Hackers + Revolution + Rollerblades = How Did This Get Made?
On September 15, 1995, MGM released a stylish, cyberspace thriller called Hackers. Two weeks later—following mixed reviews and poor box office numbers—the film was gone from theaters. Yet despite inauspicious start, Hackers has grown to become one of the most beloved films of the 90s. This is a story about the making of that movie and the ambitious filmmakers who, over time, have been vindicated by their hyperkinetic vision.
Hackers Oral History
How Did This Get Made is a companion to the podcast How Did This Get Made with Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael. This regular feature is written by Blake J. Harris, who you might know as the writer of the book Console Wars, soon to be a motion picture produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. You can listen to the Hackers edition of the HDTGM podcast here.
Synopsis: After moving to New York, hacker Dade Murphy (aka “Crash Override”) and his newfound posse of pals discover a plot to unleash a deadly digital threat—the so-called Da Vinci virus—and must use their computer skills to thwart the evil scheme.
Tagline: Their Only Crime was Curiosity
In the latter half of 1995, at the dawn of the digital age, two films came out that dealt heavily with the notion of cyberspace: The Net (starring Speed-survivor Sandra Bullock) and Hackers (starring a then-unknown British actor). The Net grossed over $50 million domestically, while Hackers took in less than $10 million. Yet of the two, Hackers is the one that has withstood the test of time. Why, exactly, did this happen? And, more importantly, what can it tell us about the qualities that may help a movie age well?
Here’s what happened, as told by those who made it happen…
- Mark Abene Hacker
- Dave Buchwald Hacker
- Omar Wasow Hacking Consultant
- John Beard Production Designer
- Simon Boswell Composer
- Jesse Bradford Actor (Joey)
- Jeff Kleeman Executive Vice President of Production (MGM/UA)
- Michael Peyser Producer
- Renoly Santiago Actor (Phantom Phreak)
- Iain Softley Director
- Ralph Winter Producer
In the late 1980’s, an executive from Paramount came to New York and checked into the Algonquin hotel on West 44th Street.
Jeff Kleeman: Another executive from Paramount was staying across the street at The Royalton. It had just been remodeled and he said, “You gotta come in and take a look at this place; it’s really cool looking.” So I go into this vodka and champagne bar they had—where it kind of looked like anything you could sit on might hurt you—and I ordered a drink. The woman behind the bar, she was really nice, and we struck up a conversation. After chatting for a bit I had a dinner I had to get to, but before I left she said, “You know, if you have any free time in New York, I think you and my husband would really get along and we’d be happy to take you to lunch one day.”
Typically, this was not the kind of invitation that Kleeman—or most people, really—would accept. But, on that evening, there was something that piqued his interest.
Jeff Kleeman: It was very bold, but it was also kind of lovely because the thing about living and working in Hollywood—which may be true of any industry—is it gets very insular. And if you’re relatively young like I was, only a few years out of college, you start to feel like your world has shrunk. Instead of meeting people from all over the world—studying every subject imaginable and talking about anything under the sun—all of the sudden, for the past five or six years, all I talked about wasn’t even movies. It was the movie business. So I thought: why not?
Inspired by this unfamiliar burst of possibility, Kleeman agreed to have lunch with the couple a few days later. Little did he know that that this would not only blossom into an unexpected friendship, but it would eventually lead to an unusual movie called Hackers.
Part 1: A Conversation with Phiber Optik
During the late 80s and early 90s, Mark Abene was best known by the handle “Phiber Optik.” Although only a teenager at the time, Phiber Optik was renowned as a world class hacker and a member of two famed hacking groups: The Legion of Doom and Masters of Deception. What follows is a condensed version of a conversation that took place between the two of us on November 23, 2015.
Mark Abene: The thing you have to remember is that computer hacking in the US wasn’t illegal until 1986. Prior to that, it was a great time to be an underground hacker; a great time to explore technology. It was something that not a whole lot of people did or even understood. A kid with a home computer and a modem could gain access to some pretty sophisticated stuff. From there, that kid was really only limited by his own imagination.
Blake Harris: And for you, back then, what types of things captured your imagination?
Mark Abene: Throughout the 80s, I kind of built up a reputation as, let’s say, a guy who can get things done. Really adept at gaining access to systems, specializing in a lot of the internal administrative systems run by the phone company. It might sound crazy today, but we just had a ridiculous respect for the insane bureaucracy that the phone company had created. All the administrative systems and the switching systems that made the whole thing work. It was just this gargantuan network of systems and that it actually worked, and ran well, was just amazing to us. It was basically the largest computer network in the world. So we wanted to know everything about this thing. It was like a game, really. Like Dungeons and Dragons. There was a lingo, a special language that only phone employees understood, and if you could speak that lingo then it was like magical words and phrases.
Blake Harris: You compare it to a game. But unlike a role-playing game or a videogame, there was not “victory,” per se, or final level to what you were doing. So what was it that motivated you?
Mark Abene: The way I try to explain it to people, sort of, is to think of it as the biggest adventure game you could ever imagine. Except it’s real. And the things that you do in the game, they effect the real world. Not in any kind of life or death kind of way, but when you consider that we were basically kids—barely teenagers, growing up in the 80s—we had absolutely no voice in society and we expected that, any moment, we were going to die in a brilliant flash of light. And that was going to be, basically, the end of the world. It’s the absolute truth.
Blake Harris: As in a nuclear war?
Mark Abene: Yeah. Anyone who grew up in the 80s knows what I’m talking about. It’s the horrible thing we choose not to think about anymore. But it was everywhere—in our movies, in our music—and we were expecting that at some point, somebody was going to yell, “duck and cover” and that was going to be the end of that. So it was a really different kind of vibe going on. And online, the underground culture that we created was a society that we created for ourselves, that was separate from what was going on in the outside world. It was an escape from that.
Blake Harris: And in this society, you went by Phiber Optik, right? That was your alias?
Mark Abene: [laughing] No hacker ever referred to himself as having an alias; we weren’t spies! We always referred to our alter egos as handles.
Blake Harris: Ha, okay, gotcha. So as Phiber Optik, I’m curious to hear how you started meeting other people.
Mark Abene: Do you mean online or in person?
Blake Harris: I want to hear about online first.
Mark Abene: Sure. So the first computer I got was a TRS-80. I had 4K of RAM. Not 4 gigs, not 4 megs, but 4K of RAM (which was not anything out of the ordinary back then). At first, I had no way to load or store things, so I’d try to keep the computer on for as long as possible, but ultimately I got a memory expansion—which gave me a total of 20K—and subsequent to that I got a cassette recorder for loading and storing programs. Floppy drives were pretty expensive, so the idea of using cassette tape drive was pretty popular. And then sometime after that, either for a Christmas or a birthday, I got the gift of a modem. A 300-baud modem…
Blake Harris: And where did that allow you to go? The modem.
Mark Abene: I mean, there was no Internet at all when I first got on dial-up. All throughout the 80s really. There were networks, obviously, but those networks were X25, packet-switch networks. They had similarities the Internet, but they were private. So by and large, most people who got modems had a trial account with CompuServe. That was the most common thing. You’d access that on dial-up and everything there was text-based—there was no graphics at all, naturally—and it was ridiculously expensive. Even by 1980s terms. It was a local phone call, but remember all phone calls were metered back then, so you were paying over ten cents a minute to be online in the first place and then on top of that CompuServe was charging something like $6 an hour to be online. So, as you can imagine, I was only on CompuServe for a couple of months. Luckily, within that span of time, I learned several things.
Blake Harris: Like what?
Mark Abene: I found out about BBS’s, bulletin board systems [which, to oversimplify, were like private message boards] I started spending a lot of time on BBS’s and was running up some questionably high phone bills. Since pretty much everyone else was in the same position, one of the first things you’d hear about on of these BBS’s is people talking about how to get around that. These high phone bills. And that’s kind of a rudimentary introduction to phone phreaking. And then from there, you start to learn about computer systems that you can dial into. Mini-computers and mainframes and so on and so forth.
Blake Harris: When you’d dial into places s like that, how hard was it to get access?
Mark Abene: In context, you kind of have to remember that some of these systems didn’t have passwords. If you knew where to dial into and you dialed-in, then you were just there.
Blake Harris: Okay, that makes sense.
Mark Abene: But the thing that kind of goes along with that is that sooner or later you learn what it feels like when somebody changes a password on you. And you no longer have access to that thing that you really enjoyed accessing. And sooner or later you make a decision that you have to learn—and you don’t even know what’s it’s called or what it really is—but what you have to learn is computer security. And how to circumvent it. And that’s really how it begins; wanting to maintain access to whatever the cool thing is that you want to be accessing. For me it was originally mini-computers and mainframes where I could learn how to program and chat with other users and play text adventures on. That’s really how it began.
Blake Harris: And as you mentioned earlier, at this point you were only interacting with these people online. When did you start to actually meet some of them in person?
Mark Abene: That was really a pivotal point that you’re touching on. How do you go from, you know, being an underground hacker—known only by a handle and maybe by a first name to the people you trust most—to lifting the curtain and meeting people in real life? And meeting with these people, in public, when after 1986 the things that you’re doing are ultimately illegal.
Blake Harris: Exactly.
Mark Abene: Well, a good sort of starting place was 2600 [referring to the magazine 2600: The Hacker Quarterly, founded by Eric Corley, best known by the name Emmanuel Goldstein]. Eric started the magazine in 1984 and then, I think it was 1986, he started having monthly meetings. I went to one of the first meetings and there were maybe five people there. And it was basically just the five of us, sitting at a table in a food court in the Atrium at Citccorp building [in New York City, on 53rd and Lex]. Everyone was super paranoid so it was pretty much just people whispering into each other’s ears. I think I went to the first few and then stopped going to the meetings for a while. But around the close of the 80s and beginning of the 90s, when all of us started having our troubles with the law, that’s when I basically decided to start making public appearances. And 2600 was a good rallying point initially.
Blake: Why did you start making public appearances?
Mark Abene: For me personally, it was really coming from a need to speak out. Because I was seeing friends of ours in New York, and guys in other states, who had gotten in trouble with the federal government. We were really concerned that if we didn’t put forward some kind of image of our own, in our own words, somebody else would fill in the blanks and do the talking for us. And it wouldn’t be somebody that we wanted to. Typically, as history has shown us, in the absence of reasonable explanation, you can expect some highly unreasonable agent of the government or federal prosecutor will make some ridiculous claims.
Blake Harris: And I take you were not alone? By this point, there were more than five people showing up at the 2600 meetings?
Mark Abene: Absolutely. By 1991, it was a madhouse. The meetings were still held in the Atrium at Citicorp—we’d meet on the first Friday of every month—but people were coming from all over the world to New York, so all kinds of people used to show up. And a lot of times media people would show up because they wanted a hot story.
Blake Harris: Is that were you first met Rafael Moreu?
Mark Abene: Rafael? Yeah. I remember one particular evening, Rafael showed up. He met me, Eric—you know, Emmanuel Goldstein—and several of our friends, and we went out to dinner in the east village after the meeting.
Blake Harris: With so much at stake, especially around that time, what was it about Raphael that caused you to trust him?
Mark Abene: He was an honest-to-goodness honest guy. Rafael was just one of those guys that you could read his face. And he understood what we were all about. He saw that we weren’t a bunch of pencil-necks. That we were, for all practical intents and purposes, kind of a stylish bunch. Sure, we were highly opinionated, full of bravado, but that bravado was obviously backed up with smarts. Not only technological smarts, but street smarts. The bottom line is that he understood we were a social bunch. And so when he said he wanted to write a movie about us, we wanted to help him in any way we could.
Blake Harris: How did that manifest? When Rafael started writing the script, which obviously became Hackers, what was that relationship like?
Mark Abene: Oh, it was great. He’d come out with us when we went rampaging around the east village and he would invite us over to his house. We would hang out with him and his girlfriend. They lived together and at the time they had a small apartment in the east village. And we would just talk for hours, developing a lot of the story ideas. I mean, the thing that you gotta remember is we put a lot of in-jokes into the movie. Some things didn’t make it in, but a lot of them did. You know, things that we thought were particularly funny that maybe other people didn’t get.
Blake Harris: Like what?
Mark Abene: Literally all kinds of jokes. In the dialogue, plot devices. Everything from the flare gun thing to the fact that the villain was named The Plague. The Plague was actually a friend of ours, Yuri, who consulted with Rafael also. And I developed the whole idea of, see, the Exxon Valdez disaster had just happened—the oil barge had spilled in Alaska—so that was fresh in everyone’s minds still. So one time when I was over at Rafael’s house I said something like, “What if we had this plot device where a computer virus infects oil barges and causes them to topple and spill? And somehow that’s what the hackers are trying to prevent?” So we developed that as like the main underlying part of the story.
Blake Harris: That’s great. Do you remember any other examples?
Mark Abene: Oh yeah. The virus in the movie, you know, the main threat, we named it the “Da Vinci Virus” as a joke. That’s because, just a little before this time, there had been a virus called Michelangelo that was in all the media. And John McAfee—from McAfee anti-virus fame—he was putting forth the latest virus propaganda that hackers had created this virus called Michelangelo that was a logic bomb and a time-bomb that was going to go off on such and such a time and it was, like, going to destroy everyone’s hard-drive. And, of course, nothing ever happened. It was questionable whether or not the virus even existed at all.
Blake Harris: That’s hilarious.
Mark Abene: Yeah. Exactly. Some things didn’t make it in, but a lot of them did. And I don’t remember how long it took, but we became friends with Rafael—we all took part in helping him develop—and I remember reading the final screenplay and thinking it was really cool. He had nailed it.
Raphael Moreau, undoubtedly, was thrilled that those he was writing about found his work to be authentic and entertaining. But now, what he really needed, was someone else in the film business who felt that same way.