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Codebreaker: William Goldenberg talks about The Imitation Game

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“At the BAFTA Awards two years ago when I was there for Argo [2012] and Zero Dark Thirty [2012] Morten Tyldum, the director, came up to me, and told me about this project that he had,” recalls William Goldenberg who was not available at the time to edit The Imitation Game.  “I had forgotten about it and things kept happening.  The movie I was going to do was pushed and the lawyer for one of the producers who I happen to know called and told me how great the script was; they had an opening which was perfect.  When I read the script [by Graham Moore] and knew that Benedict Cumberbatch [12 Years a Slave] was involved I was totally on board.  Then I watched Morton’s last movie Headhunters [2011] and I thought he had a great eye for directing.  It all fit together.”  Goldenberg has also been involved with a blockbuster franchise.    “I prefer doing Argo, Zero Dark Thirty and The Imitation Game, real life stories and dramas, but I also have a great time doing movies like Transformers.”

“When I was thinking seriously about doing The Imitation Game, Morton was already in London,” recalls William Goldenberg.  “We had a 45 minute Skype and that was the only time we saw each other until the end of the shooting.”  The period thriller did not have a huge amount of financial resources.  “I believe the budget of The Imitation Game was $16 million so for all of us it was a labour of love.”  The American film editor collaborated with the Norwegian director to make a biopic about a British war hero who was prosecuted by his own government for being a homosexual.  “It was a British story, everyone in the cast was British, and was shot in the outskirts of London.  As the editor I was trying to tighten the story, make it emotional, and the war element of it exciting and a race against time.”  A recurring theme was central to the storytelling.  “The Imitation Game celebrates that different is not necessarily a bad thing.”  The historical thriller which secured Goldberg his second Oscar came in handy.   “You got a lot of tension from the house guests in Argo with what they were going through inside that house.  Similarly, it’s the guys and Keira Knightley [Atonement] trying to break this code and they’re all in this little hut at Bletchley.  We tried to introduce elements of the war to keep reminding the audience that as they’re trying and failing people are dying.”

“There’s action and there’s tension,” observes William Goldenberg.  “You can have a great action sequence with all of the stunts in the world and spend millions of dollars but if it is impersonal then it’s all a bunch of great eye candy.  I learned that early in my career. We were doing The Long Kiss Goodnight [  ] and had these phenomenally big action scenes.  I didn’t quite get it.  You have to feel for your characters.  That’s something I always concentrate on whether it’s Transformers or The Imitation Game.”  A potent cinematic moment occurs when codebreaker Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard) learns that his sibling is about to be killed. “The British didn’t want to let the Germans know about them breaking Enigma because the Germans would have changed all of the codes and they would have to start all over again.  Having that character’s brother be on one of the convoys was an effort by Graham to personalize the experience so that you could see the toil it took on each of our guys in Hut 8.  Morton and I were trying hard to make it feel less convenient.  There was a good chance one of those people would have known someone on one of those convoys.  We were trying to make sure that we didn’t overdo it.  There were performances that Matthew Beard [Posh] did which were much bigger and we tried to keep it restrained because that felt more British.”

Entombed by his classmates, a Young Alan Turing (Alex Lawther) is rescued by the love of his life Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon).   “That really happened to Alan at the school he went to,” states William Goldenberg.  “In fact it was worse than that.  They buried him in the ground but in the movie we had under the floorboards.  It was a directorial flourish. The first time you see him there’s this up angle of him doing something heroic and it made you understand why Alan fell in love with him.  Generally, when you have movies where you have someone play the main character as a child often you try to get by and make it palatable for the audience because it doesn’t usually work as well as you hoped.  But Alex Lawther [X+Y], who played Alan as a boy, was so good that it was a blessing to have someone that talented.   Alex feels so much like Alan as a boy which is evident in the scene where he learns that Christopher is dead; that’s one shot which is probably on the screen for over a minute [as it pushes in on his face].  To have a boy that young to give that kind of performance in a single take is extraordinary for any actor.

Three different storylines needed to be intercut: Alan Turing attending the Sherborne School in 1920s, his time as a World War II codebreaker at Bletchley Park, and the police investigation which occurred in the 1950s which uncovered the illegal private life of the Mathematics professor.  “Morton and I moved them around to make three separate story arcs so that as one section would come to a close we would have the next story arc.  It was more arbitrary in the screenplay.  We wanted them to feed off of each other but not in way so overt that it felt lame or convenient.”  Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) became an influential figure for Turing.  “Alan sees in Joan what he felt in Christopher and really did love her.  But Alan didn’t love her in a way that she wanted or even what he wanted because he was attracted to men.  Christopher and Joan serve the same story purpose in terms of being a support system for Alan.    I believe what happened in in real life was similar; they were incredibly close friends and loved each other but they couldn’t be together because of Alan being gay.”

The investigation into the break in at the home of Alan Turing frames the narrative for The Imitation Game.  “Graham was trying to stay away from the normal biopic,” remarks William Goldenberg.  “Start as a kid and work up to the end of his life.  Graham wanted to do it in a way that was more interesting and provides the film a dramatic framework that gives it tension and energy as suppose to this happened and then that happened.   For movies that are biopics that can be rather boring.  It’s an unravelling of a bunch of events as suppose to having some narrative drive.”  Sequences featuring the submarines and German spy plane required visual effects.  “The bombing of London shots are digital. When Alan rides his bicycle through the bombed out streets, all of the destruction is CG.”  Audio plays a big role in broadening the scope of movie, from the voiceover narration to effects.  “The discussion with the sound designers was to tell the story of what’s happening outside of the frame without being distracting.”

Benedict Cumberbatch has developed a reputation for portraying eccentrics without turning them into caricatures.  “Benedict is really talented,” believes William Goldenberg.  “It’s simple as that.  He’s a gifted actor with incredible intelligence.”  Cumberbatch would do an assortment of takes for his scenes.   “He gave us a lot of choices in the editing room, and to his and Morton’s credit there were a lot of variations of performances, bigger to smaller, more stuttering or less stuttering, lots of different choices so we were able to shape the performance in the way we wanted it.”  Midst the drama and there are times of levity.  “Humour came out of Alan’s awkwardness when he brings the rest of his team an apple and tries to tell a joke.  Alan is so socially awkward that it’s funny or the scene where they ask him to go to lunch and he doesn’t get it almost becomes like a Who’s on First routine.  I asked Morton who is from Norway, ‘Have you ever seen Who’s on First?  He had no idea of what I was talking about.  When they break the code and figure it out from Helen [  ] having a relationship with this German Morse Code operator, all of those entertaining elements are organic to the story so they don’t feel like they’re thrown in for a cheap laugh or thrill. It’s all within the same bandwidth.”

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

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