November 14, 2018

Solving the enigma: Producing Alan Turing’s story, against all odds

Sitting in a Beverly Hills cafe the other day, the almost preternaturally youthful Ido Ostrowsky, 35, and Nora Grossman, 31, looked more like college students than the first-time producers who, against all odds, launched the acclaimed and multiple-Oscar-nominated World War II thriller “The Imitation Game.” The film has been nominated for eight Academy Awards, including best director for Morten Tyldum, a screenwriting nod for Graham Moore, and best picture nominations for Ostrowsky and Grossman, along with their producing partner, Teddy Schwarzman.

“We’re still pinching ourselves,” Grossman said of the success of the drama, which has unexpectedly brought the duo — and their production company, Bristol Automotive — almost overnight success in Hollywood.

The film tells the fraught true story of Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who has also received a best actor Oscar nomination), the brilliant, if profoundly prickly, British mathematician who broke the Nazis’ notoriously difficult Enigma communications code by creating his own decryption machine, along with his team of experts at the country estate Bletchley Park. His efforts effectively shortened the war by an estimated two years and saved up to 14 million lives, including those of millions of potential Holocaust victims. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill described Turing’s work as the greatest single contribution toward securing the Allied victory.

But some years after the war, Turing, who lived an unabashedly gay life at a time when homosexuality was illegal, was arrested on charges of gross indecency, and in lieu of jail, agreed to be chemically castrated. In the end, devastated by the havoc the hormones were wreaking upon his body, Turin, at 41, committed suicide by eating an apple laced with cyanide in 1954.  His invaluable contributions to the Allied effort remained secret and classified until the 1970s, rendering the mathematician an unsung war hero even throughout the decades following his death.

Ostrowsky and Grossman knew nothing about Turing until 2009, when both were out-of-work television assistants in search of a film project; one day that September, Ostrowsky was trawling the Internet when he chanced upon an op-ed piece in The Telegraph describing then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s belated apology for his government’s treatment of Turing during the 1950s.

“What really struck both of us was, why was there a government apology so long after the fact?” Ostrowsky said. “Who was Alan Turing, and why didn’t we previously know his name?”

The aspiring producers learned more about the mathematician by reading Andrew Hodges’ 1983 biography, “Alan Turing:  The Enigma,” which was compiled from declassified documents, among other sources, and proved especially helpful, because no videotape and few photographs existed of Turing.

Ostrowsky and Grossman were riveted not only by Turing’s war efforts, but also by his complex character: The mathematician was as socially awkward as he was intellectually astute; jokes flew over his head; and he was prone to simply walking away from conversations he found uninteresting.

We found that Turing himself was a puzzle — a code to be cracked,” Ostrowsky said.  “He was a gay icon, the father of computer theory, a warrior, a martyr, a human being.”

For the Israeli-born Ostrowsky — who moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was a baby — there was another point of connection to Turing’s work: Ostrowsky’s Russian-Jewish grandparents lost relatives in Nazi concentration camps, and Ostrowsky is keenly aware that he, too, as a gay Jewish man, would have worn both the pink triangle and the yellow Jewish star during the Third Reich. Of the millions of lives Turing saved, he said, “I thought about how many of those people might have been my family members; it really hit close to home that Turing was a hero for all people, but also my people. And then he was treated in such a horrific way; it just felt like a shocking injustice. Even though he was officially pardoned after we shot our movie, it felt like he had never properly been celebrated or brought back to his rightful place in history.”

The producers were aware that a few other projects had previously tackled how the Brits cracked the Nazi code; for example, Hugh Whitemore’s 1986 Tony Award-nominated play, “Breaking the Code,” starring Derek Jacobi, which was adapted into a 1996 BBC production also starring Jacobi; and the 2001 film “Enigma,” a highly fictionalized movie that did not include Turing as a character.

Determined to create a more accurate version of events, Grossman flew to London to meet with Turing biographer Hodges and to secure the rights to his book. Despite the producer’s lack of experience, Hodges quickly agreed — perhaps, Grossman surmised, because his book had been published in the 1980s and no other filmmakers had recently come calling.

When Grossman returned to Los Angeles, she and Ostrowsky pitched the movie to all of their contacts in the entertainment industry, to no avail; their fortunes began to change when Grossman chanced to invite screenwriter Moore to her home for a party in 2010. “I was out of work, and I didn’t want people to feel badly for me, so I said I had this Alan Turing project going,” recalled Grossman, who grew up Jewish in Los Angeles and Raleigh, N.C., “Graham, whom I had known from my television days, was actually involved in another conversation, but he overheard me, interrupted me and said, ‘I love Alan Turing!’ ”

Moore then launched into a long monologue about how he had been obsessed with Turing since he was a teenage computer geek, and “he begged us to give him a shot at writing the script,” Grossman said.

The producers, however, were initially hesitant about Moore, whose most prominent credit at the time was writing for the ABC Family sitcom “10 Things I Hate About You.” “He wasn’t the obvious choice for this project,” Grossman explained. “But then we discovered he had written this novel called ‘The Sherlockian,’ which was a British period piece with a thriller component.  He pitched us his ideas for ‘The Imitation Game’ at Dominick’s on Beverly [Boulevard], and we were intrigued.”

Grossman and Ostrowsky had decided that they did not want their film to be a traditional cradle-to-grave biopic, so they were enthused when Moore delivered a screenplay that told Turing’s saga via three interweaving storylines: Turing’s chaste first love at his boarding school as a boy, his war years and his arrest on indecency charges in the early 1950s.

Moore’s script went on to make the 2011 Black List of the year’s best unproduced screenplays. Meanwhile, Grossman and Ostrowsky had managed to sell the project to Warner Bros. in October of that year, where it initially drew the interest of actor Leonardo DiCaprio. But in 2012, the studio decided not to move forward on the project, and the rights reverted back to Moore, Grossman and Ostrowsky, who were concerned about whether they would be able to secure the film’s funding elsewhere.

But then, just a month later, Grossman and Ostrowsky met with veteran producer Schwarzman of Black Bear Pictures, who happened to share their passion for telling Turing’s story and quickly signed on to finance and produce the film. After “The Imitation Game” screened at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival, The Weinstein Co. bought the movie’s domestic distribution rights for $7 million. 

Ostrowsky and Grossman were involved in every aspect of production, including scouting locations and helping to hire the Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, as well as actor Cumberbatch. “The Imitation Game” went on to complete a 46-day shoot in Britain with a modest budget of $14 million.

The movie was well-received when it opened this past November, even though some reviewers charged that the film did not depict any of Turing’s torrid love affairs, essentially rendering celibate a man who had been unabashedly sexual in life. In response, Ostrowsky noted that the movie presents Turing’s youthful relationship with a fellow cryptology fanatic named Christopher as the love of his life and the inspiration for his future work; and that Turing himself had described his years at Bletchley as a “sexual desert.”

“The Imitation Game” earned early Oscar buzz, and both Grossman and Ostrowsky were elated as the movie gleaned eight nominations early on the morning of Jan. 15.  “It was unexpected, thrilling and surreal,” Ostrowsky said. “I don’t think anyone was expecting us, as out-of-work TV assistants, to produce a film at all, not to mention one that got an Oscar nomination — or eight.”

The 87th Academy Awards will air on ABC Feb. 22.