One of the most anticipated movies of the year has its roots in computer camp.
“The Imitation Game,” which had its area premiere at the Middleburg (Virginia) Film Festival last weekend and opens in Washington on Dec. 12, is about one of the most fascinating figures in 20th century history: Alan Turing, the gay cryptologist who broke the Nazi Enigma Code. Turing was an unsung hero of World War II and a victim of the legal and social turmoil that followed in its wake.
The movie’s director, Morten Tyldum, is fascinated by the man and his story.
“His achievements are so staggering,” Tyldum says. “Alan Turing theorized the computer in 1935 when he was 23 years old. He broke the Nazi Enigma machine which shortened the war by years and saved millions of lives. This man should have been on the front page of my history book when I was in school.”
Instead, Turing’s story was kept hidden for years. After the war, Tyldum explains, the newly formed British intelligence service MI6 hid Turing’s exploits from public view.
“They put the lid on it. Everything was kept secret. All the papers were burned and they threatened everyone to keep quiet about it. And then after the war he was persecuted for being a gay man.”
In 1952, Turing was arrested for acts of “gross indecency” and forced to undergo chemical castration.
The computer camp link comes from the movie’s screenwriter Graham Moore, who admits that he was a massive computer nerd when he was a teenager.
“I was obsessed with computer science,” Moore says. “I went to space camp. I went to math camp. I went to computer programming camp.”
Moore reveals that “among awkward nerdy teenage computer science dorks, Alan Turing is an object of intense fascination and cult-like devotion. He’s the patron saint of folks like me, the consummate outsider. And because he was an outsider in so many ways to his own society and to his own times, he was able to see the world in a way no one else did, and he was able to accomplish wonders that no one else thought were possible.”
Moore wanted to tell Turing’s story, but he thought the odds were against him.
“I dreamed my whole life about writing about him, but there’s this moment when you realize that a movie about a gay English mathematician in the 1940s who commits suicide will be unfinancable.”
Luckily, Moore met producers Nora Grossman and Ido Ostrowsky at a Hollywood party and the trio decided to make the movie.
They brought Norwegian director Morten Tyldum on board, and the pair had a period of six months to refine the script. They left Moore’s fascinating overall structure in place. He tells the story from three different vantage points: Turing’s experiences at boarding school where he falls in love with both his friend Christopher and the science of cryptography (the socially awkward Turing discovers he is better at deciphering codes than reading human emotions); Turing and his colleagues working at the top-secret Bletchley Park facility to break the unbreakable code; and, the aftermath of Turing’s arrest for homosexual acts.
According to Tyldum, this elegant structure turns the movie into an investigation.
“Alan Turing is a puzzle,” he says. “There is a mystery to him and we wanted the movie to jump back and forth between the most important moments in his life. It was a huge challenge to balance that, to make everything flow.”
As Tyldum and Moore worked to strengthen the overall story arc and to streamline individual scenes, they acted out the entire movie. When they worked on scenes between Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Joan Clarke (Turing’s colleague and briefly his fiancé, played by Keira Knightley), Moore reveals, “I would always play Keira’s part and Morten would play Benedict’s part. We would do the scenes over and over again to try and find different ways to do things. We are very lucky that there is no photographic or video record of these rehearsals.”
Tyldum adds, “We had some really tender emotional moments between us. I think we were pretty good.”
In these sessions, Moore also played John Cairncross, a Scottish mathematician who was one of Turing’s codebreaking colleagues at Bletchley Park. That role eventually went to Irish actor Allen Leech, best known to American audiences for his role as the (former) chauffeur Branson in the wildly popular BBC series “Downton Abbey” and as the gay fashion designer Vincent in the indie release “Cowboys and Angels.”
Cairncross is a complex character with a secret of his own. Leech says, “It’s always great to play a character that has information that others don’t because knowledge is power. With Cairncross, there isn’t any shock or horror when he discovers that Turing is a homosexual. He just uses Turing’s secret to protect his own.”
Leech notes that the relationship between the two men was complicated. Leech points out, “I also think that he was a friend. He warns Turing that, ‘You can’t tell anyone. It’s illegal.’ It’s a genuine act of friendship. They’ve both committed acts that if they’re caught they could go to prison for.”
Once the script and the cast were in place, Tyldum led the company through an intense (and very short) eight-week shoot. “It was insane,” the director remembers. “We had to shoot fast and cover a lot of ground quickly. It was just very focused hard work.”
Many of the scenes were shot on the sites where they really occurred, including the interior scenes at Bletchley Park (which is now a museum). Leech says that was an incredible experience.
He says, “You could almost feel their presence, almost like their ghosts were in the room. Matthew Goode (who plays another of the codebreakers) kept saying, ‘If we dusted for fingerprints I’m pretty sure we could find Alan Turing in this building.’ The fact that all these amazing minds and all these wonderful people were there, it gives you a real sense of awe.”
Tyldum also emphasizes that they were able to use some of the real artifacts that Turing and his team used.
“We used the real Enigma machines,” Tyldum says. “There is something about touching those buttons. It’s a reminder that this really happened. It does something for the performers. It’s about the responsibility we have to do justice to the legacy of these people.”
Once the publicity tour is over, Moore goes back to his writing desk to finish his second novel. He’s the author of the New York Times bestseller “The Sherlockian” which weaves together the story of Arthur Conan Doyle and a contemporary investigator.
Tyldum is carefully searching for his next project.
“For my sake,” he says, “I want to make the right choice. You have to be in love with the project. If you can ever find a reason not to do it, don’t do it. It’s going to take years of your life.”
As for Allen Leech, he’s headed back to the English countryside to work with Maggie Smith and his cast mates on “Downton Abbey” After all, he says, “the big house isn’t going to take care of itself.”
Turing doc ‘Codebreaker’ still enjoying success
Out filmmaker Patrick Sammon, whose 2011 docudrama “Codebreaker” told the story of Alan Turing’s life, says he heard a big-screen Hollywood adaptation was planned on Turing but says the two projects are different enough that there’s no substantial overlap or conflict of interest.
“I don’t see it as competition at all,” Sammon, president of Story Center Productions, a documentary production company based in Washington, says. “The reality is that any Hollywood version tends to stray from the historical facts so we’ll see what happens. With ‘Imitation Game,’ hopefully, you know, they’ll stick mostly to the facts and I’m sure the message of Turing’s life will be conveyed. The bottom line is I see it as very complementary and the distribution companies are very excited. They think ‘Imitation Game’ will only increase interest in ‘Codebreaker’ and that’s often the case with a documentary when a Hollywood feature film gets made. … People who see it are more inclined to do some digging so it has the potential to draw more people to ‘Codebreaker.’”
Although Sammon’s 62-minute work was shown on TV in the U.K. and has been available on DVD and Netflix after a 2012 U.S. theatrical release, Sammon has been hosting screenings heavily ever since. He’s had 10 in the last six weeks and has more planned. His film has played in about 20 countries and been picked up as far away as China, Australia and New Zealand.
“I had hoped it would have a little bit of a shelf life because I thought the story was timeless,” he says. “Even though it’s been out awhile, it’s not a dated story and there’s always someone who’s new to the Alan Turing story.”
— JOEY DiGUGLIELMO