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

The Imitation Game stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing: a brilliant mathematician who helped devise a machine that could crack the Nazi’s code machine, Enigma. Turing was also a homosexual during a time when that was illegal in Britain. The film is bookended by his interrogation of that, then, bigoted crime. The film was written by Graham Moore, who scored the highest ever on the BlackList competition (a screenplay competition held by various talent agencies, scoring the best unproduced screenplays of the year).

When we met Moore, he was very confused by the movie junket process. You see he’d never done one before. And CraveOnline was slotted as his first interview of the day. The screenwriter was game to address some quibbles that we had with The Imitation Game. He also gave us a lot more information about Alan Turing’s previous relationships than the film itself did and some information about The Devil in the White City, a — forever in the process of being greenlit — true crime serial killer flick set against the first World’s Fair that was held in America.

All told, Moore handled his first junket with amazing class and was open to discussing a lot extra. Which was good because neither of us realized how much over time we went.

CraveOnline: This is your first film – and it’s a huge subject – how long were you working on it? And what sources were you pulling from?

Graham Moore: In some sense I’ve been working on this script since I was a teenager. I heard of Alan Turing when I was a teenager in Chicago. I was a huge computer nerd. I went to space camp. I went to computer camp. I even went to programming camp. Once I heard his story, I wanted to write about him. He had a very tragic life story. In 2010 I had a meeting with producers who had optioned Andrew Hodges wonderful book, Alan Turing, which was the first published biography of Turing and the most seminal and inclusive. But since Andrew’s book has been published, there’s been a half dozen other biographies on him. There was a play called “Breaking the Code” that was great and a number of other novels and biographies. So there became a lot to draw from, but Andrew’s book was key.

You mentioned computer science, a modern level of curiosity for me is how The Turing Test — which determines if a machine is thinking and if is human – has given way to the other side: the Reverse Turing Test, or CAPTCHA. Our computers and websites are making sure that we’re human beings.

It’s very ironic, right? It seems very true to what Turing is doing with the Turing Test, which he called “The Imitation Game,” which is where the title of the movie comes from. What we now call the Turing Test, the rules are different from his Imitation Game, but the spirit remains the same. I love that it has the word “imitation” in it, because it plants the idea the act of imitation is an integral part of the human spirit. The only way for something human to feel human is to convince others that it is. And that idea, coming from a closeted gay man in the 1940s is an amazing notion. I think that Alan Turing’s theoretical work is in some sort of deep sense inspired by his experience as a gay man in the 30s and 40s.

You bring up his sexuality informing his practice – would you mind if we discuss a quibble that I have with the film?

No, not at all. Please.

Related: ‘The Imitation Game’ Review

Because it’s bookended with an interrogation scene surrounding his arrest for being a homosexual with an ending that – well, I shouldn’t say too much about the end – gives a statistic of how many British men were jailed for their sexuality … I found it problematic that we never see his sexuality. Not to affirm it or discredit it, just that we never see how sexual he is, if it even means that much to him, or how he is hiding his sexuality… We see a young man that’s arrested for being with him but was he picked up? What was hiding his sexual life like?

It’s a complicated question. The shortest answer is: in the periods of the time that we’re focusing on, he was not very sexual. If Alan Turing was a heterosexual mathematician, no one would ever ask that question. No one would ask, how come there’s no sex scene so that we know that he’s straight? Alan Turing is gay. We portray him as a gay character. We talk about him being a homosexual. There is no sex scene because it didn’t matter to the story. On another level, most of the movie focuses on his time at Bletchley Park which in his diaries he described as a “sexual desert.” He was, not by choice, celibate at Bletchley Park. Which the film shows that he’s working for the government and he was not meeting other gay men at his top secret work there. And as it was, homosexual sex was illegal and was a felony. It wasn’t just frowned on, it was fucking illegal. It would’ve been historically accurate if we would’ve added some random sex scene that didn’t happen at Bletchley Park…

Well, what I was asking about was moreso afterward, prior to the investigation. And I’m not saying that we need to see a sex scene, but just so many mainstream movies just say “gay” and then punishment for being gay, but very few mainstream films can actually show him doing whatever got him arrested… And I am talking a larger frustration overall with Hollywood where they’re aware that a majority of people are pro-gay rights, but they’ll only just mention the word. It will be talked about, but romance, sex, between two men is still shied away from…

I understand. Believe me, I’ve been working on this film every day for four years. So it’s a conversation that’s been had a lot. We thought about various ways of incorporating it. And God knows, Benedict was game. But it wasn’t any sort of prissiness on our part. It just would’ve been historically inaccurate.

Okay, thank you for going there with me.

Of course.

But, still, this was an immense story. You have the cracking of the Enigma machine, the war, the interrogation and him as a young boy at boarding school. I’m curious — because I’m someone who loves to find those multi-tiered stories that span generations and think, “wow, this would be a good movie” — how do you work on trimming that down? Do you start with a large script and work backwards and excising?

That process took a long time. For me, I wanted to read as much about Alan Turing as possible and then start whittling. From the very first meeting that I had from the producers, I knew that I wanted to focus on his teenager years and his beginning romance with Christopher Morcom (played by Jack Bannon), his years at Bletchley Park in 39-42 and his later arrest, prosecution and punishment in the 1950s. I always wanted to do that. And I always wanted to do it non-linearly. I always described this movie mathematically in structure. There’s three stories in three different time periods. If you cut together the three time periods they would make sense alone and you could look at those scenes and they’d look like three short films about Alan Turing.

Like a straight forward Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.

I describe it as having this mathematical A.B.C.A.B.C structure because you go 50’s, 40’s, 20’s, 50’s, 40’s, 20’s. That moved around a little bit in editing. In the script it was very set in lockstop. I had this totally insane obsessive idea that we had to go 50’s, 40’s, 20’s, 50’s, 40’s, 20’s every time and couldn’t deviate from that. And our editor Billy (William Goldenberg) was like, “No, you’re being crazy.”

I had this idea that it’s all about codes, puzzles and secret messages and so I had this idea that the movie itself was going to be encoded with a secret message. It was like a code about Alan Turing that you had to unravel to make him a human like his test: these three periods that start to ask questions of each other and answer questions on each other.

So, in answering your question, knowing those three time periods was helpful. So that let me whittle from that. But even then, the first draft was something stupid like 180 pages. I can’t even believe that it was read.