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The Imitation Game comes out tonight, but before its release, Hank got to talk with the film's director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore about bringing one of the world's most brilliant mathematicians to film.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S5CjKEFb-sM

Hosted by: Hank Green
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Hank Green: I've said it before and I'll say it again: Alan Turing was an ultra-mega-super-genius, and an amazing engineer. Perhaps best known for making the single biggest contribution to ending World War Two, at least according to Winston Churchill, Turing helped shorten the war by an estimated two to four years by cracking intercepted coded messages from German forces.

Sadly, he's also known as a man whom society did not treat well during his lifetime because he was gay in a time when being so was actually illegal.

He was a brilliant mathematician, a war hero, and he led a short but full life.

And recently, Graham Moore and Morton Tyldum wrote and directed, respectively, a feature film about Turing's life and his code-breaking work during World War Two.

The film is The Imitation Game, and when they finished shooting it, Graham and Morton were kind enough to answer some of my questions about how they translated both the science and the man to film, including why they cast Benedict Cumberbatch for the part of Alan Turing.

So through the magic of green-screen and the kindness of strangers with cameras, question one:

(1:07) Writing a historical character is always a challenge, but writing about one who's so important both scientifically and socially, seems exceptionally challenging. What work did you do to come to understand Turing's personality?

Graham Moore: Alan Turing was a truly unique individual, in the history of science and in history. He was one of the great minds of the twentieth century and a truly original thinker and an original human being. So, you know, there's always something intimidating about writing about one of the great geniuses of the twentieth century, because I am certainly not.

So the trick, I think, for me, uh, and all of us was just research, research, research— to read as much about Alan Turing as possible. 

So Turing's accomplishments were not, like, uncomplicated. How did you go about trying to communicate them in the movie?

Morton Tyldum: The actual math he had is extremely complex. We had a math expert on the set, we also had somebody explain how his machine really works, and when they start to explain it, you sort of all look around and everybody has panic in their eye because it is extremely complicated.

It is, it's... uh... I'm not embarrassed to say that most of it just flew over my head and for a story teller, it's hard to grasp, but it's not necessarily what's important. I think it's more important to understand the concept of his ideas.

Graham Moore: There's this amazing connection between Alan Turing's incredibly complicated, breath-taking, mathematical and philosophical work and his personal life and I think that was something we were all fascinated by in making a film about him because we wanted to make a film that really showed and brought to life who Alan Turing was as a person and showed how that affected his brilliant and revolutionary thoughts.

I think that when you talk about Alan Turing's Imitation Game, which in a nutshell is this concept that we are only what we are, we are only what we can convince other people that we are. We are human to the degree that we can convince someone else that we are human.

I think that for a statement like that to come from a closeted gay man in Britain in the 1930s is remarkable, and in Turing's work on the Imitation Game and therefore in Turing's whole sort of conceptualization of modern AI, you see a man who has to imitate every day.

You see the mind of someone who has to pretend to be someone who he's not every single day because he's a gay man living at a time when his homosexuality was not simply frowned upon but literally illegal and so I think that connection between the personal and the philosophical was tremendously important for all of us as we worked on the film.

(3:45) So what about Benedict do you think made him right for the part?

Morton Tyldum:
Uh, when I read his script, I immediately had Benedict in mind for the part of Alan Turing. Um, he was the first one I thought to and he was the only actor I really approached for the part.

I remember having this Skype conversation where I tried to convince him to do the part and he tried to convince me to be part of the movie so he read the script and had this phenomenal understanding and love for Turing and the character.

Alan Turing is, first of all, we didn't want to make it like the cliche math professor whimsical thing. He's a truly unique character. He's so strong, so driven, almost arrogant and at the same time awkward, so fragile and in the core of this is this young boy who lost so much.

I mean, Alan Turing is a man who carried secrets his whole life, you know as a closeted gay man and then being involved with MI6 and you know, the layers and layers of secrets that was just burdened upon him.

I think that Benedict is able to portray all these elements all at the same time. I mean, he's creating this complex character that is kind of hard to define but is truly unique and very fascinating.

That's pretty cool that apparently you can just get Benedict on Skype whenever you want.
(5:08) Were there any fascinating science bits you uncovered in your research?

Graham Moore: Sure, I mean, I think when you talk about Alan Turing, you're talking about a mind that was so breath-taking in the width and variety of scientific sort of inquiry it was pursuing.

There's all this stuff we wish we could have included in the film like his work on morphogenesis, a lot of his biological work, his work on plants, his amazing work on the stripes of tigers. It was like, when you're talking about Turing, it's like, when did he have time to sort of theorize how tigers got their stripes, but he did.

In between breaking the German enigma code and inventing the computer, in his off time, on one of his many Sundays off, he somehow, like, theorized how tigers got their stripes and there was this sort of, you got this sense of a mind that just never stops exploring, never stops thinking and so there's so many theories like that, that you're like, when did he even do this?

(5:58) How did you figure out how to visualize and write and show the process of science? The scientific process, the exploration, and the moments of inspiration?

Morton Tyldum: You need to go through, you need to sort of, like try to find the drama in this. You try to find the surprise and be there when the moment...

Scientific discoveries happen all the time in real life. You have to make moments. Movie-making is all about moments. It's that second where you get this epiphany of an understanding of what goes on and that is what you have to capture.

You have to try to create that while, probably, it's someone sitting at a desk, and when you get an idea they're very quiet.

You have to sort of, like, try and figure out more. We have to make moments out of it. We have to make this understandable and engaging.

So to us, everything dealing with— and understanding— a eureka moment, an epiphany, it's all about "AH! Now I've got it."

(6:54) Was it hard to balance scientific accuracy with making the most compelling movie?

Graham Moore: You know, all of our goal with this film was to create a movie that really celebrated Alan Turing's legacy and hopefully brought Alan Turing's story to a wider audience. And that meant making an accessible film, making a film that people could understand, that a broad audience could understand, while doing justice to his legacy.

So I think when we were talking about the science, the first goal was never condescend to the audience. So that meant we could sort of talk about the big concepts that he came up with, and try and express those to an audience and expect them to follow along.

You know, that was something that was important to all of us.
I think that a lot of times films about scientists sort of cut out the science. They think that an audience doesn't care or isn't interested or doesn't want to follow along, and we wanted to really rebel against that in some way.

We wanted to say, no, this is why Alan Turing was great, this is why he was one of the great minds of the twentieth century. It is these theories that are the reasons why he needs to be studied now and remembered now. And to hope that a smart audience can follow along with us.

We here are all about not condescending to the audience!
(8:11) Were there any moments that made you feel like maybe you shouldn't get too scientific, but then decided you needed to get into it?

Morton Tyldum: We needed to see how they broke the code. You needed to follow the way, I mean the step-by-step thinking that he come up with the idea.
This is how crib-based decryption, how he came up with the ideas that is actually repeatable or words that you can expect to be in a message and let's lock onto those words.
That kind of thinking, the way that used weather reports, silly, which is in the movie-- all of these are actual things and we wanted to do it step by step.
And it's also one of the most thrilling parts of the movie, so we didn't want to simplify that too much.
It's all that he's discussing, like how he discusses the universal machine. The digital computer. The scene between him and Keira. How much detail should we go there? And we decided that that scene was sort of like a first meeting between them.
It's more about that and still he is allowed to explain his idea that a machine can actually make its own decision on what to do next based on what it did before. Like compute something, and then it makes another decision. Just that idea, that it's not only programmable, it's re-programmable.
Just all of those ideas which was revolutionary.
So we had that movie, but we also find out we can't go into more detail, then the movie will stop up, you will have like an hour discussion between the two characters.

(9:49) Finally, I just wanted to ask about Turing's legacy. Is being a part of that intimidating?

Graham Moore: Yeah, I think that Alan Turing's legacy is of someone who was, so sadly, had to be an outsider in his own time, but because he was such an outsider he saw the world in a way that no one else did, and because he saw the world differently, he was able to have these ideas.

He was a totally unique thinker, and I think what we want people to take away from the film and from Alan Turing's life is that it is precisely the things that make you unique, that make you different, that allow you to see things that other people can't, that other people don't.
And that those differences are something to be celebrated and cherished, not washed away.


Hank Green: Thank you so much for doing this, Graham and Morton, for studying and remembering Alan Turing with The Imitation Game. We here at SciShow can't get enough of great minds like Alan Turing's and we're glad that we're not alone.

And thank you, SciShow audience, for watching this special SciShow News interview. If you want to continue remembering Alan Turing, The Imitation Game opens tonight throughout the US, and if you want to keep getting smarter with us, you can go to youtube.com/scischow and subscribe.