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Hack the Planet! Iain Softley on HACKERS at 25

The ‘90s saw the dawn of the internet, a groundbreaking new frontier of information exchange and, for Hollywood, a fertile breeding ground for new stories. The early days were hit or miss. Everything from The Lawnmower Man or The Net struggled to turn it into anything but a source of technofear for suburban adults.

But it’s 1995’s Hackers that gets the spirit of the early days of the internet the most right—or at least, the most interesting. Iain Softley’s raucous tale of hack-happy Gen-X iconoclasts (including future A-listers Jonny Lee Miller, Angelina Jolie, and Matthew Lillard) banding together to liberate a virus stolen from a corporate supercomputer is hyper-dated by today’s standards. Just think of the Jolt cans, the skate parks, Matt Lillard’s braided pigtails.

Even so, Hackers amassed a cult following in the years since its release. That’s largely due to its all-in approach to anthropomorphizing a then-nascent internet. And then there’s its revolutionary soundtrack. It pushed the techno and electronic music genres into newfound popularity in the United States. For its twenty-fifth anniversary, Nerdist sat down with Softley to talk about the film’s legacy, how he conceived its unique perspective on the web, and its iconic soundtrack, which is coming to vinyl from Varèse Sarabande for the first time for the anniversary.

Hackers cast looks at the camera

MGM

Nerdist: What level of involvement or understanding did you have of the hacker and cyberpunk cultures of the time? What attracted you to the project?

Iain Softley: I was sent the script by Rafael Moreu by my agents after the release of [my first feature] Backbeat, which was getting people’s attention in the States. We were in a cuspal moment in culture, when the tectonic plates shifted. I wondered what the next one was going to be. Then I read the script and thought this [culture] could break through in the way it was suggested. I saw it as a new rock and roll, which we made explicit in the clothes and the music. It was a new wave of presenting yourself, the way you spend time with your mates, and the way you’d adventure into this digital landscape.

Of course, Hackers has this incredibly of its time soundtrack. It was one of the first to incorporate house and electronica music into a major motion picture. What was your experience with that style of music before this?

I was already aware of the ambient house music scene which was breaking through in the United Kingdom. It’s great music for film—very evocative, anthemic, and it had great driving beats. At the same time, there’s a mysterious, ethereal quality about it. I just thought, this is like a technological trip. It’s psychedelia, but it’s cyber-delia.

When we were doing Backbeat, we were based in London, and everybody was very up to the minute with the club scene in ‘87-’88, with the whole acid house thing. I was doing music videos at the time, so that was becoming the dominant club music. We were listening to that music a lot; I went with some of the cast of Backbeat to some of those events. I remember seeing Boy George when he’d sort of reinvented himself successfully as a house DJ.

How did you work with composer Simon Boswell to incorporate the score into the film’s soundtrack?

The tracks on the soundtracks by individual artists were almost like score cues themselves. The first big music moment in the film is Jonny Lee Miller arriving in New York, where the top shot of the Manhattan skyscrapers turns into a circuit board, and we use Orbitals “Halcyon + On + On.” It’s describing what you’re seeing and helps to enhance it.

So I would send Simon what I was imagining using, and the temp tracks I was cutting the sequences to. He said that was useful, because he could make sure he didn’t replicate that. And he really was inspired by picking up on the psychedelic references to the tracks, references to “Strawberry Fields Forever” and so on. He took that as his cue and that became the palette. But at the same time, he was careful that it should segue very easily, which is what I wanted. I wanted scenes where you had music you thought was scoring, then you’d realize it was an actual track, and then would segue into Simon’s actual score.

Dade yelling

MGM

How many of the tracks did you pick yourself, and how many of them were working with your music supervisor?

Through all this, I started to talk to a lot of people, really—there was Bob Last, who was the music supervisor on Backbeat. But the music coordinator, who was also my creative assistant, was Carla Wright, who happened to be the girlfriend of Guy Pratt at the time. She was very linked in to that culture, because she had friends who were DJs. I’d tell her, “I like this, I like that,” and she would give me other examples so we could expand out from a few tracks I knew.

Between the three of us, one track led to another. I seem to remember it was organic. One track would be the entry portal to hearing a load of others. And then we’d realized they coincided. Sometimes, we’d put something as a temp piece of music which would end up being something completely different. For example, The Cure did a great cover of “Purple Haze” on a Jimi Hendrix tribute album which I put in for the Grand Central sequence, which eventually Guy Pratt and Dave Gilmour did.

Watching Hackers 25 years later, I’m struck by how, of all the films that tried to figure out how to visualize the internet, yours does it in a way that is deliberately presentational and unrealistic but still gets the essence of what it’s like to be in a digital space.

Yeah, we really went out on a limb. I was just given the opportunity by the studio, United Artists, who approached me and were enthusiastic about seeing what I would do with Hackers. They really encouraged me to let my hair down. They just said, “We want you to bring to this what you brought to Backbeat.” I felt really liberated, and I didn’t self-censor at all.

Simon Boswell says he’s spoken to computer hackers for whom Hackers is a very important film. They actually program on acid. A lot of people in Silicon Valley, who were at the beginning of working out what the web and internet were, were taking the mantle from the Summer of Love guys who wanted to create communes outside the reach of the state. The early days of the internet was the same; they saw themselves as wanting this free environment.

The areas where we were criticized were for being unrealistic, but I wasn’t trying to make a tech film. I wanted to be accurate about what it meant to these kids, what it felt like, the imaginative projection of the fantasy world that this represented for them. I wanted the film to reflect that.

Which brings us to the “City of Text.”You don’t see anything when somebody is hacking. It’s data, it’s naughts and ones. So the challenge for me was to create a parallel environment on which the story could take place. I think I saw an MIT suggestion of a three-dimensional way data could be stacked to make databases easy to navigate. I wanted the inner world to reflect the outer world, to be a parallel or mirror, so I created a digital Manhattan.

But I didn’t want it to be digital, which was very 2D at the time, as text or numbers on a screen. My inspiration in many ways was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, where they’re approaching the space station. [Cinematographer] Andrzej Sekula shot it on 35mm on a slow shutter speed, which means it’s incredibly dense and rich and colorful. We built this huge set on a small stage at Pinewood Studios, probably 50-100 yards long, and we had a motion control camera. We shot it almost like animation; we’d change the text on the cells. But it gives this incredible physical reality, like you’re moving through this three-dimensional world.

Cereal Killer and Acid Burn

MGM

I love that, there’s a beautiful tangibility to it. But you made a point earlier about capturing the freewheeling feeling of youth; it’s a cyberpunk film that emphasizes the punk aspect as much as the cyber. It’s about misfit youth and finding your people, young love, and rebellion. How much did that resonate when you were making it?

It’s kind of a sequel to Backbeat in many ways for that reason—this band of people with tensions, competition, bragging rights, with this shared love of counterculture underneath it. They want to be the best at it, and they show off to each other. They josh each other, they make fun of [Jesse Bradford’s] younger kid, but he’s part of the gang because he’s so smart and doing audacious things. I really wanted them to be like a rock band. So we customized the laptops like guitars; we put stickers on them, which didn’t used to happen at the time. Also, the laptops were like big gray bricks. We got them made in different colors, and that transparent Apple laptop. They all had guitar straps.

As the story progresses, they become this loyal group of friends. They drop their rivalry and then it becomes this very emotional story. Whether it’s Dade and Acid Burn, or Cereal Killer, they all come together and look after each other. When Phantom Phreak gets imprisoned, their motivation is to get him free and find the disk. So I think you’re right. It was as much about hanging out as anything.

Obviously, you got a lot of great actors before they hit big: Jonny Lee Miller, Angelina Jolie, Matthew Lillard. What was it like working with them, especially this early stage in their careers, and seeing where they went afterward?

I auditioned a lot of actors who also went on and became big movie stars. I was looking at people who were 17-18, so by necessity we were looking at people who didn’t have a large body of work, who were just starting their careers. I just showed them tapes and called them back in groups; I decided on Jonny pretty early, and [for Acid] we had about 3-4 shortlist actresses. And we put them all in combinations. I found the DVD of the casting a couple of years ago, and you’ve got Jonny with Actress B, Jonny with Actress C, Angelina with Actor A, and so on. When those two get in the room together, though, it’s unbelievable. Sparks fly.

It’s also interesting to see how Hackers is both prophetic and deeply of its time. Nowadays, there’s still a sense of a digital underground, but there’s a left-wing sense of anarchy in our heroes here, whereas I feel like there’s a rise in reactionary right-wing politics in a lot of the internet presence today.

It’s crazy, you know, the algorithms of the big tech giants. They found a way of making millions and billions off the internet. So the tail has started to wag the dog a bit, but people are making a lot of money out of the tail. I’ve been to tech festivals to show the film. Everybody’s dressed up like Angelina Jolie or Cereal Killer, but they’re high placed in government and tech firms. They see themselves partly as whistleblowers as well; they are the warning light to where this is going, and what can happen with big data, how it has more control than maybe we’re aware. They still have that kind of outlaw, freedom-fighter mentality.

Acid Burn looks over Dade's shoulder

MGM

It’s odd to think of Hackers trying to work in the age of social media. Companies just knowing our real names has seemingly replaced the era of the hacker handle.

Yeah, but you still have organizations like Anonymous who can outsmart anybody. In fact, I was interviewed by Jake Davis at [UK]’s Electromagnetic Field festival, who’s become a spokesperson for the whistleblowing community, while at the same time being employed by a lot of companies, because he knows so much. He was convicted for hacking into a US military mainframe. So that digital underground’s still there and ahead of the curve, though maybe not forever.

“Hack the planet!” has become such a rallying cry. Hackers is a formative text for a lot of people in the hacker and gaming subcultures. How often do you hear that phrase come up on the street?

Oh, all the time. When we did a screening at a tech festival two years ago, they provided the audience with pagers that would go off at the moment they do in the film, and the “hack the planet” moment was a key moment too. People just started shouting it, and it started to echo around the campsite. It’s an enduring slogan.

It’s strange. I’ve had films that have had much more success at the box office than Hackers, and films that had a higher critical reception at the time. But I’ve made ten movies, and none of them has endured as long and had such a committed following. In many ways, that’s more satisfying than having a film that reached a much bigger audience that people would forget about in two-three years’ time.

Featured Image: MGM