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Turing Point: The Making of The Imitation Game

Known for the action thriller Headhunters (2011), Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum became intrigued with the prospect of directing The Imitation Game (2014).  “My manager said to me, ‘This is a beautiful script.  It’s not what you’re looking for but read it.’  I fell in love with it.  I became obsessed about why I didn’t know anything about Alan Turing?  He should be on the front cover of every history book.  I wanted to structure the movie as a mystery.  Finding out bits about him and putting the puzzle together; that was important because his life was a thriller.  Alan Turing was an awkward mathematician who ended up being this spy for MI6.  It was like these layers of secrets and he had all of these secrets himself as a closet homosexual in a time when it was illegal.  It was so fascinating in so many ways and his achievements were staggering; Alan Turing theorized what a computer could do and not do at the age of 23, the basis for all computer science.  I wanted it to be an entertaining movie.  I want people to laugh and to see the world through his eyes because his social skills were somewhat lacking.  It’s humbling to grasp this story.  I had a moment where I went, ‘Shit!  I’m going to do my first English language movie and it’s going to be a British period movie about one of their heroes.’

Cast in the leading role was Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness) who performs along with Keira Knightley (Pride and Prejudice), Matthew Goode (Stoker), Mark Strong (Tinker Tailor Solider Spy), Charles Dance (Gosford Park), Rory Kinnear (Wild Target) and Allen Leech (In Fear).  “I’m pleasantly surprised when they hear about how much we did The Imitation Game for because I got exceptional talent. Everybody I asked said yes to do this,” states Morton Tyldum.  “Everybody wanted to be part of it.  It becomes a passion project for everybody.  To get everybody together for those weeks to rehearse and try it out, it became like a family in many ways.  Even the smaller parts I got these fabulous actors who wanted to do it for little money because they cared about the project.  As a director it was phenomenal.”  Allen Leech believes, “Alan Turing is such an incredible character; that’s why when I heard about this script and read it I thought it was wonderful.  It didn’t just show what happened at Bletchley Park.  That’s already been covered.  This is about the man who had an incredible mind, and more importantly shows how he was treated so atrociously by his own government.”

“Ireland was even later to decriminalize homosexuality than the UK,” observes Allen Leech.  “I was aware of all of those stories and the fact that man had to hide who he was and when it was discovered he was criminalized for it and given this drug that completely destroyed his manhood, sexuality and ultimately his mind to the point he had to take his own life.  That’s why it’s so important that this movie has an opportunity to come to light so people can learn about Alan Turing.  It’s a celebration of an incredible mind.  I’m amazed that people don’t know about him and it’s because they brushed it under the carpet. They were embarrassed by the fact that this war hero was gay.  The reason we don’t know about him in later years is the fact that they were embarrassed how they treated this man who was so essential in winning the war for the Allies.”

“There are amazing biographies so there are detailed accounts about how Alan Turing looked, sounded and moved,” explains Benedict Cumberbatch.  “Not really detailed but they were enough to work with.  There were some people whom I met who knew him, his nieces and one colleague who worked with him in Manchester.  You get to piece together a picture and then thing is how much of that you can fully realize in your interpretation.  His stutter was sever and would often launch his voice into a high pitch.  I had to curtail that.   The heart-breaking thing about the further you investigate someone is the further you have to get on how you could play them.  Graham Moore’s script did a lot of the heavy lifting anyway both for his intelligence, behaviour and who he was.  Alan Turing was unapologetically different because the world had conditioned him that way and I don’t think he owed anyone an apology.  He was never rude about it and never laughed at himself about it.  Alan Turing did get on with things and in his way.  While that’s amusing, intriguing, baffling, slightly irritating and seemingly confrontational in the first opening scene with Denniston [Charles Dance], by the end of the film you understand this is a man who has suffered so many shocks and bruises with all of the maltreatments.  You understand why he was the way he was once you see him as a bullied child at Sherborne with a terrible stutter who made a great friendship and had the love of his life ripped away from him.”

Benedict Cumberbatch believes that Alan Turing was the victim of an “intolerant society of conformity with McCarthy levels of paranoia about homosexuality being completely linked with Communism.”   The attitude was reflected in the medical treatment given to Turing which involved being chemically castrated.  “I talked to a lab technician in Manchester.  He said, ‘I remember him being so generous, warm and funny.  I asked him how Alan Turing was and he told me this story about this doctor and injection.  The doctor was embarrassed to do it weekly and gave him this device [implanted in his left hip] which would release it into his metabolism.  It was device used for prostate cancer.  It was to cure him of his sexuality.  It kept on releasing after the two years.  In his kitchen one night he picked up a carving knife and tried to gouge it out of his body.  That to me speaks of a man who has lost everything and was trying to desperately to salvage who he was and couldn’t.  Even in the midst of that he’s doing extraordinary work with morphogenesis which is the study of mutations and adaptations due to environmental stimulus.  A very extraordinary resilient man who reached the point where he couldn’t perform any part of what he was as a human being; he wasn’t allowed to love men and wasn’t able to do his work.  He was lost so death was his only option.  It’s tragic.”

Cinematically depicting individuals trying to unravel the Enigma encryption code utilized by Germany during World War II was not an easy task.  “This is literally guys in bad suits sitting, doing paperwork and thinking,” remarks Morton Tyldum.  “It was a big challenge to try to create a tension that it must have been.  Everyday you start over.  These people were chess players, math people, and puzzle solvers.  People always ask me, ‘What did you change and add?’  ‘Nobody could write a letter to Winston Churchill   and be put you in charge.  That’s stupid.’  But it did happen.”  Turing had a unique approach when it came to hiring codebreakers.  “He recruited people for MI6 through crossword puzzles [in the Times].  That’s the fascinating thing.  He had this peculiar and unusual way of looking at the world.  I wanted to make it like a tribute to people who are different and think differently.”   There was natural tension to the situation.  “The number of people who were dying because they couldn’t figure out what the Germans were saying to each other,” states Allen Leech.  “Imagine that frustration.  From 6 am we’re basically trying to win the lottery today and it’s going to start again tomorrow.  Sometimes we’ll figure out some of the words but essentially I’m trying to slam my head against that until midnight.  To add to that there’s a man who is suppose to be helping us; he’s sitting in the corner and won’t let us in and says he has the answers.”

A key figure in the life of Alan Turing was classmate Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon) who befriended him and tragically died from bovine tuberculosis.  “We don’t even know if Christopher was gay,” observes Morton Tyldum.  “Alan wrote these long beautiful letters to Christopher’s mum all through his life.  We know from other letters that he wrote how important Christopher was to him.  He was obsessed with artificial intelligence and was bullied a lot at school.  It was tough for him.  The Sherborne School is famous for educating military leaders.  There you have this socially awkward brilliant fragile man.  It was a true story that he was buried.  What happened was there was construction and they put him in a box, put it in the ground and buried him.  Christopher saved him.  He was his guardian angel.  Christopher was popular and strong.  Turing idolized him.  He became so important to him and was so deeply in love with him.  That happens when you lose someone at that stage they become bigger.”

Historical sites appear in The Imitation Game.  “The school is the actual Sherborne School that Alan Turing went to,” reveals Morton Tyldum.  “They had a chapel there and we saw the memorial plate for Christopher Morcom.  It reminded everybody that we’re doing something that happened.  We shot at Bletchley Park as much as we could.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t shoot as much as we wanted to there because all of the huts had been destroyed.  The machine is based upon the machine that Alan Turing built.  It was all there.  The only thing I added was the red wires because I wanted blood veins for Christopher.”  Matthew Goode portrays Hugh Alexander.   “What I loved learning about Bletchley and filming there was you forget that they were ordinary people.  In my mind I always associated it with the military or the navy.  Normal people sacrificed a huge amount of their lives because they practically lived there for two years doing what they did.  My character ended up post World War II working as the head of the encryption division for another 20 years and ultimately, they forced him into an early grave.”

Not a lot of research material was available with the exception of Alan Turing.  “There is so little information on any of our characters because either the records had been destroyed as is seen at the end of the film when they’re burning everything, it’s still secret or most of the people are dead,” states Matthew Goode.  “My character was originally in charge and then he wrote to Churchill to say, ‘I want to be in charge.’  There was some petulance between the men.  It was competitive environment but then they came to Alan’s rescue when Commander Denniston [Charles Dance] said, ‘You’ve spent a huge amount of money on this bloody machine that doesn’t even work.  What the hell is going on?’  Our characters knew that he’s thinking about something in the way it needs to be thought about.  If anybody is going to be able to solve this unsolvable riddle is the guy who has the knowledge of how to fight a machine with a better more thoughtful machine.”

Allen Leech plays John Cairncross.  “Cairncross had his own biography which definitely helped to give a great understanding of the man and his outlook.”  Alan Turing is blackmailed by his colleague.  “Cairncross didn’t feel like he was doing anything wrong in relation to being a double agent and spy for the Soviets.  Cairncross felt he was sharing information with essentially the same side and at that time they were.   Cairncross was not prepared to let any of that go; he’s prepared to use Alan Turing’s secret against him and knows it’s powerful enough that Turing doesn’t want it to come out.  Cairncross sees him as a friend but also sees the war effort as being more important than friendship.”   The revelation had to come as a surprise.  “The only way you can play Cairncross is to play him completely straight because if you give anything to the audience it’s like you’re cheating them out of what is a great reveal.  Tonally you have to play it like he isn’t a spy.”

In 2009, the British government issued a public apology to Alan Turing followed by the Queen of England in 2013.  “It made me angry because while those two institutions should apologize, the only person who should be offering any kind of forgiveness is him and he’s dead,” states Benedict Cumberbatch.  “He can’t forgive the idiocy of the time.   He can’t forgive the people he had help liberate from a fascist dictatorship and Nazi rule for persecuting him because they didn’t understand him.  They didn’t understand differences.  They were fearful of differences like all hatred.  It’s all out of ignorance.  You see it going on now with nationalism in Russia and the homophobia there.  You see it the credit crisis in Greece and the targets of that are gay men in Athens being beaten up in public squares at night.  You see it with ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] as well with this fundamentalism where anything that is deviant from their conformity is punishable by death even if you’re not their version of Islam.  It’s terrifying.  It’s not a history lesson.  This is something that is still going on.”

“We had a luxurious amount of time for rehearsals, two solid weeks,” recalls Matthew Goode.  “We all knew Benedict either as friends or actors who had worked with him.  There was a kind of thing going on anyway.  Effectively go and play and work things out.  It was a fun experience and that comes off on the screen.”  Allen Leech enjoyed the experience.   “In relation to the intimidation of walking on-set and seeing Benedict, Keira, Matthew Goode, Charles Dance, and Mark Strong, you feel like your in good company but you know that you’re going to have to up your game.  It’s a nice position to be in when you get challenged like that.”  Leech was impressed by a rising acting talent.

“Alex Lawther [X+Y] who plays the young Turing is absolutely fascinating and a wonderful actor.  That was a joy to watch and I think all of his stuff is incredible.  I love the scene where Peter Hilton [Matthew Beard] realizes that his brother is on a ship and pleads to save his life.  At that time I remember watching Matthew Goode do that; I thought he was phenomenal.  Then I watched it and it’s even more phenomenal what he does.  Just watching Benedict in this movie, he is absolutely outstanding.  Also everybody else is brilliant!”

“We could make a separate movie about what happened after they cracked Enigma and couldn’t let the Germans find out,” notes Morton Tyldum.  “All of the things they came up with to trick them.  There was a conference a few years after the war where the head German cryptographer met Alan Turing and a few others and said, ‘Ha! You never broke it!’  Alan Turing kept it a secret.  The English gave Enigmas to Israel and Allies and said, ‘This is an unbreakable machine.’  And they could crack it.  They listened in on their Allies.”   The transiting to different genres will continue for the man behind the camera.  “I hope to be that kind of filmmaker where every movie that I do is different.  I don’t want it to be the same thing that I’ve done.  I hope that my next movie which it looks will be different from The Imitation Game and Headhunters.  The thing about being a filmmaker is that you find material that you fall in love with.”  Tyldum adds, “The Imitation Game has been a privilege project to do.”

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada; he can be found at LinkedIn.


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