The Imitation Game is a complicated movie — a thriller and a biopic of Alan Turing, a genius mathematician and founding father of computer science credited with drastically shortening World War II.
The following contains spoilers for The Imitation Game.
It's currently enjoying plenty of Oscar buzz, with several nominations, including nods for best picture, best adapted screenplay, best actor in a leading role for Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, and best supporting actress for Keira Knightley in the role of Joan Clarke, a woman programmer.
After a screening of the film last Friday, I attended a Q&A session with screenwriter Graham Moore, (along with actors Matthew Beard and Allen Leech) who referred to Turing as something of a childhood hero.
"I sort of always wanted to write about Alan Turing," said Moore. "I was lucky enough to have been exposed to his story very young. I was a tremendous computer nerd and went to computer programming camp, and among awkward techie teenagers, Turing was this great inspiration. Turing's story felt like a secret history of the second world war, and the secret history of computer science."
"He was this outsider, who didn't quite fit in in his own time, for so many reasons," Moore said. "But because of that, he was able to see the world in a way no one else had."
After growing up to be a screenwriter instead of a programmer, Moore kept pursuing the story.
"Those are all the buzzwords!"
"Once a year, I'd call up my agents and say 'hey, I really want to write about this gay English mathematician in the 1940s, and, oh, at the end he's going to kill himself' Hollywood executives... those are all the buzzwords!" he laughed.
But Moore met the eventual producers at a cocktail party, and history was made.
"Before I even wrote a word, there was six months of reading, reading, reading, everything I could get my hands on, to start this. Obviously, we had Andrew Hodge's wonderful 1983 biography, which we'd optioned, but that came out thirty years ago."
Through digging around in other sources — interviews with people who knew Turing, including a taped interview with Joan Clarke from the 90s, who Keira Knightley portrays in the film; letters, and other materials, Moore got a sense of the man.
A Real-life James Bond novel
Turing was no stranger to tragedy. Mistreated his entire life for being different, and eventually arrested and basically poisoned by the government for being queer, Turing's life was cut short. But Moore did find a lighter side to researching his childhood hero while writing the film.
"There are mentions of Alan Turing in the letters of (James Bond novelist) Ian Fleming"
"There are some mentions of Alan Turing in the letters of Ian Fleming," Moore said, referring to the famous James Bond author. "Because Fleming was working for MI6 at the time, during the war."
"Fleming has this amazing letter... he hated Alan Turing so much, in this letter, he's just complaining about Turing for the whole thing. He compares him to an undertaker!" Moore laughed. "Fleming's job was to come up with preposterous spy stories, that weren't real, but would be believable to the Germans," he said, referring to the spycraft necessitated by Turing and team's breaking of the German codes.
"Turing thought that Fleming's plots were just ridiculous. Turing was just like..." he made exasperated gestures. "Fleming's stories would be something like 'There's a Russian spy who is drunk at a whorehouse in Paris, and he leaves a piece of paper on a thing, and someone takes it,' and Turing would come in and be like 'What? No!'" Moore said. "He kept rejecting Fleming's plans, and so Fleming got really irritated with him. You imagine, they were men of really different attitudes and personality types."
Letters like this were instrumental for Moore, since they helped him piece together what Turing's ultra-classified work was like at Bletchley Park. "The goal, top to bottom, was, 'can we open up Alan Turing's mind to an audience?' and we make an audience feel the war, and feel his life as he did," said Moore. "So, we try to pitch the code-breaking process as a thriller, because, to Alan Turing, it was a thriller."
"Because, he's 27 years old," Moore began. "He's never been outside of a university in his life, and here he is, working alongside Ian Fleming at MI6. He's literally living inside a James Bond novel."