A thriller about a World War II code-breaking mathematician whose heroic life ends in suicide is, on its own, a tough sell. But The Imitation Game has had bigger hurdles to overcome in the five years since producers Ido Ostrowsky and Nora Grossman first heard Alan Turing’s name. After the first-time producers hired screenwriter Graham Moore to write the story of the man who helped stop the Nazis’ path through Europe, Moore’s script hit the top of the 2011 Black List and Warner Bros. had paid seven figures for the option, with Leonardo DiCaprio rumored to be starring. But less than a year later, DiCaprio was out, and the rights went back to Moore. Within a few days, Teddy Schwarzman’s Black Bear Pictures came onboard to fully finance and produce, setting The Imitation Game in motion. Ostrowsky, Grossman and Schwarzman recently spoke about finding their perfect leading man in Benedict Cumberbatch and making a cinematic story on a tight budget.
How did you find this story?
Ido Ostrowsky: In the fall of 2009, Nora and I saw a story in (U.K. newspaper) The Telegraph, in which then Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized on behalf of the government for the treatment of Alan Turing during World War II. That was the first time we had heard of Alan Turing’s name. From there, we started to research who he was and found his story incredibly moving. We didn’t know why his life hadn’t made more of an impact on popular culture.
Nora Grossman: We had no (film producing) credits, so we figured that if we owned some property it would be the best way to move forward. We found the definitive biography (Andrew Hodges’ 1983 book Alan Turing: The Enigma), which was also used for the (1986) play Breaking the Code. Once we had the book, we knew we needed a writer. Fortunately, I had met Graham Moore and we had stayed in touch. At a party at my house, I was doing the song and dance of, “I optioned a book. Even though I don’t have a job, I’m still doing other things.” Graham overheard this conversation and jumped in and said, “That’s about Alan Turing. One day when I’m a famous writer, that will be my passion project.” We worked with him for about a year—we fortunately did get other jobs, so we were working (on this as) a side passion project.
Did you set out to make Imitation Game play like a thriller?
Ostrowsky: The guiding principle was that we wanted it to feel like a new spin on the biopic. Can we tell Turing’s story in a way that doesn’t feel cradle-to-grave linear? It’s really about telling the right bit of the story at the right time.
Warner Bros. gave the project back to you in 2012. Were you back at the beginning?
Ostrowsky: It was like we were at square one. It was a moment of terror for us. We met with Teddy, and creatively, we were very much aligned. What can I say? It was love at first sight.
How did director Morten Tyldum and Benedict Cumberbatch come onboard?
teddy Schwarzman: At first, it was the fact-finding mission of figuring out what Warners had been doing with this, who had passed, who really wanted it, who thought they had a chance. We knew as three American producers and an American writer, with a story about a (Brit), that we wanted to anchor the film in the U.K., and it was our strong preference to find an established, or up-and-coming, U.K. director. Then it just became apparent that a Norwegian was our strongest candidate.
Ostrowsky: When the project was still at Warners, we sat down with Benedict for brunch, and he had read the script. Of course, we were pinching ourselves that we weren’t having to woo him, that he was already coming in with passion for the material. Anyone who’s met Benedict knows that he’s so intelligent and articulate. We knew if he was playing that role no one would ever doubt Alan’s brilliance in the film. We always kept that in our back pocket, and when the film was resurrected, it was an immediate decision for us to go to him.
The Weinstein Co. paid a record $7 million at this year’s European Film Market to distribute. What was that experience like for you?
Schwarzman: Because of the (film’s) history at the studios and because there were a number of suitors for the material, this was something we were just going to go and make, and we didn’t want to have conversations until we had completed it. We wanted to be able to protect it and remove it from the system, at least in the short term. Frankly, we all wanted to sell the film to Harvey, but we wanted to know what we had. We wanted to protect both the production and the postproduction experience until we felt ready to share the material. It was clear that he understood the film, that this was his top priority and that we would be in the right hands.
Ostrowsky: I understand why the money figure gets recorded, but from our vantage point, it (was) confirmation that others felt Alan’s story deserved to be told. Emotionally, it was a feeling of excitement and elation but also validation.
Grossman: We’re still pinching ourselves.
Ido Ostrowsky, Nora Grossman and Teddy Schwarzman photographed by J.R. Mankoff