Norway-born Morten Tyldum seemed an unlikely choice to direct the very British drama, The Imitation Game. After all, the director never had made an English-language feature before. However, he did win awards and notoriety for his three previous features: the comedy Buddy (2003), Fallen Angels (2008), and the internationally acclaimed thriller Headhunters, the most successful film in Norwegian history as well as 2012’s highest-grossing foreign-language picture in the United Kingdom. But it was Tyldum’s unique understanding and clear-eyed take on the Alan Turing story that sold The Imitation Game producers Nora Grossman, Ido Ostrowsky and Teddy Schwarzman. And now there’s major Oscar buzz as the director enters a new phase of his career.
I wouldn’t call you the obvious director choice, on paper, being that you’re Norwegian. You’re sort of an outsider, which is the point of view maybe you needed with this movie.
Yeah. I came to Hollywood and felt myself an outsider, and I was sent all these action thrillers and superhero scripts. (Someone) gave me the Imitation Game script and said, “Read this. It’s maybe not what you’re looking for, but it’s this beautiful screenplay,” and I read it, and I was just blown away by it. I also had the discovery of Alan Turing reading this script and became obsessed with him. Why didn’t I know more about him? Why wasn’t he on the front cover of the history books when I was in school? What you want as a filmmaker is to be obsessed with and fall in love with the material.
What was it like working with your producing team and screenwriter Graham Moore?
I was very lucky to find this project. I met with them, and we all shared the same vision, and everything resonated. So we became this family who was on this mission about telling the story of Alan Turing and preserving his legacy. To me, the heart of it is a movie about being an outsider. It’s a movie about being different, about not being normal, about how important it is to celebrate those who think new thoughts. Alan wasn’t burdened by normality. He could soar free because he was different. So that’s something we wanted to celebrate.
The cast you put together was extraordinary. Was Benedict Cumberbatch your first choice?
Definitely. I knew his previous works, and so we had a great Skype meeting together where I tried to convince him to do the film. It was obvious (casting) because Alan Turing is such a complex character. He is so driven. He’s so strong, and at the same time, he’s such a fragile man, and he’s so awkward. At the core of it is this boy who has lost so much. I think Benedict was able to portray all these layers more confidently. He took it seriously and was extremely passionate about this project.
How did you come to cast Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke?
Benedict, Keira I had coffee together in London. I immediately felt that she was right for the part because she can relate to a woman who was not appreciated for her intelligence. Keira is extremely beautiful, and she’s past that. She’s also extremely smart, and she was very passionate about Joan Clarke. This was an independent movie and a small production, but everybody we talked to and wanted said yes. Everybody wanted to be part of this family and be part of telling this story.
The film could have been such a downer, but it’s actually a triumph to see how appreciated Alan Turing has become, and how people are horrified about what happened to him.
We didn’t want to shy away from the injustice that happened to him. I mean, he was literally crucified, and it’s such a tragedy and it’s staggering. At the same time, we wanted to celebrate his achievements and his spirit and legacy. I didn’t want to make a film that was a dusty old history lesson. I wanted it to be engaging, because Alan deserves that. His life was inspiring.
Did you have access to the real computer, Christopher, that Turing created?
Ours was based on the original. It is the size of it and has the same spinning wheels. The only thing we did, because Alan was obsessed with artificial intelligence—artificial life—was re-create the spirit of Christopher, who was an obsession of his. To illustrate that, we had these red cables that were like the veins of Christopher. We wanted to open it up, almost like a living thing. Christopher is an important character in the film, the machine itself, so I think Maria Djurkovic, our production designer, did a phenomenal job in re-creating it. A lot of the things in the movie are real props. Every Enigma machine you see in the movie is a real machine that was used by the Nazis during the war. We also shot at some of the real locations, such as Sherborne, where Alan Turing went to school. It was very emotional for everybody. We also shot a good part of the movie at Bletchley. It was really important for us to preserve and respect the authenticity of the story.
Morten Tyldum photographed by Mark Mann