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Screenwriter Graham Moore risks 'career suicide' to write 'The Imitation Game'

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Benedict Cumberbatch in "The Imitation Game."
Jack English
Benedict Cumberbatch in "The Imitation Game."

Screenwriter Graham Moore wanted to tell the unbelievable true story of Alan Turing since he was a a geeky boy at space camp where Turing was a hero.

If you're a fledgling screenwriter in Hollywood, you might be tempted to play it safe with your first movie. Or you could go to your talent agent and tell them that you want to tackle the story of Alan Turing, the genius mathematician who helped crack Nazi Germany's Enigma Code and was later persecuted by the British government for his homosexuality.

Despite being told by his agents at CAA that it would be "career suicide," Graham Moore decided to pursue the Turing story. And things have worked out pretty well for Moore: His movie's been nominated for five Golden Globe awards, including Best Picture and Best Screenplay and the movie is very much in the Oscar conversation.

When Moore came by The Frame recently, we asked him about the challenge of pulling the varied elements of Turing's life into one script and the impact of Turing's personal life on his mathematical theories. 

Interview Highlights:

When did you decide that this was a story that you wanted to tell?

I was this tremendous and monumental computer nerd when I was a teenager. I went to Space Camp, I went to computer programming camp, but you go to computer camp and Alan Turing's legend looms quite large. He'd be talked about in this secret, queer history of computer science, like, "Did you know that's the guy who secretly invented the computer? Only no one knows that because he was rubbed out of the historical record when he was persecuted by the government for his homosexuality after the second World War."

It was this amazing true story that not that many people knew about, and he was always such a tremendous inspiration to awkward, dorky kids everywhere; I'd always wanted to write about him for my whole life.

And what did your talent agent say when you said, "The thing I really want to do is make a World War II movie about a gay mathematician"?

Oh, yeah, no, I promise you, when the agents at CAA hear the phrase "gay mathematician," dollar signs flash before their eyes. "Man, that's going to be a huge hit movie." No, that's not what they say when they hear that. [laughs] They told me it was career suicide.

They were like, "Please don't write this movie, no one will ever make this movie, no one will ever buy this movie, no one will ever see this movie. It would be career suicide to write this." And I was like, "But I don't even really have a career. How can I ruin something I don't really even have?" We can joke about that now, because we have this movie and we really love it.

So when you're looking to adapt this into a movie, there are at least three different spheres of his life. One is obviously that he was a gay man in a time when being a gay man in Britain and a lot of other places around the world was a crime. Two, he was a brilliant mathematician who invented one of the first computers. And three, he was at Bletchley Park trying to break the Enigma Code. So you have these three interlocking storylines, but as you start to figure out how to write it as a script, how do you juggle those three different, and sometimes competing, narratives?

I think we had this idea going into the film that Alan Turing was obsessed with puzzles. He loved codes, he loved games, and so we were going to present the movie as a puzzle. The movie focuses on three periods of his life: His formative teenage years and his first love with another boy in boarding school in the 1920s, his code-breaking work for the British government during the second World War in the 40s, and then what happened to him after the war with his eventual arrest and persecution for being a gay man in the 1950s.

And so I was going to take these three periods of his life and present them to you out of order, achronologically cut them up, so the periods can ask questions of each other, scenes in different times can answer questions asked by scenes in other periods, and so in this achronological way the movie would become a puzzle in and of itself, the answer to the puzzle being the mind of Alan Turing. The audience would hopefully be trying to solve the movie in the way that Turing was trying to solve one of his own puzzles.

How did you go about writing Turing's love life, and how he felt about other people and how he expressed his sexuality to other people?

Early on in this process, when the movie really clicked together and I felt I knew how to write it, was when it seemed to me that Turing's highly technical, theoretical, mathematical work was so deeply inspired and influenced by his experience as a closeted gay man in Britain in the 30s and 40s.

If you look at Alan Turing's paper in which he proposes the imitation game, for instance: as he proposed it, the imitation game is this concept that we are only what we can convince others that we are. We are human to the degree that we can convince someone else that we are human.

I think that for a philosophical statement like that to come from a closeted gay man in the 30s is remarkable, this man who is, in some sense, pretending to be someone who he is not every day. He's imitating someone who he is not every single day, and so he defines imitation as the very heart of human experience and human intelligence.

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