“Research is the foundation of what I feel my job is, and when I start on a new movie project I leave no stone unturned,” said production designer Maria Djurkovic. The results of her most recent deep dive is on display in The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and directed by Morten Tyldum. Her work on the film took her into the world of English mathematician and computer pioneer Alan Turing, who during World War II cracked Germany’s heretofore impenetrable Enigma code. The breakthrough gave the Allies the ability to decipher the Nazis’ top-secret communications, shortening the war by several years and helping to defeat Hitler.
Djurkovic’s job was made easier by her access to the collections at Bletchley Park, a mansion on the outskirts of London, which was the center of Britain’s codebreaking operations and the place where Turing and a small group of assistants did their work. Bletchley has been restored and is now a museum. “They have fantastic archives and gave us total access,” said Djurkovic. By coincidence, there was also an exhibit on Turing and Bletchley at the London Science Museum just when the production designer was starting to prep the film, which she and her set decorator Tatiana Macdonald “used as our launch pad,” she said.
In addition to its archives, Bletchley has an exact copy of Turing’s famous codebreaking machine. Djurkovic and her team used it to as a model in order to build a versatile version for the film from scratch, tricked up with lots of red wires as if blood were running through its veins to give it more visual impact. The Bombe or “Christopher” as it was called in the movie with a bit of artistic license (named after a university mate who Turing secretly loved and who committed suicide at 18) was assembled so it could be taken apart to look like earlier versions of the machine that appeared in other parts of the movie. A smaller first version is seen in the younger Turing’s room.
“We had to make Christopher look as though it really works, with all its dials going round,” the production designer noted. “It had to look like the real thing, but it also had to look more interesting than the real thing. And we had to do it with limited money and limited time.” Marco Restivo, an art director adept at making miniatures, was tasked with taking what was on the drawing board to build the enormous prop. Materials for its innards came from many boxes of period components that were scrounged up from all over England, along with 30 radios from the 1940s.
Much of the film was shot on location, including the actual room Turing had when he was at the Sherbourne School in his early teens. But Bletchley, though thoroughly authentic and still surrounded by the “huts,” temporary structures where the work was done, “was never going to work as an overall film location,” she decided, though several brief scenes wound up being shot in rooms in the mansion. Djurkovic and the location manager went on a hunt of stately homes and found several that were good for exteriors. The huts were built from scratch at a Royal Air Force base. And they were fashioned so they could be folded up and moved around.
“The color palette in wartime England was pretty drab, but I was very keen for it not to be so in the film,” said the production designer. Though a stickler for historical accuracy, Djurkovic also likes to be a bit subversive, adding elements to the design that help define the characters. “In all the domestic interiors you see, there’s no floral wallpaper though that would have been common in houses at the time,” she noted. “Every single wallpaper and border in the movie is covered instead in Morse Code dots and dashes.”
Djurkovic was nominated for an Oscar for best production design on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It was directed by Tomas Alfredson, and she’s teaming him with again on Snowman, based on a novel by Swedish mystery writer Jo Nesbø. Her other credits include Mamma Mia! and two Woody Allen films, Cassandra’s Dream and Scoop.