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CODE JUNKIES - A Trio of Producers Cracks 'The Imitation Game'

Posted By Cecelia Lederer, Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A soldier didn’t win World War Two for the Allies; the mathematician Alan Turing did. In many ways, The Imitation Game isn’t a story about war at all, but one about persistence and belief. Not coincidentally, the film itself is the product of that same persistence and belief on the collective part of producers Teddy Schwarzman, Nora Grossman, Ido Ostrowsky and the rest of the team responsible for this early awards contender.

Like the code breakers at Bletchley Park, the team behind The Imitation Game went for their goal with all their hearts and the payoff was historically significant. "It felt like, a very big burden and blessing to be able to produce this film,” Schwarzman tells me. "Not only because of the hype of the screenplay, but the weight of the true story. We just dug in and believed we could create a movie that would be entertaining and lock in the significance of the story we were trying to tell and make sure it was told in a way that was cinematic so it could reach audiences who didn’t otherwise know what happened.” Like Turing trying to convince the British army that his machine could crack the uncrackable German enigma code, the victorious resolution did not come easy.

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Producer Teddy Schwarzman (seated) supervises the shoot.
Now Principal at Black Bear Pictures, the PGA member took the long route to production. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, he found himself on Wall Street. "It was really for lack of intestinal fortitude,” he admits. "I was too caught up in resume building without following my natural inclinations.” Continuing on the straight and narrow to law school, he planned to transition into entertainment law. "My 10-year program was: Learn the deal-making side; learn the ropes on the creative side; and hopefully transition to the creative side many, many years later. I was still too scared to just take the plunge and say: I want to intern, I want to shadow, I want to be a PA, I want to do whatever it takes to get into film development and production.” After three years at a top New York law firm and being nowhere closer to his true goal, Schwarzman decided it was time to follow his heart.

He didn’t want to enter the industry simply as someone with money, but as someone with talent and vision who had gotten where he was on merit. He began networking with uncapitalized producers who were also trying to make things happen, "but to me the idea of becoming a producer was such a bold statement... I was trying to figure out where I would start.” He started as a production assistant. After leaving a lucrative job any grandmother would be proud of, Schwarzman became the man standing out in the rain stopping traffic while inside the stars found their light.

From there, he found a home at Cinetic Media, with producer John Sloss (Boyhood, I’m Not There). "He was nice enough to see some potential in me,” Schwarzman reflects. "And I think he

appreciated my law background.” At Cinetic, Schwarzman raised financing for individual films and consulted with high net worth individuals and equity-backed production companies, helping them structure their deals. "So I took the plunge,” he smiles. "I really learned the business inside out and made so many relationships based on the fact that it was my job to try to help independent producers get their projects set up. And in order to do that you needed to know all the financiers. And all the financiers were looking for projects and we were sort of at the center of that, and got to see so many deals get structured and understand the business side of things.” He refined his taste and figured out what projects fit with which distributors. He learned the creative process of screenwriting and screenplay structure and after two years of watching scripts and deals emerge as finished films, Schwarzman launched Black Bear in 2012.

From left: Producers Teddy Schwarzman, Ido Ostrowsky and Nora Grossman
Grossman and Ostrowsky likewise came at The Imitation Game from outside of film production. In television, Ostrowsky had been a writer’s assistant and Grossman went from being an assistant in comedy development to junior executive at DreamWorks Television (now Amblin Entertainment). "We did the same thing in terms of development,” they agree. "There wasn’t a lot of production.” Though both thought they would stay in television development, they ventured outside of their comfort zones when they saw that there was important work to be done. "We saw the op-ed where then Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized on behalf of the government for the treatment of Alan Turing in World War Two, and we thought it was quizzical and odd and belated,” Ostrowsky relates. "We didn’t know who Alan Turing was at all. We researched and we were bowled over by the power and importance of the story. It didn’t feel just that he hadn’t made a bigger impact on popular culture.” Soon after, they optioned Andrew Hodges’ book Alan Turing: The Enigma.

When I asked why they chose to adapt an existing work rather than produce an original screenplay, Grossman recalled, "when I was at 20th, whenever a book or an article came in, my boss always took that more seriously than a pitch.” Unemployed at the time, Grossman and Ostrowsky felt that no one would take them seriously with only an idea. "We knew we needed to track down some IP,” she confirms, "so we did some research and found the definitive biography.”

The transition from printed page to silver screen doesn’t happen overnight. Screenwriter Graham Moore was a friend Grossman had met in a staffing meeting during her television years. "We kind of kept in touch,” she tells me, "and just because of the way Hollywood works, his next job happened to be on a show with my roommate writing. So, he showed up again in my world and he came to a party we threw and I went through the song and dance you go through when you’re unemployed and you don’t want anyone to feel bad for you. So I was telling people that I had optioned this book and we’re looking for a writer, and he overheard and jumped in saying, ‘Oh my God, I love Alan Turing,’ and I said, ‘hey, hold on for a second.’ And I called Ido and told him that I thought I found someone who might spec it for us.”

Teddy Schwarzman (center) on set with co-producer Peter Heslop (right)
Finding a screenwriter was an early step in a difficult process. Black Bear did initially bid on the script, but the big studios were much more aggressive and there were many producers vying for the chance to tell Turing’s story. The Imitation Game first ended up at Warner Bros. Schwarzman never even got in the room. Luckily for him, the contract stipulated that the film had to be made within the year. When it wasn’t, the rights reverted to Grossman and Ostrowsky.

The script went back into the spec market and this time Black Bear took a lesson from Turing, vocally promoting themselves and their intention to put the story on screen. Regarding the early buzz that talents such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Ron Howard had expressed interest in the project, Schwarzman is circumspect. "We weren’t going to focus on whatever the loudest noise in Hollywood was. We were going to try to pay attention to the core essence of this material and the legacy of Alan Turing.”

The production of The Imitation Game wasn’t driven by factors like its domestic opening or international sales numbers. "We tried to put together the best creative package to protect the material,” Schwarzman insists. "We’re a script-driven company and we read this script and we needed to embrace it. Rather than figure out how you commercialize it, we needed to really respect it.”

The shared vision of the three producers, like the friendship between Turing and Joan Clarke, built something great. Grossman particularly appreciates the value of getting along creatively with the person in charge of the financing. "We were on the same page and we had the same vision,” she says. "Teddy was really adamant about being inclusive and understanding that we would be on set every day and producing it alongside him,” Ostrowsky adds. "He was the total package creatively, in terms of experience and know-how and being inclusive.”

Schwarzman explains that when it came time to get boots on the ground, "we needed to find people for whom this wasn’t going to be an option, but a calling. People who understood on a very important level not only Turing’s contributions and his legacy, but also underneath it, the creative schematics.” And that’s just the team they found. Working five- and six-day weeks for modest salaries, the cast (including stars such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley and Matthew Goode) shared the goal of doing Turing’s legacy justice.

From left: Keira Knightley and director Morten Tyldum on set
The honesty of The Imitation Game has earned it the recognition its subject went so long without. Asked how he’s responding to the Oscar buzz, Schwarzman shakes his head and smiles. "We’re so lucky to have the involvement of the Weinstein Company. Harvey and the entire team are incredibly collaborative, and supportive, and really believe in the film, but no one had any idea that this could become what it is. I mean, we knew that the screenplay was incredibly strong and we loved the cast that we’d put together, but this was not engineered to reach this moment. It’s a very surreal experience to receive congratulations from so many people before our film has even been released.” With a proud-but-humble grin, he adds: "It feels to me a little bit premature.” All three producers agree that if the attention, premature or not, gets people curious about who Alan Turing was, why he matters and why what happened to him matters, they will have succeeded. Ostrowsky tells me: "If the message of the movie, that it’s okay to feel different, gets out we did our job.”

Alan Turing (like Oscar Wilde and thousands more) was prosecuted and persecuted for his sexuality, what British law called "gross indecency” until 1967, when homosexual acts were decriminalized. For decades his great contributions to the Allied victory and the field of computer science were buried under fear and ignorance. The Imitation Game is the long overdue tribute to a man driven to take his own life by an uncaring government, and reflects back our own laws and prejudices. Less than 100 years ago, Alan Turing was ordered by a judge to inject himself with synthetic estrogen in an attempt to alter who he was. The passion and hard work of producers like Schwarzman, Grossman and Ostrowsky gives hope to all the stories of injustice that have been similarly swept under the rug. These stories deserve telling, and the public is hungry to see them told.

- This article is written by Cecelia Lederer and originally appeared in Produced By magazine.
- Photos are courtesy of The Weinstein Company.

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