Blackhat Q & A: Michael Mann, Chris Hemsworth, Leeham Wang, and Wei Tang!

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Blackhat Q & A

Just so you’re aware, there are a couple minor spoilers here, but nothing that will make a big difference to seeing the movie.

The following transcript begins just after the official introductions when Michael Mann was asked to speak about the authenticity of the film:

Michael Mann:  Audiences I believe are… we’re very smart.  We’re perceptually much more brilliant than we even know we are, whether it’s coming in through the amigdala or whatever.   You know when something feels authentic and when it doesn’t.  There’s the expression that somebody’s faking it or they’re performing, or they’re really feeling it, and we all know it.

Parisa Tabriz: So it would be safe to say then that all the actors on stage have exploited software? (LAUGHS)  So I’m curious, how did you guys… do you know how to program?

Leehom Wang: We tell the press all day that we do, but in front of you guys we should probably say otherwise…

Chris Hemsworth: We attempted to scratch the surface, but that was about it.  (Holds up microphone) I don’t even know how to work this (Audience laughs).  No, we did, as Michael said, months of computer lessons and working with people who are in [the computer security] field and hackers and one guy in particular who spent time in prison due to cybercrime but is now out.  We talked to sections of the government who deal with cybersecurity.  For me, it was about just immersing myself in that world as much as I could so it wasn’t as unfamiliar and daunting as it once was.  That’s exactly what Michael says, once you have that belief or confidence, then whether or not it’s true, because I didn’t become as intelligent as this character (laughs), you go into the scene and attack it in a different way.  At the start of working, I hadn’t been immersed in it as much, so I’m thankful to Michael’s process.

Michael Mann: Well we worked with Kevin Paulson quite extensively and Chris Mckinley who is a mathematician at UCLA who hacked iCupid and became the most desirable male in Los Angeles for a period of time.

Chris Hemsworth: That’s the next movie (Everyone Laughs).  You know that story?  Is that pretty well known?

Parisa Tabriz: So I have more questions, but I want to see if anybody…  I see one hand

Audience Member: It’s going to bug me if I don’t ask this.  So in the middle of the movie, you point to the screen and say “that’s the IP address”, but it’s not an IP address.  (Audience laughs)

Chris Hemsworth: That’s very well-spotted, and we put that in just for this particular audience, (joking) that will not be in the final cut.

Audience Member:  These were probably the most plausible hacking scenes I’ve seen in a movie (Audience Cheers).  I’ve been involved in [all aspects of computer security] myself and from someone who has been involved in consulting for these kinds of things, you guys did a stellar job.

Michael Mann:  Thank you.

Chris Hemsworth: Thank you.

[Audience Member asked about a scene late in the movie and one of the key villains]

Michael Mann: In Hong Kong? In the construction of Kassar, in my mind he was a Christian Philandrist, he was involved in the civil war in Lebanon, he became an expert at close-quarter combat, that became a commodity on the open market, he probably wound up in Chica Del Este in Paraguay first and then from there he may have gone to Argentina and probably hooked up with Saddak.  He has loyalties to people he works with and he doesn’t have any connections to much of anybody else.  

Audience Member: Has the recent Sony breach affected the movie industry at all?

Michael Mann:  When I got back from Washington about two and a half years ago with a better understanding of vulnerabilities and how much cyberintrusion and cyberespionage/cyberattack was going on, nobody in Los Angeles knew what we were talking about.  So now it’s out there and everybody knows what we’re talking about.  The first [reaction] is sadness because these are our friends, I mean we know these people, Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton, and it’s an attack.  It’s an attack in the same way that the attack on Aramco used a very similar kind of hacking.  It was an attack meant to destroy something.  People have told me that on a scale of intrusions from one to ten, it’s about a four or a five.  So it’s effective, it’s certainly popularized it.

Audience Member:  That was a really fun movie.  I’ve done a lot of digital forensics and it totally involved shanking guys in markets as well.  It feels a lot like a very traditional sort of espionage movie.  So is it actually fun to play hackers as opposed to…

Chris Hemsworth: When they get to shank people, yeah (Everyone laughs).  I mean in this detail and in this setting, absolutely.  I mean this was a portion of the world that I knew nothing about, that I was incredibly naïve about as are most of us outside this room, and the rest of the world.  But to do it with Michael Mann and to do it with his attention to detail and his process is hugely exciting and fun.  And now I know how to navigate my way through a computer.

Leeham Wang

Leehom Wang: Everything’s so dramatic with this film.  When you’re hacking you’re typing in code, but it plays into the story and the character and it’s all so driven I’m on the edge of my seat while I’m watching Chris Hemsworth type ( Everyone laughs).  And maybe that’s how it is in the real world too (more laughs).  

Audience Member:  I love the way the movie started and the visual representation of the intrusion.  Can you talk a little bit about how that came about?

Parisa Tabriz: The CG opening sequence…

Michael Mann:  Qualcom gave us a 3D model of one of their chips from about eight years ago.  I didn’t want to have guys riding motorcycles on a 3D grid (Everyone laughs).  But I also didn’t want to start with just watching people type because that’s boring, so how much could I get it to look photo real and kind of take us through the journey with certain representational treks of something that’s got a surplus of electrons, a surplus of electrons is not going to glow, but that was the idea, as if you had a camera that could go down to about 28 thousand power and take you right down to the transistor layer.  To try to visualize that.  It was probably one of the most annoying tasks in the making of this entire movie dealing with the CGI folks and getting this done.  

Audience Member: Now that you know more about security, do you find the internet scary?

Michael Mann:  I think it’s a big comeback for pencils and pads of paper (laughs).  No, not at all, we’re just very careful.  The investigative journalist Seymour Hersh was asked the same question and he said, no I have no fear that my sources are going to be discovered because none of them are on my phone or on my computer.  But people ask us if in going to Hong Kong we take our laptops, and none of us take our laptops.

Parisa Tabriz:  I work at google, and we’ve had problems working as a business in China and other countries.  What was it like filming in Jakarta and Hong Kong, were there any logistical challenges or problems that you guys ran into?

Leehom Wang:  Google worked in both those places (Audience laughs).

Michael Mann: All of us loved it.

Chris Hemsworth:  Short of being able to take your phone or your computer with you, that made things difficult.  Just handwritten notes across the set.  But [Hong Kong] was one of the most fascinating places I’ve been to, a combination of the incredibly new and digitally evolved, and the old, the fishing villages we were running through in the escape sequences with people doing things the way they have for hundreds of thousands of years.  So it matched up and that was a pretty special experience.  [To Leehom Wang] As you pointed out, you hadn’t seen half the places that Michael found and scouted.

Leehom Wang: And I’d been living there for twenty years.  [Indicating Mann] He was in a helicopter all the time.

Michael Mann: Right, in a helicopter planning this stuff.  It was great.  Indonesia hadn’t had a movie shoot there since the year of Living Dangerously, and they only shot there for three weeks and then they were asked to leave.  And Indonesia was fantastic.  They really welcomed us and [Jakarta] was a very difficult city to move around in.  Jakarta has a population of 10 million at night and 20 million during the day, 10 million people could be there to go to work.  So they had traffic as a new definition of the word traffic and we had tremendous cooperation.  Those are not digital people [during Blackhat’s final sequence], there were 5000 extras every night.  Yudhoyono who is now the president of Indonesia came by one day in short sleeves to hang out and it was a great experience.   I’ll just give you a small anecdote, we were helicopter scouting for the location of the tin mine and we saw a place that was really good and we landed and these people came out and it was an ethnic Chinese family who had been living in Malaysia for 150 years, they harvest exotic woods, they asked us to stop and just have lunch, and two and a half hours later we got back in the helicopter and flew out, but it was near where you [Leehom Wang] had shot Lust, Caution.

Leehom Wang: Both of us [pointing to Wei Tang]

Michael Mann: Both of them had shot Lust, Caution.  And so you kind of insert yourself into these I think very exciting experiences with real folks.  Palanpur is really different than Jakarta which is kind of a messy Democracy that kind of reminds me of Chicago.  Palanpur is like the Islamic Red Woods, it’s a great infrastructure.  Malaysia is extraordinary.  And Hong Kong was very exciting to find the places we were looking to find.  

Audience Member: Could you tell me a little bit about your background for the hacker antagonist?

Michael Mann:  The biography was a little bit different, I thought that he was probably somebody that came from the Balkan Wars who may have wound up in an orphanage as an infant, who had no parenting of any kind for four or five years, and kind of developed into a very dissociative kind of personality, is attracted to gaming, attracted to the virtual world.  As Hathaway says to him, it’s your scoreboard.  His motive, his objective is cash money, it’s cybercrime, but nevertheless there’s a gratification in manipulating ones and zeroes to connect to the physical world and actually causing damage.  Yorick is such a great actor that the age is wrong, [the character] really should have been fifteen years younger, but Yorick is so terrific that he was older than I originally thought the character should be, but I used him instead.

Audience Member:  Are hackers romanticized in China the way they are in the US?

Leehom Wang:  As a romantic lead?  Does the hacker get the chick in China?  Well my character, Chen Dawai, is a hacker as well, a whitehat hacker I guess, and works for the People’s Liberation Army of China and graduated from MIT.  My brother happens to have a similar background.  My little brother graduated from MIT and is also a programmer and does electronic trading and dealt with a lot of the things that this movie dealt with as far as commodities and futures and trying to manipulate them or trying to chase after them.  I don’t think it has the same romantic overtones over in China.

Parisa Tabriz: So your brother’s not a celebrity?

Leehom Wang: No, but in my eyes though, I see the celebrity in it.  

Audience Member: In computer security, we often get asked whether we are we good guys or bad guys.  I’d like to redirect the question to you, are you good guys or bad guys?

Michael Mann:  I’ll let these guys answer the question, but for me, people are people.  It’s kind of the distinction between Kevin Paulson who decides Kiss radio is [giving away something] to the 2000th caller, and he decides to become all the callers.  I can kind of connect to that, and that’s different from a cybercriminal network someplace in an eastern block country.  That emanates from a criminal subculture and is professionally there to do nothing but crime.  That’s two kinds of folks.

Chris Hemsworth:  [to Leehom Wang] Are we good or bad?

Leehom Wang: I think we’re good guys.

Chris Hemsworth:  I think we’re not. (Everyone laughs)

Leehom Wang: Wei, are you a good guy or good girl?

Chris Hemsworth: Are you good or bad?

Leehom Wang: Are you a bad girl?

Wei Tang

Wei Tang: I think when my character fell in love, she became a bad girl.  (Everyone laughs) 

Parisa Tabriz:  In Heat, there were some crime sprees in South Africa shortly after the movie Heat was released where people based their attack on a scene in the movie ramming a truck into an armored car.  In the security world, we might call that a zero day attack.  Any thoughts on this, Michael, because the implication is that you were the first director to drop a zero day attack.  

Michael Mann:  There was something in Los Angeles as well, and the LAPD called me because they found a videocassette of Heat.  It was the northlake bank robbery.  There was one reason for why they did what they did in Heat and that was to leave, and that was part of the lesson that the guys in the northlake bank robbery didn’t get, they just stayed there.  So this happened before. 

Parisa Tabriz:  Thank you all for coming.

[Applause}

After the question and answer session, Universal took everyone over to a local bar where they could continue talking to the cast and Michael Mann.  All in all, it was an exciting event and a great way to promote Blackhat.  Keep checking back for our full review of the film and let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Hemsworth and Mann