How Benedict Cumberbatch And Alan Turing Helped A Writer Find Success In Hollywood
Graham Moore grew up on the north side of Chicago, the son of two lawyers who divorced and then married two other lawyers. “I feel very Midwestern, at my core,” Moore told me recently over iced coffee on the east side of Los Angeles. “Half of me wants to be this difficult, rebellious enfant terrible who is pissing everyone off and doing whatever I want to do, and the other half of me is this Jewish kid from Chicago that just wants everyone to like him and hates conflict and hates yelling and wants everyone to get along, and be nice. That’s the part that’s very Chicago.”
His love of mystery stories began when he was young and learning to read, passing copies of Agatha Christie books back and forth with his mother, late at night. As a teenager, he thought music was going to be his career — most of his time was occupied either reading about or playing in various bands. It was the ’90s, and long nights were spent arguing over the merits of Urge Overkill. When he got into Columbia University, he figured he might as well see what college was about. That’s when things got interesting. (And way more confusing.)
These days, despite his modesty, he’s emerging as one of the most sought-after screenwriters in Hollywood. And…Cumberbatch is involved. Lots and lots of Cumberbatch.
What follows is an edited transcript of my interview with Moore.
What was your college experience like? Columbia and New York.
GM: New York was obviously very exciting. I liked Columbia, but it was like high school in that there was this big social world that I was not part of. I existed on the side, far away. That might be temperamental, my own fear of large groups, more than anything else. But I had a handful of professors who meant a lot to me.
What are the classes that stuck out for you?
GM: My first class at Columbia was taught by a guy named Peter Pouncey. Every year I think college got better for me, so at the end I was really enjoying it, but at the start… I did not enjoy it very much. Except for this class.
What was it on?
GM: It was a “Great Books” survey, so The Illiad and The Odyssey, going through Western literature. I am entirely sure that I would have dropped out of school if it wasn’t for professor Pouncey. He said something to me that I still think about: If you’re going to try to do anything, you should try to do it for about five years or so. Anything less than that isn’t really trying because it takes that long to get halfway decent at anything. He told me that if I was going to try New York, to give it a couple of years, not just one. Everything is bad after one year. I think it’s true. Becoming a writer, I certainly wasn’t good for five years. I guess there are people who are, but that wasn’t me.
You can’t skip failure. It’s necessary.
GM: Being bad at stuff is hard and we all deal with it every day, because we’re all bad at stuff. I sat at my desk this morning, looking over all the things I’ve been working on lately. Just going over the really bad parts, thinking, Wow, I’m terrible at this.
But the only reason you know it’s bad is because your taste is good — good enough that you can look at your work objectively and know it’s not where it needs to be.
GM: In spending your days making things, you’re constantly recalibrating how much of an editor you need to be, how much you need to trust that hopefully someone will make some merit in what you’re doing, but at the same time be easy on yourself enough so that you can keep going. But you also have to be hard enough on yourself so that you don’t think that just any thing is the most brilliant thing in the world.
Going back to college, you’re there, you think you want to leave, and this professor talks you into staying. What kept you there? Was it just about being in New York?
GM: It was about friends and New York. I was playing in a bunch of different bands.
What kind of music?
GM: Rock. None of the bands I played in did many shows: We were always more into recording, and that’s when I found out I really loved the studio environment and sound engineering. I started collecting studio equipment.
And where was this studio?
GM: I built a little studio with a friend of mine and my brother in the basement of a heavy metal art gallery on Rivington Street. Everything they sold looked like the cover of Appetite for Destruction. It was a lot of monsters and stuff.
Oh right, monster art.
GM: The studio was called Thunder and Lightning and Lightning. Eventually people we didn’t know started to hire us for things. There was a series of Garnier shampoo commercials that we recorded that paid my rent for a year, which was nice.
You had the beginnings of a bona fide career.
GM: Ish? We could have turned it into something. It was how I paid my rent. I started doing live sound too. I was an engineer at B.B. King’s on 42nd Street.
So when does writing enter the scene and when does the sound career start to…fade out?
GM: (laughs) I like what you did, with the metaphor. It was a slow process. I started writing around the end of college.
What were you writing?
GM: My best friend is a guy named Ben Epstein, who is now a writer in Los Angeles — he has a scripted pilot filming for MTV very soon. At the time, he was at NYU film school. We’d known each other since we were 6 years old and had grown up together in Chicago. We were out one night drinking and one of us had an idea of a screenplay. It was one of those nights where you tell a joke, and you tell it again, and the joke gets funnier as the night goes along, even though it might never have been that funny to start with. But it was an idea for a comedy. I hadn’t written fiction since a couple short stories in high school, but he was in film school so he wanted to write movies.
What was the premise?
GM: It was… I actually cannot remember. He called me the next day and said, “…Do you really want to write a script together?” and my response was that I didn’t really know how to write a script but, sure, that sounds fun. So then it was a couple years of writing screenplays with my friend Ben 10–6 every day and then working in the studio with my partners at night.
When you’re writing this stuff for fun, is there anything from nascent process-building that is still with you now?
GM: Yes. I came from learning to write for film and television with Ben, and then having to go write books on my own and other scripts on my own. I did it kind of backward. All the writing, just like all the music and sound work I’d done, had been collaborative. My first novel was the first thing I ever wrote on my own. Though I was constantly showing it to people and asking for feedback.
So you’re not precious? You’ll show it, to a short list at least?
GM: It’s a struggle for me to turn over pages, but I work very hard to have no secrets, to show everything to anyone. I’ll do little tests. My process is still evolving, but I’ll do a couple of pages, just for the sounds. The sound of the writing really matters to me — how people are talking.
Makes sense, for a former sound engineer.
GM: It’s about rhythm, the cadence. When I worked on my adaption of The Devil in the White City, which is a book I was hired to adapt into a screenplay last year, first I handed them a page-long monologue, and it was just the lead character talking. It’s an exercise I’ll do where I’ll write a monologue from the main character’s perspective, where I’ll have him or her talk about what they think the point of the piece the reader is about to see is — as if they were going to narrate.
So when you’re writing with Ben, your process was getting shaped and you’re learning the basic craft. How does it go from having fun with your friend and working at the studio at night to becoming a career writer?
GM: Our studio went out of business in 2008. Ben and I had gotten a couple of little writing jobs, so I started to be able to pay rent by writing. He had a lot of success coming out of NYU because his senior film, The Reunion, had won a bunch of awards, so we had managers and agents sniffing around pretty early on, around 2004. So he got us hired for stuff. One of the things we did was with Yaron Zilbermann, who was prepping what would go on to become A Late Quartet. We were helping with structure — outlining.
When the studio closed were you thinking, Well, I guess I’m a writer now?
GM: I thought it wasn’t going to work out.
GM: Yeah, a total Chicago move. I was sure I would end up in my mom’s basement. I was still just barely able to pay rent, by hook by crook. I had started writing my first novel —
We’ll get to that.
GM: Yeah, sadly there’s no direct path. It was all happening at once. Ben felt very strongly that we should move to L.A. and I said no. I said, “I quit.”
What makes a good writing partner?
GM: Being unafraid to say no, having an endless capacity to talk anything out. I think you need limitless patience but unwavering courage of your own convictions at the same time, which is pretty impossible. Everything then was so collaborative, it was like being back in the studio. Ben and I had a rule wherein if one of us showed the other something and the response was “No,” then it was out. You could try and convince the other person, but at the end of the day, it had to be unanimous.
So you were learning that you could be a working writer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that anything is going into production. I don’t think most people understand that in Hollywood there are many successful writers who have never had anything actually go into production. But they’re wealthy and busy, and well known and well respected.
GM: I would say, in fact, that the wealthiest writers I know have never had anything made. There’s this line in Mad Men that my girlfriend and I are always quoting to each other. Peggy and Don are having a fight because he’s keeping her at work late at night. I’m going to mangle the line, but it’s something like, Don says, “I pay you a salary, so you’re here. You work for me,” and Peggy says, “No, I give you all these good ideas and you take all the credit. I don’t get any credit for what I do.” He just looks at her and goes, “That’s what the money is for.”
GM: Especially when you get into studio movies, not taking credit on movies, and working on things that are never going to get made? That’s what the money is for. It’s so that you can be OK with the fact that you’re working on stuff that mostly likely no one is ever going to make, and no one is ever going to see.
It’s an alchemy where everyone is trying to turn lead into gold, but you know, that gold will probably end up in the same Indiana Jones warehouse as the Ark of the Covenant.
GM: I find it most fulfilling to make things, which sounds like an obvious statement, but I would not have been able to keep working in film if I had not had the success that I had with my first book, The Sherlockian. It wasn’t a runaway smash hit, but we were on the best-sellers list for three weeks, and that was enough to be good with myself. It was enough to push me to want to make stuff, not to sit around and talk about things where maybe someday someone will say, “OK, we might consider making that.”
So what’s the genesis of The Sherlockian?
GM: In 2004, essentially the world’s leading Sherlock Holmes scholar announced that he found the lost diary of Arthur Conan Doyle. This is all true: When Conan Doyle died, a volume of his diary and letters had gone missing. For 80 years after his death this had been the sort of Holy Grail of Sherlockian studies — it would be worth millions of dollars if it were put up for auction. Anyway, basically this guy announces that he has found it, and there’s this huge argument that happens between various scholars and the Arthur Conan Doyle family estate over if he found it, where is it — no one’s quite sure where it is — and then this culminates in the guy who announced he had the diary being found murdered in his apartment, doors and windows locked from the inside. He was strangled to death, garroted with his own shoelaces. This is all true. And the diary is nowhere to be found, no one knows where it is. So sure enough, all these Sherlock Holmes buffs start trying to solve the case, who killed their friend. The coroner did not rule out homicide, but the scholar’s death and the missing diary are still a mystery.
It was fascinating because it had this meta conceit of trying to apply the same plotting conventions that would occur in a novel to real life. As I started reading about that, I also started reading a bit about the life of Conan Doyle and what was contained in these diaries, where he had these fascinating experiences where he went to consult at Scotland Yard. He showed up on their doorstep and was like, “I’m Arthur Conan Doyle, I am the most famous novelist in England, I would like to solve mysteries now.” And their response was essentially, “You are too famous, we can’t say no.” So he started working on a couple cases. Sure enough, he actually had a bunch of successes, which was the insane part.
So when I was reading all of this, I had the idea to combine the two stories: a fictionalized version of the present-day situation and a fictionalized version of the Conan Doyle story with alternating chapters. I kept being like, well, this is such a great idea for a novel, someone who knows what they’re doing will do a great job writing it. I would check trades and papers, expecting to see that this book was being published by someone famous, someone really good. It took two years for me to realize that no one else was going to do it, so finally I started doing it. And like we talked about earlier, I started doing little test bubbles: Here’s two pages, here’s 10 pages.
Were you conscious of the difference between writing a screenplay and writing a novel?
GM: Yes, and that was one of the very scary things about it. At that point I had written eight or 10 scripts that had never been made, a couple of TV pilots that had never been made. I remember telling my mother about this, and her response was, “So, because you had no success whatsoever as a screenwriter, you’re now going to be a novelist?” It was the worst career decision in the world. It made no sense. I just really wanted to write that book. I remember very vividly not knowing that I necessarily wanted to be a writer. While I was writing it, I was conscious that it was probably going to be the last thing that I would write, because, like I said, Ben and I had gotten in this big fight about moving to L.A. to write and I had said, “I quit! I quit!” In the middle of the book. I basically decided I didn’t want to be a writer, I can’t handle this, I can’t handle the constant rejection, we’ve been doing this for five, six years and never really gotten anywhere. Maybe we’re just not good at it.
A crisis of faith ensues.
GM: Right. I said, I’m happy with this book, I’ll finish it but I’ll go get a real job somewhere. I can finish it at nights, but it’s a weird mystery novel about Sherlock Holmes. And this was before the movies or the TV show, so it was not a popular thing to write a book about at the time.
How did you manage to be both after and before Sherlock was popular?
GM: I have no idea, but I was. It was written before it was popular and then published after. So, before I was doing something not at all in the zeitgeist and then when it came out, it was —
GM: Yes, exactly, which perhaps is a lesson for us all: Ignore the zeitgeist.
But you did you move to Los Angeles.
GM: You may have noticed in this “story” that I am highly susceptible to persuasion. I am easily convinced of things, and I’m also just gullible by nature.
GM: Yes, Chicago. Anyway, we had a manager, who is still my manager, a guy named Tom Drumm. We had come out to L.A. to take some meetings about jobs that would never hire us. So in the middle of this crisis Tom sat me down and told me, “I really think you should move to L.A. I can get you a job on a TV show, something to pay your rent while you finish your book. You can have a career as a writer.” And I said no, I said I quit, it’s too much rejection. But Tom said to me, “If you give me two months, I will get you a job. If you give me six months, I will get you a career.” He personally lent me $2,000 for a plane ticket and shipping a couple of boxes to come out. It was his personal check. So as of January of 2009, I lived in Los Angeles.
What did that feel like?
GM: Having Tom’s confidence meant a lot. That he was so confident that it would work out was shocking. The part of me that is cynical was thinking, Really? Because we have shown you no signs. I am the worst investment you have ever made. It’s not like he was a guy who could hand me that sort of money without blinking an eye, either. It mattered. After that, I lived on a friend’s couch, rent-free for six months.
So you had a coalition of the willing.
GM: I had so many people who were so generous.
Who were more convinced of your abilities than you were.
GM: Yes. Sure enough, Tom within seven weeks got me a job ghostwriting for a reality show, writing zingy one-liners. And then seven months later, we got hired on an ABC family sitcom, 10 Things I Hate About You, based on the movie. So that was my first real writing job.
What did you learn?
GM: Well, it was the first and only time I’d ever been in a writers’ room. That was the best job I have ever had. Again, because of the great collection of people — so smart and generous.
Were you afraid you would choke?
GM: Because I had spent so much time doing collaborative work, the writers’ room was no different at all from working with Ben. It was just more people.
Everything you’ve described to me thus far, in your approach to story, it’s very structured: working with a partner, working with a specific novelistic conceit. At this point in your career you’re on a show with characters who are not your own and plot parameters. These days you’re being hired to adapt for the screen. Do you work best with structures?
GM: I feel there are three modes of writers. First are the super autobiographical writers who take something that has happened to them and translate it beautifully onto the page, and I am fascinated by that, because if you put a gun to my head and asked me to do it, I couldn’t. I would say that the second type, I call them blank-page writers, are people who come up with a world: a J.K. Rowling or an Orson Scott Card, who make up a universe populated with characters, with rules, and it’s based on nothing but the strength of their imagination. If you put a gun to my head, I could not do that sort of work. Every now and then I get half a mind to try and then I realize, nope, I have no idea what I’m doing. I find myself in a third type of writer: I need a constraint. I need something to push against.
You need to connect the dots.
GM: It’s more sculptural. You talk to sculptors and the cliché is that sculpture is already inside the big block of marble — “I just have to chip away the extra stuff.” I feel like what I do is freeing the structure that’s already there from all the extraneous noise around it. So, in that respect, it tends to be real things that I work on, because that’s something to push back against. I do research-heavy pieces.
What do you like about research?
GM: On a personal level, I like learning about stuff I know nothing about.
Talk me through selling The Sherlockian while you’re on staff at 10 Things.
GM: First, I had to get a book agent. Film and TV and books are such separate worlds. I called my TV agents and their response was, “Uh… we don’t know where to transfer you. We don’t even have a department for that.”
What makes a good agent?
GM: For all agents, it’s about if they understand what you’re trying to accomplish, not what someone in your position is supposed to want to accomplish. I have a film agent, a television agent, and a book agent, and they’re all very different people and they all do very different things.
Every meeting I’m having is saying, “You have to pick one.”
GM: And I don’t think you do! Maybe if I had, I’d be much more successful. (My book agent) sold it very quickly to a man named Jon Karp who was then running 12, the publishing house.
When you found out it had been sold, how did that feel?
GM: I cried for about an hour straight.
Did you think of yourself as a writer before? Did you think of yourself as a writer after? Do you even think of yourself as a writer now?
GM: I think the other theme of this conversation is constant quitting. I still think about quitting. I still think, Maybe I’m not good at this. So no, I don’t feel like a real writer. I’ve never had any sort of binary experience where I went from feeling like I hadn’t made it, and then I had, or went from feeling like a failure and then I felt like a success. There’s no button for that, no on/off switch.
So the book comes out — what’s it like having a book in the stores? And when did you quit the show?
GM: Well, the show got canceled, so I just did the one season.
GM: There was a year of lag time — I sold the book in 2009 and it came out in 2010. I was at a crossroads. I sort of wanted to be back in New York to be around when the book was coming out, so once again I dramatically quit writing for TV and film. I was all, “I am done.” So I went to back. When it finally came out, it was nice to see people appreciate the things that I appreciated about the book.
So you read your reviews?
GM: Obsessively. I’ve read very Amazon review. The day it came out, I went to the Barnes & Nobles down the block from where I was staying in Manhattan and there it was, in the “new releases” section, at eye level.
Having it do so well, was that just icing on the cake?
GM: It was very unexpected. I found out it was on the best-sellers list when I was in Scottsdale, Arizona, doing a reading. My agent calls me to tell me we’re on the best-sellers list, and I went down to the hotel bar to have a glass of champagne by myself, calling some friends, sort of trying to celebrate. The part that I really remember the most about it was that I had started the script for The Imitation Game on the plane to Scottsdale, so I had just started this movie that no one wanted me to write — it was going to be this huge disaster. But the book, and the fact that it was on the best-sellers list, gave me the courage to think, I can do what I want now. That’s what having the book do well did for me.
What did people want you to do?
GM: It was then and still is this bifurcated thing where I sort of live two lives: my book agents and publishers, and then I have my film and TV team with a whole different set of people and manager caught in the middle trying to get everyone to agree. It’s tricky because if I go off to write a book, the movie people are like, “You’re going to go off and write a book?” And if I go write a movie, the book people are like, “Really?” so I am in the fortunate position where I get to disappoint someone no matter what choice I make.
So how does The Imitation Game come to you?
GM: Again, it was super random. I had been obsessed with computer science as a kid. We’ve been talking about recording technology and being an engineer, and in the world of tech people, Alan Turing is a person of cult-like fascination.
And for our readers, who is Alan Turing?
GM: Alan Turing was a mid-century mathematician who arguably invented the computer. He was in his late twenties at Cambridge when the Second World War broke out, and he was recruited to run a chunk of cryptography operations for the British government. He was on the team that was tasked with breaking the German Enigma machine, which was the code machine that the Germans used for all major communications. It was an impossible task. No one thought it could be done, and he did it, which meant that for the last two years of the war, the British were hearing everything the Germans were saying to each other. It ended the war years earlier than it would have otherwise. And it was top secret — no one knew what it was or who did it.
But that was not the only aspect of Turing’s life that was top secret…
GM: After the war, Turing goes back to the protocomputers he’s building when basically it’s revealed to the government that he’s been keeping this secret, which is that he was gay. He was caught by the Manchester police with another man and he didn’t deny it. He was charged with indecency, which was a criminal statute at the time, the same statute that Oscar Wilde was charged with. So Turing was quickly convicted — and again, no one knows he’s a war hero — and given a choice between two years in prison or “chemical castration.” And he took the latter, because he was working on these machines and he didn’t want to put everything on hold for two years. In 1951 chemical castration meant estrogen therapy. He would go into the hospital for weekly estrogen injections, the idea being to render him impotent. It did horrible things to his body, to his mind; he was publicly shamed. He couldn’t teach, he couldn’t work anymore, no one would hire him. In 1954, after two years of treatment, he finally killed himself by dipping an apple in cyanide and eating it. Snow White was his favorite movie — he was obsessed with it.
So you finished your book, you’re trying to figure out what’s next, and your friend Nora Grossman says —
GM: It came from Nora Grossman and her partner Ido Ostrowsky. They both had day jobs at the time. Nora was working at DreamWorks in the TV department, Ido was working at NBC, and they were both getting sick of the studio [and the] network game and wanted to do something on their own. They pooled together their own money and bought the rights to the first and most complete biography of Alan Turing, Alan Turing, The Engima, by Andrew Hodges.
Anyway, I was at a party at Nora’s house, and at the time I didn’t know her particularly well, but I asked her what she had been up to and she said, “Well, I just used a chunk of my own money to option a book,” and I said, “Oh, that’s really cool, cheers! Have a drink, that’s great, doing your own thing! What’s the book about?” and she said, “This mathematician, you’ve never heard of him.” And said, “Well, I do know a little bit about mathematics,” and when she said “Alan Turing,” I instantly freak out and launch into this totally insufferable 15-minute monologue about how I’ve dreamed about writing about Alan Turing since I was a little kid, I went to computer camp, where all we ever talked about was Alan Turing. This is what the movie is, this is how it starts, and I could see her start to inch back step by step, trying to get away from me. But somehow I convinced her to let me do it.
Let you do it or let you take a stab — do it on spec?
GM: Take a stab, she wasn’t going to pay me.
And the money from the book let you do that?
GM: Yes. I called my manager and he said, “Absolutely not, you’re not going to write this stuff for free, for these people who have never made a movie before.” I called my agent and she said, “Absolutely not, you can’t write for free, for these people who have never made a movie before.” And I said, “Um… Well, I’m gonna.”
What was it about Turing’s story that you felt you had to tell?
GM: It was just an unbelievably compelling story about a difficult, fascinating character.
He was your enfant terrible.
GM: Yes. Exactly. He was a difficult man, but he wasn’t a sad sack, he was a willful man. It’s like all the movies in one movie: There’s a spy story, a war story, an unbelievable story about what it meant to be a closeted gay man in the ’40s and ’50s, and in the military. I became obsessed with this idea that his cryptographic work and his computer work is him dealing with the issues of being a closeted gay man —
A literal storytelling device.
GM: It was all the things I love: a spy thriller about the war, and mathematics, and computers and gender relations and sexual identity. It was all these things I really wanted to do, and because I had a little money, I could do it and I could do it for free. And of course I said, “This will be the last screenplay I ever write; I’m only going to write books after this.”
And did it go easily?
GM: It was the hardest thing I ever worked on.
GM: It’s a lot of story, it’s a lot to get a handle on. Doing research on the Second World War is like doing research on water — there’s an infinite amount of it. You have to decide where to stop. In my case it was the naval history. He was such a strong character and I found myself doing an exercise, which I guess is now part of my technique, of just writing a monologue from his perspective, finding a voice for him that I really loved.
Is that where you started?
GM: On the plane to Scottsdale, the day before I found out The Sherlockian was a best seller, I drank two scotches and wrote the monologue which is now the opening monologue of the movie. I called some friends from the hotel to say that I had just written this monologue and that I loved it more than anything I had written before.
How long did it take you to write The Imitation Game?
GM: Six months. That’s when we took it out on the town and got it sold, after about three or four drafts, around August 2011.
What was that like?
GM: I just kind of gave it to CAA and said, “Here’s this thing, Nora and Ido are producing, the three of us are madly in love with it, it might not be your cup of tea or anyone else’s for that matter, but this is the thing in my life of which I am the most proud.” I think I literally said that last sentence too. It was and continues to be true. So she read it — and I remember that I was in New York at the time — she called and said, “Holy shit, this is going to be a thing.” And then she started spreading it internally at the agency, and then some other people got excited about it, and then it just started leaking. We never actually made any formal submissions. Agents just started giving it to clients of theirs, mostly directors.
So we had a number of offers from financing entities early on — some studios, some indies — and then we were talking to various directors for a while. We spent some time playing a sort of movie Tetris, where we would look at various combinations — this director, this financier, this actor — just to find some combination that made sense. At the end of all that, it just ended up making the most sense for everyone involved if we gave it to Warner Bros. clean, without any attachments at all. Honestly, because we were playing this Tetris ourselves, and figuring out how to smartly pair directors, actors, and material is what studios do all day. So it was kinda like, “Let’s bring in the experts!”
So you turned it in and then what?
GM: Again, there was no big plan. I had started working on my second book, and again, I had said that I was only going to write this one movie and then quit.
GM: Mic drop. It was very “Nora, Ido, here’s the script, best of luck, call me if you need anything thing, good-bye.” So I was off researching my second book. The good news and bad news of the stuff I choose to work on is that they always overlap because the things I work on have a six-month research phase, and then a writing phase of six months if it’s a script and two years if it’s a book. So with my second book, I was researching while I was writing The Imitation Game.
And how does The Devil in the White City enter the scene?
GM: When Warner Bros. bought The Imitation Game, in fall 2001 they liked me and [asked if I would be interested]. I joke with my manager sometimes that I’ve never sold anything on a pitch. I very vividly remember saying, “Oh no, you need to get someone professional for that. Someone who knows what they’re doing.” They asked if I wanted to come in and talk about it anyway. “Really? OK?” So I stayed up late writing another monologue from the point of view of the protagonist. And my “pitch” was the monologue, talking about the character, what I saw the film being thematically and “Can I do it?” And…it…worked?
What is your advice to someone doing a pitch?
GM: What I had been told, and what I try to do, is to not to tell them what you think they want to hear — tell them what you want to do. Don’t lie, don’t pretend when you don’t know the answer. I guess Devil in the White City was sort of loosely a pitch? I walked in being like, “I don’t know what the plot is. I know there will be a lot of plot in it. The book is really long and complicated, and I need to spend six months working before I know what the plot is, so let’s just not worry about that. But here are the characters, and let’s talk about them!” So I think being very upfront about the fact they had read other things that I had done and that they knew that I could get there, that’s what mattered.
And what was the process on Devil like?
GM: That was interesting because there were a lot of producers on it, so I had a new small team of people. I said very quickly that I was going to want to talk to them every week, to talk about where I am, and send these little test bubbles and show you this and show you that.
And how did they take that?
GM: (laughs) They were like, “Oh, sure, send us as much as you want. We’re happy to talk whenever!” Then when they saw the actual volume of stuff I was sending them… For better or worse, I produce a lot, I write a lot of material, and then it gets culled away. The first of drafts of both Devil and Imitation were around 180 pages.
Usual script length is around 110, 120 pages.
GM: Yes. They were ridiculously long. The same is true for books. I’m trying to write books that are about 100,000 words-ish [and have] first drafts around 140,000 or 150,000.
Do you have a writing schedule?
GM: Whatever I’m doing I don’t think is right. I am endlessly convinced that I have a terrible process and it’s not working out right, and it’s never as efficient as I want it to be.
You’re assuming process is efficient!
GM: I always want to find a more efficient way, and I’ve never found it. I set an alarm and I write from 9 or 10 in the morning to 6 at night. I try to keep normal work hours.
That is a long day.
GM: Sure, but don’t forget six hours of that is just me staring at a wall. It’s not all typing. There are lots of phone calls. I think the hardest part for me is dealing with the noise of the Hollywood stuff.
It’s a phone-call business. Do you write longhand or on the computer?
GM: Almost always on a computer.
What do you do when it’s not working, when it’s not coming to you?
GM: Stare at the wall a lot. Go for walks. Make a sandwich. I am trying to get better at really pushing through it. I’m not going to say that a glass of Scotch doesn’t help sometimes, or coffee, if it’s earlier in the day. Trying to write something, I will often find myself doing this thing where I will procrastinate — because I’m usually working on multiple things at the same time, I can procrastinate on one thing by working on another, sometimes in healthy ways, sometimes in unhealthy ways. Another trick I’ll do is just skip it: I’ll leave holes in the page. I will literally write in “blah blah blah.” Sometimes it will be a whole paragraph. It’s just about moving forward — skip it and do the next thing. I will usually find the answer later on down the line, and I’ll go back and piece it together.
What do you need to write? Do you need quiet? Do you need to be in a relationship? Do you need a deadline? A clean desk?
GM: Every one of those things is helpful but not sufficient. Personally, I do better work when I’m in a good mood. The myth of the tortured artist is totally bullshit. If I’m really sad, I don’t do good work, I’m just sad and lethargic and don’t get things done. Deadlines are helpful because of adrenaline. Finding things I want to write, and even within a given piece — like right now in the book I’m in a section where it is just taking me forever. It’s finally occurring to me that the reason I can’t write it is because this section is really boring, and maybe if I don’t want to write it, no one will want to read it and I should find another thing to happen here.
It’s hard to pivot.
GM: Always. The hardest thing I deal with is being alone all day. It gets to me.
What stops you from writing?
GM: Being alone. The main thing is doubt. Always doubt. I am trying very hard to spend less time doing the thing where, and I’m sure you can relate, you write a sentence and you know it’s not right, but rather than staring obsessively at it to figure out what’s wrong, move on and come back to it later. I will get hung up for so long when I know something is wrong. That is really hard for me. And the noise of life, errands. Friends will be like, “Do you want to go to this museum tomorrow afternoon,” and I’ll say, “No, I have to write,” and they’re clearly thinking, Do you? I do this for a living! This is my job!
Is your process for books any different for a teleplay or a screenplay?
GM: If you have any suggestions, I would love to hear them. I put my second book on hold to do Imitation and Devil, and going back to the book after writing two scripts in a row was a really jarring experience. It was a big shift, and it’s taken a lot longer because I have been trying to figure out how to do it again. The difference between film and the page is, on film, the only way information is communicated is through scenes. To show the audience something, you have to put a camera in front of something: an actor saying something or going somewhere. But in book, there’s 1,900 other ways of communicating something. I had to figure out the difference between what is a scene and what’s just stuff I’m telling the reader.
So Devil is moving forward in development at Warner Bros. —
GM: They’re looking for directors.
And you’re about to leave for London —
GM: Because the Alan Turning movie, The Imitation Game, is being shot with Benedict Cumberbatch, the internet’s favorite being.
A movie gets made three times: when it’s written, when it’s shot, and when it’s cut. It’s like holy trinity — they’re completely different versions of the same thing.
GM: To which end, I think people spend a lot of time complaining about the lowly status of writers in Hollywood, and I don’t know too much about it, since because I’m only halfway in the business, but I also think that it’s important to remember that the writer is not the most important part of this process. If a movie gets made three times, the writer is one of the people involved in that first part, and hopefully you’ll be involved tangentially in those other steps as well. I feel like some writers have this chip on their shoulders of, “We do all the creative lifting in Hollywood.”
They’re forgetting it’s a visual medium.
There’s a reason a producer gets the Best Picture awards. It’s the producer who is there in all three phases — many films are cut by their producers and the editors they’ve worked with in the past.
GM: There’s also a misleading idea that books are the product of singular vision. From my experience, there are a lot of very smart people involved in fundamental ways. It’s not just two people, you and your editor; it’s me and my small army of close, entrusted friends, and editors and agents. On The Sherlockian there were three copy editors who did a ton of work because I didn’t know the difference between “floor” and “ground.” But not only that, people did a lot more creatively than just changing my “floors” to “grounds” and “grounds” to “floors.” Collaboration is just so important.
So you’ll be working on the second book while you’re in London?
And can you tell me anything about that?
GM: It’s a legal thriller set in the 1880s, surrounding the “war of the currents,” as it was called, between Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Nicola Tesla.
Lastly, if you could communicate anything about what you do, what would it be?
GM: I would say that I am always checking in with my friends to make sure that we are all doing it for the right reasons, and I would wish the same for you, unknown person out in the world. I think intention really matters.
What’s your intention?
GM: I want to do work that people care about. Art is a social object, books and films and records and television shows, they’re social objects that bring people together in conversation. I love the notion that I could write something that two people could share. That’s the goal. You have to aim for the stars, and that doesn’t mean “aim to make a million dollars,” it means doing work that you think is significant. Because then you can fall short, and falling short is something we all do, every day, right?
The intention of getting there forgives the failure.
GM: It’s worth it. Intention matters in ways you would never expect. If you are writing something that you don’t think is particularly good, but you think that other people will like it, readers will be able to tell. I’ve seen people struggle with that.
Ignore the zeitgeist!
GM: Ignore the zeitgeist and check in with yourself, as we all do every day, and know why you’re doing it.
So: Do good work, well?
GM: Want to do good work, well. And ignore the zeitgeist.
GM: (laughs) Chicago: Ignoring the zeitgeist since 18-whatever!