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Topic: Full big review of Enigma with a bunch of photographs Return to archive
10-01-01 10:12 AM
CS Yes, it took longer than the second world war... Robert Harris reveals how Mick Jagger and Tom Stoppard finally brought his book to the big screen

Winning formula: Kate Winslet in Enigma
Click here to see a photo gallery of
scenes from the movie

Enigma in the making

How Bletchley park helped win the war | Love in a code climate
There are, famously, two old and golden rules for any writer selling a book to the movies. Number one: take the money and run. Number two: expect nothing, and you will not be disappointed.

It was in this healthily sceptical spirit, nearly six years ago - a time span as long as the second world war - that I accepted an offer from Paramount for an 18-month option on the film rights to my novel Enigma. I didn't think anything would come of it. It rarely does. How many times do you read that X has sold his or her book to Hollywood, and that Julia Roberts or George Clooney - no, really, honestly - will be signed up any day to play the lead? And how often does the movie ever actually get made? I'd guess about one time in 20.

Enigma, if anything, seemed more of a long shot than most. Could one honestly imagine a feature film about a group of British mathematicians, set mostly in a wooden hut, in the blackout, in Buckinghamshire, in 1943? The novel is deliberately, almost defiantly old-fashioned. There's no violence, except for a couple of gunshots towards the end. There's no swearing. The sex scenes are fleeting. There's a lot of arcane stuff about cryptanalysis. Who would put up £17m to make a film out of that?

Besides, although the initial development money was being advanced by Paramount, the impetus for the project came from two unlikely producers. One was Lorne Michaels, known chiefly for Wayne's World and the US television show Saturday Night Live. The other, even more bizarrely, was Mick Jagger, who had decided to try his hand at making films, and had set up a company called Jagged Films.

The irresistible conclusion was that everyone would lose interest and the whole thing would sink into the mysterious land of the living dead that Hollywood calls "turnaround". I took the money. And if I didn't run exactly, I expected nothing.

The first indication that I might be wrong came on a Sunday lunchtime two weeks later, when I was summoned to Chelsea Harbour, to the penthouse apartment of Tom Stoppard. My host gave me a glass of white wine from Fortnum & Mason (ominously, he took nothing himself) and directed me to a low blue sofa, before taking up station behind a desk high above me. Stoppard, I knew, was a friend of Mick Jagger. And Jagger, I'd been told, wanted him to write the screenplay. This would put Enigma into an entirely different category. Stoppard scripts are eagerly read by directors and actors.

Stoppard scripts, unlike most, tend to get filmed.

He looked down at me over the top of a pair of half-moon spectacles. He had, he said, a six-month gap at the beginning of next year when he could fit in writing a screenplay. He had read my novel not once, but three times. He liked it, but he felt there were problems. Many problems. He had made a list. He showed me several pages, densely filled with alarmingly tiny handwriting.

For two hours, he cross-examined me. Why did a character do this and then do that? Was this scene credible? Would someone really have thought that then? "Oh, come on," he said at one point, "that's bollocks, isn't it?" Although his tone was one of unrelenting,

if good-humoured, antagonism, it gradually dawned on me that he wouldn't be going to all this trouble if he hadn't more or less made up his mind to do it. The poor chap obviously had caught the same bug I had. There is something about the story of what happened at Bletchley Park that gets under your skin. I'm not sure what it is exactly: something to do with brains overcoming muscle, with the idea of all these ill-assorted people - the debutantes and the grammar-school boys, the chess players and the scholars of medieval romance - thrown together in a country house and changing the course of history.

At three that afternoon, he sent me on my way in a taxi, still noncommittal. At 10 that evening, suddenly full of enthusiasm, he rang to say he'd write the script.

Bletchley Park (or BP, or The Park, or Station X, as it was variously known) is an unprepossessing red-brick mansion surrounded by dilapidated huts in what is now the outer suburbs of Milton Keynes. At its peak, it employed 10,000 people, with another 30,000 servicing it from outstations and listening posts around the world. I first went there in 1992, when I started researching Enigma. By the time the book was finished, I had spent many hours there, wandering around alone.

The broad outline of the Enigma secret had been public for nearly 20 years by then: that reading the Nazis' codes had enabled the allies to beat Rommel in North Africa, to divert convoys around the U-boats in the Atlantic, and to be assured that the D-Day landings would be unopposed; it's reckoned to have shortened the war by two years. But what I needed to write a novel was not the grand strategy. I needed to know what a code-breaker physically did: what was the procedure? Where did he hang his hat and coat in the morning? What did the place feel like in the darkness, with 3,000 people going on shift at midnight, and 3,000 people heading home?

This information is easy to find now, but a decade ago, people were still surprisingly wary of talking. There's a famous story about a woman who knew the Enigma secret and who suffered a brain haemorrhage in the early 1970s: her chief concern as she was carried off to hospital was that, in her delirium, she might start babbling about Bletchley Park. Once that level of security-consciousness has become ingrained, it's very hard to erase it.

My great advantage was that a few of the key figures were still alive: Harry Hinsley, who had pioneered the art of signals traffic analysis and had ended up as master of St John's College, Cambridge; Stuart Milner-Barry, chess correspondent of The Times, who had been head of Hut 6, in charge of decoding Germany army and Luftwaffe Enigma; and Joan Murray, one of the few women cryptanalysts, who had briefly been engaged to Alan Turing. ("One day he told me he was homosexual. It didn't matter to me, but it did to him.") All helped me; all, alas, have since died.

I decided to set my novel during one of the most dramatic episodes in Bletchley's history: the week, in the spring of 1943, when the German navy changed one of its code books and the cryptanalysts briefly lost the ability to break Shark, the cipher of the U-boats - a catastrophe that occurred exactly as the two largest convoys of the war left New York. Around this, I built a fictional story of a code-breaker whose former lover vanishes. He discovers that she has been stealing undecoded intercepts.

If he can break the messages, he can find out what has happened to her - and whether her disappearance is connected to the loss of Shark. I didn't want Enigma to be a wham-bam thriller. I wanted it to be a mystery, on several layers, the unravelling of which would mirror the cracking of the code.

Trying to write it was probably the worst experience of my professional life. It took me three years, full time. Mathematics and ciphers are intractable things. They don't fit easily into a readable narrative. But at least I had the luxury of 400 pages to play with, and the comfort of knowing that my readers could go back and study a paragraph twice. That's not possible for a cinema audience, watching a film in which everything is crammed into two hours. No wonder Stoppard had been nervous.

About three months after our first meeting, he rang and asked if I could show him round Bletchley Park. Michael White, the British producer who had been responsible for involving

Lorne Michaels, also came along. So did Mick Jagger. We met beforehand in a local pub for one of life's more memorable ploughman's lunches - Jagger's arrival, complete with bodyguard, in the busy public bar provoking one of those stunned silences that usually only happen in westerns.

He was not at all what I had expected. My vague prejudice that he was just a rock star indulging himself in a new hobby was dispelled almost from the moment he opened that famous mouth. For one thing, he seemed to have read every important book that had been published about Enigma. And he was serious. When we arrived at the Park - to the astonishment of a visiting busload of pensioners - he produced a video camera and filmed everything he was shown: the huts, the wireless sets, the replica of Colossus (the first computer), an Enigma machine.

It took Tom 12 weeks to write the script. One weekend, he came to stay with us in the country, arriving on the Saturday night, bearing as a gift for the children a mechanical parrot that repeated the last few words that were said to it. I came down to breakfast the next morning to find him already at the table, with the children and the parrot all gabbling away in a kind of parody of a Stoppardian scene.

His working schedule, to judge by the time of his phone calls to me (which were almost daily), started late and extended deep into the night. He was far more protective of the novel than I was, agonising over possible changes. Should the film open in November 1942, when Bletchley started reading Shark, or in the spring of 1943, when they lost it? Should there be a pretitle sequence showing the two British seamen, Fasson and Grazier, who died retrieving the vital Enigma code books from a sinking U-boat? And then there were the details to get right. Would my hero, a Cambridge mathematician, have had a room or rooms at university? Could an Enigma machine have been hooked up to a car battery? And so on.

The first draft was finished in May: brilliant and complicated - more complex even than the novel - like a fugue, or a game of 3-D chess. But was it filmable? The consensus was that it would need to be simplified before Paramount would give the production the green light. The Cambridge opening was dropped. A more thrillerish end was devised.

In the autumn, Tom rang to say that John Goldwyn, the executive producer assigned to the project by Paramount, had declared that he liked the new script so much, he was urging Sherry Lansing, the boss of the studio, to go ahead and assign a director. The chances of Enigma being made, Tom estimated, had accordingly risen from roughly 4% to 51%. Shooting could conceivably begin in the spring.

That was five years ago.

In December 1996, Mick Jagger and his then wife, Jerry Hall, gave a party at their house on Richmond Hill. It was just a small affair: 100 guests, a string quartet, Elton John and Richard Gere, a private army of bodyguards and a scrum of photo- graphers. The flash of the cameras every time a celebrity arrived lit the drawing room as if by lightning.

My function was to chat up the Australian director Phillip Noyce, one of a number of big-name directors - the others included Michael Mann and Sydney Pollack - to whom the screenplay had been sent. Noyce, a shambling, ursine figure, had directed two of the Tom Clancy movies, Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger. He was in the middle of making The Saint. He had been intrigued enough to make several pages of notes on the script, but in the end, he said, it wasn't for him. It was too complex, too English. He wasn't sufficiently attuned to the social nuances. In his view, the film would need a British director.

Chasing the game: Dougray Scott
Of course, he was right. In this respect, looking back on the long struggle to get the film made, Mick Jagger's celebrity may have been a two-edged sword. Almost any director or actor in the world would return his calls. But in the end, they wouldn't make the film: Enigma wasn't really a Hollywood product.

Yet he wouldn't give up. I rem-ember, that night, Jagger introducing me to Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones drummer. "So you're the f***er who's responsible," he said to me. "I'm sick of hearing about f***ing Enigma. It's all he ever talks about - who says what to who in what scene where."

As I was leaving, I met a smooth, handsome man who had just flown in from Los Angeles. This was John Goldwyn, the Paramount executive, who loved us - loved the script, loved the story, loved everything. He put his hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eyes. "Have faith," he said, in a read-my-lips voice. "We. Will. Make. This. Movie."

"Now I know we're in trouble," said Tom afterwards.

Ridley Scott turned the film down. Peter Weir passed. Mike Newell declined. The general election of 1997 came and went. Paramount pulled out (with losses, I was told later, of £2m). Mick Jagger started touring Hollywood studios trying to sell Enigma, and another pet project, based on the life of Dylan Thomas's wife, Caitlin. One executive told him they liked it a lot, but could they make her the poet instead of him?

This is fairly standard Hollywood procedure: shift the location and alter the characters until whatever it was that had made the story interesting in the first place is buried. Tom Stoppard knew of a screenplay based on the true story of a black GI who, driven mad by racial prejudice, had gone on the rampage and killed three people in wartime England; the producers made the GI white, describing this as "a slight shift of emphasis". Perhaps Enigma might go the same way: filmed in Kansas, and set during the Korean war?

Amid the gloom, there were two faint sources of hope. One was the interest of a film sales company, Intermedia, which took over from Paramount. The other was the arrival of an enthusiastic director. Michael Apted was not only experienced (Coal Miner's Daughter, Gorky Park, Gorillas in the Mist), not only British (responsible for Granada's Seven Up television series), he was even born during the war, not far from Bletchley. If anyone was attuned to the story, Apted was.

In October 1997, he finally met Tom Stoppard in Los Angeles, and they agreed on yet more changes to the script. Five months later, Tom finished the third version of the screenplay. How much he was by now wishing he'd never set eyes on me, he was always too polite to say. In the summer of 1998, he and Apted had another meeting in London to discuss the revised script, and a speakerphone was rigged up so I could join in from home. Their voices were hollow. It was difficult for me to hear. "You sound as though you're at the bottom of a lavatory," I said.

"Metaphorically," said Tom, "that's roughly where we are."

The script was sent to Winona Ryder. She turned it down. Inter- media was finding it hard to raise the money to finance the film, now budgeted at about £13.5m: cheap by Hollywood standards; a fortune for an independent company, without the backing of a studio, trying to sell a movie with limited box-office appeal in the United States.

In November 1998 - three years to the day since I had first been approached to sell the film rights - a crisis meeting was called at Blakes Hotel in South Kensington. Apart from me, there were four others in the room: Jagger and his partner in Jagged Films, Victoria Pearman; Tom, who was fretting about the transfer of his latest play to the Haymarket Theatre; and Michael Apted, who had just accepted an offer to direct the new James Bond film.

This was my first meeting with the preternaturally calm Apted. If he looked, for once, slightly strained, he had good reason. The Bond film was due to open in precisely a year's time, and there was as yet no script and no title (it later became The World Is Not Enough). All he knew for certain was that it would involve blowing up an oil refinery in Baku.

So, although we now had a script, we still had no star and no money, and now the director would be out of commission for at least 12 months.

Another year passed.

On the night of Wednesday, November 24, 1999, I went to the Naval and Military Club in St James's Square for the Literary Review Bad Sex Award. I was not a contestant, I hasten to add: it was just a famously good party, benignly presided over by Auberon Waugh.

Unexpectedly, in the packed and sweaty mass, I ran into Tom Stoppard, who cupped his hand to my ear and shouted an extraordinary piece of news. The commercial and technical success of the new Bond film had suddenly made Michael Apted a much more "bankable" director. A German company, Senator Films, had agreed to put up almost all of the budget. (This is one of the great paradoxes about Enigma: not a penny of British money has been invested in this quintessentially British movie.) Shooting would begin in May. They had even found a star.


"He's called Dougray Scott."

"I've never heard of him."

"Well, neither have I, actually. But he's big. Or he's going to be. He's going to play the villain opposite Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible 2." Tom paused. "You don't mind if we call the movie Enigma: Mission Impossible 3, do you?"


"Good. I didn't think you would."

Suddenly, the luck that had been running against us for four years began to turn in our favour. There are four big parts in Enigma. There is Tom Jericho, the code-breaker, who is trying to break the U-boat code and at the same time find his missing girlfriend: he would be played by Scott, who took the part so seriously, he spent several months researching Bletchley. There is the icily beautiful girlfriend, Claire: to play her, Apted eventually settled on the model and actress Saffron Burrows. There is the smooth and duplicitous intelligence officer, Wigram - in many ways the best part in the movie - which went to Jeremy Northam.

And then there is Hester, Claire's dowdy but spirited best friend. She is a key character, more so in the film than in the novel, because it is her relationship with Jericho that becomes the main motor of the story. In February 2000, the part was offered to, and accepted by, Natasha Little. Then the producers heard that Kate Winslet was pregnant, would have to pull out of a long-term project she was involved in, but would be free to do something immediately, provided the filming was over by May, when the baby would begin to show.

She was sent the script of Enigma: read it, liked it. Natasha Little was paid her full fee, and the part of Hester went instead to Kate. This may seem ruthless and unfair; in many ways, it was. But by this time, everyone connected with Enigma had learnt the hard way that the whole process of getting a movie made is ruthless and unfair.

Kate Winslet is a star. I write that, although I'm not at all sure that I know what makes a star exactly - some larger-than-life compound of talent and glamour, some quirk of the bone structure or liveliness of the face that the camera catches - but whatever it is, if you get a chance to attach your movie to one of these heavenly phenomena, you cannot let it pass. Certainly, whatever other deficiencies Enigma may have suffered from, one thing it has never lacked since she became involved is publicity.

The shooting of Enigma started in April last year, not at Bletchley Park - which was felt, in that peculiar way of the movies, to look insufficiently like itself - but at a nearby mansion, Chichely Hall. By June, the filming was more or less finished, and one Saturday night a group of us, including Winslet, Northam, Scott and Apted, gathered in Jagger's study to watch a 20-minute rough assembly. (In true movie-mogul fashion, a screen descended from the ceiling.)

I liked what I saw, and have gone on liking it more and more ever since, as assemblies of rough footage have given way over the months to cast screenings, private screenings and premieres. I don't think it's perfect, any more than the novel is. In a curious way, it has many of the characteristics of Bletchley Park itself.

Enigma is not merely an old-fashioned British film: it is an unfashionable British film. There are no sawn-off shotguns. No heads are blown off. Vinnie Jones is nowhere to be seen. It is peopled almost entirely by white, middle-class, well-educated intellectuals. Its story is elusive, even serpentine. It demands more concentration than the average blockbuster. Yet it has plenty of Buchanesque touches: a moonlit cottage, a car chase down a country lane, a fight on a steam train. It has a wonderfully melodic and haunting soundtrack by John Barry: how recherché can you get?

I wouldn't like to predict what people will make of it. Maybe they'll simply be baffled by it. Or maybe, in these suddenly dark and uncertain times, it will provide a nostalgic reminder of a different, more united, more communal experience of war: of blackouts and Benny Goodman, of double helpings of whalemeat in canteens thick with cigarette smoke.

The one thing that has surprised me is how emotionally involved with it I've become. The glib cynicism of six years ago - "Take the money and run", etc - has given way to gratitude for all the talent that has gone into it, and respect for the sheer determination that eventually got it made. Whatever its fate at the box office, it will, I think, last - introducing a whole new generation to the extraordinary achievement of the code-breakers of Bletchley Park. The only pity is that there aren't more of them alive to see it.

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