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Inside the Making of ‘The Imitation Game’ and Cracking the Alan Turing Code

Inside the Making of 'The Imitation Game' and Cracking the Alan Turing Code

Director Morten Tyldum aptly constructs the mystery as a crossword puzzle, inspiring his crew to also think outside the box. 

Production designer Maria Djukovic (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) subverted the usual World War II drama while staying true to the spirit of Turing’s troubled life: the story of an outsider and the celebration of being different because he outsmarted the Nazi Enigma code machine by constructing the first computer, only to be punished a decade later by the English homophobic code.

“For me, it’s important to find an aesthetic for the film that comes from reality rather than imposing something on it,” Djukovic explains.  She honed in on one tiny drawing that Turing made after the war when he lived in Manchester. While building his computer, he studied morphogenesis—how forms in biology and nature create themselves, such as leopard spots, zebra stripes, the whirls on a snail shell.

“There was a drawing that had such a graphic quality: a red ring and a black blob with various annotations. The geometry, the use of red, triggered a burst of creative inspiration. And all of the drawings that we see on the walls of his Manchester house are based on Turing’s work. What was also interesting for me was that real drawings of Turing exist for his machine designs. They’re very basic, squared notepaper with penned circles and with all the little markings, and we used those for the basis of a scene in Hut 8.”

And the color red infuses the movie, most particularly Turing’s computer, the bombe (or “Christopher,” after his first love as a youngster in boarding school). “We checked out a replica of the bombe and it wasn’t as interesting as the one we built. The real one is smaller and encased in a box. The dials in front are similar. But all the interesting life — the nerves of the machine — are in the back, and we made the decision there and then to actually split it into two pieces. We could open it up and make use of the mechanism.

“In terms of how we achieved it, drawings were done based on the reality. For example, the red wire spilling out of it. We turned it into something that feels like veins leading to it. We sent the dials that have to turn to a prop maker. The panels are fixed on the machine vertically and I thought it was one flat plane. So we shifted all the panels 30 to 60 degrees so it takes on another dimension. We made the backing for the dials out of sheets of plastic and literally as we were about to install it, it felt dead to me and we picked up some varnish and painted it.”

READ MORE: How Composer Alexandre Desplat Captures Different WWII Vibes for ‘Imitation Game’ and ‘Unbroken’

Cinematographer Oscar Faura (“The Orphanage”) wanted to achieve a film that was realistic and visually attractive without being too stylized. From the beginning, Faura and  Tyldum decided to shoot on film because there’s something about the texture of the negative that makes us connect more with certain genres.

“The film’s structure is not linear,” Faura emphasizes. “It switches from period to period so the look should be different but without a big visual leap when we change from one period to another. The story begins in Manchester in the ’50s. We wanted this to be the saddest part, visually speaking. We used gray tones and desaturated colors. We soaked the streets, we used artificial rain and we avoided sun when on location. For the ’30s, during Turing’s adolescence and his first love, we thought about brighter treatment, where the sun’s light would be more present to be able to evoke the innocence of those years as a young student.

“The story of the war period, during the 40s, was the main story line. Morten wanted to move away from the conventional color treatment for a war period. The art and costume department brought in vivid colors that broke with the cliché of ochre and brown colors that you would normally see in this kind of film,” Faura says.

“The laws during WWII in England were to turn off all the lights at night to avoid points of light that could guide the German bombing. The windows had to be blocked, the cars drove with their lights covered and the city lights were turned off at night. This particular thing, that had to be reflected on the film to be accurate, was another difficulty to be added to the night shootings on location because there was no source of light that we could use to justify the light source from us. ”

Costume designer Sammy Sheldon Differ (“Black Hawk Down”) zeroed in on a cheque shirt that Turing wore in a photograph from the early ’50s. It was an iconic look and she used it as reference for the biggest image of Turing. She then searched for a fabric to match the photograph. Same with the tie and texture of the jacket. She found an early ’40s tweed jacket and shirt made of fine wool.

“Turing was known as slightly eccentric when living in Manchester and would wear cheque pajamas and a coat,” Differ recalls. “We toyed with putting that into the film but then Mort and I thought it might a little misleading and too kooky. So we pulled back on that. He was too absorbed in his mathematical research to care about his clothes.

“In the photograph everything he put on was mismatched. He just threw a wardrobe together and often wore the same clothes. He looked disheveled during the war and in the ’50s he decided to take chemical castration to carry on his work and he put on weight. But we didn’t want a radical transformation, yet he’s seen wearing part of a pajama with dressing gown and a shirt to make him feel undressed.”

READ MORE: ‘The Imitation Game’: From Black List to Crowdpleasing Oscar Contender

Editor Billy Goldenberg (“Argo”), who also co-edited “Unbroken,” a completely different World War II biopic, rearranged sequences in the script to provide greater narrative drive. Not surprisingly, he talked mostly about Cumberbatch with Tyldum. 

“Benedict gave us such a wide range of performance that we talked a lot about what Alan was like, what were we trying to say about him. Was he Asperger’s, was he a smart aleck, was he smarter than everyone else and completely aware of it? How aware of himself was he? The wonderful thing about Benedict is that he gives you so many different colors. It was all about the shading of his performance, and the shading of the comedy.. It was about tone and not about structure.”

They decided that Turing wasn’t trying to be a smart ass. That’s the way he was. He was honest and straightforward about who he was and didn’t stand on ceremony with anyone. Thus he is unable to fit in, and only through Joan (Keira Knightley), his recruit and closest friend, is he able to work with other people to assemble a team.

“You want to make sure the audience follows along and is engaged so we cut some of the volume of the narration in the opening and some of the explanation of breaking the code,” Goldenberg explains. His favorite section occurs when Turing figures out how to break the Enigma based on something overheard in a beer hall. But in the process of breaking the Enigma, the code-crackers realize they can’t tell anybody. “I think it balances the thrill of it plus making it fun and exciting and then the tragic part of having to let hundreds of thousands of people die for the greater good. I just love the way the movie turns there and [the triumph] comes tumbling apart.”

The Oscar-winning editor insists they have an overwhelming responsibility to do justice to a person’s life. “And I find that very rewarding to work on. There’s something to grab on to that this really happened and an obsession with getting it right, not only for audiences to be engaged and love the movie but for the people that knew him and say that’s in the spirit of how it happened.”

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