Imitation Game: Passion Project Became Oscar-Caliber Movie (LGBTQ)

the_imitation_game_4Directed by Norwegian Morten Tyldum, who makes his English-language debut, Imitation Game opens November 28, after playing to great acclaim at the Toronto Film Fest.

Five years ago: Ido Ostrowsky, then 30, was an assistant on TV’s Gossip Girl, while his friend Nora Grossman, then 26, was out of work, having exited her post as creative executive for the company of Prison Break creator Paul Scheuring.

One day, the stumbled on a story that captivated them right away, the true tale of Alan Turing, a math genius credited with cracking the Enigma code ensuring an Allied victory over the Nazis, saving about 14 million lives. Alan Turing is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s become one of the most sought-after actors in Hollywood.

In September 2009, Ostrowsky came across an op-ed in The Telegraph in which British Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized on behalf of his government for its treatment of Turing. During his lifetime, Turing had not been celebrated for his extraordinary contributions, but instead was convicted of gross indecency in 1952 for the “crime” of being homosexual. He had a “choice” between prison or chemical castration. Two years after beginning the castration process with female hormone injections, he committed suicide at age 41. His story was buried until the 1990s because of national security concerns.

Over the past two decades, there had been several projects about Turing — the 1996 BBC TV drama Breaking the Code, starring Derek Jacobi, the fictionalized 2001 thriller Enigma and the 2009 documentary Decoding Alan Turing.

the_imitation_game_3The two producers wanted to know more. “We thought it sort of odd and quizzical that in 2009 there would be an apology for the treatment of anybody during the ’40s and ’50s,” Ostrowsky recalls. “We researched more about Turing and tried to get a sense of who he was. The more we learned, the more we thought this story could be really cinematic.”

Grossman flew to London in 2010 and asked Turing biographer Andrew Hodges to allow him to adapt his book, Alan Turing: The Enigma. Back in L.A. they prepared a synopsis and showed it to former bosses, as well as friends in the film business—but to no avail. “No one was reading it, and no one was getting back to us,” Grossman says.

Then, by chance, Grossman met TV writer Graham Moore during a meeting for a Fox comedy pilot. Moore heard of Turing, and referred to the biopic as a dream assignment. “Little did he know it was his lucky day, because no one else was knocking on our door,” Grossman says.

Coming off of ABC Family’s 10 Things I Hate About You, Moore was not the most logical choice to tackle the tragic story of Turig. But several drafts later — written on spec —he had cracked the story of Imitation Game. Moore’s screenplay “didn’t ask you to like Turing,” says actor Cumberbatch. “It just asked you to accept him.”

The script made the 2011 Black List of the year’s best unproduced screenplays, and Warner quickly snapped it up. Leonardo DiCaprio was interested, and directors like Sam Mendes, Tom Hooper, and Ron Howard flirted with the material, which was viewed as a kin to Howard’s own Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind.  The studio attached newcomer J Blakeson (The Disappearance of Alice Creed) to direct. But then DiCaprio’s changed his mind, and Warners gave up.

Suddenly, Imitation Game became a hot script that had been exposed and still hadn’t received green light. There were other suitors, including Megan Ellison, Harvey Weinstein, Focus Features and StudioCanal, but Ostrowsky and Grossman realized that Imitation Game could sit on a shelf because it didn’t have a major star attached.

Teddy Schwarzman, a film investor whose father is billionaire Stephen Schwarzman of Blackstone Group fame showed interest.  He was willing to greenlight the film without a bankable star. Schwarzman told Ostrowsky and Grossman: “This needs to be shot in the U.K. This needs to have an all‑U.K. cast. This needs to be true to the legacy of Alan Turing. I’ll write a check for the entire budget with no elements attached, but I’m also going to be the hands‑on producer.”

the_imitation_game_2At the Berlin Film Market, where The Weinstein Co. scooped up U.S. rights to the $16 million production for $7 million. Schwarzman hired Tyldum, who already had made a name in Norway with the crime thriller Headhunters, the highest-grossing film in the country’s history. Though he met with such actors as James McAvoy and Andrew Garfield, Tyldum’s first choice was Cumberbatch, who had expressed interest when the project was at Warner, but the studio, at that point, didn’t consider him a big enough star.

Looking back, his casting as the doomed British hero, who ages from 25 to 41 in the film, seems now a natural choice. Cumberbatch, 38, has earned raves (and would score an Emmy for playing another socially challenged man with a stratospheric IQ in the BBC series Sherlock). As Tyldum was making his decision, Cumberbatch was suddenly hot, after completing some high-profile roles in Star Trek Into Darkness12 Years a Slave and The Fifth Estate; he is under consideration to headline Marvel’s Doctor Strange. Cumberbatch wanted the role, saying of Turing, “This man is as important as Newton and Darwin, as far as British science goes.”

Tyldum then cast Keira Knightley, 29, in the pivotal role of fellow code-breaker Joan Clarke. While the film’s treatment of Turing hews largely to actual events, it takes liberties with Clarke, the woman who was once engaged to Turing. “The real Joan Clarke was quite different than this character,” says Knightley. “As soon as I’d figured that out, I said, ‘OK, there’s no point in trying to do an absolute characterization of this person because a lot of the background of the character has been changed.’ ”

A bigger drama took place after the 46-day shoot: Tyldum had to decide whether to include Turing’s suicide, which Moore had written into the script. The director shot a scene where Turing takes a bite of a cyanide-laced apple and is later found by the police. Weinstein is rumored to have been reluctant to lose the scene; he wondered if there was a marketing angle in the link of the bite in the apple to the urban legend that Steve Jobs‘ famous Apple logo is a shout-out to Turing. But once that tale was debunked, Weinstein deferred to the filmmaking team, and Tyldum decided the suicide had to go. Instead, the film flashes back to a postwar victory celebration. “It was a very complex choice,” the director says. “But I wanted the ending to celebrate his life. I felt that the suicide is not dramatic enough, that it became a little bit empty dramatically–just seeing him dead in the bed and the police there. Let the audience imagine it.”

the_imitation_game_1Cumberbatch saw the film for the first time when it played at the Toronto Film Festival in September.  He was overwhelmed by the reception. “I really had to hold it together. I was going to bawl. I forgot how much I really cared about him and loved him and invested in him.”

“I was a total nervous wreck,” Ostrowsky says, “Just watching it play and hearing the reaction, it started to hit me that it’s touching people, and I felt really humbled by it all.”