'Imitation Game' production design nominees on 'historical' vs. 'cinematic' reality
The meticulously detailed sets of "The Imitation Game" have earned production designer Maria Djurkovic and set decorator Tatiana Macdonald their first Oscar nominations, a journey that began with delving into well-worn period tropes to present a unique slice of British history that had not been seen on the big screen before.
"That's the part of the filmmaking process that I absolute adore," Djurkovic says. "I love recreating worlds that no longer exist. It’s a particular passion of mine. You discover a whole new world."
Macdonald similarly relished the historical challenge. But she also emphasizes that it was the subject matter more than the time period that made this a particularly difficult film from a set decoration perspective. "I suppose any part of history is as interesting as the next," she says. "The fact that it was very scientific and very mathematical gave it an extra layer of depth. We could keep adding layer and layer upon layer. The period itself has been worked so many times that it was nice [to go in that direction]."
When they read the script, they had an idea of who Turing was, but it was "quite superficial," Djurkovic says. And with respect to the mathematician's home, Andrew Hodges’ biography became an invaluable resource. "We know what he was interested in, what experiments he was doing the day before he died, and we just extrapolated from that," Macdonald says.
It was important to understand and obtain the props from that world, and very little of it was fabricated, Macdonald reveals. "The difficult thing to find was radio equipment, that technical stuff," she says. "Bletchley lent us one Enigma and we got another from a collector, and then it was making sure we had the radios, the headsets, etc. We had to really search for that."
This film was particularly exciting for Djurkovic as not only was she creating Turing’s world but she also had the responsibility to create a whole "character," of a sort, in Christopher, the codebreaking machine fictitiously named in the film for Turing's late close companion. "I went up to Bletchley Park and they have a replica of Christopher and we stood and looked at this thing and we made some decisions then and there," she says. "Ours is bigger. It’s slightly more imposing. It was made like a big prop within the art department. In the film, you see Alan Turing working on the machine at different stages and of course they’re shooting those scenes closely together. We had to build the machine in its various stages very quickly because we couldn’t keep the crew waiting to shoot."
Bletchley was a major setting that had to be recreated by Djurkovic and Macdonald as well. Djurkovic notes that there is a difference between the "historic reality" and the "cinematic reality" and this meant that shooting at the actual Bletchley Park was not an option. "The real Bletchley didn’t work," she says. "The huts are too close together, and there is a big car park where you wouldn’t want there to be a car park." As there was only a budget to build a minimal number of huts, clever camera angles were necessary to make the film work, and a great deal of the film needed to be shot in the studio.
Just as space had to be delineated to distinguish the film’s different settings, time was also key, as the movie was set in three separate eras. "For me, it comes very, very naturally," Djurkovic says. "You don’t go, 'Oh, it’s the '20s, so therefore…' We’ll know instinctively what goes in the set while also being subtle."
Macdonald re-emphasizes the importance of subtlety in the time shifts. "The school in the '20s helps delineate that period in Turing's life, but between the end of the war and the '50s, not much had changed [in terms of interior decoration], especially for an academic in Manchester. We were being incredibly subtle, hoping that people would know where we are."
Despite the stereotypical view of '40s and '50s Britain being a drab era, Djurkovic and Macdonald felt it was important to have an interesting color palette. "There are some quite bright colors going on," she says. "We weren’t afraid of color. Red features a lot in the film and Sammy [Sheldon Differ] with the costumes used a lot of bold colors. We made a conscious effort to try to do that, as England/World War II is often very, very brown in art. You can't just paint things random colors, though. The huts in Bletchley are all a particularly unattractive shade of brown. But I think there’s quite a lot of color."
Macdonald adds that they "were very conscious not to make it too sludgy and war-like. In a way, because we look back on that era, we imagine it as an era that has no color. But I think it was as colorful as any other period. People like their colors!"
And now their work has been cited by the Academy, an experience Macdonald describes as "very exciting — to be honest with you, I’m gobsmacked."
Djurkovic adds, "It’s bloody amazing! It’s obviously such a statement of recognition of one’s work, and this was a particularly lovely group of people."