According to Kor Adana, writer and technical consultant for USA’s hacker drama “Mr. Robot,” “if the hack is not feasible in real life it doesn’t get into our scripts” — although he does admit that “we do fudge the timing a lot, and we are very selective of what steps we choose to show.”
The question of realism in the depiction of hackers was the central theme of a panel discussion held on Monday night at Google Venice, called “Real vs. Reel: Hacking on Screen.” From the storytelling side, Adana was joined by Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers, showrunners of AMC’s criminally underrated “Halt and Catch Fire,” and Sarah Ullman, Executive Producer of the upcoming film “Coin Heist.” The hackers were represented by Google Chrome’s Engineering Director Parisa Tabriz — whose delightful official job title is “Security Princess” — and Mark Abene, a technical consultant on the 1994 cult movie “Hackers.”
While the panel could easily have been a litany of all the silly ways hacking has been portrayed over the years, both writers and engineers seemed to agree on one fundamental issue — hacking may seem like it’s exciting and dangerous, but in reality it’s extremely boring; there are only so many ways to show someone sitting at a keyboard typing and make it compelling. In some respects, the challenge in depicting hackers is similar to that of depicting writers — it’s primarily an internal activity with very little action. “You’re typing and something important is happening,” said Ullman, “so you type aggressively.”
Tabriz described the biggest different between on-screen and real-life hacking as primarily one of pacing. “Everything that happens on screen happens 150 times faster than how it happens in real life. The reality of hacking is…a lot of hours of looking through log files and just reading things by yourself in front of a screen,” she said. “I don’t want to watch the reality.” The film “Hackers” attempted to deal with this issue by creating a visual representation of the hacker thought process, a decision Abene defended as necessary to make the action understandable to a mid-90s audience that was mostly computer illiterate.
Ullman described her film as “‘The Breakfast Club’ meets ‘Ocean’s Eleven,'” with a hacker character filling a role similar to Ally Sheedy’s character in the John Hughes classic. Their goal was to “translate archetypes into something that feels true.”
Cantwell and Rogers concurred; their show, depicting [the struggles of a small computer company at the dawn of the internet in the 1980s, attempts to have their characters “approach personal problems from a hacker’s perspective,” according to Rogers.
Cantwell added that the most important thing was to create the sense that the characters knew what they were doing, and that as long as the audience had that trust, then the specific technical details function more like “music in the scene.”
Adena also agreed with this story-centric approach. While “Mr. Robot” employs a dizzying number of easter eggs, what set their show apart is that Adena is in the writer’s room and is able to design hacks and interactions that are closely tied to the events of the show. A member of his consulting team will actually perform the hack in question; their documentation of the exploit then becomes the basis for the graphics seen in the episode.
This level of integration is rare — most easter eggs or viral campaigns are engineered by studio marketing departments who often have no access to the core creative team. And the storytellers shared war stories about the challenges of depicting technology accurately when decisions makers feel that nobody will care about the accuracy. If a showrunner or executive producer wants that accuracy, it requires them to make it a priority and allocate resources towards it.
Other revelations included the fact that all shows seem to have a writer’s room argument about the proper pronunciation of “gif,” that the actors on “Halt and Catch Fire” “love to sit with the consultants” and learn how the technology works, and that Christian Slater asked “Mr. Robot’s” tech advisors for help in planting spyware on the phones of his underage children.
Much time was spent on the stereotype of the hacker as a loner and social outcast. Abene derided the portrayal, describing the characters in “Hackers” as “larger-than-life” and his hacker circle in 90s New York as “very social.” Tabriz added that hackers will describe themselves as socially awkward — until they go to a tech conference and meet other people who share their interests.
In the end, both creators and hackers agreed that while accuracy is important, it takes a seat behind being visually compelling. Said Tabriz, “some people that I work with are very judge-y…of how things are depicted on screen. But I don’t want to watch the reality of people just looking at a screen for days and days on end.”
“Halt and Catch Fire” Season 3 currently airs Tuesdays at 10pm on AMC. “Mr. Robot” Season 2 can be seen Wednesdays at 10pm on USA.