Having already built up plenty of awards buzz and appreciation from its premiere at a number of festivals earlier this fall including the Toronto International Film Festival, the historical spy thriller The Imitation Game tells the type of story that exemplifies why we go to the movies.
It introduces us to Alan Turing as played by Benedict Cumberbatch, a young mathematician whose genius-level intelligence is countered by an inability to interact in social settings. This becomes a problem when he’s brought into a top secret government program meant to crack the Germans’ unbreakable Enigma code at the peak of World War II along with other codebreakers and linguists. Butting heads with both his colleagues and his superiors, Turing becomes obsessed with building a machine that can go through all the possibilities of Enigma’s code (which changes daily) faster than the human mind can process.
One of Alan’s few allies and confidantes is Keira Knightley’s Joan Clarke, an equally brilliant codebreaker who isn’t allowed to work with the all-male team, and even she doesn’t know Alan’s deepest, darkest secret.
ComingSoon.net sat down with director Morten Tyldum (upper left) last week and it was a rare instance when he was doing interviews with the film’s editor William Goldenberg (right), who was nominated for two Oscars in 2013, winning for his work on Ben Affleck’s Argo. Having this rare chance to talk to someone involved in the post-production on a film, we decided to focus on that aspect of the process.
ComingSoon.net: When I first saw the movie at Toronto, I knew a few things about it, not a lot, and I was surprised when I got to the end and saw that you directed it. It was not what I would expect as the next movie from the director of “Headhunters”…
Morten Tyldum: No, I did not expect it myself. If somebody said, “You know you’re going to do a British period movie from the ‘40s,” I’d be like “Nah, you have to be kidding.” I don’t think you pick your projects, you just fall in love with it, and it just becomes something you have to do. I read the script and I was blown away by it. I love history and I thought I knew history well, but I was shocked by how little I knew about it. Also, the story was so rich and why has nobody actually told this story on the big screen? There’s a spy thriller in the middle of this war drama. It’s this beautiful story about this man who carries all these layers of secrecy and is an outsider. It’s this man who was hiding who he was his whole life. Because of that, he was able to think all these incredible ideas. The idea that the computer came out of the loss of a young man who was obsessed by recreating artificial life. Is it possible to make a machine?
William Goldenberg: That can think like a human.
Tyldum: Think like a human and out of that, conspired him to create the computer. It’s pretty mind-blowing.
CS: Going into it, I knew about Enigma and the people who broke the code, but when you realize that what Turing accomplished was the basis for what became the computer, that’s quite a revelation. As an editor, you’d have to go back to the old way of editing film without computers.
Goldenberg: No, I thank him every day.
CS: Was this a screenplay that just turned up on your doorstep?
Tyldum: My agent sent it to me, so I read it and I met with the producer and Graham (the screenwriter) and I think we all shared the same vision. None of us wanted to make sort of a dusty history lesson. This movie could easily become dark and very serious but we wanted something that would celebrate him, that was engaging, that was thrilling and that was fun. I mean, I wanted there to be a lot of humor in it, because he was so full of life in a way. His life was so rich. He deserves a movie that is engaging that’s not so stuffed down and boring.
CS: The collaboration between a filmmaker and editor is an interesting one. I’m not sure many people understand how much time you two are sitting in an edit room together after you’ve finished actual filming. A shoot might take a month but editing could take a long, long time. How did the two of you meet? Had you worked together before? How were you brought together?
Goldenberg: No, we actually met briefly at the BAFTA awards a couple years ago, at a party.
Tyldum: I said to him that I have this project that I’m going to do and I want you to edit it, and he was going, “Yeah, yeah, whatever.” He had just won the BAFTA and he was the hottest editor in Hollywood, and I’m this stranger who comes over to him and says, “I want you to do my next movie.” But I’ve always been a big fan. Billy’s done some of the most remarkable films, and he had come right off a double Oscar nomination and a win for “Argo,” so I said “Harvey (Weinstein), let’s just ask him. What’s the worst thing he can do? He can say ‘no.’
Goldenberg: Yeah, and then I got the script and I was blown away, and same thing as you, I knew a little (about it). For me, I read a script and I put it down and can pick it up and this I just started and I was done. You don’t get those kinds of screenplays very often, that they make you wanna work on this movie. “I don’t care, I have to do this.” Then I found out that Benedict was going to be starring in it and I was a huge fan of his, and then I remembered that Morten and I had met. We talked one time by Skype—he was already in London—I saw “Headhunters” and I thought, “Okay this guy can really direct, there’s no question about that.” I just wanted to make sure that we could have a conversation. You want to make sure that you can sit in a room with somebody for ten hours a day and not get bored…
Tyldum: For half a year.
Goldenberg: Yeah, and you’re taking a bit of a risk, because we didn’t really meet face to face again until the shoot was over. I was in Santa Monica and they were all in London shooting.
Tyldum: That’s correct. We actually communicated a lot, but it was always on the phone and on Skype.
Goldenberg: Yeah, and I didn’t meet anybody. I met you at that party, but I didn’t really meet him meet him until after the shooting was over and same thing with all the producers. I was just by myself on my own there in Santa Monica while everyone else was in London. But it obviously worked out and we’re similarly minded about what story we’re telling and how to do it. Morten was great about giving me the space to… I like to say, “giving me the opportunity to be wrong” and giving me room to try things and room to fail and succeed. It makes for such a better creative atmosphere. Everybody’s different. Some directors sit there all day, some directors give you notes and see the screening, but Morten was just the right combination of being there most of the time, but giving me the freedom to do things and not say, “Cut here, use this.” A lot of creative freedom and it worked out to be a very rewarding creative relationship, at least I think.
Tyldum: You first do the assembly cut, which is basically the cut that mirrors the script. You’ve got to start with that. We could already see that and we both agreed that some of the structural ideas we had was too rigid, so what Billy really did was that he started to make the emotional flow of the movie, where to position the young Alan beats, where to make them so it flowed flawlessly and emotionally one thing took for another one. It’s actually so complex, the editing and the flow, because it becomes seamless. You don’t even think about it. You jump between the times which is to Billy’s credit. It’s an achievement and because it’s so seamless and because emotionally it flows from one thing to another, you don’t really think about it and you don’t really see how complicated it really is from an editing standpoint.
CS: I got more of that from watching the movie a second time. I remembered how great the screenplay and the performances were, but I didn’t remember all the scenes on the U-boats and in the London Underground with people hiding when the bombs hit. It was a lot more complex than I remember it being from my first viewing, especially when you factor in the three different time periods.
Tyldum: Which is also why we wanted to shoot it very classically, because we knew it was going to be complicated with jumping in between… and you have a narrative that starts there and then it comes to point zero and then it starts again and it’s another flashback. There’s flashbacks in flashbacks and it’s all this. You don’t want the audience to think about it. It should just flow seamlessly…
CS: Was that in the screenplay, that non-linear storytelling aspect?
Tyldum: It was in the screenplay but we changed everything on how it was set-up in the edit. It was more rigid and it didn’t have that emotional flow where one thing leads to another.
Goldenberg: It intellectually worked on paper, but in practice, when we put the film together, the emotional clarity and throughline wasn’t right so we started moving things around. That’s the fun part of editing. You kind of rewrite the movie a little bit in the editing room, trying to make it perfect.
Tyldum: There was the ending, which to me was the big discovery, which was Billy’s idea, which was to put the death of (name omitted for spoiler reasons) all the way to the end, which makes a huge difference. That’s the whole thing to push on the young boy and then cut to the broken man with the machine and save that for the end. That was happening in the middle of the film in the script.
CS: The movie is very much like an onion with different layers. If you go into the movie completely cold, not knowing about Alan Turing or anything, you learn things at the same time as everyone else does, like the detective who is trying to learn more.
Tyldum: Thank you. That’s exactly what we all wanted. We wanted it to be told as a mystery because Alan Turing is a mystery to us, and it’s told through a puzzle. I mean, he was obsessed with puzzles, so the whole ideas was that he had to piece him together to understand him a little bit, to understand that he’s gay. That’s why he’s hiding the break in. You’re piecing the whole character together as the movie goes along and that was the big structural idea of the whole movie. It’s created as a mystery. Like the detective says in the opening, “There’s something about Alan Turing. What is he hiding? What is behind this man?” The first time you see him is with his back toward us and his face is covered, and you start off unobscuring him and unraveling him bit by bit.
CS: Some people may be surprised that film editors often come on board at the script stage and that’s such a big deciding factor almost as much as the director they’re working with.
Goldenberg: I’m fortunate to have choices in reading material and deciding what to do, and scripts like this don’t come along that often, like where you get completely blown away by something, because you have to keep working and there’s timing about working with somebody because my job lasts from ten months to a year and you get out of sync with people and you often do things to be available for the next thing. Then when you get a thing like this and you go, “I don’t care, I’m dropping everything to do this. I’ll do whatever…” It’s a really fortunate place to be. It doesn’t happen all the time so when it happens, it gets really exciting and you can’t wait to be involved and it’s fun to go to work every day.
CS: And you can only do two or three movies a year I’d imagine.
Goldenberg: I do one. Well I’ve done two… I actually have three credits this year. I don’t know how that happened.
Tyldum: What’s the third?
Tyldum: Of course. F*ck yeah, you did that as well.
CS: I’m surprised they’re not using “From the Editor of Transformers” in the advertising.
Goldenberg: That will really bring them into the theater. Maybe the 12-year-olds. It’s a big commitment. For Morten obviously it’s a bigger commitment, it’s probably two years of his life, but for me, it’s a year and with the DP and actors it’s a much shorter time. When you make a commitment to something, you want to try to do something that you fall in love with, so things come around and you just have to be a part of it.
Tyldum: I think the whole project became, from the start of it, it almost sounds like a cliché but it almost feels like Alan Turing’s spirit. It felt like a responsibility, it felt we want to do right to this man. I think all who worked on this one fell in love with him to some degree and wanted to do justice, because when you really stop to think about it, it does really blow your mind how staggering his achievements are and how he’s been pushed into the shadow and erased from history when he should be on the front cover of your history book. You need to do justice to him and to everybody. There’s all this amazing talent both behind and in front of the camera and everybody worked so hard and so much for a small movie that had a $14-15 million budget, this small indie movie. It captured all this talent, all these people, together, who could have done a big studio movie if they wanted to or whatever. They did this small little film, and I like to think it’s all because we all wanted to do justice to this man.
CS: It’s also a very British film, which may be another reason I was surprised when I learned you directed it. It seems like the kind of movie a British filmmaker might do, because they had relatives who died during WWII, that kind of thing. Did either of you have any connection to that aspect of the story?
Goldenberg: No, just the universal theme of the movie about celebrating somebody’s difference and celebrating people that are different and unique and that’s a good thing. I think everybody relates to that.
Tyldum: And it’s funny. We have a Spanish DP, an American script writer, Norwegian director, American editor, French composer—it’s a very international company—but in the original story, the only ones that needed to be British were the actors who were going to say the lines.
CS: I want to talk about the music and the important part that played in the movie and at what point did Alexander Desplat come on board as the composer? Did you have any idea of what the music was going to be while you were editing?
Goldenberg: I always put temporary music in. All editors do it at this point so you can show people the movie and get a sense of what the music should or shouldn’t be. We were fairly late in the process and we were without a composer, and I had a relationship with Alexandre from “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Argo,” which we had done together. Same kind of thing. He really didn’t have time in his schedule, but I said, “Just take a look at this movie and see what you think. I think it would be perfect for you.” And he saw it and made time. He did the whole score in three weeks.
Tyldum: It was two-and-a-half weeks actually.
Goldenberg: Two-and-a-half weeks. The great thing about him is that he’s a storyteller. He writes beautiful music, but it also helps support the story and tell the story in a way that I think a lot of composers don’t really get it that way. He sort of got the way to compose to support the idea of the war machine and Christopher. He just had a way of getting into what the real story was and the subtext of the story and he did it so quickly. He’s quite a genius.
CS: He’s amazing. We talked about a job where you can only do two or three movies a year and how hard that its and it’s amazing how many movies he does and his scores are all different.
Tyldum: Yeah, and he has four credits this year.
Goldenberg: He’s a busy guy.
CS: Was that the direction you were going in, because you talked about the classical filmmaking.
Tyldum: Yeah, it was Billy who brought him in and he said, “This movie inspired me,” but I thought, “You can’t do it in three weeks, it’s impossible” ’cause that’s the time he had because of “Unbroken.” But he said, “No, no, I can do it,” so he has his house in L.A. He lives in Paris and then he must have slept a few hours I think but the rest of the time he just composed, and we were both there. I was there a lot with him, and it was incredible to just see him compose the music. It just comes out from him. He’s also open that you can say, “No, that’s not what we think and I think that’s wrong,” and he says, “Okay, how about this?” And then something else comes out of him. It’s just amazing.
CS: I’m pretty sure he’s really a computer.
Goldenberg: I know. People who write music like that seem to be on a higher plane.
The Imitation Game opens in select cities on Friday, November 28.
(Photo Credit: FayesVision/WENN.com)