7 Lessons In Creativity From The Brilliant Code Breaker of “The Imitation Game”

Morten Tyldum, director of The Imitation Game, talks about how the outsider genius Alan Turing challenged himself, and society, to change the world.

Building on his Sherlock Holmes smartest-guy-in-the-room persona, Benedict Cumberbatch portrays genius Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, opening November 28. Based on an astonishing true story, the period drama chronicles how the secretly gay British mathematician and his team of well-dressed geeks saved an estimated 14 million lives during World War II by building a proto-computer that cracked the Nazis’ supposedly unbreakable “Enigma” encryption code.

Morten Tyldum

Turing overcame childhood trauma, a prickly disposition and office politics to outsmart Hitler in an achievement deemed by Winston Churchill as the single most important contribution to winning World War II. Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, hired on the strength of his hit European thriller Headhunters (based on a book by Jo Nesbo) says “Turing was uncompromisingly honest. As soon as he didn’t think you were interesting or smart, he’d just turn around and walk away even if you were in the middle of a sentence.”

Tyldum talks to Co.Create about the creative takeaways embodied by Turing’s transformation from awkward loner to shrewd team leader.

Do Good Work to Get Good Work

In 1939 Turing survives a tense job interview and lands work at the government’s secret code-breaking operation at Bletchley Park in the south of England. Turing gets hired not because he’s likable but because his resume includes a scholarly paper establishing him as England’s reigning expert on artificial intelligence. Tyldum says, “This is a man who was 23 years old when he theorized the idea of creating a programmable machine and in that way, Turing foresaw computers and artificial intelligence. These were revolutionary ideas at that time.”


Welcome the Outsider

Midway through The Imitation Game Turing hires a woman for his all-male team simply because 25-year-old Cambridge University graduate Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) solved a test crossword puzzle faster than all her rivals. “The prejudice at the time was extraordinary because sexism was institutionalized and built into the law,” Tyldum says. “One important thing the movie shows is that Turing embraced people who were seen as being outsiders, who were different kind of thinkers.”

Clarke becomes a key member of the “Hut 8” operation. “Turing looked past prejudice, which then allows you to do new and brilliant and great things. You do not move forward by following convention. You celebrate those who are different, who are not burdened by ‘normality.'”

Sometimes It Takes A Bit Of Bravery

Turing needs 100,000 pounds to build the thinking machine that would perform the work of hundreds of men in a matter of hours. When his boss, Naval Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) denies the request, Turing writes a letter directly to Prime Minister Winston Churchill and quickly receives the funding along with a job promotion. “Turing was fearless,” Tyldum says. “He’s extremely direct, which can be seen as socially awkward, and that becomes both his big obstacle but also in many ways his strength.”


“Do Not Act Like an Ass”

A loner by temperament, Turing isolates himself to obsess over the bronze, copper, and wire “Bombe” contraption he’s built to beat Enigma. Helen upbraids him for leaving his collaborators in the dark, saying: “I’m a woman so I can’t afford to behave like an ass but neither can you. You need help and the only way you’re going to get it is to make them like you.”

The next day Turing passes out apples to his co-workers and clumsily tells a joke. The gesture is appreciated and shortly thereafter, Turing’s most talented colleague Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) makes a critical improvement to Bombe electro-mechanics. “Alan was very much a man who kept to himself and sort of pushed away other people,” Tyldum says. “Joan makes him understand that he has to bring other people into his world in order to solve EnigmaI. The Imitation Game shows how important it is to have this uncompromising drive, but you also need to work together with other people.”

Think Big, Even When It Hurts

When Turing and his team finally break the code, they face a brutal dilemma: if the Allies immediately act on intercepted messages to stop German attacks, the Nazis will realize their code has been broken and change tactics accordingly. In the film, Turin decides “Our job isn’t to break Enigma. Our job is to win the war.” For the next four years, he insists that Britain conceal the sources of its intelligence. Tyldum observes, “Sometimes you can’t afford to do what is human, you have to do what is logical. Turing had this very logical mind. He wasn’t thinking about emotions in the same way as most people. MI6 created fake double agents, leaked rumors to Nazis about German officers who partied too much in Paris and did all kinds of things to camouflage the fact that Turing had actually broken Enigma.”


Engage the Power of Secrets

Turing’s wartime service remained a state secret for 50 years but his personal life became public knowledge when he got arrested in 1951 for consorting with a gay man. Secrecy defined Turin’s legacy, Tyldum says. “In his paper ‘The Imitation Game’ Alan wrote that you’re only human to the extent that you can convince other people that you are, that you are what other people think you are. If a machine can convince you it’s a human, then it’s a human. This is coming from a closeted gay man who is imitating a straight man, who is hiding who he is his whole life. You can see how these revolutionary ideas that essentially created computer science came from all closeted gay man who had to hold everything inside at a time when homosexuality was illegal.”

Turn Personal Loss into Professional Gain

Flashbacks in The Imitation Game shed light on Turing’s difficult childhood. “Alan was an awkward boy who had a stammer so we wanted to show what it was like for him to be this outsider at school,” Tyldum says. “When bullies put Alan in a box and buried him in the ground, he’s saved by Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon) who’s also extremely smart and shares this interest in cryptology.” Tragedy ensues. “Alan had very deep feelings for Christopher and it’s almost like his life’s work became about trying to bring him back. Turing was obsessed with artificial life, artificial intelligence, questions about ‘Is there a soul?’ ‘Is there a mind?’ ‘Can we re-create consciousness?’ You could argue that all of that comes out of Turing’s sense of loss and unfulfilled love.”


About the author

Los Angeles freelancer Hugh Hart covers movies, television, art, design and the wild wild web (for San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and New York Times). A former Chicagoan, Hugh also walks his Afghan Hound many times a day and writes twisted pop songs.