Originally aired on June 9, 2020 @ 1:30 AM - 2:00 AM EDT
Best of: Internet Summit 2017
Join Cloudflare CTO John Graham-Cumming for a fireside chat with Chris Cantwell, co-creator of the gripping TV series
Halt & Catch Fire, on how the show captures the dramatic early days of personal computing.
Chris Cantwell (@ifyoucantwell) - Co-Creator and Show Runner, Halt & Catch Fire
Moderator: John Graham-Cumming - CTO, Cloudflare
Okay. After that fascinating discussion, we're going to go on to something which is a little more art, but still quite a lot technology. I am very happy to have Chris Cantwell with me. He is the co-creator, executive producer and showrunner of a show called Halt and Catch Fire. And we'll ask about the title in a minute. And it's a series that dramatizes everything from the personal computing boom, when the early PCs were being made, all through the growth of the world wide web through the 80s and 90s. There's four seasons of it and it's a fascinating look at that period of technology. He's an alum of the USC School of Cinematic Arts screenwriting program and he was a creative director for Walt Disney. Now before we get into this, we have a little clip of the show which we're going to play, so I guess we can look back. A personal computer, like any other computer, is just a nothing box full of electronic switches and hardware. The IBM, the Altair, the Apple II, it's all the same junk. Anyone can buy all this stuff off the shelf right now. It's called open architecture. IBM, they basically don't own anything inside the machine. Except the chip. Except what's on the chip. The BIOS is on one of these chips, we just don't know which one. The ROM BIOS is the only part of the machine IBM actually designed. It is the program, it is the magic. Bad news is, they copyrighted it and they own how it works. The good news is, there's a way around that, sort of. Reverse engineering. Grab me the oscilloscope. And a pen and paper, we need to record these pin voltages. I'm a little rusty at this. Okay, now, that's a quite mainstream show that said BIOS, reverse engineering, and oscilloscope in 54 seconds. Yes. Well, that's pretty nerdy, so whatever made you decide to make something like this? Well, first I should mention that we have very low ratings. Congratulations. Yes. Well, first off, the quick story behind where this show came from is my writing partner, Chris Rogers, and I. In writing the script, my father worked in computers in the early 80s. He moved my family down to Dallas, Texas, to take a job in system software. There was a lot going on at that time. And he had a career in Texas and then later California for various companies. And he just watched the business change from one moment to the next. The dynamic between those two characters was really influenced by my dad, who worked as a system software salesman, and then the SE, who would accompany him. They're usually the guy that would go in and explain the nuts and bolts. Could not be more different in personality, so we thought that was a fun character pairing. And then as Chris and I started to do research into the era, what was interesting to us is the story we came across, which is largely the story of reverse engineering. So you had the story of Compaq, right? It would go in and take the IBM PC, and they basically found that the Trojan horse in there were able to make a machine that they claimed was better, faster, cheaper. In a lot of ways, it was. And very soon, the personal computer was not just an IBM machine. It was sold by hundreds of different companies at that time. So that underdog story was interesting to us. It was the story you didn't know. It wasn't Bill Gates. It wasn't Steve Jobs. It wasn't Pirates of Silicon Valley. It was an interesting backdoor into the computer world. And you've managed to do four seasons, right? So we've gone all from this period, which is, as you say, Compaq, right up to the latest one, which is really kind of the Yahoo, eBay genesis of all those things. So 95, I think, is the period. Yeah. In four seasons, we go from 83 to 94. And we cover everything from small networks, things like Genie and the Source, CompuServe, those types of businesses into the building of the Internet backbone. And now, finally, in the fourth season, we're dealing with the World Wide Web and the rise of search. And I actually watched the first double episode at the beginning of the season four just before it came here. And it gave me some bad memories because there were AOL disks, quite a lot of them. How did you get AOL disks? Are they still available? I don't know. We have an incredible props team that finds amazing stuff. I think a lot of the props on the show, some of the hardware comes from the Rhode Island Computer Museum. I'll plug those guys. It's really just, I think, like three guys in a warehouse in Rhode Island that have collected everything that's been generated by this industry. In terms of the AOL disks, I don't know. I'll have to ask our prop master. He might have manufactured them, but it's just a question of finding the pictures online, which you can find, and then creating the labels. And then vacuum sealing them into the original packaging. So a lot goes into them. It was quite scary. What's interesting is this is a show about technology. It's also a show about money as well because, of course, these people are trying to build companies. And throughout the seasons, the same characters appear. They continue. Is that a metaphor for Silicon Valley sort of constantly recycling everything? Yes, I think so. A big theme of the show is reinvention. And I think you see that on a personal level with the characters, just even in the way they look. I mean, this is these guys in 83. They look very different in 94, as we all did. The things they're working on are very different. The way they're approaching their lives is very different. I think reinvention and that kind of theme that is really championed by Silicon Valley is a really human, universal concept that a lot of us can appreciate when we watch a story about these people. And we try not to have the characters invent every single thing that happens over ten years. But what we learned in our research and in talking to our tech advisor, who is Dr. Carl Ledbetter, who's here, and was actually underneath the desk in that scene feeding paper through the printer that didn't work to make it look like it did. What we learned is that there are these ideas that float into the ether, and people are kind of grasping in the dark, playing with different pieces of them all at the same time. And at some point, one person catches something, and that thing takes off, whether it's better or talking to the right people or knowing how to explain it. That's the idea that, quote, unquote, wins. But really, it's this big, chaotic mass of people who are playing with different possibilities. And I think that's true in technology, and that's definitely true in our personal lives. And so for us, that's the crux of the show and the crux of the characters. One of the things that strikes me is how the characters in the show are, as you say, they're trying to build something, and they don't know what they're doing. It's not obvious what the path is. In season four, one of the characters starts talking about trying to build an index for the web, and they're going to curate links, which obviously is what Yahoo did initially. And I think it's interesting because that's, in some ways, the nature of creation is you don't know which direction you're going. You're sort of exploring this world, and in this case, it's a world of technology. But there is a link up with art there, isn't there? There is some similarity. Absolutely. I think it's, yeah, what you're talking about is in season four, a character has been down in the basement since 1990, since Berners -Lee wrote the paper on the World Wide Web. And he's saying, this is it. This is going to be great. And what we realized in our research is that it took a while for the web to take off. It wasn't until the release of Mosaic when people really started to adapt to the technology. So we just portrayed this guy in a basement collecting Post-it notes back when you could do this, handwriting URLs for every new website because it wasn't a website a second. It was a website every few days, right? There was only a few hundred by late 1993. So he's collected. We can actually have a visual representation of all the websites in existence on this guy's whiteboards down in the basement. And he ends up not knowing what to do with them, and he gives them to his friend who gives them to his 14-year-old daughter who's been playing with markup language. And rather than put them into a spreadsheet, she builds her own website, and you can link to each site to see if they work. And then organically people discover that site, and all of a sudden they have this kind of proto-viral website on their hands of an index. And now they're looking at something going, this is it. And it didn't start that way. It didn't start with him saying, let's build this website. I think we even have a scene where the character's trying to search through his words and parse through the idea where he's saying, it's an index. It's like a link of – it's a website that tells you how to get to other websites because it's hard to find websites. And you can organize them how you want, and the other character dismisses the idea of being the Yellow Pages. But that's exactly what it is, and now the Yellow Pages don't exist. They've just gone bankrupt very, very recently. Yeah. I actually got the Yellow Pages in our driveway the other day, and it was like an artifact from another time. I wanted to preserve it for my son and be like, this is what once was. And he would have no idea. Of course, he'd have to understand what a corded phone was in order to understand what a phone book was. Or a phone, in fact. Yeah, exactly. Another thing that struck me is if you look at the clip we saw, the 83 clip, what they're doing is really quite technical and complicated. And when you get to the Yahoo one, as you say, it's the 14-year -old girl who puts it together. And it feels like once technology has got much more complicated and also simpler, it's more accessible to people. And I think you've explored that a bit as you've gone through, right? Absolutely. I think that's something that, I think because of the rise of the computing industry, it's something we've all experienced in almost any industry that we work in. I mean, I experience it in my industry, the idea of accessibility of technology. The fact that you can go to Best Buy right now or go online and buy a camera that shoots something at 24 frame rate cinematic ratio. That shoots in an anamorphic when back in the day you had to rent that lens from Panasonic in Woodland Hills and go to film school for four years. And you didn't know what it looked like when you looked through the viewfinder until the film was developed. Accessibility, I think, is a great power and virtue of the industry. And I think that we definitely track that over the course of the season where our characters in the first season, these two guys, and then a couple other characters, feel like the young upstarts. By season four in 1994, they are struggling to keep up with what's going on. They feel like the old guys in the room. And they're in their early 40s and young 30s. It's the 14 -year-old who is creating something out of nothing, not thinking about the business plan of it all that is blowing their minds. And I think that it's amazing to see that happen even today in this industry and mine. And I think a lot of that is due to the way technology has developed and allowed so many through the door. The democratization of so many things, I think, is fascinating to see. What's interesting is the characters, they've obviously grown, and they have the same sort of problems and interpersonal issues as they go forward. But they're always optimistic, right? From 83 to 94, they're always thinking about, we're going to create this new thing, we're going to create this new thing, which comes across in the show. That doesn't really come across in Westworld and Black Mirror. That's more like, you know, the robots are going to kill us all. We're all dead. We're all dead. So why is it that, you know, if you were to learn from history, you'd say there was this incredible optimism. Now we get to today and we think, yeah, we're all completely screwed at this point by technology. I don't know. There's a few answers to that. I think on a character level, I think we follow people who are always focused on the next thing, right? And I think that we can do that no matter where we work or who we're with. Focusing on and placing our happiness on what's to come, right? This will be the breakthrough. Tomorrow we can reach our arms out farther, you know, as Jay Gatsby said, right? And there is a kind of grasping in that, that the characters are constantly engaged in. And it's born out of a joy and an innocence, I think, and a zealousness for what they believe in. None of these characters are snake oil salesmen. They really believe in what they're doing. And yet, they're never satisfied with where they are. They're always moving forward, looking for the next thing. They lose this competition over here, and they move on. This relationship falls apart, and they go to the next thing. And so they're never focused on where they are. And I think that over the course of the journey of the series, and this is something that we try to really portray in season four, is these five characters realizing that about their lives and then deciding whether or not they can actually step off the wheel, if it's impossible, to actually stop and be happy with what you've done and what you've built. I think there's a character in the first episode that asks another character, how many times do you have to be right? I think that that's something that we're all familiar with even today. I think on the technology side, you know, what's interesting about the time back then is when people started pulling apart the IBM PC or building web pages, they did it because it was fun. I know Dr. Ledbetter did it a few times just for kicks to see how fast he could do it. I think that my first experiences on the Internet were really just exploring, and there's a joy in that. I think what's interesting and almost an unspoken undercurrent in the show is that there's a tremendous ambivalence about technology now. As I was mentioning to you backstage, you can't hit a switch and turn this all off and be like, oh, no, you know what? Let's back up. Let's all get rid of the phones in our pockets. We're inextricably tied to this forever no matter where it goes. I think there is a fear, especially in artists' minds, probably all of our minds, that we might be on a train that we're no longer piloting. There are scary places and scenarios that you can take that train in your mind, and I think then you get shows like Westworld. Then you get Stephen Hawking talking about how we should only stick to SETI and not METI. We shouldn't put signals out into space saying, hey, look over here. The way I explained that to my son was that's how shark eat smaller animals is they hear signals and thrashing in the water, and they come and devour something. I think that technology is moving so fast that we human beings can't adapt to it as fast as the things that we are building at this point. Is it also that we can't imagine the consequences of what we're doing? I think so. I think there's not a lot of foresight, and the characters in our show, at least, they don't have the benefit of hindsight. There's really just looking forward and not knowing that it's going to explode and rapidly change things so quickly. I think that we just don't have the benefit of knowing the future because, in a way, the characters in this show talk a lot about the future. In the writer's room, we talk about atomic weight of words, right? A word can feel really heavy if you say it a lot, and future is one, right? You can really wear that word out, and people go, oh, my God, stop talking about the future. I think we even have a character in Season 3 say, there's no such thing as the future, it's just people trying to sell you another crappy version of the present. There is a way to look at that as, again, to come back to it, the characters are always looking forward, and in your head is the ideal, right? Then the reality is always different from the ideal, and I think that's very true in technology. Although, as I walk into this building and see that wall, which is extremely distracting, but amazing, where I go into a company like Netflix, where it's a wraparound screen and you're watching television shows they make in some sort of weird tableau, or even checking in at Southwest the other day, where I imagine walking in when I was 10 years old and just seeing those glowing kiosks that your information's in. It does get pretty close, but again, we just can never predict. Another thing that's interesting is that if you look at the 83, they've got this physical machine, there's even that smoke that comes out, the spark and everything, and by 94, it's all software. The hardware is not so important in terms of what's happening in the industry, which means that a lot of what you're trying to portray is really quite boring, right? When I sit in front of a computer and I type, it's not very interesting to watch. So how do you dramatize that? How do you tease out what's going on, that creative process? Well, again, low ratings. But I will say that it's interesting, we've struggled with it since the pilot, because for me, I love it when the characters have something to hold, and the actors appreciate that too, right? When they can have a soldering iron and they can work with wiring and they can look at the chip, they can hold the device. But even our pilot director was a filmmaker named Juan Campanelli, he's from Argentina, and we brought him in, and he's a wonderful filmmaker, and he won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, and we turned on an IBM PC for him, and he turned to us and he was like, that's what it does? He was like, it doesn't do anything. He was like, this is the most boring thing I've ever seen. And now we don't even have that. Now we have computer screens that are blank, and we're building websites and visual effects that are these inert pages, and the actors, they know enough of what they need to type, but they can't see it. And so when you portray that... Oh, so they're typing with a dead screen in front of them. There's a dead screen in front of them, right? And some of the background actors, they don't even get visual effects screens, they get these things called acetates, which are little burn-ins, they're little cards, and they're perfectly fit, and you can slot them into a computer that's off, and so in a passing wide shot, it looks like the computer's on. So that's even less interesting when you get a background actor who's staring at a Microsoft Word document that says nothing and will never be able to be interacted with ever. Is this some sort of terrifying metaphor? The machine actually doesn't care about what we're typing? Yeah, it's just off. It's off. It's like, it could be on or off. Well, we tried to turn some of these machines on. I think we got a bunch of Zenith computers in the first season, and we said, well, can we do some of this practically? And we turned one on, and it actually caught on fire on set. Yeah, there was a little flame coming out of the top. I did that with one of my own machines from the 80s, and it's well -documented on my blog. Luckily, my wife was out when it happened. How do you research this? I mean, apart from Carl. Well, I will say that Carl has been an incredible resource on our show. I mean, here's a guy who is a venture capitalist and has done everything under the sun, and you talk about people who do this job because they love it. This guy came on to our show in the pilot and doesn't need to do this, but he was so invested that he joined us on set for the reverse engineering sequence because we couldn't script that sequence. It was so difficult for us, a bunch of guys with liberal arts degrees, to understand what was going on, that we needed somebody like Carl. And Carl has been a tremendous resource, and from the get-go, everything that we tried to put on screen, we've tried to get right out of respect for the story we're telling. It lends to the plausibility of the world to make sure it's right. We had to go from perfect and right and 100% correct to defensible because we did get to periods where, in certain seasons, we had Carl, and then we might have another tech advisor who specified in that arena, and they would start to disagree with each other. We were getting to such a granular level. But it's great to hide behind Dr. Ledbetter and say, well, he said it was right. Now, I just found out a couple days ago that there's a scene in Season 4 where the characters are playing Doom, and we accidentally used the 2013 reissue of Doom on the screen. And people were able to tell why the icon... This is why you have low ratings. I know, right? People got pissed off. Now, there are people that don't watch the show. It's very hard to find someone who does watch the show. Right. But I think that it was a gaming community that said they used the wrong Doom, and, of course, I fired my entire post-production staff. No, I didn't. But that's the case. It's like, at a certain point, we're doing the best we can, but things are going to fall through the cracks. Hopefully, the human drama is carrying you through. Right, exactly. It is actually a human drama. We showed a clip which is very, very technical, but it is actually a human drama. How do you get inside their heads and portray what's in their heads? Because it's all going on in their heads, right? What we talked about, at least in the technology aspect of the story, we make sure it's right. We do our research. We make our writers do their homework. The actors, thankfully, this cast was incredible. They would do their homework as well and try to understand it as much as possible. But we try to write it and convey in a sense that these characters are experts in their field. If you trust that they know what they're talking about, then we don't have to cover all of it. Because if we try to cover all of it, the few people we have watching the show will turn it off. Right? Because it will get even more boring. I think that for us, it's really, when we get into the writer's room, it's breaking the character stories. And what's wonderful about the technology is it can be a delicious metaphor for so many things, right? Right now, we are telling the story of buying search projects. What's the right way? Is it an automated algorithm, something like Excite? Or is it the human touch, right? Is it the index like Yahoo built? And even those words, if you look at automated versus human touch, right? One sounds more alluring than the other, but you can make those, you can play with those dynamics, and then you can pit the characters who have been through so much together and have so much animus towards each other and have so much baggage and put them on opposite sides of that adversarial conflict. And then you've got some story. You know, I think you, last season, we talked about the rise of the Internet and the birth of the backbone. And then we have a character by the end who becomes disillusioned not only with his mentor, but also what he's building, right? And the mentor and what he's building become the same thing. And he's able to look at the Internet and say, what have we wrought? That stuff is really great for us. And in the writer's room, we really try to churn through that. If we get sidetracked in the writer's room and we spend an hour talking about print drivers, then I look over and I'm like, our writer is doodling and it's very quiet and people are sleepy from a big lunch. We've got to bring it back to the human drama and say, you know, what if Gordon punched Joe in the face? You know, and even if we don't do that, it lightens things back up and gets it to that human place. So you don't think device drive is very interesting? I do. I mean, this is my favorite sequence we ever did. But, you know, you can get too granular and you'll lose your audience. All right. So we're going to stop and then take some questions from the audience. I would say if you want to watch the rest of that clip, it does get better. There is a whole sequence where they just read out hexadecimal numbers for quite a long time. It's absolutely wonderful. So who's got questions for Chris? Okay, we've got one over here. So being a gray beard who's been in Silicon Valley for 40 years, I noticed that during the period you talked about, it was mainly engineers that controlled the way things were. And then there was a transition in the 90s when the dot-com boom reached a certain stage where the business types took over. I'm wondering if you agree with that phenomenon and if you can comment on that and if that will affect your future storylines. Well, you know, I will say, well, one, season four is our last season, I think, and you can watch all of the seasons on Netflix, which is great, and the fourth season is airing now. But it is really interesting the push and pull between the people who understand it and the people who build it and the people who can sell it. And sometimes you're the same person, and that's an incredible rare quality to have because that person is unstoppable. But when you have somebody, the guy in the suit in this shot is the suit. He's a character named Joe McMillan, and he is often, you know, the ideas guy, and he's a visionary, but he's constantly assailed by the other characters for not knowing how to do the thing that he actually wants them to do. They're the ones that they think they hold the power and he thinks he holds the power. So I think there's a really interesting struggle in that that we try to dramatize throughout. I think as the technology gets even more ephemeral, right, as we move into the 90s, where it just seems like magic, and as you were saying, it's more accessible to people, that might have given the business guys an upper hand. For our characters at that point, I think they're the veterans in the industry, and they're already just kind of tired from abusing each other so much that they're just trying to survive. But we definitely see that. You've got, you know, the venture capitalists are holding all the chips, and the engineers are few and far between. I think even in the... There's a joke in the last episode of our final season here where, you know, we went from a team of engineers in season one, and there's a team of 100 people working at the Yahoo-like company, and there's one guy that manages the website, and he's asleep at his desk, right, because the business is just swirling around everybody, and there's less focus on the engineer at that point. All right. There are more questions. There's one right down here in the front. Hello. I'm assuming you've seen the movie Hackers where there's this visualization of, you know, traveling through the network, and normally there's this problem that you guys have addressed of, you know, when somebody sits down at their computer to code, it's quite boring to portray on screen. Have you thought about visualizing that activity, or do you have any thoughts about how that might be done better? We have. I mean, I think that it's tricky because you... I mean, well, one, Hackers is a masterpiece. As is that sequence in Disclosure when Michael Douglas is, like, moving through a room with, like, some sort of bionic glove on his hand. That's what I do all day. You just sit in your office and... That would be awesome if that's what Cloudflare did. We're making the Disclosure technology real. You know, we tried to do... It's tough. We tried to do a sequence last year where the two main characters were moving through the digital community they built online, which is modeled a little bit on Habitat from the mid-'80s. But then it looked bad. You get it back, and it pulls you out of the story. So sometimes we can visualize, and sometimes we just have to go with what's real. And I think oftentimes what's real, a viewer can respond to it more. I think we... Our show just has a really delicate pH balance, and even slow motion in a show like this, where they're working on computers at the end of the day, it's not The Walking Dead, can pull you out. So we just try to keep it real, and we try to have the writing and the characters be as strong as possible. All right, one last quick question, if there is one. Okay. Over here. You have 27 seconds. Hi, thanks. I wanted to ask you about the notion of an origin story. You know, part of what... When my colleague first said, you've got to watch this show called Halt and Catch Fire, it's the story of Compact. And then I think of movies like The Social Network, which have this sort of mythologizing effect of an origin story. Do you think there's four seasons of a great drama or a great Oscar -winning film buried behind the backstory of every billion-dollar company? Is there a Cloudflare movie that needs to be made? I think you... I mean, you've got some interesting folks working here. I mean, I think the way we determine that is by meeting with the people themselves on the ground. That's where we've gotten the best stories, right? It's not in the Wikipedia entries. It's going to the library, reading the books that were written at the time about those folks, and then meeting with people. I mean, Carl has amazing stories. Our tech consultants have amazing stories. The ones that we've come across like that, that's what inspires, I think, the human drama. And humans work at Cloudflare, so I'm sure that you could find a really good story there behind the people that have built this company. But I mean, I think that... I mean, I was just watching the panel before this, and I mean, my God, the time we're in now. I mean, and Cloudflare's place in that, I think, is fascinating. I was watching with rapt attention in the back room this conference, because there's a lot of really interesting, complex issues at play. And a lot of people with well -meaning intentions, but with the technology that's growing so fast, I almost felt like my heart racing listening to the CEO talk about hosting, because I just imagine how many things are being created and how fast that train is moving already. How do you stop and go, what's right? I mean, my goodness. It's a crazy industry. Chris, thank you so much for this. Thank you. It's been absolutely fantastic. Thank you. 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