How Two TV Assistants Turned Their Obsession Into an Oscar Nomination
The Imitation Game
It started as an email. Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote an op-ed in The Telegraph in September 2009 and Ido Ostrowsky, a blond, boyish, out-of-work — well, what, really? A writers’ assistant on Gossip Girl most recently, but that wasn’t the end goal. Ido read Brown’s op-ed and forwarded it to Nora Grossman, self-possessed, brunette, Boston University TV major, similarly out of work. A mutual friend introduced the two so they could while away their unemployed hours together. Now, they were doing it. Becoming a Hollywood cliché. They’d meet at coffee shops, saying things like, “Wouldn’t this make a great movie?” while sending out résumés on their laptops, machines that might not exist if it weren’t for a man they’d never heard of, at least not until Ido sent Nora an email.
Nominated this year for eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, The Imitation Game tells the story of Alan Turing, who helped the British win World War II and saved more than 12 million lives. He did this by inventing a digital computer and using it to crack the code of the German Enigma machine. Yet there are still so many puzzles. A rare genius ended up unsung and persecuted by the British government for homosexuality. And a film that appears as if it must have been made by some posh British producer is, in fact, the product of two Hollywood assistants and their insistent curiosity.
It is 1980. The Ostrowsky family has just moved to Los Angeles. And their 1-year-old doesn’t have any career objectives. But as soon as he can remember, he’ll think, “I’ll work in entertainment. Somehow.” He just wouldn’t be sure how for a few more decades.
In 2010, Nora and her roommate were throwing a house party. Just because. Friends and colleagues were mingling, getting drinks. In the kitchen, she fielded a question about what she was up to, trying not to sound unemployed or directionless. Her roommate’s co-worker, from that sitcom Ten Things I Hate About You, heard Nora excitedly sharing that she’d optioned this autobiography of Alan Turing. The fortuitous eavesdropper, Graham Moore, had met with Nora about staffing on a TV pilot, and had met with Turing in his youth, metaphorically. At space camp, Moore was obsessed with the code breaker.
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Shame is a powerful force. It can lead to Insomnia, a café on Beverly Boulevard, where in 2009 Nora and Ido discussed zeros and ones that just didn’t add up: Prime Minister Gordon Brown wrote in The Telegraph about a man “without [whose] outstanding contribution, the history of the Second World War could have been very different.” In 2015, Ido would say, “We heard Alan’s story and felt that more people should know about him and were embarrassed that we didn’t know more about him. And then it sort of just gathered steam.”
It is 2000 and Ido is in New York City. The UCLA mass communications major is only East for a semester, collaborating in an NYU program to conceive, produce, direct and edit five short projects. He will use these skills again.
Nora and her roommate were looking forward to a London vacation. At that time, in early 2010, they’d already had the trip in the works for a while. And then, as fate would have it, Nora started conversing with Andrew Hodges, British mathematician and author of Alan Turing: The Enigma. She insists they weren’t trading theorems. “I was lucky that I could understand the basics of Turing’s biography,” she says. Intending to convey to Hodges that she and Ido were the ones to tell Turing’s story, Nora added a visit with the author to her itinerary. Math and science are known to effect change, but it’s times like these where passion can, too. Q.E.D.
“I think the intention of the film in large part was to call attention to Alan Turing’s story but also to the 49,000 other gay men who were prosecuted under the same law,” says Ido now. “Honestly, I feel honored to raise my voice on the topic.” Nora concurs. Their producing partnership became official when they sold Moore’s script to Warner Bros. in 2011. They had gotten new television jobs since their coffee-shop days, but with their sale, they left them and started their company, Bristol Automotive.
Crossword puzzles aren’t the only challenge Ido relishes. With Nora, he gamely takes on the challenge of making book-option funds appear. They’ve never optioned a book before. Neither have they sold a script. The duo astutely teams with legal counsel Alan Wertheimer, who ensures their strong reversion rights, which will be key in getting the script back from Warner Bros. a year after the sale and allowing them to partner with producer Teddy Schwarzman to fund the film.
Nora was an assistant at 20th Century Fox. It was in the days before Insomnia. Her boss often received a pitch with a book attached. “It made it seem more legit and made it seem like you had more of a stake in that space, whether it was a world or a person,” she remembers. This knowledge would prove useful when she found herself unemployed, with “no actual feature credits or producing credits,” and a brilliant story she wanted to tell. A story that was in the public domain, so technically anyone could tell it. Technically. But Nora needed to prove her stake in the film and TV business.
Graham Moore was obsessed with Alan Turing. Teddy Schwarzman was obsessed with Moore’s script. Alan Turing was obsessed with the idea of a digital computer. And two unemployed TV assistants were obsessed with a story they wanted to tell. Nora’s goal was to find another television executive job, “but I wasn’t quite sure how long it would take and if it would work out.” Ido described his career as stalling: “I’d paid my dues and wasn’t quite cracking through to the next level.”
Ido and Nora have since cracked the code, as they've been nominated for an Academy Award for a film in which, as Ido puts it, “Our intention, really, was to try to do something a little unconventional and nonlinear and hope that people could follow it and that it would result in a coherent story.”
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