Interview: Morten Tyldum
Norwegian director Morten Tyldum might seem like an odd choice to tell the story of Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician who led a team of cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park, England, tasked with breaking the German Enigma code. Turing was also an eccentric and profoundly secretive man, persecuted for his homosexuality, until he was found dead of cyanide poisoning in 1954.
Tyldum, educated at New York’s School of the Visual Arts, spent a decade working in Scandinavian television, making a name for himself through shorts and music videos. He made his feature debut with Buddy (03), a low-budget romantic comedy that connected with critics and audiences alike, earning the Amanda Award (presented at the Norwegian International Film Festival) for best Norwegian film of the year. He followed up with two thrillers adapted from best-selling novels, Fallen Angels (08) and Headhunters (11), expert genre films with refreshing emphases on characterization. The latter became the most commercially successful Norwegian film in history, leading to many lucrative offers from Hollywood.
He chose instead The Imitation Game for his English-language debut, which FILM COMMENT’s Laura Kern identified as continued proof of his talents: “Tyldum’s handling demonstrates the same smooth assurance and skill with actors—the performances are first-rate across the board.” Tyldum recently spoke with FILM COMMENT about his collaborative methods, his affinity for outsiders, and cracking the code of Alan Turing.
The Imitation Game
This is your first English-language feature, and you’ve chosen to make a film about an outsider. What perspective did being one of the few non-Britons involved in the production give you on Alan Turing?
Being Scandinavian, I watched British movies and grew up side by side with British culture. In many ways, our nations are practically neighbors. But at the same time, I do think it’s important that this is a story of an outsider, and being an outsider means that you have that perspective on it. I think also that’s a little bit why I became so obsessed with Alan Turing. There was something very relatable about him, even though I’m very different from him. It’s impossible not to be outraged by the injustice that was done him. This is a man who we all owe so much to, who did all these phenomenal things, and was treated so badly. You can get upset thinking about it, but at the same time, there’s something very touching and human about him.
At the core of the character is this little boy who’s so lost, and to me it’s a story about unconsummated love—how strong that is. It’s amazing to think that young gay love sort of inspired computer science. He was obsessed with creating consciousness, creating an intellect, re-creating something that he had lost. Starting down that path and having those ideas is so unique. Much of this happens in the Thirties, when—at the age of 23—he theorized the computer. It’s incredible.
You said that you grew up with British history, but when did you first become aware of Alan Turing? He’s been kind of a marginalized figure until now.
I had heard a little bit about Turing machines, that they had something to do with computers. I was blown away by how little I knew—his whole team at Bletchley Park, how important it was in the war, how many millions of lives he saved—and I think that happened to so many people who wanted to do this project. Winston Churchill said Alan Turing was the single most important contributor [to the victory over the Nazis]. Just because he was convicted of gross indecency, he was pushed into the shadows of history. There’s a famous quote, which he wrote in a letter to a friend: “Turing thinks machines can think. Turing lies with men. Therefore machines cannot think.” His ideas were becoming ridiculed simply because he was gay, and why he wasn’t so widely known—that whole secrecy act, that dealt with everything that was happening at Bletchley. Everything was burned, everything was razed, and everybody kept quiet. It means that everything that happened wasn’t recognized until 25 years after his death.
So it’s shocking and but also very moving, and everyone got very emotionally involved in the making of this movie. All these incredible, talented people—both in front of and behind the camera—wanted to come aboard on this small, independent movie. And they did it for a fraction of their [usual] salary.
He was granted a royal pardon about a month after you finished shooting. Do you think that was because of the film, or just a coincidence?
I don’t know, and I don’t want to speculate. I know that there have been a lot of people working for his pardon. I think the bigger question to ask is why the pardon matters when there’s nothing to pardon. He did nothing wrong, and he shouldn’t be singled out for injustice. There was a beautiful Twitter message that I got, which said: “I’m a 92-year-old gay man who was wrongfully convicted for gross indecency, and I saw your movie in tears.” I mean, he should be pardoned. It’s so many—it’s 50,000, and some are still alive who were convicted for this. This pardon should go out to everybody who ever bore the injustice of this law, not just Alan Turing.
You were coming off the most successful film in Norwegian history—you must have had your choice of projects. You must have been offered a lot of Hollywood thrillers, I imagine.
Which I love! I hope that every movie I do will be different, so I read a lot of action thrillers, superhero movies, all that, and some really good ones. But I don’t think you pick your project; you fall in love with it. It’s something that just happens. I never would have chosen to do a character-driven, dialogue-heavy British period movie, because it would’ve scared me. I couldn’t have started with anything more complicated. There are no explosions to hide behind. I moved myself outside my comfort zone, which in many ways was exhilarating. Headhunters was a darker, sexier action thriller, but in many ways character-driven and with a sort of complex narrative, same as this one. There are similarities, but also huge differences. I like that, to challenge myself.
How much pressure did you feel to be historically accurate?
A lot. You can get every factual part correct and completely fail to recapture the emotionally accuracy—the spirit of the time, what the pressure was like. It’s always easy to nitpick on details, because you have to compress things when you have two hours to tell a movie. You have to take different things that are all correct in their way, and you have to combine them all into one moment. For instance, that Joan Clarke wasn’t recruited by a crossword puzzle. Alan Turing did design crossword puzzles, and he did put them in the Times, and he did recruit people to MI6 with them. Joan Clarke was recruited in a different way, but she was that smart, so how do you have a scene that shows her intelligence, the very real connection she had with Alan Turing, and what an original, outside-of-the-box thinker Alan Turing was? You have that crossword puzzle.
We were really nervous about getting that aspect right, especially when we showed it to his family. Some of them were around 18 when he died, so they’ve been living with his legacy and their memories of him. They’ve been incredibly supportive, and one of them said that watching the film was like watching him. Bletchley Park, and other institutes featured in the film, have all been totally supportive. A lot of them have said that we actually captured Alan Turing and his life.
You shot on a lot of actual locations, including in Bletchley Park. Werner Herzog has talked about “the voodoo of location,” which I think refers to the ways filming on the spot where the story occurred carries a sort of psychic charge. Did you experience that?
Yeah. We shot at the Sherborne School, and saw the mural plate of [Turing’s first love] Christopher Morcom. It was emotional for everybody. I shot as many interiors as I could at Bletchley Park, so if we’d dusted for fingerprints, we probably would’ve found Alan Turing’s fingerprints. I think it does something to the performances—it does something to the actors to be part of that.
We also used real relics—many of the props are from the war. The first time we brought a real enigma machine into the rehearsal room, the actors were touching it and saying, “This is the one we’re beating.” It reminded them that this is a real story. It’s a thriller, it’s a war story, it’s a love story—it has everything, but this actually is real. This really happened, and that’s inescapable when you’re touching these machines. We tried to use as many of the real things as we could have or duplicate. All the people based their work on things that we copied, that is saved from what little they had left from Bletchley Park. The [codebreaking] machine called Christopher is based on the original machine they built, with the dials and everything. We added some red cabling, because to him it was more than a machine, it symbolized the loss he had. So we had all these red cablings sort of like to have blood veins for Christopher, and we made it sound more complex because it was just like a character itself. So it means more to me actually than it means to the audience in many ways.
The Imitation Game
The title of the film—The Imitation Game—would seem to have a double meaning, referring not only to the ways that computers are programmed to imitate human thought patterns, but also to the struggle of Alan Turing to imitate social cues, to understand humor and collaboration.
You’re right: it’s a beautiful double meaning. It’s not a coincidence that a closeted gay man imitating a straight man—you know, hiding—comes up with the idea of machines imitating human behavior. He’s ultimately as important a philosopher as he is a mathematician. We are only what we can convince others that we are, only what others can concede that we are. So if a machine can convince him that it’s human… that’s the idea behind the imitation game, what makes us human, what makes us think? Because, like Keira Knightley’s character says in the movie, just because somebody thinks differently than you do, doesn’t mean they’re not thinking. And if he accepts that idea, that thinking doesn’t have to be the way I’m thinking, then why can’t machines think? That’s the imitation game.
Being gay was just one part of it. The biggest thing that made him an outsider was how he was thinking differently. Peter Hilton, the young man in the codebreaking team, said later in his life that there were so many bright, smart people at Hut 8 [Turing’s section], and there were a lot of good ideas being thrown out, but most of the time when someone came up with one, he thought, “That’s a great idea but I could’ve thought of that.” But every time Alan Turing came up with an idea, he always thought, “I would have never come up with that.” His ideas always came from a completely different place, from a completely different angle. He was complex: he could be very funny, but he could also be very hard to communicate with. If you stopped being interesting to him, he’d leave you in the middle of a sentence and just walk away. He was an odd duck, as his mother called him.
I wanted to show that his gayness didn’t define who he was. I think it’s a disservice to gay characters in movies that every time they’re in a movie, they have to be gay first, and whatever else they’re doing is secondary. So to me, Alan Turing is first of all a genius that was one of the most important thinkers of our century, and then he was a gay man who was being convicted and very wrongfully prosecuted for just being a gay man. And yes, it did influence the way he saw life. Because imitating and hiding came very naturally to him. But it’s not the defining feature of him, at the end of the day. Or it shouldn’t be.
So even more than being a thriller or biography, it seems to me that the movie is an argument for the necessity of oddballs and eccentrics.
Completely. An outsider doesn’t fit into the norm, and has to create his own position, and that is something that I’ve always been fascinated with. The fear of someone who’s different has always been one of our biggest problems. Fearing a different sexuality, religion, political view, nationality, or race has caused so much strife. It sounds cliché, but it’s very true.
Did you approach the film as kind of a process of decrypting Turing’s life? Because I felt like the jumping back and forth in time presented him as an intricate puzzle to be solved.
Yes, it’s a mystery. He was a mystery to me, and in many ways he is a mystery to a lot of people. There’s so much about him that we don’t really know. We wanted to present the movie as a mystery, as a puzzle, as something you have to unravel to understand more and more—and hopefully the answer will be Alan Turing. The answer will be slightly different to everyone who sees the movie. That’s what we tried to do.
He was obsessed with puzzles. He didn’t call it “the imitation test.” He called it “the imitation game.” Because he loved games. He loved puzzles. He loved figuring out things. He invented his own board games; he invented his own chess games. He had a very playful nature.
The Imitation Game
What’s next for you? I know you’ve talked about developing an adaptation of William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. Is that something you’re still working on?
Yes. Again, it’s an outsider character. I love William Gibson’s novels. I’m also developing a project with Warner, and I have a third project, so right now I have material which I really love, and I want to get it right and make it ready before I go into production. But I feel very lucky and privileged that I’m being sent good material that I can really respond to.
What appeals to you about William Gibson in particular?
Again, this girl [Pattern Recognition heroine Cayce Pollard] that has this incredible gift that actually makes her an outsider. Makes her somebody who doesn’t fit in. I realize it’s a recurring theme [laughs]. It’s her struggle to find meaning in her life. It’s what we all struggle for—to find what feels right for us, and what feels superficial. I also love that William Gibson embraces technology. So often when you’re dealing with technology, it’s portrayed as something that alienates us or makes us separate off into something bad, but he actually embraces it. It can be as good as it is bad, which is actually the truth. It’s uniting people as much as it’s alienating people.
You call outsider-ness a recurring theme. Is that something that resonates especially with you, or is it just a universal facet of the human experience?
I think it’s both. It’s something about finding meaning: you as an outsider trying to understand where you are, and your role in it, and who you are, and not trying to fit into something which is a shape or form that’s already been made for you. An outsider doesn’t fit into the norm, and has to create his own position, and that is something which I’ve always been fascinated with.