Last week, right after he won the Writers Guild of America prize for Best Adapted Screenplay, Graham Moore took some time out of his day to get on the phone with me and have a chat about bringing the story of mathematician Alan Turing to the screen with The Imitation Game. The interview was a chance to try and get a bit into the headspace of someone potentially about to become an Academy Award winner, particularly after that WGA win. Below you’ll see the highlights of my talk with Moore, who’s a very nice guy. I’m sure you’ve all seen The Imitation Game (which is directed by Morten Tyldum and stars Benedict Cumberbatch as well as Keira Knightley, all of whom are up for awards) by now, and stay tuned to see if it winds up winning any Oscars this Sunday night! Moore is the Adapted Screenplay frontrunner, so he just might be about to put a statue on his mantle. Stay tuned there.
Here now is the best of my talk with Moore…
What led him to first sit down and write The Imitation Game
Graham Moore – You know, I had wanted to write about Alan Turing since I was a teenager. I was lucky enough to have been exposed to his story very young. It always seemed amazing to me that it had never been told on screen before. There had been a wonderful play about him and some books, but never a sort of proper narrative film, and it always seemed to me that if anyone’s life story deserved to be told on screen, it was Alan Turing’s. So, as I grew up and became a writer, I would sort of say to people “how come no one’s ever made a film about Alan Turing?” It’s such an amazingly important story, and such a manifestly compelling one. You know, of course you call around town in Los Angeles and you go “hey, I want to write a film about a gay English mathematician in the 1940s. Oh, and he’s going to commit suicide.” You know, those aren’t necessarily the buzzwords that Hollywood executives want to hear. To me though, it was such an important story. Then, once I moved out to LA I was fortunate enough to have met Nora Grossman, our producer, who had a party at her house, which turned out to be very fateful. It turned out that she had just optioned the rights to my very first book. She told me that and I was like “cheers, what’s the book about?” She said “oh, it’s a biography of this mathematician, his name is Alan Turing, you’ve never heard of him.” I was like “oh my god! I’ve wanted to write about him my whole life, please let me do this!” That began months of me begging her and her producing partner to let me come on.
From that point, you know, I was writing on spec, so there were no deadlines, there were no due dates, there was no kind of corporate entity looking over our shoulders. We could tell the Turing story the way we wanted to and the way that we thought was fair and responsible to him. I think also that working with a real story, you know, there is the thought in the back of your head everyday that this isn’t my story, this is Alan’s. We’re doing this for him. We’re making this film because history treated him so poorly and the goal of the film is to provide some very small historical corrective to that. So, you know, as I started writing, first there was six months of research, just reading everything possible about him, everything I could get my hands on, especially because so much of it was classified and burned after the war, it was hard to find. A lot of times we had to make very educated interpretations from various data points, figuring out what really happened. It was always how to tell Alan’s story fairly and responsibly. It was a very nerve racking thing when I first started writing the screenplay. This was Alan Turing’s story and god I better not be the guy to screw this up.
On how the Black List citation got the ball rolling and the response by the cast to the script/story
GM – It was really flattering to sort of have that recognition, to have that support from the industry. It was really invaluable in getting the movie financed and made. You know, it speaks to how innately compelling the story is. One of the things we’ve been so lucky about has been, since so many people don’t know Alan’s story because of how horrible he was treated historically, so when people find out about it, they want to know how they can help and want to be a part of the film. I know Benedict Cumberbatch first read the script because of The Black List, over a year before we were even at the casting point, and he was calling to say that this is amazing and to let me know when you’re shooting, I’ll be there. Keira Knightley did the same, you know. She called us and said to tell her how she could help. It was so flattering for us, having people at every step of the way, so many wonderful people, from Alexandre Desplat to Billy Goldenberg, sort of raise their hands.
What it was like on set and when it first screened as a finished product during the festival season
GM – I remember, we were lucky enough to have three weeks of rehearsals prior to shooting, which for me was the most fun part of the whole process. It was just three weeks in a little chilly rehearsal room on the west side of London, with the whole cast, Morten (Tyldum) our director, me, and just going over all the scenes, playing around, trying different things, and experimenting. As Morten said at the beginning “rehearsals are not where we figure out what to do, they’re where we figure out what not to do, so let’s make all of our mistakes right now.” There’s something really creatively freeing about that, it meant we could all just try stuff. It was my first film, I’d never done any of this before, so I feel like I learned so much from the cast. Just watching Benedict transform into Alan and seeing how he could do so much with just a little motion. As a writer, I came from a prose background, so my tendency is always to communicate with words, but Benedict and Keira could do so much with just the slightest expression on their faces. We started pulling chunks of dialogue even then, you know? It was a moving experience to watch, and also just to see how committed they all were. I’d been so obsessed with Alan Turing from such a young age, and it always felt like my private and secret little obsession, so to see our cast and our director and everyone get caught up in their own obsession, it was like watching my obsession become everyone’s obsession. It was just incredibly moving for me.
Then it screened for an audience a year later and it was a terrifying thing! The first time we screened it for a real audience was at Telluride and I was so sick to my stomach in the theater. We knew how much we loved the film, but we had no idea what anyone else would make of it. So, I was sitting with everyone, sick to my stomach and really nervous. The movie plays, and at the end there was applause, but there wasn’t like crazy applause, so instantly I thought that they hated it. Did that go really badly? Like, why would they be so quiet right now? It felt like a really quiet room and I was about to throw up. I was so scared, but then I turned around and I remember behind me was a row of journalists and film critics. I turned and I see their faces, and when the lights go up I see that they’re all crying and dabbing their eyes with tissues. That was my moment of “phew!” This worked.
On deciding what to include and what not to include in the screenplay
GM – I think for me it was about trying to develop an organizing principle for the piece, since you know that you can’t include everything. You know that a life like Alan Turing’s, you’re never going to get everything in the film. What I wanted to do was to figure out narrative threads I could use to link things together, trying to get as much information out as we could in a way that felt organic to the film. You know, sometimes historical films, and biopics especially, can feel like someone is just standing in front of the camera reading Wikipedia pages to the audience. It’s just a beautiful recitation of historical points, and I never wanted the film to feel that way, and I know neither did Morten or anyone else on the team. It had to feel personal and dramatic. The goal became, in terms of getting things in, to think about how Alan Turing experienced these events. Can we show them the way that Alan experienced them? That provides and animating principle to get you from one scene to the next.
For example, the process of breaking the enigma code. Obviously, it’s extremely complicated and the mathematics here are stuff that very few people in the entire world can understand. We can’t just recite what happened, since frankly a two hour monologue could not explain the technical complexity that went into that, right? So, how do we do it? What did breaking the code feel like to Alan? Well, it felt like a thriller. It felt like he was in the middle of a spy movie. You imagine that here is this 27 year old guy, he’s never been outside of a university environment before in his life, and suddenly the war is on, he’s been plucked by MI6 to run this unit, he’s doing extremely high level espionage work alongside MI6, he’s literally working alongside Ian Fleming, who wrote the James Bond novels. We always wanted to include that, since it was just a funny detail, but there wasn’t space. This guy is literally living inside a James Bond novel, so that became a way to sort of organize the code breaking experience. Let’s show this with the aesthetics of a thriller because Alan would have experienced this like a thriller. Let’s put the audience inside his head and allow them to feel what Alan would have felt. That provides a way to collate and condense different material, to amalgamate different moments in a way that stays true to Alan’s experience of them.
What it’s like to be in the Oscar race and to hear his name mentioned as the frontrunner in Best Adapted Screenplay
GM – Um, it’s a mind boggling thing to try and wrap your head around. I think the way we’ve always felt on the team about the awards process has been that every time one of us gets to stand on a stage to accept an award or give a speech or even give an interview about the awards process, that’s another time to talk about Alan Turing publicly. It’s another time that his name gets to get out there. I think it’s helpful, the whole sort of process does such a weird thing to your head, I’ve personally found it really helpful to remember that it’s not about me, it’s about Alan. I’m here, I wrote this movie for him, and I wrote this movie about his legacy. He’s the genius. I’m just the writer, and I think that’s helpful for sort of dealing with the deep strangeness and sort of surreality of all the honors.
There you have the very best bits of my interview with Moore. Tune in this Sunday night to see if he/The Imitation Game winds up being a big winner, particularly in the Best Adapted Screenplay category…
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!