Originally published in Script's January/February 2012 issue.
When I first read about screenwriter Graham Moore’s first spec sale, The Imitation Game, it wasn’t the first time I’d heard the title. Earlier that night I had done a webinar for Final Draft, Inc. with WME agent Cliff Roberts (who does not represent Moore) who explained to the webinar participants that the hottest script in Hollywood on this very day was one called The Imitation Game. It had been described by many as one of the best scripts they’d read in a long time. Sure enough, later that evening the news broke—it had sold to Warner Bros. for seven figures and carried with it the interest of one of the only stars in Hollywood who needs only one name: Leo. Yet, while I’d heard about the script, I’d never heard about the writer. Some quick research told the story of a guy who is just at the very beginning of his career. Then, I read the script and had lunch with him ... revealing a much cooler story.
In a Land Far, Far Away
Jump back in time about eight years and you’ll find Graham Moore living in New York City, nearing his graduation from Columbia University. He’d never really dreamed of writing a screenplay, but his childhood best friend had recently made a NYU student thesis film that had received some attention. Like college kids tend to do, they were drinking on a fate-filled night: “I lost a drunken bet to my friend Ben Epstein who I’ve known since we were six. We went out drinking, and you know how you say the same joke over and over throughout the night and somehow it keeps getting funnier?” The joke that night was about writing a script together, but from that point forward, the joke was over. “The next day we were talking and said, ‘So, do you actually want to write a movie together?’ [In doing so,] he taught me and showed me everything.”
The two friends wrote a number of scripts together. They’d secured representation early on, because of Ben’s short film, but had since moved on to a new manager, Tom Drumm at The Safran Company. As Moore recalls, Drumm’s dedication to Moore and then partner Epstein was indeed life-changing. “We were living in New York and had just written a spec that didn’t sell ... our fifth or sixth. I felt so dejected and thought that there is no way I’m going to be a professional writer. I said, you know what, sometimes it works and sometimes it just doesn’t.” It’s a familiar feeling for just about any emerging writer and, too often, the end of many potential-filled careers.
“I called my manager and told him I was going to do something else with my life,” admits Moore, “I can’t keep handling this, I can’t keep going through this rejection.” What Drumm did next deserves much praise: “Graham and Ben had come super-close to selling their feature that we worked together on, The Confessions of a High School Secret Agent, while still in New York. It was painfully close. I wanted them to move to L.A. but Graham had a job offer in Washington, D.C.,” recalls Drumm. “I vividly remember my meeting with Graham where I started it off by telling him that he ‘wasn’t allowed’ to take the D.C. job. I told him he would always wonder ‘What if?’ unless he gave Hollywood a chance.”
Moore remembers well how he got that chance. “[Drumm] said, ‘I love you and believe in you, but you need to come to L.A. and live here a little while. I guarantee if you come to L.A., I can get you a job in two months and a career in six.’ He actually, and I say this with pride, personally loaned me the money to move out here, and I lived in his apartment for a week when he went out of town. He really cared and believed in us. He got us our first job in seven weeks and got us our first rewrite job in seven months ... took him a little longer than planned,” Moore jokes. “I’ve been very lucky to have people around who, even when things weren’t going well, believed in us.”
The Business of Relationships
Moore wrote The Imitation Game without his best friend and writing partner. It was a passion project for him from the beginning, but again, one he couldn’t have done without help from some friends. He was having dinner with his friend Nora Grossman, who is a former executive at DreamWorks Television. Grossman told him about a book that she and another friend, Ido Ostrowsky, had recently pooled their own money to buy the rights to. Moore, a self-proclaimed lifelong computer science nerd, didn’t need the explanation from his friend regarding what the story was about, he just needed to hear the name: Alan Turing. As Moore admits, “I flipped out and launched into this 15-minute speech about why I wanted to write it. A few days later, she agreed.” He spent the next four to five months researching, then another six months writing, all done very closely with his friends and producers. “They are among the unsung heroes of this process. Part of this feels a little unfair that I’m getting all the credit, because they worked so hard. We talked every day and about the difficult stuff to figure out in the story. It’s based on a 600-plus-page biography, and then I read another half-dozen other biographies to prepare for it. There was a lot to get through. A lot of information to figure out.”
Risk and Reward
For those who aren’t aware, Alan Turing is the British mathematician who was responsible for creating the machine that helped crack the coding of the Germans’ war orders during World War II. He was also a homosexual. Years after his suicide, brought on in large part by the mental anguish caused by his high-stress position and the inability of the society of the time to accept his sexuality, the machine he created that ended the war became the platform for the very machine I’m writing this article on ... the very one you and Moore write your screenplays on. Of course, I mean the computer. For Moore, who not only loves computers but also has a love affair with history, this was the project he wanted more than anything. “This was the thing that I cared about the most. It was the story that everyone told me not to do.” When he says everyone, he means everyone, including Drumm. “When I first said I was going to do it, my manager spent half an hour begging and pleading with me not to. I said, ‘Thank you, I appreciate it. You’re right and I see why this is a bad idea on every level, but I’m going to do it anyway.’ And God bless him, he said, ‘Okay, how can I help?’ He’s been wonderful ever since, and now we laugh about it.” They laugh about it because the script sold for, as Moore notes, “a truck full of money.”
I asked Moore how he had found out that the deal for one of the biggest spec sales in recent memory had closed. “I found out the deal closed about an hour before it went out on Deadline.com,” nods Moore as we joke about how quickly Nikki Finke and her team capture the stories of these deals, but Moore had an idea it was getting close. “We had sort of agreed that Warner Bros. was where we wanted to do this and then it was a question of making the deal work.” And when Moore’s lawyer told him what the agreed-upon amount would be, he could only muster a few shocked and confused words, “Are they sure?”
Head in the Clouds ... Feet on the Ground
It should be mentioned that Moore is more than a screenwriter. Although he’d written about a dozen specs before The Imitation Game, he’s also an accomplished author. His debut novel The Sherlockian has received rave reviews from various outlets, including The New York Times. He had been nearing completion of a second novel before this latest sale. (Editor's Update: Moore not only completed his second novel, he is now a New York Times bestselling author.)
Moore’s writing habits vary, which is on purpose, sort of like a gym rat who changes up his workout. “[My habits] keep changing. Whatever will trick me into working. The hardest thing about writing is actually writing.”
Moore likes detailed outlines to start from, but, as he explains, he uses them just as a “safety net” of sorts. “I write really detailed, 20- to 30-page outlines and then put them in a drawer and never look at them again. But, if I get stuck or lost, I can pull them out. They’re like the bumper in the bowling lanes. They steer you back in the right direction, but they don’t really resemble the movie at all. They’re like a cheat sheet.”
What comes next for Moore is as much a mystery to him as it is to us. He will complete his second novel and continue fielding the many biopic opportunities being sent his way. At press time, The Imitation Game does not officially have Leonardo DiCaprio attached to star and Ron Howard attached to direct, but those are the people putting themselves in line for the respective jobs, so the promise of this project reaching the silver screen is good. Early buzz about the script is that it will be Oscar®-worthy as a film. Of course, so much must go well for that to be realized; but having read many great scripts from Oscar®-winning scribes, from this journalist’s perspective, Graham Moore may want to go get fitted for a tuxedo sooner rather than later.