By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvall@aol.com

The Gronvall Report: Screenwriter Graham Moore on THE IMITATION GAME

Graham Moore is no slouch. He was only 29 when his debut novel, “The Sherlockian,” hit The New York Times bestseller list in 2010. Now his first feature film, The Imitation Game, is pegged for awards group plaudits in this year’s very crowded Oscar race. Adapting Andrew Hodges’s nonfiction book “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” screenwriter Moore (also the film’s executive producer) has crafted a biopic that may have a few purely fictional elements, but nonetheless sheds light on a real-life war hero whose professional achievements were long clouded–in the popular imagination, at least–by personal scandal in his final years.

In one of his most effective performances in an already stellar career, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing, a genius who headed a World War II British team charged with cracking coded messages sent by Enigma, the Nazis’ infamously unbreakable encryption machine. In succeeding with his mission, Turing became one of the founders of modern computer science; the machine he developed could break the German military codes—which changed daily at a precise time—as they were being transmitted. His team, headquartered in a compound called Bletchley Park, has been credited with shortening the war’s duration by at least two years.

There have been other film and TV productions about the Bletchley Park cryptanalysts, but The Imitation Game covers new ground by framing the war exploits within another narrative, one about how Turing’s life was ruined years later, after he was prosecuted and convicted for being gay. It’s no small feat to give an inspiring story and a sad one equal footing, but Moore’s script propels the action with bracing, pointed wit, giving a supporting cast that includes Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, Mark Strong, and “Downton Abbey’s” Allen Leech many moments to shine. Actually, “shine” is exactly what Moore himself does. The screenwriter returned to his hometown this fall during the Chicago International Film Festival to publicize the Weinstein Company release, and I was impressed with how articulate, self-composed, funny, and outgoing he wasas well as by the fact he showed up for an online interviewer in immaculately pressed attire, and a tie, no less.

Andrea Gronvall:  Whoa, I thought this was dress-casual! You look so spiffy.

Graham Moore:  This is my casual dress mode. I used to live in New York, where my flat was so small there was barely any space between my bed and my desk. But every morning I would get out of bed and put on a coat and tie before sitting down to write, telling myself writing was my job and I was getting dressed for work—which was like telling myself, dress for the job you want. Now I live in Los Angeles, where you can’t always tell by his clothes whether someone is homeless, or a millionaire!

AG:  In The Imitation Game you move back and forth between Turing’s wartime work at top-secret Bletchley Park, where he struggles to unravel the Enigma, and postwar Manchester, where Detective Robert Nock [Rory Kinnear] seeks to uncover Turing’s hidden past. Then we have the academic outsider parallels between Turing and the lone woman mathematician he hires, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley). You clearly are jazzed by mysteries, but you also like writing dual tracks of narrative, don’t you?

GM:  Yeah, in my first novel, “The Sherlockian,” I used dual, interlocking stories, too. But there has to be a reason for it. The reason for it in The Imitation Game is that I had to fit into two hours a narrative that crosses three decades: the 1950s, the 1940s, and the 1920s. He first falls in love [in the 1920s] with a Sherborne School classmate, Christopher, who introduces him to cryptography, and Alan then becomes fascinated by codes, ciphers, and puzzles. Decades later Turing used a newspaper crossword puzzle to recruit new members to his team of Enigma code-breakers. So I decided to tell the story in such a way that the audience winds up trying to solve a puzzle at the same time as Alan [and Detective Nock].

AG:  Your dialogue is smart and graceful, conveying a lot with economy. But I also like non-verbal moments you scripted, like the close-up of Nock late in the film, when in one shot we see so many emotions fleet across his face as he realizes what grave damage he’s done with his investigation.

GM:  [laughing] Well, I may have written the scene, but you have to credit Rory Kinnear for his skilled performance!

AG:  The Royal Navy and MI6 both threaten Turing and other team members with execution for treason, but in the end it is the nation—the British government—who is Alan’s betrayer. This is both ironic and deeply tragic. Was it your intention to suggest that Turing died for love? I ask because the screenplay personalizes Alan’s proto-computer by naming it Christopher.

GM:  I invented that the machine was called Christopher. There are about half a dozen other books about Turing that I consulted in addition to Hodges’ biography, including a more recent biography, “The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer,” by David Leavitt. And every major biographer agrees that Christopher Morcom was the first love of Turing’s life, and cites his affectionate letters to Christopher’s family [with whom Turing remained close after Christopher’s death]. Every major biographer agrees that Christopher inspired Alan to pursue his study of artificial intelligence: could people be brought back from the dead by using A.I. is one of the questions Turing hoped to answer.

AG:  What was your job description as executive producer?

GM:  The executive producer credit was a way of formalizing my involvement. I was on the set every day, and sat in on the edit. Earlier, I was involved in casting, came up with some names, and weighed in on casting choices. Everyone we asked to be in the film said yes.

AG:  Since childhood, you have been very keen on computers, and have steeped yourself in Turing lore. What new research did you do to bring his story to life on film?

GM:  We conducted as many firsthand interviews as possible with the surviving veterans of Bletchley Park. Benedict Cumberbatch met with members of Turing’s family, as well as a former secretary of Alan. We toured Bletchley Park, which is actually a museum now, to soak up its history and atmosphere. We shot scenes at Sherborne School just 20 feet from a memorial to Christopher. Whenever possible we shot on the real locations that figure in the movie. The Enigma machine you see is a genuine artifact. And the crossword puzzle shown is the same one the real Alan Turing had placed in the newspapers. One day on the set Allen Leech  [who plays John Cairncross] said wouldn’t it be fun if we all did the puzzle. But it turned out that not one of us could complete it!

Personally, it was great seeing my obsession with Turing spreading to others. The feeling on the set was so inclusive—everyone was encouraged to do their own research and bring in things that could amplify the story. Our director Morten Tyldum really got into digging stuff up. We were a team, and in some ways we felt like the wartime team at Bletchley Park. And we all believed that Alan’s story needed to be told.

Comments are closed.

Quote Unquotesee all »

The Atlantic: You saw that the Academy Awards recently held up your 2001 acceptance speech as the Platonic ideal of an Oscar speech. Did you have a reaction?

Soderbergh: Shock and dismay. When that popped up and people started texting me about it, I said, “Oh, it’s too bad I’m not there to tell the story of how that took place.” Well. I was not sober at the time. And I had nothing prepared because I knew I wasn’t going to win [Best Director for Traffic]. I figured Ridley, Ang or Daldry would win. So I was hitting the bar pretty hard, having a great night, feeling super-relaxed because I don’t have to get up there. So the combination of a 0.4 blood alcohol level and lack of preparation resulted in me, in my state of drunkenness crossed with adrenaline surge. I was coherent enough to know that [if I tried to thank everyone], that way lies destruction. So I went the other way. There were some people who appreciated that, and there were some people who really wanted to hear their names said, and I had to apologize to them.
~ Steven Soderbergh

 

“I have made few films in a way. I never made action films. I never made science fiction films. I never made, really, very complicated settings, because I had modest ambitions. I knew they would never trust me to have the budget to do something different, so my mind is more focused on things I know. So they were always mental adventures I wanted to approach and share. Working for cinema with no – not only no money, but also no ambition for money. I was happy and proud [to receive the honorary Oscar] because of that, that [the Academy] could understand what kind of work I have done over 60 years. I stayed faithful to the ideal of sharing emotion, impressions, and mostly because I have so much empathy for other people that I approach people who are not really spoken about. I have 65 years of work in my bag, and when I put the bag down, what comes out? It’s really the desire of finding links and relationships with different kinds of people. I never made a film about the bourgeoisie, about rich people. about nobility. My choices have been to show people that are, in a way, more common and see that each of them has something special and interesting, rare and beautiful. It’s my natural way of looking at people. I didn’t fight my instincts. And maybe that has been appreciated in the famous circle of Hollywood.“

Agnes Varda