"Shall we play a game?"
A military supercomputer asks Matthew Broderick that infamous question in "WarGames," the old hit techno-thriller back from 1983. For a bunch of Milwaukee-based teenage hackers – seeing themselves and their passion reflected on the big screen – the answer to that ominous inquiry would be yes, setting off a hacking story with a Hollywood twist long before Sony was more interested in movies more than Walkman sales and Seth Rogen and James Franco would became subjects of presidential discourse.
Over 30 years later – but just in time for today’s headlines – local filmmakers Michael T. Vollmann (the Wisconsin Film Festival-winning short "Before You") and Chris James Thompson ("The Jeffrey Dahmer Files") are putting the teens’ story back in the spotlight with their new short documentary "The 414s: The Original Teenage Hackers."
"Initially, we were drawn to the story partly because we like the ’80s aesthetic and partly because we wanted to find out why there was a hacking group in Milwaukee," said Vollmann, the film’s director. "Then we met the guys, and we really liked them and wanted to tell that story."
Ever since they heard about The 414s – named after the guys’ area code – on a radio show while driving home from South By Southwest in Austin a couple years ago, the hackers’ story has served as a kind of passion project for Vollmann and Thompson. For two years, the duo would hunt down archival footage, research, interview and edit their short doc in between other films and jobs.
"Every time we’d find a new old ’80s news story was like unwrapping a Christmas present," Vollmann joked.
Other than finding the time for work amongst other projects, the hardest part of making "The 414s" was actually finding The 414s. According to Thompson, the first several months of the production were spent tracked down their stars. Fittingly, it was social media that helped finally crack the case and get the duo in touch with the one-time techno-rebels.
"We started by finding them on Facebook and sending them messages," Thompson recalled. "We didn’t hear feedback, but then strangely enough, almost four or six months later, Neal Patrick (one of The 414s) in New York checked that secondary inbox that most people don’t even know that they have on Facebook and emailed us back saying, ‘I just got this message, but I’m interested to hear what you’re thinking of.’"
From there, Patrick sent Thompson and Vollmann off on the right track, getting him in contact with several other former members, including Timothy D. Winslow and Gerald Wondra.
Some were forthcoming with interviews, information and material for the documentary. Others were less so – understandable considering it’s a memory involving FBI agents knocking on your door. Vollmann noted that Winslow was especially cautious of hopping on board, since he currently works as a systems engineer, uncertain how his bosses would handle his hacker past. However, he eventually got the courage to go on camera and tell his story, arriving to his interview recording with a canvas bag filled with articles and photos of his crazy hacking adventure.
It all came together, and "The 414s: The Original Teenage Hackers" was born, combining talking head interviews featuring the grown-up guys themselves with a plethora of archival footage (including awesome ’80s-era Jerry Taft and Mike Miller footage not even 30 seconds in). In 12 quick and engaging minutes, the film speedily goes through the group’s interest in the burgeoning new technology, its origins and the decision to hack into multiple computer systems – including the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Back in the early, unprotected days of the Internet, the task was, in their words, "very, very easy."
"There’s not really a direct connection to the stuff that’s going on now – the hacking has changed quite a bit; it’s a lot more complex – but it was this time when young people had power to upset authority," Vollmann said. "They had a way to rebel that was different than before, and I think that’s still going on today with groups like Anonymous."
The aftermath, however, wasn’t as simple. The 414s were eventually found out, sending the FBI knocking, the boys to court and the media into a fine frenzy. With all of that outside attention came some internal tension as well. While some members – namely Patrick, who was underage at the time – became media darlings, others became jealous. Plus, while Patrick was a minor at the time, older members of the group were facing serious legal repercussions and other big concerns for their futures.
"I remember Gerald told us that he felt bad that he did what he did because he didn’t want to piss off the people on the other end of the line, the operators running the computers at these companies," Vollmann recalled. "He wanted to be one of those guys, so for him, he felt bad that he just made trouble for them."
In the end, however, the saga of The 414s came to a pleasant close. The legal adults in the group avoided prison time (there were no laws for computer crimes yet), getting hit instead with two years of probation and $500 fines. And although there was some jealousy at the time, looking back on the events, several of the guys don’t mind having missed out on the media circus. The hack even ending up doing some good in the end, helping push for new bills and laws concerning stronger passwords and Internet security that are still in effect today.
"Now, Tim’s job with computer systems work involves him actively trying to safeguard networks from the very types of attacks that are going on in the news everyday," Thompson added. "A huge part of his job now is defending against the very thing he was doing in The 414s. As time changes, his perspective and his outlook flipped almost 180 degrees."
As for the movie itself, things are clicking into place. "The 414s" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah this past weekend. CNN Films quickly bought it up, with plans to use it as a part of a short documentary series the company is launching this spring across its various digital channels. Even after all the work and this recent success, however, Vollmann and Thompson still have some big ideas for The 414s’ saga.
"Our biggest dream for it would be to make it into a fiction features film with all the old kids from ‘WarGames’ playing the adults," Vollmann said. "Shoot it in Milwaukee and hire all of our friends and Milwaukee filmmakers, and make a very funny but also poignant narrative film that people could see in theaters? That’d be so enjoyable."
So, Mr. Broderick: Shall we play a game … again?
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.