Once upon a time, a simpler time, when kids had attention spans that lasted longer then a thirty second tik-tok video and people drove their cars while paying attention to the road and not with their heads down scrolling through instagram videos, a world before everything we could ever want or need to know was right in our pocket. For some of you, that world sounds like ancient times, but for those of us of a certain age, that world really wasn’t so long ago. Allow me to take you back to the year 1995 when a new-ish thing called the Internet was becoming more mainstream (here would be a good spot to drop in that Katie Couric/ Bryant Gumble clip “What is the internet?”) It was a time when you would have to ask your parents to not use the phone for twenty minutes so you could get online followed by that annoying sound your computer made while it connected. But it was also the beginning of something, a new way of life that only a select few had embraced and it was time for Hollywood to take notice. It is time we update our passwords from Love, Sex, Secret and God and take a deep dive into one of the most quintessentially 90’s movies ever made and find out just WTF Happened to Hackers (1995)!
Although most of us only became familiar with cyberspace in the 90’s, it had actually been around since the 60’s when Steve Crocker sent the first ARPANET or Advanced Research Projects Agency Network message from UCLA to Stanford on October 29, 1969. For the next 14 years, access to the ARPANET was limited to only a select few academic and research organizations who had contracts with the Defense Department. It wouldn’t be until January 1, 1983 when the true rise of the internet began as that is considered the official “birthday” of the internet when a new communication protocol was established Transfer Control Protocol/ Internetwork Protocol which would allow different computers on different networks to “talk” to each other.
With this new age of digital communication among us, it wouldn’t be long before people found a way to exploit the universal connectivity, but it wasn’t old men sitting in smoke filled dungeonous basements, it would be kids barely able to shave their faces that would embrace this new technology. For many of them it was seen as an escape from the real world when the threat of an attack on the US was a real worry. Schools would practice duck and cover drills to prepare for a potential attack from Russia, so hacking was a way to block out the noise of the real world.
In 1984, Eric Corley, better known as Emmanuel Goldstein in a not so veiled reference to George Orwell’s 1984, launched the magazine 2600: The Hacker Quarterly. By 1986, the year the Government officially made “hacking” an illegal activity, fans of the magazine would begin having in person get togethers in the atrium of the Citibank Building in New York City. These meetings had humble beginnings of only a few people for the first few years but by the early 90’s, people would fly in from all over the world to attend these underground meet ups. Two people who would attend these meetings in the early 90’s were Mark Abene who went by the handle Phiber Optic and a man named Rafael Moreu, who wasn’t a hacker, but an aspiring screenwriter who wanted to write a script about the burgeoning counter culture of hackers. It would seem logical that this group of underground hackers would want to keep their lifestyles private, but it was actually quite the opposite. Moreu, Abene and Goldstein would all go out to dinner after the meetings with Moreu building up a trust in them that his intentions were to write an accurate depiction of their lifestyles because at that time, Hackers were making headlines for being arrested and their stories were being told by the federal government to make them out as bad guys, so they felt they needed to come out of the shadows to make sure no one else was telling their stories.
Over the next few months Moreu, Abene and Goldstein would continue to meet up with other Hackers in the east village of New York and just talk about their lives, developing story ideas, telling true stories and inside jokes that would make there way into the film such as the time they really did fire a flare gun at a security booth when dumpster diving for shredded documents and even naming the bad guy The Plague after one of their close friends who used that handle. At the time the Exxon Valdez oil spill had just happened in Alaska and it was during one of these hang out sessions when the idea of using a computer virus to capsize an oil barge came up. Even the virus in the film, The Da Vinci Virus is an in joke to a real virus called the Michelangelo virus that famed anti-virus and criminal John McAfee had became famous for as he spoke to numerous media outlets blaming hackers for the virus that was a time bomb virus rumored to take out the entire computing worlds hard drives. Ultimately that never happened and many believe that McAfee made up the entire thing as a way to boost sales in his anti-virus software.
When Moreu finished his script, he let all of the hackers he had collaborated with read it first, they all loved it and found it extremely authentic, but now it was time to find a way to get the script into the hands of someone who could make it into an actual film.
Across town a man named Jeff Kleeman who was an executive with Paramount at the time, decided one night to grab a drink at the hotel bar. The bartender was a young lady named Kristin and the two struck up a strictly platonic conversation where they talked about their relationships and other topics. When Kleeman was about to leave, Kristin said to him that he and her husband would probably get along really well and they should all grab lunch someday soon. Kleeman says that isn’t the type of thing he would normally do, but since he was so used to the West Coast world where all everyone does is talk about Hollywood, he was actually looking forward to the opportunity to meet some normal people. So he accepted her invite and over the course of the next few years the three of them became close friends, meeting up whenever Kleeman was in New York and even inviting him to Thanksgiving dinner. It would be at this Thanksgiving dinner when Kristin’s husband, Rafael Moreu would tell Kleeman about how he had been putting together a spec script about the world of computer hackers and asked if he would read it, which he did, and he loved it. By this time, 1992, Kleeman had left Paramount and was working for Francis Ford Coppola’s company American Zoetrope. Kleeman would bring the script to Coppola who also loved it. Kleeman would pull some strings and get Moreu an agent with William Morris who would call him a few days later and tell him they got a competing offer from another producer and unless they had a better offer they were going to sell the script to that producer which really annoyed Kleeman as he had pulled all of the strings to get Moreu an agent because he didn’t want to make the deal directly with Moreu as he didn’t want, in hindsight, for it to seem like he had taken advantage of his friendship. Kleeman decided that he didn’t like the way the agent was playing her cards and told her that if that is how they want to play it, after he brought them the client, than just go with the other producer.
The other producer was a man named Michael Peyser who had produced such films as Desperately Seeking Susan, Ruthless People, The Distinguished Gentleman and Camp Nowhere. He saw the film as a modern day version of The Conversation, telling a story about how people will lose their identity to the emergence of the internet age. But as things go in Hollywood, the film would languish in peril for a few years until Jeff Kleeman was asked to come back on the project, telling them the only way he would come back was if the William Morris agent that screwed him over in the past was not a part of it. Rafael Moreu would get a new agent and Kleeman, who was now an executive at MGM/ United Artist would bring the script to the head of the company, John Calley, who loved it. Peyser would remain on the film as a producer but would ultimately depart just prior to filming as the decision was made by Kleeman and Calley to bring in a producer who was more tech savvy and familiar with visual effects. Peyser said he saw the film as a more grounded love story that focused on the fallacy of identity, whereas the film that everyone else wanted to make was about the counter culture world and where it was heading.
While the script was being secured for United Artist, the Sundance Film Festival was about to go on. United Artist would get a sneak preview of one of that years big entries, a film about the early days of The Beatles titled Backbeat directed by an up and coming filmmaker named Iain Softley. Kleeman says that while watching Backbeat, he got that same feeling he got when first reading the script for Hackers. It spoke to a counter culture generation, whereas Backbeat was about music and the past, Hackers was about technology and the future. So Kleeman called up Softley’s agent and made a great offer for a filmmaker with no big studio experience. They offered him a pay or play deal essentially saying that if Softley said yes, they made the film without question… and Softley said yes! Which was kind of a big get as Backbeat had been gaining great momentum at the festival and Softley was receiving a number of screenplays to choose from for his next project but Softley says he chose Hackers because he liked the fairy tale like story telling mixed with this new world feel of the internet age, but even more intriguing was the fact that it was a go picture that already had the support of the head of the studio. A lot of times a film can get so far down the line and ultimately never happen, but with Hackers, he knew if he signed on, the film would get made.
With the behind the camera pieces all set, it was time to cast the film. They would set up offices in New York, Los Angeles and London with Softley focused on finding a lead actor that you were completely captivated by. Enter Jonny Lee Miller who had never starred in a feature film before but had earned a solid reputation on the London stages and on BBC television since he was 9 years old. Softley says that in the audition, they knew instantly that Miller was their Dade Murphy aKa Crash Override. Finding a female lead was a bit tougher. They would fly Miller to New York to read with several actresses including future big names like Hilary Swank, Heather Graham, Liv Tyler and Katherine Heigl who reportedly was offered the role but had to decline due to commitments with Under Siege 2: Dark Territory. But then they saw Miller read with an actress who had just come off the direct to video title Cyborg 2. Her name was Angelina Jolie and Softley says that the instant he saw the pair read together the chemistry was palpable, which makes sense as the pair fell in love while making the film and would be married shortly after filming wrapped with Jolie wearing a white t-shirt to the wedding with Miller’s name written on the back in her own blood. They would divorce in 1999, but remain good friends, as evident by the fact that every time Jolie gets divorced, there are paparazzi photographs of Jolie and Miller together! But that real life romance almost never happened: John Calley was hesitant to cast two unknowns as the leads of a big Hollywood film, sometimes you need a big name to get people in the seats, something they would go up against when the film opened. Jeff Kleeman fought hard for the casting, saying sometimes you need to lose the marquee star to cast the right people for the roles. Calley, being a good boss, trusted the people he hired and let him and Softley cast the film as they saw fit. Softley says he was eternally grateful to Kleeman and Calley for backing him and says that obviously history has proved the casting was the right choice.
The rest of the rag tag group of hackers would be filled with people who had been brought in to read for the role of Dale Murphy before Miller was cast including people like Matthew Lillard as Emmanuel Goldstein aKa Cereal Killer, Jesse Bradford as Joey and his real life mother as his mother in the film. Renoly Santiago would be cast after having two auditions to play Robin in Batman Forever and while at the audition the casting director pulled out the script for Hackers that he thought looked cool because the cover sheet had computer code on it, so she gave him the script to read and after switching casting directors for the film would ultimately get the call for the street smart Ramon Sanchez aKa Phantom Phreak. They would fill out the other side of the coin, the bad guys, with more seasoned performers such as future Academy Award winner Fisher Stevens as head of security Eugene Belfort aKa The Plague who Stevens later said was originally meant to be played by Quentin Tarantino, and Academy Award nominee Lorraine Bracco as his accomplice Margo Wallace while the rest of the cast would be filled out with a batch of familiar faces such as Felicity Huffman as a prosecutor, Wendall Pierce as a Secret Service Agent, Penn Jillette as an internet security officer and Latin Pop superstar Marc Anthony as a young Secret Service Agent. At the time Anthony was already a massive superstar in Latin America that when he went off to film Hackers there were reports that he had died because he had been out of the public eye for so long. Anthony would have to go on TV to clarify that he was indeed still alive, just off making a movie.
To prepare for their roles, the actors would spend a few weeks together becoming friends and learning to roller blade while also attending the same hacker meetings in the Citibank building that writer Rafael Moreu attended when crafting the script. There they would meet a lot of the real life hackers that would become consultants on the film including a young Nicholas Jarecki who once hacked Penn & Teller’s website at the age of 12 years old, after hacking superfan, and future Hackers cast member, Penn Jillette set up a contest to see who could hack their website the fastest. Jarecki would go on to be a respected filmmaker in his own right, writing 2008’s The Informers and directing 2012’s Arbitrage. He credits Hackers with inspiring him to become a filmmaker. One hacking consultant who couldn’t make it to the film was Mark Abene aKa Phiber Optic, one of the people responsible for helping the script be as good as it was, because in 1994, when he was just 22 years old, he was serving a one year prison sentence for computer related crimes that would ultimately have Time magazine dumb him the first underground hero of the information age, the Robin Hood of cyberspace.”
Filming would take place in Tribeca, Battery Park City and the East Village neighborhoods of Manhattan in November 1994 before going to London to finish shooting. Hacking consultant Emmanuel Goldstein says that he sometimes felt bad for Angelina Jolie because she seemed to be really hard on herself during filming, making sure to get every last detail perfect. The script would sometimes change on the fly as sometimes the dialog just didn’t ring true with consultant Dave Buchwald saying it just sounded like techno babble, so he would go to the director to give the correct way of saying something and that would sometimes upset Jolie as she had spent a lot of time learning the lines that were written, however Softley says that Jolie always adapted as she truly wanted everything to be as authentic as possible. Matthew Lillard said that Jonny Lee Miller and Angelina Jolie were great leaders for the rest of the cast as they came to set everyday prepared and ready to work
And whereas the visual effects in the film may look like they were done in post production using CGI, the fact is that in 1994, technology just wasn’t there yet. Director Iain Softley said he wanted to visualize how hackers felt when hacking into something, not just seeing words on a screen but a “city of text” as he called it. So they hired John Beard who had done a lot of the practical effects on Brazil and he would build the towers of code you see and the vast cyberspace landscapes meant to look like a futuristic highway, shooting them with motion controlled cameras to achieve a look and feel that although not fully authentic, sure looked awesome on camera!
Once the film had completed filming, it was time to put it together and find the perfect sound to match with the futuristic look of the film. Luckily, director Iain Softley was from the UK and had his ear to the ground when it came to the burgeoning electronic scene. They would secure tracks from bands that were on the cusp of breaking out but still seen as underground artists such as Prodigy, Left Field, Orbital, The Underworld and even an early Radiohead track while they would bring on Simon Boswell to compose the score that was meant to have an almost dreamlike feel to it.
The marketing department at MGM/ United Artist was scared of the film, not knowing how to show the audience what the movie was. At the time there weren’t that many films about hacking culture and the ones that were released showed the hackers to be the bad guys. After setting up a website that not surprisingly was hacked (wihcih you can read about in SlashFilm’s excellent Oral History of the film), they actually suggested to the studio that they hold back the release of the film in order for the other films about computers and technology that were scheduled to be released that same year such as Johnny Mnemonic, Virtuosity and The Net to release first and set the tone for their marketing. Kleeman says that waiting for those films to release was a mistake because by the time Hackers hit theaters it already felt stale, like they were following a trend and not starting one.
Released on September 15, 1995 on 1812 screens, Hackers would open with a horrible $3.2 million, finishing in fourth place behind the second weekend of To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar; the opening weekend of Spike Lee’s Clockers and the sixth weekend of Dangerous Minds, which coincidentally also featured Renoly Santiago. Luckily it wouldn’t have the bragging rights to the worst new release of the week as it opened far better than the film Angus which tanked with just $1.9 million. But it wasn’t just audiences that didn’t respond to the film when it was initially released, critics were also lukewarm on it. They called the film stylish but said that it lacked any real substance. Roger Ebert was one of the few critics who actually gave the film a decent review when he said it was smart and entertaining as long a you don’t take the computer stuff too seriously, comparing it to about as serious as he took the archeology in Indiana Jones. The film would only play in theaters for two weeks before being yanked, accumulating just $7.5 million off a reported $20 million budget. It would seem Kleeman was right, as Hackers pulled in less than Johnny Mnemonic with $19 million, Virtuosity with $24 million and The Net with $49.5 million, of course all of those films had big name talent headlining their films.
But sometimes the box office doesn’t tell the whole story, sometimes a film can be released and no-one seems to notice or care and then something happens, that film finds new life. One person sees it and tells a friend to see it who tells another friend to see it and so on and so forth. In the case of Hackers, it may have lost the box office battle against those other films, but it has won the war. I don’t think Virtuosity had screenings across the globe for its 20th anniversary celebration, did it?! The Net is more remembered for its run of the mill plot line and over serious tone while Johnny Mnemonic is… alright, Johnny Mnemonic is still pretty awesome! Director Iain Softley says that they knew while making the movie that they were making a film for the future, as if they knew that contemporary audiences weren’t quite ready for the film, which makes sense when you consider that in 1995, only about 14% of homes in America had access to the internet.
Ultimately what has helped this movie stand the test of time is the fact that despite some of the visuals that didn’t exactly ring true, real life hackers say that it is the most authentic film about hacking ever made. Which is kind of evident now that we know the amount of research and time the writer put into crafting the script. Hackers say that they love the fact that the main characters are all likable in the film, that it depicted who they were better than any other film about hacking had in the past or has in the years since. The hacking consultants on the film even love the negative comments about the movie that say the characters were all fake and not like real people, they say that always makes them laugh because the characters were all essentially 100% based on them and how they were in the early 90’s.
The film has continued to have fan screenings over the years including a 20th anniversary screening in 2015 that saw director Iain Softley and star Jonny Lee Miller show up to do a Q&A where Softley said he felt the reason the film did so poorly when it was released was because it played to the teenage population, the ones who were embracing the new technology, and not to the ones who were writing the reviews, and as those teenagers grew up, so did the popularity of the film. When asked why the film resonates so much with todays internet culture, people say that the film didn’t take itself too seriously. It got enough right, including the premise of many of the hacks involved in the film, and most importantly the culture of hacking, that they could forgive the more dramatic flourishes the director took. The camaraderie of the group was reminiscent of how hackers of the time and in the years since actually are. They are not malicious, more playful. And of course they still love shouting the films catchphrases such as “HACK THE PLANET!”
But one scene most hackers point to as being the quintessential scene in the movie is when Dade gets the sprinklers to go off in the school. It may seem like an unimportant scene in the film, but for many it perfectly showcased how the virtual world can have physical real world impact.
For as much as people say the film got wrong and how “outdated” it feels, it actually was quite prescient in predicting future technology. It predicts On Demand TV with the scene in the beginning where Dade hacks the TV network to play the show he wants to watch, The Plague is seen playing a virtual reality game which would predict such future virtual gaming devices as Oculus. And perhaps the biggest predictor of all: hacking may seem like an underground activity, but in reality the heads of security for nearly every major company in the world are run by former hackers who know about all of the vulnerabilities of a companies online security. Even our government uses hackers to secure our cyber world, so much so that ex head of the FBI James Comey once joked that they hire so many hackers to fight cyber criminals that they need to relax the rule against smoking marijuana to expand their applicant field.
Our world has been affected so much by the rise of the internet, but it is safe to say that without a film like Hackers, I’m not sure we live in the same world. Not only did it touch on a future that was just right around the corner, it inspired many of the world’s next great thinkers and innovators. Whether that be people who have developed life changing apps to the creators of such zeitgeist entertainment as The Matrix, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Mr. Robot. The film Hackers isn’t just a cult hit with a tremendous soundtrack, it was the voice of a new generation and although it didn’t garner the respect it deserved in its time, it has gone on to be one of the most important films ever made. And THAT is WTF Happened to Hackers!
Originally published at https://www.joblo.com/hackers-1995-what-happened/