'The Imitation Game': Editor William Goldenberg Pieces Together the Puzzle

“Moving backward and forward in time and making that clear but seamless for an audience was a real challenge," Goldenberg says of the film's three different time periods.
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Alan Turing is not well known, especially in the United States, but his invention—a computer that cracked Nazi codes—is credited with shortening the duration World War II by two to four years. Winston Churchill said that Turing made the single biggest contribution to Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany. Turing’s electromechanical code-breaking machines, called bombe, were able to decrypt messages generated by the Nazi’s Enigma coding machines, up to 3,000 communications a day at the peak, securing its inventor a place in the pantheon of computer science founders.

The Imitation Game, directed by Morten Tyldum and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, brings this thrilling story to life. The movie represents many firsts for the talent behind the lens. This is Tyldum’s first English-language movie; his previous film, Headhunters, was Norway’s biggest movie hit. It was the first movie ever for producers Nora Grossman and Ido Ostrowsky, and the first feature film screenplay for Graham Moore. The production had two more seasoned producers in Peter Heslop and Teddy Schwarzman.

Cinematographer Óscar Faura (The Impossible) and Academy Award-winning editor William Goldenberg (Unbroken, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Zero Dark Thirty, Argo) were seasoned members of the team who helped to anchor the film’s creative direction. “I felt a real sense of responsibility to bring everyone together and keep things on track,” says Goldenberg. “I was the senior guy and I don’t often find myself in that position. It was a different and really fun experience for me.”

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Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing. Photo by Jack English/The Weinstein Company.

Goldenberg first met Tyldum at the BAFTA Awards two years ago. “Morten introduced himself and mentioned The Imitation Game,” he says. “I was taken off guard, so I told him to call my agent. Then it turned out that it was this wonderful screenplay and Benedict [Cumberbatch] would be the star. And I watched Headhunters and loved it.”

Although Goldenberg had heard of Alan Turing and was “peripherally aware of his contributions to computer science,” he soon found out that Tyldum and Moore had immersed themselves into the scientist’s life story. “Between them, they have an encyclopedic knowledge of Alan Turing,” he says. “We could have made three movies about him, each one different.”

“The movie is a bit of a puzzle and was written that way by Graham,” he continues. “Alan was really into puzzles and solving them, so to honor him, the movie is a bit that way. It’s a human drama, it’s a thriller and a race against the clock, and it’s a biopic. All those layers add up to one thing.”

By the time Goldenberg signed on to the project, Tyldum and the team were already in London. “I was initially signed on to a picture that didn’t go, so by the time we connected, he was a month out from production and was already prepping with the actors,” Goldenberg says. “Ordinarily I’d start six weeks in, so this was a bit more down to the wire.”

Goldenberg and Tyldum’s first conversations, via Skype, were about how the movie would look and feel. “Morten was going for the movie to feel real but slightly heightened, not so much in performance but in look and feel,” he says. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was one movie Tyldum referenced; its production designer, Maria Djurkovic, fulfilled the same role on The Imitation Game.

Tyldum and Goldenberg also talked about Turing. “We had those conversations throughout the making of the film,” he says. “How self-aware was he? Did he have Asperger’s [an autism spectrum disorder]? What was he about, inside and out?”

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Editor William Goldenberg.

The production shot in England, but Goldenberg stayed put in Los Angeles until the final sound mix. “It was a fairly low budget [$60 million] to make a feature of this period and size,” he says. “Luckily, through Skype and DAX [recently acquired by Prime Focus Technologies], I was able to post edited material for him to see, and send cuts back and forth securely. You just have an access code, and you can post dailies and send material.”

Not being face-to-face, it took some time for Tyldum and Goldenberg to find a rhythm in working together. “He was incredibly busy,” Goldenberg says of the director. “I’d send cut footage ... no matter how much experience you have, you still have the feeling that you want the director to like it. When I didn’t hear anything, I’d sit by the phone and wait for it to ring, hoping for good news. And when the phone wouldn’t ring for a few days, I’d think, Oh my god, he hates it.”

“It was a ‘getting to know each other’ phase,” he adds. “Morten and I didn’t know each other very well at the beginning, but we found our rhythm and came to understand each other.”

Goldenberg cut The Imitation Game with Avid Media Composer. “I cut a couple of movies early on—including Heat—with Lightworks,” he says. “The first movie I cut on Avid was The Insider (1999), and without hesitation I can say it changed my life.”

“Avid Media Composer is an amazing tool and I have no reason to ever use anything else,” he adds. “I’ve used it for so long, I can do everything I need without looking at the buttons. And it keeps getting better, with more tracks, better image quality and more tools, with color timing and VFX all in one machine. I can present cut scenes or a cut film almost like it’s a finished film.” Goldenberg says he has actually previewed movies straight from the Avid, “and it’s played beautifully. It makes it more fun, too, because you get to give a blueprint for the sound editor, with an idea of what kind of music might work,” he says. “With it comes more responsibility, but I enjoy it.”

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Cumberbatch and director Morten Tyldum. Photo by Jack English/The Weinstein Company.

Editors are increasingly required to do more with music and visual effects, as was the case on The Imitation Game. “The expectation is that you’ll show something that gives the impression of a finished film, and you can’t do less than that,” says Goldenberg. “After working with the director for several months, you’re presenting a rough idea of what you’re trying to do. There are so many ways you can approach something sound-wise, but at least there’s a jumping-off point. You find out what doesn’t work with temp music; you eliminate things. You can at least point the composer in a direction.”

Editing The Imitation Game presented more than one challenge. “One of the big ones was that there were three different time periods: the 1920s, 1940s and 1950s,” he says. “Moving backward and forward in time and making that clear but seamless for an audience was a real challenge. You don’t want to be so clear that viewers roll their eyes, but you want them to be with you. You want the audience to figure out things for themselves. At the same time, you want the story to drive going backward and forward in time, not just moving among time periods for no reason. That was a real challenge in the editing.”

Now in theaters, The Imitation Game is getting great reviews. For Tyldum, and Goldenberg, their satisfaction is to have introduced Alan Turing and his story to a larger audience. “We were all very passionate about telling Alan’s story and getting it right,” concludes Goldenberg.