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As Seen on TV


6 min read

Chris Cantwell, Co-Creator and Show Runner, Halt & Catch Fire

Moderator: John Graham-Cumming, CTO, Cloudflare

CC: first off, we have very low ratings! The story came from my father who worked in computers in the early 80s in dallas; later in california. The dynamic between those characters was influenced by my dad.

This was largely a story about reverse engineering. The underdog story was interesting: not Bill Gates, not Silicon Valley, but a different story about the computer world.

JGC: and you managed to do 4 seasons

CC: In four seasons we go from ‘83 to ‘94; we cover everything from small networks to building of internet backbone, rise in search and www

JGC: I watched it before I came; it gave me some bad memories because there were AOL disks

CC: We have an incredible prop team. Some comes from RI computer museum; i have to ask our prop master, he might have manufactured them from images online.

JGC: This is a show about tech but also about money; these people are trying to build companies. The same people trying again and again. Is that a metaphor for recycling something?

CC: Yes, i think so; a big theme is reinvention, on a personal level and about what they’re working on.
Reinvention as a theme that is championed by Silicon Valley is a really universal concept.

We learned from our research & tech advisor that there are ideas that float into ether and are diffuse and shared, and at some point one person catches something and the idea takes off. That idea “wins”, but really it’s a chaotic mess of people playing with possibilities.

JGC: What strikes me is how the characters are trying to build something and they don't’ know what they’re doing. Then one of the characters talk about building an index for the web. In some ways that’s the nature of creation; you don’t know what direction you’re going. There’s a link-up with art there.

CC: Absolutely, in season 4 a character has been in the basement since 1990; we realized that it took a while for web to take off. We portrayed guy in a basement collecting post-its handwriting URLs. It was a website every few days; into a website a second. So he has collected them, and we have a visual representation of his whiteboard.
He gives them to his friends, who gives them to someone else; she builds her own website that links to each site;

Organically people discover that site, and then they have a proto-viral site on their hands.
It didn’t start that way.
It was like the yellow pages, but they don’t really exist anymore.

JGC:I was also struck me that what they're doing in the ‘83 clip is really quite technical. It struck me that tech has gotten much more complicated but also much simpler.

CC: Yes, because of the rise of computing industry we’ve also experienced accessibility of tech.
That you can go to Best Buy right now and buy a cinematic camera that you once had to rent and go to film school for for years and knot knwo what it looked like until the filml was dveloped.

Accessibility is a great power and virtue of the industry. We tracked this over the course of the season

In the first season they feel like young upstarts. By season 4 they are struggling ot keep up with what’s going on.

It’s amazing to see this happening even today, given the democratization of so many things.

JGC: The characters are always optimistic---this isn’t Black Mirror or Westworld. What happened to that optimism?

CC: on a character level, we follow people who are always focused on the next thing.

We’re placing our happiness on what’s to come, and there is a kind of grasping that the characters are constantly engaged in, born of a real belief in what they are doing. And yet they are never satisfied with where they are. Over the course of the journey of the series, these five characters realize that about their lives and wonder whether they can actually step off the wheel.

On the tech side, when people started pulling apart / indexing web pages it was done for fun. First experiences on internet were just about exploring, and there was a joy in that.

What is unspoken on the show is a tremendous ambivalence that couldn’t happen now.

“We might be on a train that we are no longer piloting.”

Tech is moving so fast that we can’t adapt as quickly as the things we are building.

JGC: Is it also that we can’t imagine the consequences of what we are doing?

CC: i think so. There isn’t much foresight; the characters on our show don’t have the benefit of hindsight.

The characters in the show talk a lot about the future. Future is a heavy word. People sometimes say: “There’s no such thing as the future; it’s just people trying to sell you a crappy version of the present”. We can never predict it.

JGC: if you look at ‘83, they have a physical machine, and by ‘94, it’s all software. So a lot of what you’re trying to portray is really quite boring; how do you dramatize sitting in front of the computer?

CC: Again, low ratings! It’s interesting, since the pilot i love it when characters have something to hold.

Our pilot director was a filmmaker named Juan Campinelli [?]; we turned on an IBM for him, and he turned to us and said; “that’s what it does?” It was so boring for him. Now, we have screens that are blank and actors typing and building websites that are inert pages---that’s even less interesting.

JGC: Is this some sort of terrifying metaphor? The machine doesn’t know what we are typing?

CC: We tried to turn one machine on, and it actually caught on fire.

JGC: How do you research this show?

CC: Carl has been an incredible resource on our show; he’s a venture capitalist, has done everything under the sun; he does this because he loves it.

We liberal arts guys needed someone like Carl to help us understand what was going on

Everything we have tried to put on screen we have tried to get right, out of respect for historical telling. But we had to go from perfectly right to defensible, because sometimes even our sources began to disagree with each other.

I just learned that we accidentally used 2013 reissue of Doom: people got pissed off. At a certain point, we’re doing the best we can. Hopefully the human drama is carrying you through.

JGC: How do you get inside characters’ heads?

CC: the actors do their homework to try to understand as much as possible; but we try to convey that these characters are masters of their field; the viewers have to trust that they know what they’re talking about.

It’s really about character stories. “Technology can be a delicious metaphor for so many things.” E.g. Automated vs human touch.

You can pit the characters that have so much animus toward each other against each other.

If we get sidetracked in the writer’s room talking about print drivers, we gotta bring it back to the human drama.


Q: Being a grey beard who has worked in Silicon Valley for 40 years, I noticed it was mainly engineers running things at first; then transition to business types in the 1990s. Do you agree with that phenomenon, and will it affect your future storylines?

CC: Season 4 is our last; there is push and pull between those who build and understand it, and those who sell it.

When you have someone who is just “the suit” / the ideas guy, there’s a really interesting struggle that we try to dramatize throughout.

As the tech gets more ephemeral and seems like magic, business guys may have gained upper hand. You see the venture capitalists holding all the chips and the engineers fewer and farther between in the later episodes.

Q: I'm assuming you've seen the movie Hackers, with a visualization of traveling through the network. Have you thought about other ways of visualizing the activity of sitting down at the computer to do this work?

CC: We have. It’s tricky. We once tried to do a sequence where 2 characters moving through digital community they created online, but then it looked bad.

Sometimes we can visualize, and sometimes we have to go with what’s real, and I think sometimes a viewer can respond to the latter more.

Q: What about the notion of origin story? Do you think there are 4 seasons of drama buried behind every million dollar company?

CC: the way we determine that is by meeting with the people themselves on the ground; that’s where we’ve gotten the best stories. Carl has amazing stories. So i’m sure the same could be said of Cloudflare.

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Ryan Knight|@yank

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