone else pulling off this edgy character quite so well. When the project was at Warners, Cumberbatch had read it and raised his hand. The producers put him and Tyldum on Skype as they each tried to woo the other.

What is so moving about this story is that Turing contributed so much and didn’t deserve to be treated the way he ultimately was. As Turing, Cumberbatch displays a range of charm, guile, and intuitive behavior to get what he wants. He’s finally quite winning.

The team debated how far to go with Turing’s Asperger’s syndrome. “It’s a difficult thing to diagnose, retroactively,” says Ostrowsky, “but what Benedict was attracted to about Alan, just in general, was a way to play the character where he wasn’t defined by any one aspect. He wasn’t just a gay icon or just the father of computer theory, but someone who really challenged all the limitations and definitions of his time. For him, it was really about never labeling him and playing him as a human, which I think sometimes gets lost in the conversation, because now he’s become so iconic.”

The real Turing was a complicated man who in work settings could be incredibly acerbic. “He could be mid-conversation with six people and then just walk out of the room without telling anybody where he was going or what he was doing,” says Schwarzman, “come back 20 minutes later, and pick the conversation up at the same spot. Or he could go to a Christmas dinner and spend the entire evening playing games with the children, playing chess with his hands behind his back. There was a level of emotional intelligence that he had at times, but it was unpredictable.”

And humor was important, too, “just making sure we saw some nuance,” says Ostrowsky. “Hopefully you  laugh at those moments, because we didn’t want to just stay on the morose darkness of the story. Hopefully there are a lot of human moments and moments of levity interspersed throughout.”

One frequent criticism is that there should have been more homosexuality in the film. “Well, the criticism out there is, ‘Why didn’t we have a grown-up scene of Alan Turing being intimate with another man?'” says Schwarzman, “because we’re somehow trying to hide the homosexual side of this film. To anybody who’s seen it, you can sense the beauty, tragedy, and emotion of the love story that underlines this entire film between Alan Turing and Christopher Morcom.”

“What we didn’t want to do was cheapen the film. We wanted to focus on the only relationship in Alan’s life that was meaningful to him. Even after Christopher Morcom passed away, Turing, for the rest of his life, wrote Christopher’s mother letters, letting her know about all the developments he was making from a scientific and mathematical standpoint, and how they were a part of Christopher’s inspiration to Alan and his care for him. We certainly could have put in a sex scene, to show he was gay, but we didn’t think it was necessary for the film.”

There’s so much material on Turing that there isn’t room for every aspect of him to be fully realized. “One of the burdens of making this film is that Turing’s life is even richer than what we were able to put onscreen,” says Schwarzman. “There are so many more developments he made from a mathematical and scientific standpoint after the war, and he’s really credited as the founder of artificial intelligence — which we tried to work into the interrogation scene. The work that he was doing was so far advanced of anybody he was around, but it’s just difficult to tackle certain areas.”

Some have also criticized the prominence of Joan Clarke, the character played by Keira Knightleywho plays a valuable balancing role in the film. She’s a buffer for Turing and his team; she makes the communications better, and is an engine for revealing Turing’s secrecy and homosexuality. 
“Joan Clarke and Alan Turing were engaged for six months,” says Schwarzman. “At the time of his proposal, he told her that he had homosexual tendencies, to which she replied much in the same way she does to the break-up — that they can make this work. Six months in, the sort of social convention Turing thought he could adopt was impossible, so they called off the engagement. But they worked every shift together, went on bike rides together, played chess together, and even after the break-up — after the war — they remained the best of friends.”

“Joan was a critical part of the team,” adds Ostrowsky.”It’s so important that it introduced a feminist strain to the story. Much is made of Alan being a homosexual, but this story really hinges on an appreciation for the outsider, or people who feel that they’re outsiders. There’s a beautiful symmetry between their outsider statuses and society in general. The whole time, we were protective of keeping Joan front and center, and portraying their relationship in a really pure, beautiful way.”
Meanwhile Harvey Weinstein was trying to buy the film, and made several offers during production.  “But, at the same time, we were adamant that we wanted to shoot and edit the film, we wanted to know where we were before we found a distribution partner,” says Schwarzman. “But we wanted, at the same time, to make sure we had a partner early enough that we could make sure it had a release in the fall.”
So the Weinstein Company ended up attending the Berlin Film Festival last February, where the producers showed a reel of the first fifteen minutes. “We walked the U.S. and international distributors beat-by-beat through the film,” says Schwarzman. “It was, from our standpoint, a really ugly reel, because it didn’t have the mystery and secrecy and layering of the multiple time frames as they unfold. But it allowed people to understand what we were doing with the film.” 

Weinstein liked it enough to plunk down a record $7 million at the European Film Market for U.S. rights.

Credit is also due to Oscar-winning “Argo” and “Zero Dark Thirty” editor William Goldenberg, who had to make painful cuts for length, and composer Alexandre Desplat, who has been nominated for six Oscars (“The King’s Speech,” “Philomena,” “Argo” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), and saved the day when the first composer didn’t pan out.

“Because there’s such a variety of tones and different storylines, being inside of Alan’s head — young love, world war — there are so many tones that had to be mastered, that it took us many, many months to realize we weren’t getting there,” says Schwarzman. “Desplat came on three-and-a-half weeks before our final mix. For us, to try to make all these stories intertwine, we really needed the right music to tap into the different emotions going on in the different time periods. When Alexander stepped in, another film needed him, so he said, ‘I can give you three weeks. That’s all I have, but I’m absolutely in love with this film.’ With one cue, we knew he had it, and the rest of it just followed. We started on a mix stage, because it was so rushed, but he just worked 24 hours a day.”

The Weinstein Co. is rolling out several “The Imitation Game” marketing campaigns –the movie is tricky to capture in a trailer–including a high-quality prestige approach, as well as a World War II thriller angle. They pushed the film back to November 28 over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, when it will start off limited, and then next month, go wide, on Christmas.

This Article is related to: Interviews and tagged , , , , , , , , ,