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Backbeat‘s view of seedy, early ’60s Hamburg, inspired by Astrid Kirchherr’s black-and-white photos of the fledgling Beatles, might seem very different from the multiculti, Day-Glo-colored, contemporary cyber- Manhattan of Hackers. But not to Iain Softley, who directed both films.
“I don’t see it as a complete departure,” says the British director. “I was offered many scripts after Backbeat. And Hackers was the only thing that offered any of the [same] elements.”
The original screenplay “had a lot of energy,” and dealt with questing youth and emergent subcultures, explains Softley during a promotional visit to D.C. “Those obviously clicked with me, though I wasn’t looking for something that followed the same patterns.”
When he began developing the film, Softley admits, his knowledge of computers was “minimal. I knew about word processing, basically. I thought [hackers] were middle-class nerds in their parents’ top room.”
Hackers portrays its teen-age computer nerds as glamorous, sexy, and plugged in to a demimonde that Softley labels, with British earnestness, “rave culture.” Today’s growing interest in computers and increased availability of computing power, the director believes, mirrors the early ’60s, the era of transistors, cheap electric guitars, and Europe’s new exposure to American music. “I could see that there were strands that would all come together,” he says.
“The same thing happened with rock ‘n’ roll. I saw it very much as a point in time,” he says. “I see what’s happening in cyberculture now as what was happening in rock ‘n’ roll 25 to 30 years ago.”
“Rave culture” is more a British than an American enthusiasm, so perhaps it’s fitting that much of the film was shot at London’s Pinewood Studios. “There were strong economical reasons for shooting in the U.K.,” notes Softley. “It costs three times as much to shoot in New York as London.”
Hackers is British in other ways as well; all the songs on the soundtrack are by such U.K. techno acts as Underworld, Orbital, Stereo MCs, and Leftfield. The latter’s palpitating synthbeat also introduced Shallow Grave, the Scottish black comedy released earlier this year, but Softley rejects the suggestion that Hackers‘ music proclaims a British sensibility. “It identifies it as more than a British movie,” he asserts. “It identifies it as a cutting-edge cultural movie.”
“The music is a very important element. Rave culture and cyberculture have moved a lot closer together.” When the film was shown to test audiences, Softley adds, “the music tested through the roof.”
The director doesn’t worry that Hackers‘ New York isn’t very convincing. Hacking, he says, “is like a technological hallucination.” When planning the film, “what I saw was that I could make Manhattan almost like a fantasy island.”
Softley notes that he didn’t make Backbeat “slavishly documentary” either. “There was a degree of stylization,” he explains, in such elements as the set representing Kirchherr’s apartment. “We put it all together into this hallucination of her apartment, if you like.” When Kirchherr saw it, Softley recalls, she said, “ “It wasn’t like this. But I feel totally at home here.’ ”
“Perhaps in a bigger sense, I did the same thing in Hackers.”
In addition to the scenes shot on New York locations or London sets, much of the film takes place inside cyberspace itself. According to Hackers, it’s a brightly colored, psychedelic expanse not unlike those depicted in Johnny Mnemonic and even Tron.
Despite his rapturous explanation of how computers figure in an ascendant “tribal” youth culture, Softley rejected the idea that these sequences be computer- generated. “I was very insistent that it be shot with models,” he says. “I wanted it to look three-dimensional. It was a way of making it look more cinematic. I wanted it to feel like infinite space.
“To my mind,” he adds, “computer graphics just look like computer graphics.”
Despite his rejection of computer-generated images, the director thinks Hackers is ahead of the curve. “I wanted the movie to be a movie of its time,” he says, and apparently it is. “Reality caught up with us,” he notes. “I came up with the idea of a club we could people with cyberpunks. Now those sort of clubs have started to appear in reality.”
Also catching up with Hackers, and in most cases pulling ahead, were such other cyber-themed films as The Net, Virtuosity, Strange Days, and Mnemonic. “It would have been nice, I guess, to have come out first,” allows Softley. But “from what I know of these movies, there isn’t any other movie like this. There are no other movies in my knowledge that try to portray, albeit in a stylized way, things that exist in the real world.”
“I wanted Hackers to be accessible,” he says. “I wanted it to be entertaining. I wanted it to be a joyride. I think it was a more daring film to make than Backbeat.”
Softley concedes that his first picture didn’t entirely connect with the under-30 audience. “I don’t think they knew it was for them. [But] when young people saw it, they liked it,” he argues, citing Backbeat‘s Rocky Horror-style extended runs at a few theaters in London.
The director hopes young viewers will understand that Hackers is for them. “I wanted [both] movies to be for people who are the same age as the ones the movies are about. It’s a crucial time. It’s a time when you define yourself.”
Softley pauses for a moment, apparently contemplating the films he’ll make in the future. “I don’t know,” he muses, “if I’ve got that out of my system yet or not.”