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Chicago writer obsessed with ‘Imitation Game’ story

Graham Moore’s first feature-film screenwriting credit is not only for “The Imitation Game” — one of the movies getting lots of 2014 Oscar buzz — but it’s about Alan Turing, a man the Chicago native says he’s “been obsessed with since I was a teenager.”

Back home recently to promote the film (opening Friday), Moore said he felt a natural affinity for Turing due to the intellectual pursuits he chased as a high school student at the University of Chicago Lab School in Hyde Park.

“I was a tremendous computer nerd as a kid,” Moore said, referencing Turing’s role as one of the early developers of a rudimentary computer as he led the secret British team that broke the infamous Nazi “Enigma” code during World War II.

“I went to space camp. I went to computer programming camp. My mother used to say, ‘Who are you? Who are your real parents? Where did you come from?'” said Moore with a laugh.

(Speaking of Moore’s mother, she’s Susan Sher, first lady Michelle Obama’s former chief-of-staff and who currently heads the site-selection process for President Obama’s future presidential library.)

The chance to pen the screenplay for “The Imitation Game” came about thanks to a lucky break. “About once a year, I’d call my agents and say, ‘Hey guys! I’d really like to write this movie about a gay, English mathematician in the 1940s — and, oh yeah, he kills himself at the end.’

“My team would go nuts. They were like, ‘This is career suicide! No one will ever finance that! No one will want to direct it!’ ”

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Then, one day, Moore was at a party and met Nora Grossman, who told him about having just optioned her first book — launching her career as a film producer.

You guessed it! The book was a biography of Alan Turing, leading Moore to “freak out.”

“It was pure karma!” Moore said. “I like attacked her. I started telling her everything I knew about Alan Turing. I think I really scared her — made her think, ‘Who is this psycho?!’ … But then she realized I was serious and not crazy. I badgered her enough to finally let me come on board to write the script.”

The story traces the life of the eccentric, brilliant Cambridge mathematics professor who leads a group of cryptologists and analysts brought together by the British government during World War II in a desperate effort to break the Nazis’ code. Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch in a performance that already has many believing he’s in line for an Academy Award nomination for best actor, was a very complicated man.

Moore and director Morten Tyldum, a Norwegian filmmaker making his first English-language movie, wanted to make a film that would educate the public about Turing and his enormous contributions to helping end World War II and providing the basis for the early days of computer technology, “but we also wanted to do it in an entertaining way,” said Moore.

Turing’s hidden life may have been an advantage in the most secretive project of those wartime years, Tyldum said. “Because he was a closeted gay man in a society where being gay was against the law, I think it helped him carrying all those secrets about Enigma,” said the director. “It made him free to look at society from a slightly different angle. I also think it was a reason he was capable of having the unique ideas he did.”

For Tyldum, the biggest challenge of making “The Imitation Game” was the day the team had to shoot a subway scene to re-create a day of bombing during the Battle of Britain. “It was the only period subway we had — and it’s five stories down. There used to be an elevator there, but it didn’t work. So we had endless trips up and down a tiny staircase with heavy equipment. It was hellish,” said Tyldum with a grim chuckle.

For Moore, it was something more ethereal. “The most daunting thing for me was this: Alan Turing was one of the greatest geniuses of the 20th century — and I’m not! I was trying to express the mind of someone 10 times smarter than I could possibly be, or any of us could be. It was a tremendous challenge, a tremendous responsibility to tell the story of someone who suffered a really tragic fate but who had done so much for his country and for civilized society as a whole. I needed to do justice to him and pay tribute to that.”