Earlier this year, I had the distinct pleasure to attend the Student Symposium at the Telluride Film Festival. As a part of this program, I had the privilege to partake in small group discussions with filmmakers at the festival. The “Telluride Talks” series is a way for me to share their thoughts, ideas, and insights with everyone. First up, Morten Tyldum, director of “The Imitation Game.”
There was a Friday evening screening of “The Imitation Game” on our schedule. This meant that, so long as we arrived in a timely manner, there should have been tickets blocked off for us. Yet as I hopped off the gondola – required to get to the theater on the other side of the mountain – all I saw were my fellow students walking the other way. We somehow got boxed out.
It is standard operating procedure that when talent is to talk to anyone about their film, those people need to have actually seen that film. So, needless to say, it was suitably awkward when Morten Tyldum walked in the next day for a rousing discussion of his movie … and no one in the group had seen it.
All things considered, however, the conversation was still quite lively and informative. Tyldum remained in good spirits and obliged our requests not to say too much about the content of “The Imitation Game.” Most of the conversation centered around his filmmaking philosophy and career – an interesting topic given that he is now making the jump to American cinema.
Tyldum, 47, began making films in his native Norway about a decade ago. He came to most people’s attention with the 2011 action-thriller “Headhunters,” which is available to stream through Netflix and definitely worth a watch. The film garnered a BAFTA nomination for Tyldum, but it more importantly opened the door for him to make movies on a grander scale.
There are many people who romanticize the European model of making films, and Tyldum is not one of them. He admitted to favoring the honesty of Hollywood filmmaking over the pretentiousness of the Scandinavian system. Tyldum also lamented the way it was suspicious to make a commercially successful film in his home country, so no wonder he wanted to get out – “Headhunters” is the highest grossing Norwegian film to date.
He was initially set to hop across the pond for his English language debut with “Bastille Day.” At the time, Ben Affleck was attached, but the film fell through when “Argo” became such a smashing success. (“Bastille Day” is now filming with Idris Elba as the lead and British director James Watkins at the helm.) Tyldum quickly landed on his feet, though, by scoring the gig to direct “The Imitation Game.”
The project was a hotly coveted property from the Black List, a registry of the best unproduced screenplays, ranking #1 in their 2011. “The Imitation Game” initially attracted attention from Warner Bros. to set up as a star vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio, who wanted to play the leading role of brilliant yet troubled mathematician Alan Turing. Ultimately, it fell to Tyldum and Internet sensation Benedict Cumberbatch. (Which is quite an ironic role for him to play, considering that Turing essentially invented the computer.)
Turing’s tale is one of incredible highs, such as when he cracked the German cipher in World War II, as well as extreme lows, namely a chemical castration as a result of his homosexuality. He definitely lived an eventful life, that much is for certain. But like Bennett Miller and Jon Stewart, two other with films at Telluride about real-life subjects, Tyldum said it was more important to honor the spirit of the story than to get every factual detail correct.
And critics of “The Imitation Game” have been quick to take the filmmakers to task for whitewashing or downplaying Turing’s sexuality. Seemingly in response to these criticisms, Tyldum highlighted the richness of the story and just how many distinct angles and interpretations that different filmmakers could extrapolate from it. While some might see it as an opportunity for a LGBTQ message or a lesson on science and math, Tyldum stated that he saw the movie as “about how important it is to listen to people who are different.”
“I like shaded, flawed characters more,” as he put it, and Tyldum certainly dwells in the ambiguities of Turing’s character. I can say so because, on the final day of the festival, I darted across Telluride on my bike to catch the final screening after a required event. I was panting to catch my breath for the first thirty minutes, but at least I had the chance to see that “The Imitation Game” lived up to Tyldum’s expressed vision.
“The Imitation Game” opens in limited release on November 28 and will gradually expand throughout the month of December.