TIFF 2014 Interview: Graham Moore, Screenwriter of ‘The Imitation Game’

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And you came to film via a television show (10 Things I Hate About You)…

That was the best job I ever had. It was super fun. I’d written a few screenplays that never went anywhere, earlier. Then I was six months on [10 Things I Hate About You] and then I sold my first novel (Sherlockian). And then I started work on The Imitation Game. The very first words that I wrote actually open the movie: “Are you paying attention?”

And it was narrated by Smaug (Cumberbatch provides the voice for Smaug, the dragon in Peter Jackson’s Hobbit series).

[laughs] I didn’t imagine that type of voice when I wrote it. There was this funny thing where before it was cast, and (director) Morten Tyldum and I would do readings together and he has, you know, a thick Norwegian accent and I have a midwestern American accent and when we would narrate or voice the tender scenes it was the the worst thing in the world. I’m so glad that we don’t have an recordings of that.

I started writing it on a plane from Chigo to Scottsdale, Arizona on a book tour. And that sort of traveling while writing helped me in a lot of ways. It gave me confidence to write while on a book tour. Alan Turing is so important to me and to the world and his story is so important to be told, so it was a big thing to take up and I was a little petrified. Like, who am I to write the Alan Turing story? He’s one of the great geniuses of the 20th century — who was horribly persecuted for being gay — and I’m a kid from Chicago.

Well, what’s the line in the movie, sometimes what you don’t expect…?

[laughs] Oh yeah, “Sometimes it’s the people that no one imagines anything of, that can do the things that no one can imagine?” [laughs] It’s a mouthful of a line. I can’t believe that Benedict could do it. I remember I had some people tell me that that line was too wordy and I was like, we can’t deliver it, but actors can. And we were very lucky in that department.

You spoke of mathematics before, I wasn’t paying attention to the beats from the jokes in this film, but it is funny. Not funny in a guffaw sort of way, but it’s witty —

Yeah. Thank you, that was a goal, so I’m glad you found it to be successful.

Were you doing a double third structure — narrative in thirds and jokes in thirds — with the “Rule of Three” like straight, straight, jab?

Oh, that’s interesting. I never thought about it that way. One of my goals for the movie was to put the audience inside the head of this very unique person. It should be from Alan’s perspective. And to do that, we needed humor. I think, in some sense, Alan Turing was a funny person. And for something that was going to get as heavy as it does by the end. I don’t want to say too much, and it’s always funny talking about spoilers on a historical film because you can just wikipedia it, but it gets into some dark human territories at the end. Google it. It’s not a secret.

But knowing that we were going to go to a tragic place at the end, I knew that the first third had to be funny. We got a lot of humor in Alan’s foibles and weirdnesses and how he takes everything literally. I wish I could go back and keep writing the Alan Turing dialogue because I loved the back and forth banter. Because the jokes all work as basic misunderstandings. Benedict got this so quickly. Everything he says is so literal and he only understands the very literal things you say to him. So all the jokes are about confusion. And actually, Benedict, bless him, corrected me: there was one line that made it to set where Benedict didn’t answer something literally. It was right before we started shooting and it was very small, but bless him for catching it. It was an early scene, the line is from a commander who is interviewing Alan for his position at Bletchley Park. And the line was written “Who are you?” And I had Alan responding, “My name is Alan Turing.” You know, not the most riveting of dialogue, but Benedict was correct, he said, “The commander didn’t ask what his name was … he said ‘who are you?'” He would’ve answered with just his name: “Alan Turing.” 

Since you said you wish you could write this forever, and because this covers so much ground, did you ever think about this as a mini-series?

I didn’t. From the very beginning the goal was always to give this sadly forgotten and maligned historical figure a proper full-on cinematic treatment. There have been great plays about Alan Turing, there have been great novels about Alan Turing. What we wanted to do was make a narrative film. That was always the goal and the challenge. Which was we discussed had challenges in terms of length.

You mentioned before that he described Bletchley Park as a “sexual desert” — did he keep an extensive diary? And if so did he write about Christopher Morcom (his young love)? 

He had a limited diary but he had a lot of letters that we read. Alan’s only significant relationship that he’d ever had was with a fellow student in his boarding school named Christopher Morcom. When we discussed Alan’s adult sexuality earlier, he didn’t have a full adult relationship, there was not a boyfriend. He was too much of an outsider and couldn’t maintain relationships in that way. He wrote a lot about Christopher… When Alan was young, he wrote Christopher’s mother a note every week for the rest of his life.

Wow.

Yeah, Alan was very close to Christopher’s mother. Alan maintained a memorial for Christopher and he would go there and talk with him. And write about their conversations.

Well that’s gorgeous. Wow. I know that your epilogue text is already long, but why wasn’t that included?

It didn’t quite fit into the film. Conservatively speaking we could’ve had 1,000 versions of 1,000 facts in the epilogue. A fact that I wanted to talk about in the epilogue was the Soviet Spy at Bletchley Park who was never prosecuted. [The person] later publicly admitted being a spy in the 1990s and the irony between a Soviet spy and a gay man, it was the gay man that got prosecuted. We tried to work in some text, but the movie is 111 minutes and we did what we could.

You can’t just put a wikipedia page on the end credits.

But, oh! If we could just add a link. Click here to learn more from your seats! That was the goal of the movie: learn about a story they haven’t heard about before.

And what are you working on next?

I’ve spent most of the year working on my second novel. It’s important for me to go back and forth. I did an adaptation for a movie called The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson for Warner Brothers. I love that book. And I am working on two TV pilots. And one in the States, or rather, there in the States since we’re in Canada right now. And one for Sky.

Well The Devil in the White City (which details the building of the Ferris wheel for a World’s Park in Chicago, set against the serial killings at a hotel that was preparing for the World’s Fair festivities), that’s another book that spans a few different narratives. Was there one specific focus in your draft?

That one has three main characters in the book — the book, oh my god, it’s so detailed and well-written; Erik Larson is one of my favorite non-fiction writers and also one of the nicest human beings in the world and man, can he drink scotch — and I ..

Oh yeah, and you’re from Chicago.

[laughs] Yeah, I felt like I was going back to by neighborhood and murdering everybody. I’m literally killing people in the streets that I grew up in. My parents are like, “Why did you say yes to this?”

Yeah, it’s such a creepy story…

It’s such a creepy story. The goal of my draft focuses on Daniel Burnham the architect building the fair and Henry Holmes the serial killer that’s killing the people arriving to the fair. So its a dual narrative.

And the Ferris Wheel?

George Ferris is in it. But we don’t spend a lot of time with him in my script. We focus on Burnham and there’s certainly a big sequence at the Ferris Wheel. I guess I shouldn’t say too much …

Yeah, I know this project has shifted around a few places …

Yeah it was at Paramount for ten years. Now it’s at Warner Brothers. I started fresh, I hadn’t read the Paramount drafts. I was actually legally forbidden to read the Paramount drafts since Warner Brothers picked it up.

Is DiCaprio still involved as a producer?

Yeah, DiCaprio bought it after Paramount expired. And he’s attached to play the serial killer.

Oh, I didn’t know that he was the serial killer. How devilish. How divine.

[laughs] Yes! Please! Let this one happen!


Brian Formo is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel. You can follow him on Twitter at @BrianEmilFormo.