Meet Oscar-winner Graham Moore: Hollywood’s newest Jewish writing prodigy
Graham Moore arrives at a Silverlake coffee house wearing a dress shirt and tie, a display of formalism somewhat out of character for a Hollywood writer. The eccentric suits him. “I think I always felt like an outsider, like a weirdo,” Moore said, describing a condition that has afflicted almost every artist that ever lived, not to mention, almost every Jew. Yet, little of Moore’s life story has followed any sort of typical trajectory — at 33, he is the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “The Imitation Game,” a story about the brilliant English cryptologist Alan Turing, who devised the machine that cracked German codes during World War II but who was later targeted and punished by a British court for homosexuality. Moore is an unlikely author for this complicated story; while he has been a lifelong fan of Turing, his widely acclaimed script constitutes his first-ever stab at a screenplay. Before it, he was known for his bestselling debut novel, “The Sherlockian,” inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous missing diary. Taken together, these back-to-back successes suggest Moore is either experiencing an unheard of bout of beginner’s luck, or he is, perhaps, like the subjects on which he writes, something of an anomalous genius himself.
“When I first starting writing, and no one was paying me, in order to feel like I had a real job, I would get out of bed, put on a jacket and tie every morning and sit down at my desk,” he said, explaining his preppy attire. It was a genuine attempt to take himself seriously as a writer at a time when no one else did. Back then, he was living in New York, working as a fly-by-night musician scoring shampoo commercials to the pay the rent, and writing at an office that was “literally not even five inches” from his bed.
“Before [writing] was actually my profession, I think I knew I had to treat it like a profession if I wanted to accomplish anything.”
Now, all grown up, Moore has retained his boyish looks and seems like he could belong permanently to an Ivy League campus. He is as thoughtful ruminating on his wardrobe as he is about the art of writing, the role of cinema and Alan Turing’s historic legacy. He is also hyper-articulate, to the point where he needs only a simple prompting to riff energetically on a number of subjects, and his ability to speak on a range of topics suggests the diversity of his interests — technology, journalism, rock music and politics.
“When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a computer programmer,” Moore confessed. “I was this very techie kid — I went to space camp, I went to computer camp — and I had this grand plan to go to M.I.T and do that with my life, but then, it turned out, I was really bad at it.”
Given his track record, it’s hard to imagine Moore being bad at anything. But, at the very least, his interest in the sciences explains his fascination with Turing, who is widely considered the inventor of the modern computer. Growing up in Chicago, the child of divorced parents, Moore was the type to retire to his room and lose himself reading science biographies. He said he first discovered Turing at age 14.
“He was a figure who meant a lot to me,” Moore said. “One of the things I found so fascinating about him is that he was someone who didn’t fit into the society around him for many different reasons. First of all, because he was the smartest person in every room that he entered, and second, because he was a gay man at a time when that wasn’t just frowned upon, but literally illegal, and [for which] he could be criminally punished — which later happened.”
Turing remained a man apart both during and after the war, since the British government forbade him from sharing the nature of his code-breaking work. Even after he cracked Germany’s infamous “Enigma” machine, used by the Nazis to transmit secret messages, he could not reveal his historic accomplishment, widely considered a turning point in the allies winning the war. The secrecy continued even years later, when MI6, the British intelligence service, sent Turing on a diplomatic visit to Germany to meet their head cryptographer. “Alan had to sit there and not acknowledge that he had broken this code years before, and instead, ask all these stupid questions,” Moore said. “So he always seemed to me like this guy who was so isolated from everyone else, but it was precisely because of that isolation that he had this view of the world that no one else did.”
It wasn’t until nearly half a century later, after government documents were declassified in the 1970s, that the true story of Turing’s role in the war became part of the public record. As soon as Moore discovered that producer Nora Grossman had optioned the rights to Andrew Hodges’ 1983 book, “The Enigma,” he lobbied for the chance to tell the story of his underappreciated, lesser-known childhood hero. He even offered to write a draft of the script on spec, Hollywood parlance meaning for free.
“I would have done anything to be a part of this film,” Moore said. “I would have been a PA [production assistant] on the set of ‘The Imitation Game.’ I think there is a totally plausible and likely alternative version of this story, where I was making coffee for the guy who wrote this movie.”
The way he tells it, Moore became a writer sort of by accident. After surrendering his space-camp dreams, he enrolled at Columbia University, where he became editor of the student newspaper. He also played in a band that earned paid recording gigs, and introduced him to the world of sound engineering (in his spare time, Moore still plays guitar and ukulele). It wasn’t until one foolish night when Moore and his childhood friend, NYU film grad Ben Epstein, were tossing story ideas around that Epstein suggested they become writing partners.
“I’m just this committed dilettante,” Moore said, only half-jokingly. “I think what I’ve found is that I’ve tried to do a lot of different things in my life and discovered I’m not as good at them as I’d want to be.”
Even with all his early successes, and an Oscar-winner to boot, Moore still isn’t sure he’s devoted to writing. “I don’t think there are that many stories that I feel very passionate about telling,” he admitted. “And I like the idea that there are other things that I could do with my life — like I could imagine working in politics at some point.”
Politics runs in the family. Moore’s mother, Chicago lawyer Susan Sher served in multiple roles during the first term of the Obama administration, first as a special assistant to the president and then as the First Lady’s chief of staff. She was also appointed White House liaison to the Jewish community, a realm that has become increasingly important to her son. Though he never became a bar mitzvah, Moore said he has always felt connected to the Jewish community. “My Judaism has felt more and more important to me, and more and more of a social identifier,” he said. “My grandparents passed away a few years ago, and I was very close to them, and for their generation, their Jewish identity was extremely important. And after they passed away, this notion that me and my mother would become the keepers of this tradition became very apparent and very important.
“I’m wearing a tie right now,” Moore added, returning once again to the subject of his wardrobe. “I believe in traditions; I believe in the idea of things being passed between generations, and the slow transmission of cultural values through tradition.”
Reclaiming the endangered past also drives his ambitions for “The Imitation Game.” It will be a success, Moore said, if it helps resurrect the legacy of a gay mathematician from the annals of history; and if it demonstrates how a then-“deviant” sexuality actually informed the discovery of world-changing science. “Alan Turing’s name should be as well known as Einstein’s or Newton’s or Darwin’s,” Moore said, “and it’s not. Simply because he was gay, and because his contributions were erased from the historical record.”
Moore’s passion for the subject makes it obvious that this movie is the product of a long-lived and deep devotion. “Everyone working on this film did it because we wanted to spread Alan Turing’s legacy. So every day that somebody gets to go on TV and say Alan Turing’s name is a day we feel like we’ve won.”
But the film has also been on the receiving end of sharp criticism, with some taking it to task for being historically inaccurate, over-dramatized and downright wrong in its characterization of Turing. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Christian Caryl accused the film in general and Moore specifically of “monstrous hogwash,” “caricature” and a “bizarre departure from the historical record.” It’s the kind of critique that finds favor this time of year, especially concerning historical films, when the Oscar mantle of greatness inspires deeper scrutiny of a film’s historicity — as if that were all that defines its cultural worthiness.
“To criticize a film for ‘historical accuracy’ is to fundamentally misunderstand what art is and how art works,” Moore said with a bite. “No one looks at one of Monet’s paintings of water lilies and says to themselves ‘Oh my God, that’s not what a water lily looks like.’ The intention of a piece of art like that is to create in the viewer the sensation of what looking at water lilies feels like; and I think the same is true of a piece of narrative cinema. The point is to create the sensation of Alan Turing, to put the audience inside of Alan Turing’s head, and for two hours let them see the world the way he did.
“So this idea that any historical film is supposed to be this moment-to-moment reproduction of historical reality? That’s not what cinema is.”
Moore did his history homework, and could probably refute each and every claim against his film. Still, there is one point in particular that really bugs him. “The suggestion that Alan Turing did not commit suicide is both laughable and offensive,” he said, arguing that the British government had been “chemically castrating” Turing by forcing him to undergo hormone therapy to curb his sexual appetite. Even after completing his treatment, the government implanted a secret hormone-secreting device in his hip, which he once tried to remove manually only to wind up bloodied in the hospital. Also, more than a decade before his death, Turing referenced in a letter to a friend the notion of suicide-via-poisoned apple, an homage to his love of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” In the end, that is what many believe happened: apple laced with cyanide, since Turing was found dead in bed with a half-eaten apple.
The legend remains, especially among those who were inspired by Turing and benefitted from his work. “There was always this rumor that the logo of Apple computers — the apple with a bite taken out of it — was Steve Jobs’ silent tribute to Alan Turing’s suicide,” Moore said.
Eventually, the government issued Turing a post-mortem pardon for his “crime,” but Moore said there were nearly 50,000 other gay men, including Oscar Wilde, who were also convicted of gross indecency and have never been exculpated. One British man in his 90s reached out to Moore after seeing “Imitation Game” to say how much it had meant to him to see this story reach a global audience.
It’s hard to imagine Moore finding another project in which he’ll feel as invested. So it’s fortunate that he has already adapted Eric Larsen’s book, “Devil in the White City,” which will star Leonardo DiCaprio, and that he is about to finish his second novel, which he discreetly described as “a legal thriller set in New York in the 1880s, based on a real lawyer and a real case.” Whether he proves to be the frontrunner in the adapted screenplay category, there is no doubt Moore’s agents will be fielding calls from near and far for him to write big-budget blockbusters for the studios. But Moore said he has other plans.
“I think my agents are probably in a room right now trying to find some way of convincing me to become like a big Hollywood muckety-muck,” Moore said wryly. “But I’m just too weird for that.”
So what is he most looking forward to then?
For the first time, Moore seems puzzled: “You mean, besides taking my mom to the Academy Awards?”