On a very cold day in Seattle back in November I sat down with Graham Moore, screenwriter of The Imitation Game, an adaptation of Andrew Hodges book “Alan Turing: The Enigma“, telling the story of British mathematician Alan Turing played to perfection by Benedict Cumberbatch, a performance that will almost certainly earn him an Oscar nomination.
In fact, Cumberbatch won’t likely be alone when it comes Oscar time for Imitation Game as the film is looked at as one of the front-runners for Best Picture and Moore himself is considered a very strong contender for not only a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination, but he is looked at by many as the front-runner to win.
While we didn’t talk Oscars in our conversation, we did discuss various aspects of his screenplay (download it here) from the film’s opening lines, the fractured timeline narrative as well as the film’s ending and what we didn’t see. We also discussed the ridiculous criticism that the film isn’t “gay enough” in dealing with its protagonist’s sexuality, what line in movies he hates the most, his early work as a sound engineer and a writer on the television sitcom “10 Things I Hate About You“.
Moore currently finds himself with an Oscar-contending screenplay and a future wherein he’s working on a television pilot with Michael Mann for HBO, his second book is on the way and he’s adapted The Devil in the White City with Leonardo DiCaprio producing and possibly starring. To say things are looking good for the young writer is an understatement and I hope you enjoy our chat…
It is freezing!
Graham Moore: I know, it’s bad, and I didn’t bring any winter coats. I live in LA now, but I’m from Chicago, so I’m no stranger to the cold, but I have gotten so soft. This is the embarrassing thing, a few years in LA and I’ve gotten so soft.
How long have you been in LA?
GM: Four or five.
From Chicago, then New York —
Yeah, I was reading a little background on you and your family and your career from Chicago to New York to LA and how your mother was the chief of staff for Michelle Obama.
GM: Briefly, yes. Well, for two years.
That’s longer than I’ve been her chief of staff…
GM: [Laughing] Sure, longer than I’ve been too. My mother, she worked in the mayor’s office in Chicago when I was growing up and has been in democratic politics for a long time.
Then you went to Columbia and then it was music.
GM: I was a sound engineer. That was my day job when I started writing. I sort of did my day job every night. I would write from ten to six every day and at six, leave my apartment and head down to one of these rock clubs I worked at and mix for bands, or I would go into my studio… I had a little studio that I started with friends on the Lower East Side, and record bands there and I remember we did a series of Garnier shampoo commercials that like paid my rent for a year.
I read that, it sounds so random.
GM: I should just send them a thank you card, because it was the most amazing thing. I still feel like an engineer in some ways. I have an engineering background.
So what were you writing back then?
[amz asin=”0446572586″ size=”small”]GM: I had started working on my first novel (“The Sherlockian“), which came out in 2010, so this would have been some years before that because it took six years to write, on and off. I was working on that. I had a writing partner I was working on film scripts with, we actually started doing some lighter comedy things. When we first came out to LA, five years ago, we were working on sitcoms and things like that, spending six months working on a sitcom, but my book was historical fiction —
Yeah, I read up on your book, which I wasn’t even aware of until I started researching for this interview. Strangely, it sounds like that book has some parallels in terms of writing style with how you ended up approaching the story for The Imitation Game.
So was the early sitcom stuff just something to pay the bills, but not something you were necessarily interested in?
GM: Nah, I liked comedy, I wasn’t that good at it. Unsurprisingly, as I’ve gravitated more toward these darker, historical pieces, I think there’s been — a friend of mine was making fun of me the other day, saying someone has committed suicide in each of the last three things I’ve written. Do I really have to go suicide every single time? I tend to gravitate toward these darker things, but I like doing comedy and, honestly, the six months I spent on that sitcom were some of the most fun I’ve ever had as a writer. I love those other writers and that writing room. I’m still very close to every other writer in that room.
Was it the collaborative process?
GM: Yeah, I love the collaborative process, and now Imitation Game is my first film and sort of going through that it helped me learn to work with other people. To be a writer in film is to inherently be collaborative because it’s a supporting role. If I write a book it’s more of a singular voice from start to finish, but if I’m writing a script the goal is always the film. I didn’t direct The Imitation Game, Morten Tyldum did, the goal of the script is to support the film, to give him what he needs and give the actors what they need.
This was an adaptation, but how much exactly was adapted from the book and how much research did you have to do to gain a full picture of Alan Turing?
[amz asin=”069116472X” size=”small”]GM: The biography we optioned is sort of the first published biography of Alan Turing so I would say it’s kind of the most encyclopedic of Turing biographies. It’s long, it’s a collection of everything we knew in the early ’80s or everything Andrew Hodges was able to uncover about Alan Turing, but it was also published in the early ’80s so there’s been a lot of information declassified since then, and there have been half a dozen other great biographies published since then. So what we tried to do with the film was be voracious in terms of our sourcing, as many different sources of information as we could possibly get.
We were going to take them all in and kind of make educated guesses about what we could figure out, especially when we talk about the Bletchley Park years, so much of that history has been lost or classified or both. There’s a scene at the end of the film where everyone at Bletchley makes a big bonfire and burns up every record from Bletchley Park, every piece of paper that indicates they were ever there and that bonfire actually happened, that’s a real scene, they really did burn everything. So, especially when it comes to Bletchley Park, we are getting as many different sources as we possibly could about the people that were there and interpolating from these varied data points.
It seems a little rare how close you were to this production from start to finish. That doesn’t seem like a normal thing for the writer, was that because of Morten or something else?
GM: I think it was the way it was set up. Because it was written on spec, written with producers Nora Grossman and Ido Ostrowsky on spec.
I read you did it for free.
GM: I did.
And I hope you got compensated after that then.
GM: I did, but this wasn’t Iron Man, we were a small budget, independent film, we were financed independently.
But you’ve got to get paid for your work.
GM: Sure, but I can promise you, this was no one on this film’s pay day. Because we were financed independently we didn’t get a lot of the creature comforts other productions might get. We did not have heat in our studio and, ironically, didn’t have working Internet in our studio, which is hysterical for a film about Alan Turing.
But because there was no corporate infrastructure behind us, it meant we could move fast. We could work quick and dirty, we could make decisions quickly, there was no committee we needed to ask permission for anything, every casting decision was just us and we didn’t have to consult sales agents when it comes to an actor’s value in various parts of the world. We had our budget so we could just — Who do we want for this? — there is no actor anyone in the world would want to cast as the lead in this other than Benedict Cumberbatch. There was no one anyone wanted but Keira Knightley for Joan Clarke. So we got our first choice for everything because we never had to make compromises.
So I was so close to the production because I had to be and I wanted to be, this film was so near and dear to my heart, it felt like such an important story and it’s a story I wanted to be a part of telling since I was a teenager.
Can you talk a little about the structure of the film’s timeline? When I first watched it, inside the first 30 minutes or so, I found myself getting a little frustrated, but looking back I think that was just me feeling stuck in a position where I didn’t want to feel dumb, but then all the pieces start to come together and really, really work well. How long did it take to put that together? Did you have to outline it?
GM: The different time periods?
Yeah, because they play into each other and without that it doesn’t make sense, which is what I found so brilliant about it.
GM: Thank you, I’m glad you felt that way, that was very important to us. Very early on I had this idea there were three periods in Turing’s life I wanted to focus on 1.) the ’50s and his arrest and prosecution, 2.) the ’40s with his wartime code-breaking when he was at Bletchley Park and 3.) his teenage years with his first falling in love and his first introduction to cryptography. And the idea early on was that Alan Turing was obsessed with puzzles, with games, so the whole movie was going to be a puzzle.
We were going to take these three periods, chop them up out of order, present them to you out of order so they can ask questions of one another, and so during the whole movie the audience would kind of be like Alan Turing, trying to solve a puzzle the same way he was trying to solve a puzzle. So that kind of structure had to be precisely outlined. In editing we would slightly move where some of the switches happened, William Goldenberg, our tremendously brilliant editor, found a few more elegant ways of moving between the time periods than I had.
Which is important.
GM: Which is really important, and he’s really good at it, and he learned a lot about that when he edited Argo and there’s a lot of moving between different places and he’s quite good at transitioning between places. Or even Heat, which is one of my favorite movies which Billy edited, he does this brilliant stuff moving from different perspectives and always showing you which perspective you’re going from in that movie.
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