Maria Djurkovic discusses how she created the look of ‘The Imitation Game.’
The Imitation Game, from Norwegian director Morten Tyldum, tells the story of British mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his efforts to break the Enigma code during World War II. Deemed impossible at the time, Turing and his team of talented code-breakers successfully cracked the code and shortened the war by an estimated two years.
The production designer on the film, Maria Djurkovic, whose work has been featured in many films including Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy and The Hours, brought to life, in vivid detail, an episode shrouded by confidentiality. After the war, Turing and his team were instructed to destroy all evidence of their efforts. This required Djurkovic and her team of artists and designers to rely heavily on reenactment photos that were taken shortly after they expunged the records and documents that were declassified in the ’90s.
The film, based on the biography of Turing by Andrew Hodges, does not strictly adhere to the details of his life and there are some historic inaccuracies. Maria Djurkovic took some creative liberties as well, particularly in the design of the code-breaking machine. But, many of the details featured in the film–from Alan Turing’s women’s bicycle to the sketches in his home–were based on fact.
DnA spoke to Djurkovic, who was nominated for an Oscar for her work on this film, about creating the code-breaking machine (“Christopher”) designing convincing period sets and working with Benedict Cumberbatch.
DnA: How did you like working on The Imitation Game?
Maria Djurkovic: Oh it was a lovely film to work on. It’s a fantastic and extraordinary story that was a very important state story to tell, and any kind of filmmaking is a crazy, frenetic, intense thing where it’s like a nuclear explosion. You work like a lunatic for several months, and then it’s all over.
DnA: Let’s talk about some of the specifics in terms of what you created for the film, and I think what most people respond strongly to is “Christopher,” or you know, the massive machine that helps Turing break the enigma code.
MD: We had to create Christopher from scratch. That was quite a challenge. In terms of doing it, it’s interesting because on the very first day, when I started on the shoot, Morten Tyldum and I went up to Bletchley Park, which exists as a museum in England, and they have a replica of — an actual working replica — of Christopher, so we were able to look at it, study it, and make decisions which we did there and then on that first visit. Basically, we tried to create something that is quite close to the real Christopher, but we extrapolated, we used a little artistic license. Our Christopher is slightly bigger.
We looked at the machine and Morten and I felt that the really interesting part was actually the machinery, the thing that made it work, and the real thing is encased in a big box, and we made the decision to show it as a skeleton, to show all its innards and we also decided to split it like a book, so it’s actually opened out into two, so thereby it occupies more space and it becomes, more of a character in it’s own right.
DnA: Was the enigma machine shown in the movies the real thing?
MD: That’s the real enigma machine. That’s the real thing.
We got it from Bletchley Park. Bletchley Park exists as a museum, and they have invaluable visual archives. I think many of us in Britain have a notion of who Alan Turing was, and what happened at Bletchley Park. Very superficially, not much more than that. And obviously every new project you have to do all the research, and with it comes a wealth of digging around and finding out all this information, but on this film it was quite straightforward, because Bletchley Park does have all these great visual archives that they gave us full access to.
DnA: And regarding confidentiality, a lot of this information was not even publicly known until fairly recently, and did you come across any problems in terms of creating objects or scenes where there wasn’t information available on them?
MD: Well what’s really interesting is that is why the Christopher, the Bombe that they have at Bletchley is a replica, because all the real ones were destroyed. And very interestingly, all the visual archives, so all the different hut interiors, photographs, that they have, in black and white, with images of people sitting at desks, they were recreated after the war because, as you see at the end of the film, you see everything being burned. They actually got rid of everything. And then, they re-staged what happened in all the huts after the war and photographed it for their archives.
DnA: Do you know when that happened?
MD: I don’t know the exact date, but it was pretty immediately afterwards. But basically the replicated images show desks cluttered with bits of paper, but they’re not bits of paper with real codes on them.
DnA: That’s fascinating that they destroyed something, and then re-created it shortly after.
MD: I know, I know. I hope I’ve got that right, but I do know that the photographs that we were looking at were staged.
But the spaces are real, you know, the spaces that they photographed them in are genuine, they were at Bletchley, the huts, in fact, a number of the huts still exist and are part of the museum. In fact, they are currently exhibiting our version of the Bombe, they actually have it on show there now.
DnA: Did you have those type of sort of “open plan” offices in mind when filming the scenes in Bletchley Park, or was it based off of those staged photographs you just described?
MD: It was based off those photographs. As a designer, I like to inform myself as much as I possibly can, and then parts of designing a film, artistic license obviously comes into it, and it’s a process of editing. So you use the bits that you want to use, and you don’t use the bits that you don’t want to use. So, it’s treading a fine line between balancing the reality, the truth, but also trying to give it its own life, its own character, its own mood.
But, yes the offices were based on the photographs that we saw. These things were completely makeshift. I mean, these huts were just like scout huts, and then they just got furniture from wherever they could so it’s basically furnished with whatever wartime furnishings they could get their hands on, and this thing grew very quickly as Bletchley Park developed.
DnA: What did the director, Morten Tyldum, ask from you? Was there a particular point of view? Was it historical authenticity?
MD: It was lovely working with him, because he was quite encouraging of visual flourishes. There are certain directors who shy away from a visual statement, but actually with Morten, he was quite encouraging those bold visual flourishes, which was lovely for me, obviously.
DnA: And the film has received a lot of praise for the way it looks.
MD: I’m delighted! The biggest challenge people always say, “You know Christopher is the biggest challenge.” Actually that wasn’t the biggest challenge. You take those things in your own stride. The biggest challenge was to present this era, which is World War II England, in a way that looks fresh and different, and we’ve seen this many times in so many different movies. It tends to be this slightly brown, depressing, dull world. It’s always a little bit shabby, a bit musty, and I think to Morten as well, it was important to give it an identity, and not to be afraid of color, which gives it energy in a funny kind of way.
DnA: You portrayed three different time periods in the film. How did you go about that? How did you differentiate the different periods?
MD: That’s very straightforward, because first of all one of my absolute pet peeves is when a movie is set in 1970 and you’re in a house and everything in the house is from the year 1970. That’s not how it is. Everybody has stuff from several decades back, maybe some antiques, and you mix it up, and I think to make an authentic feel for the period, that that’s what you need to do. A sense of period is something I hope I have and it’s just there. I certainly can’t help myself but wander around an art gallery, sort of in my head trying to date every picture that I’m looking at.
DnA: You must have a thorough design history background then.
MD: Well I used to make period clothes for my Barbie dolls when I was 8. I think it’s kind of difficult to imagine me doing any other job that I’m doing right now. It’s always been there, that fascination has always existed. You know, years of experience, and as I said, each subject that you do, you discover a whole new world and that just builds up a bigger library in your brain.
DnA: So the beginning of the movie starts with Alan Turing’s house and also ends there too. It kinda seemed like a mad scientist’s type of lair.
MD: And it was, and it was my favorite set. In fact when I read the script, I thought, “Oh this one is going to be really good fun!” Everything that you see on his board in his home are actually, genuine images of things that Alan Turing would have had. After the war when he was studying at Manchester University, and all the imagery that you see, stuck on his walls are actually things Turing would have had in reality, and Andrew Hodges, who is Alan Turing’s incredibly erudite biographer, came to visit us in the art department, and we had images of all the stuff on the walls and he got incredibly enthusiastic because he said this is all absolutely accurate and my enthusiasm was far more aesthetic, because the stuff that I found, that I thought was visually beautiful and interesting was stuff that I wanted to put on the walls but he completely validated my choices from an academic point of view. It wasn’t some kind of crazy designer’s fantasy. It was actually a crazy designer’s fantasy with substance.
DnA: Did Alan Turing really ride a bicycle?
MD: Oh absolutely he did! He rode a lady’s bicycle which was really interesting. He has a lady’s bicycle and the chain on his bicycle was broken. He’d calculated, of course, because he’s an extraordinary mathematician, how many times he could cycle, how many wheel rotations before the bicycle chain fell off again, or some such story, but no he absolutely had a bike.
DnA: So was the bike in the film purposefully broken also?
MD: No that would have been too complicated to explain, but we certainly gave him a lady’s bike.
DnA: Do you have anything else to add about your experience on the film that you’d like to share?
MD: I suppose the only other thing is to say is what a lovely guy Benedict is and how interested he was about his [Turing’s] research and that one can always tell the actors who go and spend a lot of time in the art department looking at all the art references.
I mean I’ve worked with him before on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as well, so, it’s always nice when you worked together again with people who you’ve worked before with and got along with. He’s extremely lovely, very charming and very very bright. And that comes through in his extraordinary performance.
And you know what’s so charming about him? He always comes and says something nice. He’s very appreciative. He’d always come in the morning and say this is great to work on, which is great. Not every actor is going to be doing that.
This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.
All images courtesy of © 2014 – The Weinstein Company.
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