February 19, 2020

Inside the careful editing process of ‘The Imitation Game’

In 2013, veteran film editor William Goldenberg said, he was “humbled and thrilled” when he took the stage at the Dolby Theatre to accept his first Academy Award for cutting Ben Affleck’s Iran thriller, “Argo.” It had been a race in which he had the distinction of competing against himself: That year, Goldenberg also received an Oscar nod for editing the hunt-for-bin Laden movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” alongside Dylan Tichenor. 

Now, the 55-year-old editor is back in the running with a nomination for his work on yet another taut drama based on a true story: Morten Tyldum’s “The Imitation Game,” which spotlights the brilliant, if insufferable, mathematician Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch, an Oscar nominee for lead actor), who cracked the said-to-be-impossible Nazi Enigma communications code during World War II.  Turing’s work saved an estimated 14 million lives by effectively shortening the war by two years, but in the early 1950s he was persecuted and prosecuted for his homosexuality, eventually committing suicide in 1954 at age 41.

“Like ‘Argo’ and ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ I’m really drawn to small stories on a world canvas that few people have ever heard of,” Goldenberg said. “I had heard of Alan Turing and the Enigma code, but I didn’t know that he broke it, or the terrible things that happened to him after the war. It was just such a tragic story.”

Over the course of nine months in 2013 and 2014, Goldenberg cut “The Imitation Game” from approximately 200 hours of production footage on an Avid Media Composer 5.5 at EPS-Cineworks in Santa Monica. One of his primary challenges was to create a sense of urgency even in sequences involving code-breakers doing painstaking work at their hideaway at the British estate Bletchley Park.    

“I always wanted to create the feel that there was a great deal of pressure on Turing and his team — a sense of the ticking clock — because the Allies at the time were losing the war,” said Goldenberg, who also edited Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” with Tim Squyres this past year. “It was a matter of life or death for thousands of people every day they didn’t crack the Enigma machine, which had 159 million million million possible settings. In the editing, that translated into pushing the pace — not in a way that was very overt, but hopefully would give viewers a churning feeling in their gut. It was cutting out of some shots at the height of the tension — a slightly rushed feeling — to remind us that these characters are in a hurry.”

To up the ante, Goldenberg intercut stock and computer-generated footage, including marching Nazi troops and tanks, within scenes of Turing working on his code-breaking machine, which he named Christopher, after his chaste first boyhood love. “It was the German machinery of war juxtaposed with the machinery of ‘Christopher,’ which was Turing’s weapon,” Goldenberg said. 

For the tense scene in which Turing’s machine finally cracks the code, Goldenberg created a breathless montage of the scientists working through the night, calling out decoded messages as they thrust pins into a map indicating the positions of German submarines in the Atlantic. 

As Goldenberg approached every sequence, he had multiple conversations with Tyldum about what was going through the prickly Turing’s mind: “It was, ‘How self-aware was he; does he have Asperger’s, and what was he about, inside and out?’” the editor recalled. “There’s one scene in which Turing goes for his job interview at Bletchley, where we had a huge amount of footage, and Benedict gave us a lot of different choices about the way Turing could be — whether he was being intentionally biting about his comments, or abrasive for the sake of abrasiveness. What we decided was that he was indeed self-aware, but he wasn’t intentionally off-putting. It was just Turing being Turing, and completely honest in every situation, so we selected performances based on that.”

All the while, Goldenberg had to seamlessly interweave the film’s complex, intersecting story lines, which jump back and forth between three time periods:  Turing’s youthful years at boarding school in the 1920s, his top-secret war efforts and his maltreatment for being homosexual, in the 1950s. Questions arose about the placement of one crucial sequence, in which he learns that his beloved Christopher has died of tuberculosis. In the script, the scene takes place earlier in the film, but Goldenberg moved it to about 15 minutes later, toward the end of the movie, cutting from a close-up of the young Alan’s bereaved face to an image of the older, persecuted Turing sitting, broken, in front of his computer. “It was like the last piece of the puzzle leading up to his suicide,” Goldenberg said.

But the filmmakers ultimately opted to eliminate a sequence in which a detective discovers Turing lying lifeless in his bed. “We decided it was more elegant and emotional to end with Turing essentially saying goodnight to ‘Christopher,’ turning off the light and disappearing into a darkened room,” Goldenberg said. “That just emphasized the tragedy of this story that needed to be told.