‘Imitation Game’ writer has wanted to tell Alan Turing’s story since he was 14

LOS ANGELES – The last four years have been a whirlwind for screenwriter Graham Moore. After seizing the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tell the story of a childhood hero, his script based on Alan Turing's life – “The Imitation Game” – lit up the industry, landing at the top of The Black List (an annual compendium of hot unpublished screenplays). He was given the rare opportunity as a writer to see production all the way through as an Executive Producer, moving with the project in and out of the studio system, and in the mountains of Colorado last week, he witnessed the film catch fire after finally premiering at the Telluride Film Festival.

Now the 32-year-old finds himself working alongside directors like Michael Mann and Marc Forster, living the dream after having the best possible alignment of stars on his first major industry experience. With “The Imitation Game” set for another big coming out at the Toronto International Film Festival next week, I carved out some time to chat with Moore in between plane rides as he begins to steel himself for the season ahead. Because let's face it, a well-received historical biopic fronted by awards maven Harvey Weinstein is sure to make for a marathon this time of year.

(Note: There are casual beats in the conversation that could be considered SPOILERS regarding the fate of the film's subject, Alan Turing. Given that this is a biographical film built on non-fiction, I've left those notes throughout. Anyone with a cursory, Wikipedia-level knowledge of Alan Turing's life will do just well with them. Otherwise, tread lightly.)

“The Imitation Game” hits theaters Nov. 21.


HitFix: It's too bad you left Telluride so early because you didn't get to see that “The Imitation Game” ended up being pretty much the hit of the festival.

Graham Moore: Oh, I'm so glad to hear you say that. It sounds like it went well. It feels like this precious little thing that we've been keeping to ourselves and slowly crafting over four years now. And so to actually sort of put it out there, it's a very nerve-racking thing.

When did you first see a cut of it? How long has it been ready to go?

I think we only picture locked six or eight weeks ago. But I first started seeing cuts in January and we wrapped in November. Morten [Tyldum, the director] and Billy [Goldenberg], the editor, they had about a month or so on their own, then they sort of brought me in to start helping out. And that was great. My whole experience with Morten in general is that he's been so inclusive and so generous about having me be part of the process the whole time, even through editorial.

Yeah, we talked about that briefly in Telluride, the idea that it's rare for a writer to be kept so close to the project through production. You have an Executive Producer credit at the end of the day here. How did that happen? Did Morten just know that you were so well-versed in the material that he wanted you there?

We just got along. I had heard pitches from 20 or 30 different directors for the movie, and from the second I met him I knew 45 seconds into the meeting, I was like, “This is the guy.” First, he liked all the things about the script and the story that I liked. And at that stage of the script he didn't like the things that I was also having trouble with. Sometimes I think, with directors – because the script had been sort of well-liked a bit and then talked about – people would be a little bit afraid to poke holes in stuff. And Morten, if you talk to him you will know that he has no trouble speaking his mind. He's very straight shooting. There's no games, no manipulation; he just says what he means and means what he says.

So he sat down and there was some plotting stuff that I was having trouble with and he was like, “That plotting is really messy; we need to figure some of that out.” And he also liked the stuff that I liked. There's an early scene where Turing first gets to Bletchley Park and he's interviewed by Commander Denniston, played by Charles Dance. On the page that is an eight-page scene of two people sitting across a table talking to each other. It's sort of a job interview. Every other director I met with was like, “You you can't have eight pages of conversation. It's just too much.” And everyone had a different solution. “You have to cut it down to two pages.” “You can split it into three scenes of three pages each.” “We can make it a walk and talk.”

That always seems like laziest, go-to solution. “Let's make it a walk and talk.” So arbitrary.

Right. It's arbitrary and it's also, like, a job interview. Who does that? Why are you walking? It doesn't make any sense. I was with Morten for about an hour and he was pointing out other scenes he had trouble with, and he never mentioned that scene. So finally I said, “Morten, you haven't talked about that early scene with Turing and Commander Denniston.” And he was like, “Oh, that scene's great. I love that scene. It's so funny.” And I was like, “But it's eight pages of just talking. Everyone else I talked to said we're not allowed to do that.” And he just sort of looked at me and was like, “Gra-Ham, I'm not sure if these other people know how to treat this.” He sort of went in and showed me that that scene is where you really first get a sense of Turing as a character. It's his misunderstanding. It's all the jokes. He takes everything Commander Denniston says literally and they're just not on the same page. And you really get a sense of his character in this real loving way. Alan Turing is a difficult character, so having some humor with him, having you be able to laugh at and with him in a loving way is really important to ease the audience into what was eventually going to be a very, very heavy place. And Morten completely understood that.

So he turned your first name into two syllables, did he?

[Laughs.] He calls me “Gra-Ham.” Actually Teddy [Schwarzman], one of our producers, as a joke when he made everyone's chairs on set, mine said “Gra-Ham,” because everyone was used to hearing it in our offices. You'd hear Morten – his office is a couple doors down from mine and he would call out, “Gra-Ham,” and I'd go running into his office to see what he was asking about.

That's funny. One thing I wanted to ask is regarding a complaint I heard a handful of times, including in the review of the film at my outlet. That is, the idea that the story, in their view, glosses over Alan Turing's homosexuality. I don't necessarily agree but nevertheless, was that a balance that needed to be struck at all? Showing his relationships or just giving an idea of that other side of his life, which, ultimately, tragically, destroyed him?

Yeah. I think that one of the things we wanted to do from the very beginning was to honor Alan Turing. We wanted to make a movie about someone who was sort of a mathematician first and foremost and a gay man second. The movie and the script don't even really address the fact that he's gay until almost halfway through. You're watching this movie about a mathematician and only then do you realize, “Oh, and he's also gay.” It is one part of who he is as a person, not the sum total. We thought that was important because you don't see a lot of that on screen. I think that gay characters often – when I see them on screen, they tend to be like, “Look, he's the gay guy.” With Turing there were more layers than that. And I would argue that for Alan Turing, his homosexuality was just one of the many parts of his identity.

Morten and I would always say that the one-word theme of the movie is isolation. Turing was a guy who was isolated from everyone around him for a million reasons. Because he's smarter than everyone else. Because he is a mathematician. Because he has to keep all the secrets from the government, what he's doing, he can't talk to anyone about it. Because even if he wanted to explain what he was working on, to most people, there's no way they would possibly understand. And also, that he was gay, and that it was something he couldn't talk about and he couldn't have be a big part of his public life, because it was illegal. So I think we looked at his homosexuality as just one of the many things that was isolating him from the people around him. We wanted to make a movie about someone who was a mathematician who happened to be gay, not a gay mathematician. And the fact that his homosexuality is what he ended up being punished for, and then essentially murdered by the government for, is the most tragic bit.

Also, on a purely historical level, Alan Turing did not have any significant homosexual relationships in his adult life. His flings with other men were pretty brief and sort of one-to-two-night types of things. It's not like he had some long-term boyfriend who we cut out of the historical narrative. That person didn't exist for him and I think that gets back to the isolation thing. He was so closeted and his homosexuality was so unspeakable, in some ways, that it was just another thing that isolated him from people.

Kind of bouncing around a bit here, but to write a movie like this, which is fascinating for so many because so few know this history, when did you stumble across Turing's story?

I had first heard about Alan Turing when I was a teenager. I've known about him since I was a kid and I always wanted to write about him. When I was a teenager, I was a huge computer nerd. I went to computer programming camp. I went to space camp.

Space camp! I'm jealous.

I know. Space camp was actually, like, the best summer of my life. It was amazing. But I thought I wanted to be a computer programmer and among computer science folks, Turing is this object of cult-like fascination. I mean even then he was someone that computer science people had always talked about as sort of the Steve Jobs and the Bill Gates of the world because of what he had done. So I had always known about his story and I'd always thought to myself no one had ever given this a full cinematic treatment. No one had ever done a full feature film about Turing. There had been a half-dozen really wonderful biographies published. There have been a number of novels, but none centered around him – they used him in interesting ways and he was an interesting character. There had been a great play called “Breaking the Code” by Hugh Whitemore, but no one had ever done a full, proper, narrative cinematic treatment of Alan Turing, and I had always wanted to since I was 14 years old.

After I became a writer, I'd go to my agents once a year and say, “Hey, I want to write this movie about a gay English mathematician in the 1940s who kills himself at the end of the story after he's chemically castrated by the government.” And they would say, “Yes, that's a great idea for a movie. Someone will totally make that.” No, that's not at all what they said. They were like, “Please don't write that. That's the worst idea ever. No one will ever make that movie. That's an un-makeable movie.” And then it wasn't until I met our producers Nora Grossman and Ido Ostrowsky that I was finally given the opportunity.

How did that happen?

Nora actually interviewed me for a writing job on a TV show that never ended up going to series. It was right after I moved to LA. I didn't know anyone. I did not have a job. I had just turned in my first novel about a year before that came out. But then that went away so there wasn't a job to be had. But we sort of stayed friendly after that and I ended up going to a party at her house. I remember this very vividly: I went into the kitchen and she was there mixing drinks or something and I kind of said, “What's up,” and she was like, “Oh, I just optioned my first book. I just saved up $2,000 of my own money to option a story that I really like and I don't know what we're going to do with it or how we're going to make it but I just love this and I want to make this.” And I was like, “Oh, cheers. Have a drink. Congratulations. That's so cool. What's it about?” And she said, “Oh, it's this biography about some mathematician. You've never heard of him.”

Get out of here.

Yeah. I was like “Oh, no, I know a little bit about mathematics; I used to be really into computer science. Who is it?”  And she says, “Oh, it's this guy name Alan Turing.” And I instantly freak out and launch into this totally insufferable 15-minute monologue where I'm like, “Oh my God, I've wanted to do this since I was 14 years old. This is how the movie starts. This is how it ends,” and I'm just talking and talking and talking, like the whole thing. And she is inching back, like, “Who is this crazy person and why is he accosting me in my own kitchen?” So then I somehow convinced her and her partner Ido to let me write the movie for free, just because I wanted to do it so much and I love it so much. It was a real chance to make the Alan Turing story that I wanted to see.

So when was that? When did you start chipping away at it?

There were a couple of different iterations of it. From that moment on Nora, Ito and I agreed to start working together on it probably in the summer of 2010, that's when I came on. I ended up going home to New York for a while because my first book was coming out and I was doing publicity stuff for that. And I started writing the script, actually, on that press tour, after six months of research. I remember I wrote the first words of “The Imitation Game” on a plane from Chicago, Illinois to Scottsdale, Arizona in the middle of that book tour.

You flew right over Telluride.

You know what, I never thought about that. But ironically we totally did fly over Telluride. I wrote the first words of the script – which were, “Are you paying attention,” that monologue – and it's still the opening monologue of the movie. It never changed, which is insane to me, that that thing that I wrote on that plane is still the opening of the movie.

Since you had such passion for the subject and the subject matter, did it kind of flow after that or did you discover, “Oh, shit, this is going to be really hard?”

At every stage it was just so much more complicated than I could have imagined. I mean, after six months of research, there was still another six months of just doing drafts. I did three or four drafts with Nora and Ido before anyone else saw it. Our main source that we were using was Andrew Hodges' biography, which is sort of the most seminal of Turing biographies. It was the first. It is certainly the most complete. There were four or five other great biographies that have been published since that have some newer information that wasn't available when Andrew's book was first published, but just to crack this story, I think the first draft was 180 pages or something like that. It was something comical. I can't believe Nora and Ido even went through the whole thing. That was a real feat of producing, just to read it! It was pretty boring.

For a period the project was set up at Warner Bros. and had Leonardo DiCaprio on board. What happened during that period?

Warners optioned it a month before The Black List came out. But the buzz around it in town existed. We had a number of offers; there was a bit of a bidding war around it. There were a lot of directors who were interested and a number of actors. We were a bit overwhelmed, honestly, by the outpouring and the enthusiasm for it, which was great. And Warner Bros. had tried a couple times. They actually put in a series of offers but we kept saying, “We don't want to do this at a studio. We don't want to do this at a studio.”

Why did you feel that way?

Because it's such a small, delicate little movie. Because Warner Bros. and studios in general are very, very good at making very, very big movies.

Yeah, but is it, though? This comparison is unavoidable with a movie like this, but “A Beautiful Mind” was at Universal. There's a certain epic quality to the drama of what happens in the individual's life that could be served by a studio. Even after a guy like Morten got ahold of it, I think that it landed as a somewhat bigger movie than maybe you imagined it was or even still is.

And I think that's 100% to the credit of Mr. Morten Tyldum. Morten shot a hell of a lot of movie for $15 million. He found ways to open it up and found ways to make it feel much bigger than we thought on that budget. And I think part of that was why we didn't want to do it at Warners. We had always had a budget in our head of about 15. What's ironic is that we sort of just made up that number from the spec scripts. None of us were experienced enough to really be able to board it out, but we always felt like it was about that. And so help me God at the end of production it literally ended up being pretty much almost on the dot exactly 15. But a lot of that was Morten knowing his stuff. He knows a million little ways of incorporating the FX seamlessly and inexpensively. Having a filmmaker experienced with doing things inexpensively – that was the other thing. The Warner Bros. version of it, we were worried the studio version would just get bigger.

Maybe focus on the war a little too much?

Focus on the war more, right.

Was that something you thought was going to happen or did they start pushing for that? I mean how and why did it ultimately fizzle out with them?

Honestly what happened is things were going well enough. Warner Bros. had a year long clock to make the movie; they had a 12-month option. Basically nine months into that, Greg Silverman, who was then the president of production who's now the head of the studio – this was actually before the regime change – Greg called me and he was so apologetic and so sweet. They weren't going to be able to do it that year. They needed to push it. And he was like, “Normally we would just hold onto the script for years and hope we can make it eventually. I know that you're not going to give us an extension on this option so we're going to give it back to you.” He literally said to me, “Look, I'm calling business affairs right now. We're going to have the paperwork at your office tomorrow. We're going to get you out of here clean.” It was super easy. “We're going to make it so easy for you because we want you to make this movie. We want to be able to get this movie made, we just can't do it.”

Did it sound like he wanted out of it or do you think he was being genuine?

I think he was being genuine and I think it was too small. Like $15 million, they're not in that business. Even the bandwidth on their release calendar is worth something that a movie of that size can bear. I will say that at Warner Bros., we hadn't been forced to, but it is certainly possible if the budget had grown we might have been forced to make casting decisions that we did not 100% believe in. And I am so glad to say that at our very small budget and at our very small financier, we never had to make a decision. Benedict Cumberbatch was everyone's first choice. It was who we always wanted. He pursued it passionately. We got to sort of go with our first choice with everything, which was just amazing.

And to fast forward, 15 minutes of footage screens at the Berlin Film Festival in February and Harvey Weinstein takes the bait. He buys it. I imagine there was a lot of excitement, but Harvey also has a certain reputation as far as not necessarily putting out the movie that the filmmakers made. So what was your reaction when that went down?

I was here in LA. Everyone else went to Berlin for it. As the writer there was really no purpose for me to be there. Morten met with him and everyone felt really confident that he would support us. He had read the script. He knew what the movie was. He'd seen the footage. We were not worried about anything. Harvey certainly came in and saw cuts and had notes, as did the whole company. But our running joke was that for four years we've been waiting for someone to come in and give us the note, “Does he have to kill himself at the end?” Actually when we were at Warners, that was the running joke, waiting for that note to happen. The nightmare note. The worst possible, imaginable note. No one in four years ever gave us that note. I mean everyone was staying true to the story that was written. It was very important for everyone. So Harvey came in but it wasn't like, “Chop this up into something ridiculous.” He had really perceptive thoughts. I know his reputation is what it is but that guy has a track record of making really good movies.

Indeed, I often defend even his seemingly more egregious positions on movies because he knows how to make something reach a broader base. So much of his history is one of more help than harm, in the bigger picture.

And I would rather spend all day passionately disagreeing with someone who is just as passionate about the material as I am. I think we were so lucky on this movie from every stage of it, from Nora and Ido to Teddy to Morten to Benedict and Keira [Knightley] to then the Weinsteins as distributors. Everyone has just been as passionate about it as we are. And I think I've learned a lot from having those conversations with really smart people. These are really good filmmakers that we've had those disagreements with.

And at any point has there been any involvement from any representative of Turing's family?

Yeah. One of his nieces came to set. One of his nephews came to set. We had three members of his family, I think, there at various points. One of them is actually an extra in the beer hut seen.

They've seen the film? They feel it's representative?

You know, I haven't talk to them since production but I think everyone has been really supportive about the movie. And I think they were very generous about sort of getting us photographs of him and some clothing and all that.

The last thing, and I never ask this question this early of someone in August because it's such a faux pas. Nevertheless, I think the movie looks like an awards contender on a number of fronts and I think you could end up with an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay at the end of the day. No pressure. But I bring it up because I have to ask, after this incredibly serendipitous jjourney, does that concept just blow your mind?

It is an incredibly surreal thing to hear that I am going to banish from my mind when I stop being flattered that you said it. Already this movie has gone to so many places that I never imagined it would ever go. I still feel like this is just our little math movie that we were putting together in Nora's apartment a couple of years ago. And even the amount of attention we've gotten already is so very surreal and shocking to me. So I think first I will try to come to terms with all of that.

Good plan.