Blackhat: Interview with Michael Mann about his Techno-Thriller Starring Chris Hemsworth


A lot of readers have asked for background information about Blackhat, Michael Mann’s new thriller.  We will review the film on Friday, its opening day–there’s an embargo until then by the studio.

Meanwhile, here are some notes about the making of the film

Years ago, computer security analysts discovered a code that had never been seen before, a code that was carefully constructed and weaponized.

The malware, which was dubbed “Stuxnet,” had wormed its way through a computerized infrastructure, taking control of automation processes and spinning the plant’s centrifuges into destruction. Evading detection inside or outside the compound, by the time it was discovered, there was fear that the code had gone wild.

Rumors spread, including one that attributed responsibility for the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima. Something radical was happening: a binary code designed for chaos was wending its way through the interconnected physical infrastructures.

The shifting alliances brought about by digital reality inspired Michael Mann’s interest. As a filmmaker, he has explored immersive investigations of cloaked worlds and the people who inhabit them, including professional thieves, corporate insiders, hardnosed journalists, hit men and cab drivers.  Mann’s stories try to offer authentic understanding of real life, as he says: “If you’re going to make a film about a thief, you don’t watch other movies about thieves. You go and hang out with a thief.”

blackhat_13_hemsworthThe unfolding of the Stuxnet worm signaled a new form of trespass for Mann, a filmmaker whose work has consistently engaged the shifting lines between law and lawlessness. With alarming regularity, stories began breaking about various incursions facilitated by the new infrastructure of digital architecture.  Computerization was creating a membrane of interconnectivity.

Who Designed It?  Who’s Blackhat Hacker?

Mann explains: “I became interested in the world because of the advent of Stuxnet, malware that was probably designed by a team of Americans and a team of Israelis. It took over the Iranian centrifuges in a nuclear facility at Natanz, and it was the world’s first stealth drone. I say ‘stealth’ because it attacked, but the effect of its hit wouldn’t be known for 18 months after it hit.”

Mann delved deeper into the field: “The first revelation was how porous and how vulnerable we are,” he says. “The second thing was that anybody sitting on the sofa with requisite computer skills and a fast enough computer can do this. He could be in the Bronx, Lagos or Mumbai. The third and most central part of the research was asking, ‘Who is a blackhat hacker? What’s the motivation? What’s the exalted experience?’

It usually starts with a 16-year-old saying, ‘They’re telling me I can’t get into that? You want to bet?’ So there’s usually a challenge. And who is Hathaway? “A large number of blackhat hackers who had been prosecuted did time and then wound up working in cyberdefense. From their point of view, there aren’t necessarily boundaries.  That is very similar thinking to a gamer, with one key difference. The difference is that, for a hacker, it’s a reverse escapism. The positive feedback looptype satisfaction—almost an opiated experience—is the same; the difference is that, for the gamer, the outcome is in the virtual world. For the hacker, it occurs in the physical material real world. His or her manipulation of code has a real and kinetic reaction. And that’s some of the high.”


blackhat_12_hemsworthMann and Blackhat writer Morgan Davis Foehl began crafting a story that was drawn from the facts of an activity hidden from view. Mann reflects: “For a subject to arrest me, I have to feel there’s some mystery, some frontier.” He found that in the cyberrevolution. “It’s one of the few pieces of technology that has had a massive social, cultural and political effect on our lives, probably the biggest single effect since the printing press. It is changing the way we are.”

When Mann becomes intrigued by a subject, he tries to find out about it as much as he can: “That usually starts with a series of meetings with experts. I met people in Washington, both in private cybersecurity as well as government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. The story we heard was the same: The American public has no idea how porous our technological industries are and how much innovation has been appropriated and stolen.

Chris and I also met with Mike Rogers, who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee and was very active in warning about the threat of cyberintrusions—particularly into defense industries, technology and appropriation of intellectual property, mainly from China.”

blackhat_11What he discovered in his research was shocking. “The revelation was that you think you’re fine living in this secure bubble of your private life and there are various kinds of controls on access and egress,” Mann says. “That’s not true at all. We live in an invisible exoskeleton of data and interconnectedness. Everything we do, everything we touch, is part of that web. It’s as if we are living in a house and all the doors and windows are open and it’s a very dangerous neighborhood, but we don’t know it.”

Foehl recalls their process: “Michael said, ‘We’re going to focus on what’s out there in the real world, and we’re going to do research. We’ll build a story out of that, rather than trying to bring a story to the world based on our preconceived ideas. Those aren’t as interesting as what is possible.’ I’ve never had the opportunity to work to craft a story like that, and it’s a smarter way to engineer a narrative. That’s Michael.”

Mann says he must know a great deal about an area before shooting begins: “To me, it would be a cheat to have a preconceived story, then put it within a milieu. It’s like using the milieu as an application, instead of authentically being inside the milieu and finding out what kind of people these are, how they think, walk, talk and dress. When you do that kind of immersive research, then characters show up. People present themselves.”

The Hero?

blackhat_10The director and writer created an action-thriller centered on Nicholas Hathaway, a blackhat hacker (a coder who hacks at the places where he or she is prohibited): “The film starts off in Los Angeles. The premise is that Hathaway is in his fourth year of a 13-year prison sentence. He’s offered a conditional release if he works to identify and apprehend a cybercriminal who has already taken down a nuclear power plant in China and manipulated the price of soy futures on the commodities exchange. Nobody knows who he is, where he is or why he’s doing what he’s doing. But he has obviously no regard for human life, and he’s skilled and dangerous. If Hathaway works to identify and apprehend this cyber-criminal organization, he’ll win a commutation of his sentence.”

As he was preparing, Mann relied on a circle of contacts, people from all walks of life, from niche-field experts to those whose lives have been shaped by the contours of their dangerous professions. For Blackhat, Mann dipped into this deep well of connections. He brought Foehl to Washington, D.C., to meet with Homeland Security agents, former CIA, and FBI agents and others who could give insight into the processes and hidden world of cybercrime. The insiders’ window provided Mann and Foehl the framework for a timely and propulsive story.

They talked with security experts, government agents and hackers about how the Internet was changing the landscape for criminals and crime fighters. In conversations with those on both sides of the law, Mann and Foehl began to understand a new reality of vulnerability—depending upon who you are—a reality of which the rest of us are just starting to get a glimpse.

blackhat_9_hemsworthWhile Mann prepared to start principal photography, news broke of a $45-million virtual bank heist. “The operation,” penned The NY Times in May 2013, “included sophisticated computer experts operating in the shadowy world of Internet hacking, manipulating financial information with the stroke of a few keys.” It signaled a new level of awareness of what else the digital world—the same one that brought us our smart phones, online shopping and unmanned aircraft—had made possible.

As real-world events about the growing vulnerabilities of a system of digital interconnection continued to unfold, it gave many an eerie feeling about art imitating life. Former FBI Supervisory Special Agent Michael Panico—who was brought as a resource to help all departments make sure dialogue sounded authentic and ensure that anything that shows up on a screen would look and feel accurate, as well as to explain how cybercrimes are carried out—offers a theory about the prescience of filmmakers: “When you’re making a movie, you’re thinking forward, you’re right on the cusp.” As we enter an age in which there are countless opportunities for real-world attacks, Panico explains that this ability of a filmmaker to imagine what hasn’t yet come has not gone unnoticed by the security establishment. “One of the ideas that came out in the aftermath of 9/11,” Panico explains, “was to go to Hollywood and ask people to ‘imagineer’ other types of attacks that might be used against us…because what happened that day was so beyond the thought structure of national security.”

blackhat_8Mann and Foehl’s Blackhat reflects a fascination with what happens when hacking begins to affect the abilities of the physical world ( infrastructure, machines, power, nuclear plants). Says Panico: “We’ve moved from viruses which were just about making noise—ones that showed how smart the virus writer was—to a world where the real-world effects were the theft of credit cards and the financial losses to individuals and institutions. Now we’re moving into this place in time where we’re looking at a real concern by most people in the cybersecurity industry: ‘What happens when it becomes kinetic?’”

Relevant Concept

Legendary Pictures’ Thomas Tull and Jon Jashni join Mann to produce Blackhat. For CEO Tull, the concept felt relevant: “Jon and I were fascinated by Michael’s focus on the future of crime as digital. This story of this modern-day outlaw who—alongside his elite team—is on a worldwide manhunt to stop a criminal out to cripple infrastructure fascinated us and fit within Legendary’s wheelhouse. We couldn’t ask for a better partner in creating a propulsive and timely thriller.”

blackhat_4_hemsworthJashni singles out how prescient Blackhat felt: “It’s fascinating how Michael and Morgan envisioned this story that takes government breaches from vaguely theoretical to near fact. I’ve long admired Michael’s ability to make the most fringe element one that’s the most accessible to audiences.”