Cracking the Code: How Two Out-of-Work Producers Brought 'Imitation Game' to the Screen
The story of Alan Turing, a gay British code-breaker who saved 14 million lives during World War II, ended tragically with his chemical castration and suicide. Two out-of-work producers brought him back to life thanks to a Black List script, Benedict Cumberbatch and the film-savvy son of a billionaire
This story first appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It all began a mere five years ago: Ido Ostrowsky, then 30, had just finished a stint as an assistant on Gossip Girl, where he spent his days transcribing a roomful of writers' thoughts into working outlines. Meanwhile, his friend Nora Grossman, then 26, was out of work, having exited her post as a creative executive for Prison Break creator Paul Scheuring's company, where she schlepped coffee and answered phones. Then they stumbled on the story that would dramatically change their career trajectories. And almost overnight — at least by Hollywood's often glacial development standards — the two pals now find themselves in the thick of this Oscar season's best picture hunt with their very first producing effort, The Imitation Game, a film headlined by Benedict Cumberbatch, who's become one of the most in-demand actors of the moment. Directed by Norwegian helmer Morten Tyldum, who makes his English-language debut, Imitation Game, which opens Nov. 28, centers on the true story of Alan Turing, a math genius credited with cracking the Enigma code ensuring an Allied victory over the Nazis, thus saving an estimated 14 million lives.
See more The Making of The Imitation Game
In September 2009, Ostrowsky was randomly trawling the Internet when he stumbled upon 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 wartime contributions, but instead was convicted of gross indecency in 1952 for the "crime" of being gay. 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.
While there had been several projects that looked at Turing — the 1996 BBC TV drama Breaking the Code, starring Derek Jacobi, the heavily fictionalized 2001 thriller Enigma and the 2009 documentary Decoding Alan Turing — the two neophyte 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 Alan Turing and tried to get a sense of who he was. The more we learned, the more we thought that this story could be really cinematic."
So, with no real producing experience, fueled only by enthusiasm, Grossman flew to London in 2010 and managed to convince Turing biographer Andrew Hodges to allow the pair to develop his nearly 600-page book, Alan Turing: The Enigma. Back in L.A. they added a one-sheet synopsis to the dense tome and drove it around to former bosses for whom they had interned, as well as friends of friends in the film business — all to no avail. "No one was reading it, and no one was getting back to us," Grossman says.
Then, by chance, Grossman encountered up-and-coming TV writer and author Graham Moore during a staffing meeting for a Fox comedy pilot that never made it to series. Not only had Moore heard of Turing, he also 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 jokes.
Coming off of ABC Family's 10 Things I Hate About You, Moore might not have seemed the logical choice to tackle the tragic story of the man who also is acknowledged as a forefather of modern computing. But four drafts later — all written on spec — he had cracked the story of Imitation Game. Moore's screenplay "didn't ask you to like Turing," says Cumberbatch. "It just asked you to accept him."
The script found acceptance on the 2011 Black List of the year's best unproduced screenplays, and Warner Bros. quickly snapped it up in a seven-figure deal as boldfaced names circled. Leonardo DiCaprio was interested, and heavyweight helmers from Sam Mendes to Tom Hooper to Ron Howard flirted with the material, which was viewed as having all the potential of Howard's own Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind. Eventually, the studio attached newcomer J Blakeson (The Disappearance of Alice Creed) to direct. But then DiCaprio's attention waned, and Warners relinquished the project in 2012.
Suddenly, Imitation Game found itself in a very precarious position — a hot script that had been exposed to the entire marketplace and still hadn't found the traction necessary to move forward. There were still plenty of suitors, including Megan Ellison, Harvey Weinstein, Focus Features and StudioCanal, but Ostrowsky and Grossman realized that, like so many other great drama scripts, Imitation Game could sit on a shelf indefinitely because it didn't have an A-list star attached.
Enter Teddy Schwarzman, a deep-pocketed film investor whose father is multibillionaire Stephen Schwarzman of Blackstone Group fame. Blown away by Moore's screenplay, Schwarzman was willing to greenlight the film without a Leo-caliber star. "We need to just go and make this film and do it in a way where it's not about putting in [bankable] American actors, which has been where the dialogue has been previously," Schwarzman recalls telling 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 of the film. We can deal with [finding distribution] in Berlin."
The road to the Berlin Film Market, where The Weinstein Co. scooped up U.S. rights to the $16 million production for $7 million earlier this year, proved to be relatively headache-free compared to the project's early years. Schwarzman hired Tyldum, who already had made a name for himself 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 quickly became Cumberbatch, who had expressed interest when the project was at Warners — but the studio, at that point, didn't consider him a big enough star. In retrospect, his casting as the doomed British hero, who ages from 25 to 41 in the film, now looks like a no-brainer. Cumberbatch, 38, has earned raves (and would go on to score an Emmy for playing another socially challenged man with a stratospheric IQ as the titular character in the BBC series Sherlock). As Tyldum was making his decision, Cumberbatch was suddenly hot, having completed a string of high-profile film roles in Star Trek Into Darkness, 12 Years a Slave and The Fifth Estate, and is currently under consideration to headline Marvel's Doctor Strange. Cumberbatch keenly 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 more liberties with Clarke, the woman who was once engaged to Turing. She wasn't, for example, trying to escape overbearing parents. "The real Joan Clarke was quite different than this character," says Knightley. "As soon as I'd figured that out when I did do the research, I sort of went, '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.' "
Perhaps the biggest 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 police. Weinstein is rumored to have been reluctant to lose the scene; some sources suggested that he wondered if there was a marketing angle in the possible 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 and its discovery 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 actually 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."
Cumberbatch saw the film for the first time himself when Imitation Game played at the Toronto Film Festival in September, and he was overwhelmed by the reception. "I really had to hold it together. I was going to bawl," he recalls. "I forgot how much I really cared about him and loved him and invested in him."
In the end, Ostrowsky and Grossman, armed only with their own passion, had managed to kick-start a movie that, with all its challenges, could have flummoxed more seasoned producers. "I was a total nervous wreck," Ostrowsky says, looking back at that screening in Toronto. "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."