Like the plot of a juicy drama, The Imitation Game went through production highs and lows before a single frame was shot. Screenwriter Graham Moore, whose spec script made the 2011 Black List, saw his passion project go from being a major studio project to an independent labor of love. Though he says seeing Warner Bros. return the rights made him resort to at least one evening of commiserating over martinis, the film ultimately benefitted from having a much smaller team. Moore also had the luxury of being a part of the process from preproduction into post, for which he credits his producers and director Morten Tyldum: “Morten set a tone of, ‘If you have a good idea, please raise your hand. No one’s voice is going to be excluded from any conversation.’ ” Moore recently spoke about his lifelong fascination with Alan Turing and the collaborative environment on the set of the film.
The story of how you came onboard as screenwriter is the ultimate in right place, right time. How did your acquaintance with producer Nora Grossman end up turning into The Imitation Game?
I had been a lifelong Alan Turing obsessive. Among incredibly nerdy teenagers, without a lot of friends, Alan Turing was always this luminary figure we’d all look up to. Over the years, I would go to my agents, my manager, and I would say, “Hey, there’s this amazing true story about this gay English mathematician who committed suicide in the 1950s.” And they would be like, “Please don’t ever write that script. That is an unmakeable film.”
I had met Nora briefly. She had interviewed me for a staffing job on a TV show that never ended up going to series. Somehow she ended up inviting me to this party at her house. I remember going and finding her in her kitchen and saying, “Hey, thanks for inviting me. It’s Graham, that person you probably don’t remember.” We started chatting, and she (had) optioned this biography of a mathematician. I said, “Who is it?” And she said, “Alan Turing.” I instantly launched into this totally insufferable 15-minute monologue: “This is how the movie starts. This is how the movie ends. I’ve always wanted to write this.” I began a weeklong process of begging them to let me write it on spec.
Was it a difficult balance between getting the technical details right and still making it accessible for audiences?
Very much so. One of the things that Morten and I talked a lot about is, we wanted to open up the process of code-breaking to the audience. There is a tendency sometimes in pieces like this to (let) the characters jabber technical gibberish that no one in the audience will understand. We wanted you to be able to follow it. The film should feel like a wartime thriller, because for Alan Turing and for the people involved, this really was a wartime thriller. Breaking the code was this great mystery to solve.
You obviously knew a lot about Turing before you started writing. What did you learn that was new to you during your research?
One of the most amazing things about the story is that after the war, everyone who worked at Bletchley Park kept the secret. Even now, even though most of it has been declassified, there are people alive now who won’t talk to the press, who won’t say anything about it publically because they made a promise to the British government.
How many drafts did you go through until it was in a state that you felt was workable?
I spent about six months just doing research and taking notes and outlining, then another six months to write. We did a few drafts with just me and (producers) Nora and Ido Ostrowsky before we came to the spec draft. The spec draft was probably the third or fourth draft that I had done, and that was the draft that was on the Black List and originally sold to Warner Bros. Cutting forward, when Morten came on and we left Warner Bros., we did another year’s worth of work, as we were casting and gearing up for production. One of the things that was great about the process was that I can’t even tell you how many drafts we did because no one was counting. It wasn’t like they would send notes and I would send back a draft. In my limited experience, that tends not to be a really productive way of thinking about the film. Once we knew we were making it, we could just experiment and throw it out if we didn’t like it. There are chunks of the movie that remain from the initial spec draft, but then also chunks of it that have gone through a thousand different drafts.
Were you concerned about the film’s future when Warner Bros. gave you back the rights to the script?
It was a scary moment, but also it felt good for everyone. They had a yearlong clock to be in production, and about nine months into that clock, (creative development and worldwide production president ) Greg Silverman called me himself and said, “We’re not going to be able to hit our 12 months.” They literally had paperwork to us the next day. They were such supporters of the film, but it was just too small for them. We met (financier Black Bear Pictures) Teddy (Schwarzman) right away, and then we were starting to talk about casts that day via text message. There were no big meetings. It was such a small movie and labor of love for everyone involved. We needed to go to a place where this could be the small independent film that we always wanted it to be.
Graham Moore photographed by Mark Mann