Morten Tyldum interview: The Imitation Game, Cumberbatch, Headhunters

We chat to The Imitation Game and Headhunters director Morten Tyldum about working with Benedict Cumberbatch and more...

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum’s previous film Headhunters was a precisely-sharpened stiletto of a thriller. Based on a novel by Jo Nesbo, it was ostensibly about an art thief whose desire to maintain a lavish lifestyle got him into deep, murderous trouble. But beneath the surface, it was about a deeply insecure man who believed that maintaining the appearance of being rich and successful was the only thing that would keep his statuesque wife from leaving him.

Violent, blackly funny and directed with real pace by Tyldum, Headhunters brought the filmmaker to global attention. Tyldum’s latest film is a very different one: it’s the fascinating, sad story of Alan Turing, the mathematician whose pioneering work greatly affected the outcome of World War II. Cumberbatch is typically effective in the lead role as Turing, and it’s great to see the life of a once obscure figure brought to a wider audience.

As The Imitation Game opens in the UK, we caught up with Morten Tyldum to talk about working with Cumberbatch and the rest of the film’s best-of-British cast, remaining true to Turing’s life story, and what he’s directing next.

Well, this is a vastly different film from Headhunters.

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[Laughs] Yes, yes.

It couldn’t be more different. So what was the path that led you from there to here?

Good question. As a filmmaker, I don’t want to limit myself to one kind of movie. After Headhunters, I went to Hollywood and read a lot of scripts: lots of action thrillers and heist movies, and superhero films. Then my agent called and said, “You should read this beautiful little script. It’s probably not what you’re looking for, but just read it.”

I just fell in love with the material. First of all, I was shocked at how little I knew about Alan Turning. So I started to read lots about him, and more and more I realised that I wanted to make a movie about him.

It’s a film about outsiders. And at the time, I was an outsider in Hollywood so maybe there was something relatable there, but I wanted to make a movie that was a tribute to those who are outside the norm, and think differently. Also, this was to be my first English-language movie, so I thought maybe I should do the hardest thing you can do: a dialogue-driven, British period movie! So I can’t hide behind any explosions or action this time.

I hope I can be a filmmaker where every movie will be different, and not make one type of movie. I’m always looking for a character that interests me. Roger Brown [central character in Headhunters] was interesting because he was a man who didn’t think he was worthy of being loved, you know?

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Yeah, a fantastic character.

So with Alan Turing, you have this complex man who was so driven and strong, but at the same time, so fragile and awkward. He didn’t quite fit in anywhere. He had these layers of secrecy, because he was gay and in the middle of all this secrecy with MI6. Then you have this young boy [the young Turing], who carries this great loss throughout his life. There was something about the character that really attracted me.

I wonder if it was exciting to you as well because it’s an untold story in filmmaking terms. Stories are usually regurgitated, but this one’s relatively unknown.

As Graham [Moore] says, it’s funny to read what’s being written about it. Some people have written, “Yeah, it’s a crowd-pleaser”. But when you think about it, it’s a movie about a gay mathematician in the 40s. It’s not really [a crowd-pleasing] movie.

I think that’s why it took time before anyone made a film about it. It’s been a bit of a challenge. To do a movie about someone who actually lived gives you two responsibilities. You have to try to be accurate to the facts of what he did and what he was like as a character. Then at the same time you have a responsibility to make a movie that entertains and can get an audience. Because his story deserves to reach a big audience. I didn’t want to make a dusty, very dry film. So we added humour and some thrilling elements into it. It’s a phenomenal, fascinating story. People ask me, what did you invent, what did you add, and really, we added so little. Because there was so much that we had to take some things away.

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There was a scene where Alan Turing is flown to New York, and has to lie to the CIA. We had to take that out. There was so much that happened to this man, this awkward mathematician who just happened to be in the middle of this storm at the time. 

As much as it is about the war and code breaking, the greater part of it is about British society at the time. How stifling it was. You’ve got Turing and you also have Joan [Clarke, played by Keira Knightley] who are both trying to be something they’re not. They’ve been forced into boxes.

They have. And it’s the secrecy. How much he carries around, how much he couldn’t talk about. To me, it’s mind-boggling to think that homosexuality was forbidden up until 1967. It’s not even a generation ago. It’s incredible. Britain, which in many ways is at the front of modern civilisation, had that going on. For somebody who did so much… he had theories about computers at the age of 23, and those theories still hold true.

To just think of these ideas is just mind-blowing. Then, at the same time, his war achievements. To then be prosecuted – it’s a fascinating story.

Talking about tone, this film could have been incredibly bleak. But as you say, there are highs in it as well as lows – a lot of humour.

Oh yeah. It was lovely that we’ve been getting all these audience awards now. They’re laughing. I love using drama and humour. Like in Headhunters, there’s a lot of humour. I think that if you want to have drama, you should make them laugh first and then hit them with something emotional. Because it is a big part of life. There’s an absurdity to life.

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The whole point of view of the movie, the way I shot it, is like, we’re looking over the shoulder of Alan Turing. I never shot so many backs in my life. [Laughs] There are so many shots following behind and looking over. At the same time, there are almost no point-of-view shots – the camera doesn’t pretend to be inside his head. We’re just observing. It’s there, present, with him, in the scenes, observing the interactions. It’s not like we ever tried to get inside his head, because that’s impossible, I think. He’s such a complex human being.

It was a challenge, the whole tonality. We didn’t want to ridicule him, or make fun of him in any way. But at the same time, it’s just the way he told a joke. There was something very endearing but also awkward about him. He was weird socially. If you didn’t interest him, he’d just stop in the middle of a sentence. He’d walk away because he didn’t want to talk to you anymore. 

In that respect, there are inevitable comparisons with Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock. I wondered if you talked about how you would differentiate between them, because I think the film does deepen him, and adds layers to Turing as it goes along.

We talked a lot about it. It was something that – well, not worried about, but it had to have a different energy. Turing is a more careful and more quiet person. He’s also more locked off, more isolated. There’s more drama to Sherlock than to Alan Turing, definitely. And also, Benedict, his physical language is so different. It’s been a real pleasure working with him. Alan Turing has this stutter, and the way he walks, how Benedict transforms himself into this man.

At the core of Turing is this lonely boy who’s lost so much. He meets this big love who changes him forever. Turing wrote letters to Christopher’s mother throughout his life. He became obsessed with artificial intelligence and artificial life, and I think that came from Christopher.

I can’t remember the young actor’s name, but…

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Alex Lawther.

That was a stunning performance.

It was. For me, that one shot is the whole core of the movie. How he has to deal with the shock – it’s all dealt with in one push-in; the camera just lingers on his face. It’s uncomfortably long. You just stay there. Stay, stay, stay, stay, stay. This must be how it must have felt for Turing, carrying around all these secrets.

Even during the trial, he didn’t blurt anything out. I mean, that’s what I would have done. “Don’t you know what I did during the war? I did this!” But he kept quiet. He carried the secrets with him all his life.

I sort of feel like the film itself is a bit like Turing. It could have been an angry film. He was betrayed by the country he helped save. But it isn’t. It’s like Turing: it’s contained, reserved. It doesn’t explode at any point.

Yes! As a filmmaker, the material speaks to you in a certain way. Graham, when he wrote the script, he wanted to capture the spirit of Alan Turing. Turing wasn’t an angry man, he wasn’t a bitter man. He had a sense of irony and humour. When he was being prosecuted, he wrote a famous letter to a friend that says, “Alan Turing believes machines can think. Alan Turing lies with men. Therefore: machines cannot think”. So he had a real understanding, a sense of humour about the whole situation. We wanted to recreate that: we didn’t want him to be this dark, brooding character. He was odd and awkward, and had tempers, and arrogance, but he wasn’t a dark character. So we wanted to capture that. 

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What was the most difficult aspect of making the film?

It’s a very dialogue and character driven film. So it was important for me to keep reminding people of the risks, what was at stake. So there was a balance to that, because you’re making a movie about people in a hut trying to solve puzzles! And at the same time, it’s a big event.

We didn’t want to tell it in a traditional way. We didn’t start at the beginning and build – we played around with time a little bit, moving to his childhood to the police investigation later on. To me, Turing was a mystery, a puzzle that needed putting together. I wanted the movie to feel the same way, like a puzzle, with one thing leading to another, letting us understand more and more, until you come to the answer: who Alan Turing was.

So that was a challenge. In terms of actual scenes, the light-hearted, funny ones were the hardest, actually. Because you needed to get the tone absolutely right. I believe that when you’re making something funny, you can’t try to make it funny – you have to make it real, and then it becomes funny. The balance there is almost harder to do than something dramatic, in a way.

It’s been a privilege, this project, to have so many talented people, the British actors I’ve dreamt of working with. It was a real pleasure. Everyone was so respectful and prepared, and everyone felt like they were telling an important story about a very important man.

You have Charles Dance in there, who’s brilliant.

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Charles Dance is awesome. You know, it’s a little bit intimidating, because you’re doing something very British, and there are all these Shakespearean actors everywhere. [Laughs] But they’ve been wonderful to work with. Mark Strong was great, and Matthew Goode, and of course Benedict Cumberbatch. So it’s been a dream. They all pushed each other, and everyone wanted to be a part of this small, independent movie.

Even the people behind the camera wanted to push themselves to get something that shouldn’t be possible on this scale. Like Bill Goldenberg, who just got the Oscar for Argo – he’s the hottest editor and he said yes, this is the movie I want to edit now. It’s a fraction of my usual salary, but yes, I want to do this.

Alexandre Desplat, who I think is the best composer in the world, he said he wanted to do the music to this. I had Maria Djurkovic, who’s a phenomenal British production designer. She had the tiniest budget she’s had to work with for a long time, and she worked wonders with it. It’s been such a privilege to work with all these people. We all shared a wish to tell Alan Turing’s story.

In Headhunters, there was a lot of suspense and action, then this film you have the British establishment and MI6. I was wondering whether that was your preparation for doing a Bond film in the future.

I had a meeting with them about doing a Bond film. I would love it. To me, this has been a perfect transition from doing Scandinavian movies to doing an American-produced, British film. And to now start tackling bigger studio movies. So I’m very happy that this is my first English-language film.

Are you still doing the science fiction film, What Happened To Monday?

No. A new director’s attached to that now. At the moment, there’s two projects I’m developing. There’s one for Warner called Chain Of Events. And then I’m developing an adaptation of a book by William Gibson for New Regency. That’s called Pattern Recognition. I love William Gibson.

Looking forward to it! Morten Tyldum, thank you very much.

The Imitation Game is out in UK cinemas on the 14th November.