Friday 7 November 2014

80 From the 80s - Wargames


Wargames

Is it a game, or is it real?

Studio: United Artists/MGM Release Date: 6th June 1983
Director: John Badham Starring: Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy
Budget: $12M 2015 Equivalent: $28.6M
U.S Box Office: $79.5M 2015 Equivalent: $189.8M

David Lightman is curious to play a series of new computer games, and sets about hacking into the company's system. However, unbeknownst to him, he's actually found his way into a US military war simulator and he's about to discover that this is one game that could turn very deadly - for everyone. 

For the modern audience, it's perhaps a little baffling to see how prevalent the threat of nuclear war was back in the early 1980s. With Ronald Reagan in power, the Russians and Americans pursued a game of nuclear one-upmanship, whose effects quickly spread to all facets of life. People became survivalists, built fallout shelters and campaigned to 'Ban the Bomb'.  Never one to miss a trick, Hollywood was quick to use the nuclear threat as the central device in a number of projects. Initially the focus was on the dangers of nuclear power, with 1979's The China Syndrome being among the first. The Jack Lemmon/Jane Fonda picture opened just twelve days before the nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island proved the dangers were all too real.


As fear grew, TV events The Day After and Threads showed the devastating aftermath of a nuclear holocaust on small groups of the general populace. Red Dawn went one step further, featuring a Russian-led invasion of America; with nuclear weapons decimating the bigger cities, high school students of one small town made a stand against the invading armies. World War Three seemed only a button press away.

Despite the central threat of Global Thermonuclear War, the 1983 release Wargames began life as quite a different picture. Conceived in the late seventies by screenwriters Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes, the story was known as The Genius, a drama featuring a dying scientist named Falken and a troubled, yet brilliant teenager onto whom he hopes to pass all his knowledge. Computers didn't yet feature in the story, but that changed when the duo met Peter Schwartz and David Scott Lewis. Schwartz worked at the Stanford Research Institute and introduced Lasker and Parkes to the growing culture of hackers and hacking. He also highlighted the link between computers, gaming and the military.

This was further cemented during a meeting with hacker David Scott Lewis in early 1979, who would go on to be the primary inspiration for David Lightman, the lead character in the story. Lewis claims that even at that early stage, much of the scientist/protégée aspect was absent from the story, and that part of the plot featured a space-based laser defence system not unlike the Star Wars program Ronald Reagan would unveil a few years later. The script went through several incarnations and along the way moved from being known as The Genius to Wargames. The central premise, that of a hacker who almost triggers a nuclear war, began to take shape.

The military aspect of the story became clearer too. While researching ideas for their 'war room' Lasker and Parkes met another person who would have an influence on the script. Having coerced their way onto a tour of a military defence nerve centre (located under Cheyenne Mountain) the pair met James Hartinger, then commander of NORAD. Interested in their script, Hartinger arranged to meet them off base. He was very much in favour of one of the core aspects of the story, that computers were taking too much responsibility out of people's hands.

Despite the fact that the script had dropped the central idea of Falken being a brilliant but doomed scientist, the character still featured. Lasker later stated during an interview with Wired that Falken had been based loosely on Stephen Hawking - especially during the initial stages. The idea that a man could hold all this knowledge and might never get the chance to pass it on, intrigued him. In his mind, Lasker pictured John Lennon playing the character, and at one point received word from music producer David Geffen that Lennon was interested in the role. Sadly, while working on the second draft (in which Falken was now an astrophysicist), the scriptwriter received a phone call informing him that Lennon had been shot and killed.

As the script transformed from a drama to a thriller, its scale altered to match. The screen version of the NORAD control centre had Universal voice concerns about its construction costs. Further complicating the matter was the fact that the studio executives didn't understand the script or much of its terminology - a fear they thought the general public would share. Universal opted to pass, and the project stalled until United Artists stepped in to pick up the reigns. By now Wargames was a fully fleshed out and ready to shoot script, and UA wasted no time in attaching Martin Brest to direct the picture.

Brest was an interesting choice as director. He had won some acclaim for a short he made during his film school days - Hot Dogs for Gauguin, which starred Danny Devito and Rita Perlman (making her movie debut). The film told the tale of a photographer determined to catch that one amazing shot - and in an effort to achieve this, planned to blow up the Statue of Liberty. Brest's work on Gauguin secured him his first major directing gig - that of the George Burns caper, Going in Style. This raised his profile higher, and bought him to the attention of United Artists, who were now getting ready to move forward on Wargames.

Brest got straight to work, and is said to have had a major hand in the design of the NORAD control room, which would end up being the most expensive set built up to that point at a cost of a million dollars (Wargames overall budget was $12M). Interestingly, because the production team wasn’t allowed access to the actual war room, they had to create their own interpretation of what it might look like. It wasn't until several years later that it was revealed that the movie's NORAD set was far more elaborate than the real thing and visitors to the place would often ask to see the  'modern computer rooms'.

With set construction underway, work got started on casting the lead roles of David Lightman and Jennifer Mack. For Lightman, the producers opted for Matthew Broderick, a newcomer with only a single film credit to his name. Despite the lack of screen work, Broderick was no stranger to theatre and had recently won acclaim for his work in Torch Song Trilogy. A favourable review of the play by veteran critic Mel Gussow got the young actor Broadway’s attention. He went on to win further positive notices for Neil Simon's Eugene Trilogy and would make his screen debut in Max Dugan Returns, another project penned by Simon.

Ally Sheedy, who would play Jennifer, came to acting from a different direction. Although she performed with the American Ballet Theatre from age six to fourteen, she found herself thrust into the public eye when she wrote a best selling children's book, She was Nice to Mice, when aged just twelve. Having dabbled in acting during her summers off, Sheedy switched to the profession full time when she discovered she would need to stay on a starvation diet if she was to continue with ballet.

In the meantime, her book gained her the attention of The Village Voice and the New York Times, both of whom wanted her to write for them. She ended up taking on another writing assignment, and it was while promoting it on the Mike Douglas Show that she was spotted by an agent and signed up almost immediately. She initially worked on commercials, off-Broadway plays and after-school specials. Once she hit 18, Sheedy headed for Hollywood and appeared in a number of one-off dramas, along with a short recurring role on Hill Street Blues. This work led her to be cast opposite Sean Penn in Bad Boys, and secured her role in Wargames.

Even though the character of Steven Falken had started out as the lead role, by the time Wargames had a shooting script, he was relegated to a shadowy figure who had designed the system than Lightman hacks in to. It was Martin Brest who decided Falken should be altered. He felt a wheel-chair bound man arriving at NORAD would feel too much like Dr.Strangelove. For the role of Falken, John Wood was cast. The English actor was well revered for his work in theatre, particularly his interpretation of Shakespeare's characters. Wood was joined by Dabney Coleman as system engineer Dr. John McKittrick and Barry Corbin as General Jack Beringer (a role highly influenced by NORAD commander James Hartinger).

Despite the many drafts the script went through and the picture being dropped by its original studio, everything looked to finally be in place. Shooting began on Goose Island for a sequence that would feature in the last third of the film. But there was trouble as soon as the first dailies were screened. The studio clashed with Brest over the dark tone he was taking. There's much speculation over what happened next, but the outcome was the same - Brest was fired after 10-12 days of shooting. Such was the fallout that the director was essentially blackballed in Hollywood for nearly two years. United Artists acted quickly to ensure the production wasn't delayed and hired John Badham to take over the job.

In stark contrast to Brest, Badham was a seasoned veteran of both TV and movie directing, having received his first credit back in 1971. Initially cutting his teeth on various television shows, he made his feature debut on The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. However, it was his work on the 1977 smash hit, Saturday Night Fever, which thrust him well into the limelight. Badham followed that up with an adaptation of Dracula (featuring Frank Langella and Laurence Olivier) and the drama Whose Life is it Anyway, with Richard Dreyfuss. When the director received the call for Wargames, he was also in production on futuristic helicopter flick, Blue Thunder (the two films would be released within weeks of one another).

Badham was puzzled by what Brest had completed on Wargames before being fired. While some of it worked, (Indeed, some scenes which Brest shot remain in the finished movie), much of it felt stilted. Part of the issue was that both Broderick and Sheedy were convinced they were next to be fired, a fear that obviously fed into their performances. Having managed to convince them otherwise, Badham realised the problems on screen were simply that the characters weren't having any fun. Hacking into the school's computer system and altering grades should have been a prank, something David did to impress Jennifer. Instead, it felt like two spies on a deadly serious mission.

All concerned set about loosening things up a little, having a bit more fun with the characters and their actions. Broderick's Lightman became less edgy and had a few of the lone-hacker traits removed or toned back. To ensure authenticity, Badham had a number of hackers visit the set, but learnt that he would need to tread a fine line between realism and entertainment - erring more on the latter. The process of hacking into a computer system, he discovered, was too long winded and complicated for a movie, and needed to be stripped back to keep the story flowing. The idea to give the computer a voice also meant there was less need to have half of the movie play out on a green screen monitor. Even with many of the technical aspects removed, most hackers believe its portrayal of their kind is still one of the more accurate ones Hollywood has produced.

With shooting back on track, things progressed smoothly. Not even an on-set jeep accident could derail proceedings - a quick decision meant the crash was actually included in a scene, with an extra sequence shot to explain the aftermath. As the film entered post-production, United Artists looked towards marketing as the proposed June 3rd release date began to loom large.

Reviews for Wargames were exceptionally strong, and the film holds a 92% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Roger Ebert awarded it four stars, and many other critics praised the all too realistic nature of the movie as one of its main strengths. The summer of 1983 was a busy one. The weeks leading up to Wargames' June 3rd release had seen Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, Breathless and John Badham's other picture, Blue Thunder. There were also re-issues of Rocky III, Porky's and Poltergeist. The real heavy hitter of 1983, Return of the Jedi, had opened the week before and took in over $30M. Wargames would also face competition on the same weekend from The Man With Two Brains and Psycho II, whilst Octopussy and Trading Places were waiting in the wings.

A solid start saw the picture open to $6.2M on that first weekend, good enough for a third place finish behind Jedi and Psycho II. Signs that Wargames was in it for the long haul appeared a week later when it lost only 22% of its business up against the new releases. By day nine, it had already recouped back its production budget. As word of mouth spread, its weekend takings actually increased and by the end of its first month on general release the picture had made almost $30M.

In all, Wargames managed nine straight weeks in the top ten, and never dropped lower than thirteenth place throughout its entire theatrical run (it re-entered the top ten in weekend eleven, fourteen and fifteen). The biggest weekend to weekend fall it endured was only 27%. Come the end of 1983, it was the fifth most successful film of the year, making an astounding $79.5M and finishing above Octopussy, Sudden Impact and the Saturday Night Fever sequel, Staying Alive. (Blue Thunder made $42M). Given its $12M investment, United Artists had been well rewarded. The picture was even nominated for three Academy Awards the following year, for cinematography, sound and for Lasker and Parkes' script.

As a result of Wargames' success, the U.S government created and updated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1984, screening footage from the film before proceedings began. Hackers and their actions came under far more scrutiny too, with their skills being blown somewhat out of proportion based on what Lightman achieved in the movie. Convicted hacker Kevin Mitnick learnt this the hard way when a prosecutor convinced a federal judge that Mitnick could order a nuclear strike if allowed access to a phone. As result, he found himself in solitary confinement for a year.

Wargames did have positive effects on the hacking community too, and they were in turn influenced by the film. Bulletin boards and the like saw a sharp rise in user numbers in the following months and years, and while the Internet did exist at this point, the influx of people began to shape it into the more recognisable form we know today. A yearly hacking convention took on the name DEFCON in tribute and a year after Wargames’ release, the quarterly hacker magazine, 2600, made its debut.

The principle cast and crew all went on to bigger, brighter things, at least during the 1980s. Matthew Broderick followed the movie with a role in fantasy drama Ladyhawke, but it was his next role, as the titular character in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, that he is most famously remembered for to this day. He also reprised two of his early theatrical roles on the silver screen, first in Biloxi Blues and again in Torch Song Trilogy. In recent years he has preferred the stage, and won much acclaim for his work opposite Nathan Lane in The Producers and again in The Odd Couple.

Ally Sheedy became a member of the brat pack when she starred in The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo's Fire, both in 1985. She also re-teamed with John Badham on Short Circuit in 1986. However, by the turn of the decade, roles in Heart of Dixie and Betsy's Wedding saw her nominated for a Golden Rasperberry award two years running. She spent much of the 1990s on smaller movie projects and TV roles, and won much acclaim for her part in the indie drama High Art.

John Badham had a misstep with 1985's American Flyers, but then had a run of hits well into the 1990s, including the aforementioned Short Circuit, Stakeout, Bird on a Wire and The Hard Way. He went on to direct a number of TV movies, before switching back to episodic TV in 2003, a place where he continues to work to this day. Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes worked together again on Project X, another picture to star Matthew Broderick. They also revisited hackers with their 1992 thriller, Sneakers. Parkes would go on to become president of Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, and was a key player in setting up Dreamworks SKG.

As for Martin Brest, it would seem getting almost thrown out of Hollywood was the best thing that could have happened to him - at least to begin with. After being in the wilderness for a year, he bounced back with Beverly Hills Cop, a hugely popular (and financially successful) Eddie Murphy vehicle. He followed that up with Midnight Run, Scent of a Woman and Meet Joe Black. However, the outright disaster (both critically and financially) of 2003's Gigli destroyed his career, and he has not had a single credit since.

Wargames itself spawned a belated straight to DVD sequel in 2008 - Wargames: The Dead Code. It featured a hacker and a new computer system known as RIPLEY. WOPR and Steven Falken would also appear, though John Wood was absent from the role, as were any other original cast members. In recent years there has been talk of a Wargames remake, and in 2009 it was rumoured that Leonardo Di Caprio was looking to produce one. In 2011 Seth Gordon signed on to direct a new version but the project didn't move forward. As of summer 2014, director Dean Israelite is attached, and a new script is being worked on.

Unlike many movies that feature computers, Wargames has aged quite well, mainly due to the fact that the creators didn't go overboard with their interpretation of what the technology could do or how it appeared. The computerized voice of Joshua and Lightman's green screen monitor stand up much better than other computer based pictures such as Hackers and The Net. The film remains grounded and can still offer a thrilling and tense ride.

‘Wouldn't you prefer a nice game of chess?’

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