Benedict Cumberbatch turns in a fantastic performance as the tortured, socially maladjusted genius who broke the code of the nazi enigma machine and helped win WWII for Britain and the Allied Forces. Playing Christmas Day in theaters.
His machine was never perfected, though it generated a whole field of research into what became known as “Turing Machines”. Today we call them “computers”.
Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum, 2012 BAFTA nominee for “Headhunters”, directs from a screenplay by Graham Moore, based on the book “Alan Turing: The Enigma” by Andrew Hodges.
Graham Moore sums up the feelings of all involved: “The story of Alan Turing came to a very tragic end, but we wanted to make a film that was a celebration of him and of his life, as well as his work. I hope this film will bring people close to a difficult and complicated figure, which they would not otherwise have been able to do. He’s unlike anyone an of us will have ever known and it was always my goal to make the audience feel close to him, to put them inside his head, into his experiences. I hope that they will look up at the screen and feel that they understand this person, who is very removed from them in history, in time and place – and that they get a sense of what a tremendous human being he was.”
The film was shot in England over eight weeks on locations in London, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Dorset, including a Victorian mansion which was the former home of author and naval intelligence officer Ian Fleming, a disused RAF base, King’s Cross station, Sherborne School, where the young Turing was educated and the Bletchley Park codebreaking centre itself, with some interiors filmed at HDS/CHAK89 Studios in Middlesex.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
The incredibly true, yet largely unknown story of British cryptanalyst Alan Turing spread like wildfire among the Hollywood community in December of 2011. It was then that Graham Moore’s nascent screenplay illuminating Turing’s life, THE IMITATION GAME, placed first on the legendary Black List – Hollywood executives’ ranking of the most-liked yet still unproduced screenplays.
Teddy Schwarzman, head of film production and financing company Black Bear Pictures, was hooked at first read. “It was a real page-turner, but so dense, so rich with historical significance, with a riveting, misunderstood protagonist. It was a script where you very clearly saw the movie and it was written in a very intelligent way, with highly stylized dialogue, but never putting anything at the forefront other than the characters.” Schwarzman knew it would fit perfectly into Black Bear’s canon: original, engaging and complex character-driven stories such as their recently acclaimed ALL IS LOST, starring Robert Redford.
The script’s inception had a richer history than many knew. In late 2009, Bristol Automotive producers Nora Grossman and Ido Ostrowsky caught a news report of a speech by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, apologizing on behalf of the British Government for the treatment of Alan Turing after World War II. Not familiar with Turing’s story, they researched and discovered an extraordinary life unknown to most people, particularly in the US. They immediately optioned Andrew Hodges’ Turing biography and were discussing it a party, where the guests included Graham Moore. The young novelist professed his love for Turing and the trio hatched a plan for a script. The title of a post-war paper Turing wrote served as Moore’s inspiration. It detailed a method Turing invented to determine whether something is a machine or a real person. A test of sorts, but to Turing, a game – The Imitation Game.
The fall of 2012 found Grossman and Ostrowsky seeking a new home for the project after a possible studio collaboration. Amidst a pack of suitors, the team met Schwarzman and a partnership was expeditiously born. Schwarzman, Grossman, Ostrowsky and Moore found that they very much wanted to tell the same story the same way, paying homage to an extraordinary life while honoring the tale’s most challenging and unique elements.
“It’s an amazing life story,” marvels Moore. “It’s one of those which, if you’d made it up, wouldn’t have been believable: that one person lived through so many dramatic things, that one person is a genius, a war hero, invented the computer, was prosecuted by the Government for homosexuality and committed suicide – it’s all these movies in one. It’s shocking that it’s true. “
Despite the extraordinary circumstances surrounding Turing’s life, the team all identified a personal admiration for and connection to his story.
Schwarzman shares Moore’s enthusiasm: “It’s a story that the world needed to hear. The Poles and Brits had worked on breaking the code for years and hadn’t made sufficient progress, so to have a professor walk into to Bletchley Park with no real training and find a way to solve an impossible
problem, is just riveting. I wanted people to know what Turing had accomplished before, during and after his time at Bletchley Park. He was embraced for his uniqueness and in the process, saved countless lives.
From a thematic standpoint, Schwarzman also connected with the script. “I tend to appreciate the outsider, the thinker, who’s doing things that others deem extraneous or superfluous or wrong and yet who, through his own sheer will, finds a way to make an impact. This is the story of one man who made something from nothing, profoundly influencing generations to come.”
Moore was taken by Turing’s work – and the tremendous breadth of his devotees. He recalls, “When I was a teenager, I was massively into computer science. I went to computer camp. I was really into programming and, among computer science folks, Turing is this object of cult-like fascination. Because he was this unheralded early inventor of the computer, to whom history hadn’t done justice, he was always talked about, from the Steve Jobs’s and the Bill Gates’s of this world, right down to little teenage me. I feel that this film is the most important thing I will ever be a part of. I don’t know that I will get to do anything I love so much ever again, but I’m very glad I got to do it this time.”
With their vision in place, the producers set out to assemble an artistic team as passionate and impressive as the material itself. “We knew we had a script that was special, that combined a conventional biopic, a character study and a thriller, so we knew we wanted a director who wouldn’t deliver the sort of biopic we’ve all seen before,” notes Ostrowsky.
The search for the perfect fit was of great importance. The team knew it was a rare candidate that could synthesize all of the narrative elements at work with the scope and nuance necessary to give Turing’s story its due.
“There were a number of truly talented directors interested in making this film, and we were honored by their interest,” Schwarzman recalls. “The film had an American writer and American producers, so we knew right away that the film must be shot in the UK to ground it in its historical roots. “ But it was an unlikely choice that blindsided the team. “Ultimately it was a Norwegian who blew me away with his true understanding of the characters. Morten Tyldum knew what was driving everybody in the story and that it was a story of love and loss and triumph.”
Still a relative unknown in the U.S., Norwegian helmer Tyldum had directed several films in his native Norway, including the BAFTA-nominated HEADHUNTERS. “I just loved, loved, loved that film. If you take apart all the elements that were embodied in that film, they all translate to the individual aspects that are needed in ours. There is a sense of propulsion, a sense of tension, a race against time, a hunt that is happening. There is an unlikeable protagonist who we can’t help but invest in. There is humor and levity at times, when it is very much needed. There’s a sense of artistic mastery in the way that the film was shot where, if we had a director who did something of that much skill on that film and passionately enough to tell that story, I felt very confident that he could do something really special with ours.”
Moore had a meeting with Tyldum and knew he was absolutely the man for the job: “I never dreamed that we would end up with a director with the level of skill and craft that Morten brings to this movie. From the first second I sat down with him – I left the meeting and called everyone else and said ‘It has to be this guy. This is the director of the film. He just got it – and so instinctively.'”
Schwarzman emphasizes, “You need someone inspirational as your director, you need someone confident in their vision, but at the same time, collaborative in their process, with emotional sensitivity and who really understands what type of performance they’re looking to put on the screen. And I left my two meetings in 48 hours with Morten, feeling completely confident in his vision for the film.”
For Tyldum’s part, staying true to Alan’s iconoclastic roots was essential to bringing THE IMITATION GAME to the screen. “It’s a very important story that’s a tribute to being different and how essential it is to have people who think differently, not following a norm, in society,” says Tyldum. “Turing faced a great injustice, but never compromised his ideals. And the world is better because of his bravery.”
Tyldum saw a bit of that outsider status in his own role and wanted to use his non-British heritage to the film’s advantage. “I think it’s good to have an outside view of it, as it naturally leads to an emphasis on the universal elements of the story. This was a special time in British history, make no mistake. But these ideas of Alan’s, they were so much bigger than the time and the war. So, I think this movie is more than just a period drama. It’s much bigger and much more important than that.”
With Tyldum in place, attention turned to casting the role upon which the entire film rests. The film needed an actor that could synthesize Turing’s genius, his humanity and myriad complexities. “Even before I got this movie and even before he was established in the USA, I said Benedict Cumberbatch must play Alan Turing,” remembers the director. “I think Benedict has that mix of sensitivity and strength and there are not too many people who can portray a genius and for it to become believable. There’s so much inner life that he conveys. You really believe that Benedict becomes Alan Turing and you one hundred percent believe that this man is capable of generating these big ideas.”
Moore recalls his excitement of finding the match for Alan. “Benedict coming on board felt like winning the lottery. He is in almost every frame of this movie. There are very few actors in the world who can handle a part like that. Turing is not only a genius, but he’s gay. He’s not only gay, but he’s closeted. He’s not only closeted, but he has to win the Second World War. Benedict doesn’t just convey the intelligence of Alan Turing, he embodies it. His level of devotion to this character is a level of devotion that would rival Alan Turing himself.”
“You have to believe the actor playing Alan is incredibly intelligent – and with Benedict that’s never in question,” echoes Ostrowsky. “You can see how sharp he is and how curious he is and also how mysterious and enigmatic he is.” It was a unanimous sentiment.
The next challenge was finding the actress to play Joan Clarke, Alan’s sparring partner in both work and life, and a brilliant mathematician in her own right. A woman ahead of her time, Joan is a multi- faceted character that would require an actor of veteran skill. Enter Academy Award® nominee Keira Knightley. “I was thrilled that Keira wanted to play Joan,” says Tyldum. “She brought so much power, but also vulnerability to the character. She steals the scenes she’s in. She’s marvelous and I think quite different from her performances in other period films. She is able to portray someone who is as capable and intelligent as Turing himself. And it is because she possesses all of these qualities that Alan does not, that she becomes so important in his life. There’s such a great chemistry between them.”
The final piece of the atom in the Bletchley nucleus belonged to the role of Hugh Alexander. Another exceedingly accomplished man, Hugh possesses a winning charm and extreme good looks in addition to an exemplary affinity for numbers.
Building the ensemble led to an embarrassment of riches of British talent. “I have the perfect cast,” Tyldum says. “It’s impossible to look away from Mark Strong – in every scene he’s in. Charles Dance brings such authority to his role. He’s born to be this military leader. Rory Kinnear gives such a layered performance as Nock. And the codebreakers – Allen and Matthew – I’m so lucky to have worked with this group of actors. I can’t praise them enough.”
While historical accuracy was paramount on the filmmakers’ agenda, Moore highlights the creative enhancements that heighten the experience of the film. Detective Nock, for example, played by Rory Kinnear, is a conduit for the audience’s involvement in the story. “Detective Nock is a fake name – he was named after my old roommate,” admits the writer. “He gives us another perspective
– putting the audience in the head of the police officer who arrested him, we can see how a normal person, not a bad person, could end up doing this horrible thing to Alan. We didn’t want to create this story of Alan being a sad character that bad things happened to, so we decide to show his final years through the perspective of this fictional detective. We used Nock to create this mystery around Turing – who is he? What makes him tick? It also helps to make the audience feel culpable about what happened to Turing. Nock is not a bad person, not an evil person. The terrible thing that happened to Turing was not his fault and was deeply unfair and the injustice of that is something we all have to reckon with.”
To complement the pedigree of the cast, the filmmakers needed a top-notch production team. Tyldum had a specific visual schema in mind from the start and without sacrificing realism, wanted the absolute most dynamic version of the visual look. Tyldum notes: “I wanted cinematographer Óscar Faura to do the movie after I saw THE IMPOSSIBLE – it was so beautifully shot. I saw THE ORPHANAGE immediately afterwards and the way he lights it is so beautiful and atmospheric. I’m delighted to have found a director of photography who’s so respectful of the period, recapturing its tragic elegance in such a pronounced way.”
Production designer Maria Djurkovic had Tyldum’s admiration from the start. “She gave me so much, recreating that world and also Sammy Sheldon Differ the costume designer who made it all unglamorous, but intriguing and stylish. I had wonderful heads of department for the whole shoot.
“The crew in the UK was very professional and their work was to such a high standard. It was a very multicultural and international production – we had a Norwegian director, American producers, a Spanish camera team and a British crew and it all worked very well.”
Maria Djurkovic’s production design was not restricted by the exigencies of the wartime environment: ” My job is to respond to the script – for me the most important thing is finding an overall aesthetic for the film – and it’s not just about it being a period film, set between this year and another year, the historical research is part of our DNA, that’s taken for granted.
“There are certain expectations people have of a period and I always like to slightly subvert them. And I’m also trying to make sure that every location choice and every design choice works aesthetically as an overall entity and is not just cut into different scenes. The look of the films that I design tend to have a slightly heightened quality.
“The 1940s’ color palette was pretty drab, but actually, if you start looking at the research material, the thing that’s central to this film in design terms is Turing’s creation of the Bombe, his code- breaking machine, so that’s our starting point. Going to Bletchley and actually seeing it functioning was wonderful, this extraordinary lumbering thing, with a million red cables spewing out of it.
“We had to make the Bombe look as though it works, with all its dials going round. It has to look like the real thing, but it has to look more interesting than the real thing! And we had to do it with limited money and limited time. It’s the first computer, it’s incredible, this amazing invention and without it, who knows what would have happened? It’s not just central to our film, it’s central to our history. The real thing is within a Bakelite box, so we decided very early on that, to make it more interesting, our ‘Christopher’ would look as it did before it was encased in the black box, so you actually see its guts and its entrails!”
Costume designer Sammy Sheldon Differ also found herself challenged to present the most dynamic version of the period. “Morten didn’t want it to have that subdued 1940s feel, he wanted it to have a bit more life to it than that, so we talked about the use of color – some of the photos I had researched were in color – and there was more of it at the time than you would imagine. It interested me that there were these blues and reds and greens that aren’t often conveyed in films and TV about this period. We looked at the real characters that are in the script and I wanted to convey as much as possible of who they really were and as faithfully as possible, but also using color as a way of telling the story.
“We tried to use clothing of the period as much as possible – we looked for coupon clothing, with the CC41 label in, which was given out under rationing. Benedict had done a lot of research and, when he put something on, he knew if it felt right. “
Alan Turing’s story made a deep and lasting impression on the director, producers, cast and crew and Benedict Cumberbatch relished the opportunity to walk in the great man’s shoes. “Filming at Bletchley Park was extraordinary – just to be on those grounds and walking across those lawns and under those trees which were there before they were and will be there long after us. It’s such an important part of our history and our secret history and there were those moments when you’d think there was something rather ghostly about what we were doing.”