Gregory Hoblit is one director who is attracted to crime and punishment. His recent film FRACTURE was about a man who kills his wife and tries to get away with it, while arguably his best film, PRIMAL FEAR, is another man who is accused of murder. Damn, Edward Norton was rad in that flick. Oftentimes Hoblit’s work focuses on the accuser with whom we learn about during the course of the film. But in UNTRACEABLE, the new thriller starring Diane Lane and Colin Hanks, the focus is on those FBI field agents who spend their time on the internet. Whether it is pedophiles or terrorists or any other kind of monster that haunts the scary world of the web.
A few of us journalists recently had the chance to take a look at some footage from the film in an edit bay over at Sony Studios with Hoblit and the films consultant, FBI Special Agent Earnest Hilbert. And as I walked in with very little knowledge of the film aside from seeing a few of Hoblit's other work and the fact that this one contained some fun internet material, I was pleasantly surprised with what I saw.
The main focus in the series of scenes we saw included Diane Lane as Agent Jennifer Marsh who spends her time cruising for internet hackers and such. She is across from a fellow agent played by Colin Hanks with whom she shares information while she makes all sorts of friends on the net. In one scene she sets up a fake account and answers one of those annoying ads that you are crazy to click yes to (free ringtone anyone). With a, ‘sure’, ‘why not’ and a resounding yes, she soon finds her faux account being hacked. Meanwhile she finds another site of particular interest that asks her to help them kill. Okay… her curiosity is piqued.
Once she finds the site, the FBI are faced with a serial killer for the YouTube generation. There is a man tied up somewhere and he is bloody and bruised. The site claims that the more hits it gets, the faster this guys dies. Without getting overly techno babble on this, let’s just say, a whole lot of people decide to check in. And as each one does, the poor sap is basically bled dry. Marsh and the gang find themselves racing with time to save this pour schmuck, but they find that this mystery hacker is… you guessed it, UNTRACEABLE.
After a few moments of footage we got a chance to talk to Mr. Hoblit and Mr. Hilbert. It was interesting, the detail he wanted to put into the film. And Hilbert proved to be an fascinating dude with his history tracking these folks for a living. The idea of this happening is pretty scary, especially with the kind of things that people are doing to get a minute of fame, however immoral and depraved it may be.
Cinematically speaking, why does the
accuracy of the police procedures matter? How does that affect the structure
or the storytelling? Whatever you did in terms of putting the movie together
Gregory Hoblit: Well, I found just historically, going back to my days when I did a television show you may not been old enough to watch, called “Hill Street Blues“, or “L.A. Law“, or “NYPD Blue“, or movies like PRIMAL FEAR or FREQUENCY, HART’S WAR and FRACTURE, which I just did... You know, they all involve courtrooms or cops. And the lesson learned was with Hill Street. It was so gratifying to get letters from cops all over the country that said we were doing it right. That said we were portraying them warts and all, as being real human beings with failings that had good days and bad days. When it came to “L.A. Law”, I went after it the same way. I hired a guy who’d been a Stanford law student and had gone to USC film school. And we sat down, and when I shot the pilot, we went out and got lawyers around the country who were utterly experts in every aspect of the law that we were portraying in that pilot, to get it dead right. The language, the motivation, the games that were being played. I just continued that all the way through.
And when it came to this, I felt that, first of all as I may have said earlier, that there was enough good TV and enough good movies out there now. That the audience knows when you’re messing with them. That they feel it‘s authentic. They feel it’s grounded in reality. They’re gonna stay with you. If they just think you’re playing it fast and loose, and anything goes. That telling the story at the expense of any kind of credibility or good sense doesn’t matter. I am a firm believer that it does. And in this case I have sort of a personal interest in this, because my dad was an FBI agent for 26 years. And I knew what it meant to him. You know, serious job, serious guy who made a career out of it, and was proud of it. Between my dad's era and EJ's era, there is this huge gulf. And the technology has made a massive jump. It is not even the same universe. It is just so different. But in order to, I think, to tell a good story, and tell it in a responsible way, and also give a hopeful audience a window into how the Bureau proceeds to track people and get the bad guys. I just think it gives it a kind of grounding. I went after Diane [Lane] for this movie because she has a kind of quality. There is something grown up and solid about her. I believe that she wouldn't look funny wearing a gun and a badge. When she spoke about stuff, she could speak with some authority.
How real can you get before it stops
being entertaining? Some investigations just aren't that entertaining.
GH: No kidding [Laughing]. You know, you're packing a lot into two hours. And we have got to make it move. We sat down and tried to make the screens interesting and not linger too long on any of them. Not to hide anything, just because we got to get 'em moving. I found this great technical advisor by the way, because the guy that I had on “NYPD Blue”, a guy by the name of Bill Clark, who had run down the Son of Sam. And a number of other pretty bad guys during his time in New York during his twenty-six years as a detective. We would say, "Here is what we want to do, Bill. How can we make it happen in the context of the story?" And he’d would give you a way. That is the same thing we accomplished here. How do we do this?
FBI Special Agent Earnest Hilbert: It is fairly boring to watch all the steps that would take. You know, this was sped up significantly. He stuck to it as truthfully as possible while keeping everybody engaged. To run down these IPs and so on, and figure out how the bureau would go about doing that. I am no longer with the bureau, but when I did, we would go through all these iterations. You’d bounce it off of people next to you. And as far as the FBI being involved in a murder? FBI can't get involved unless it goes over state lines. So they get involved because of the Internet side of stuff, because that goes over state lines. But the murder, it’s in the area. And then it starts rolling and so on. And there is a kidnapping aspect to it so…
Was there a reason why the location of Portland, Oregon was chosen for
GH: Well, actually, the people who made the movie, Lakeshore, had made a movie up there last year. And they just liked it up there and they said, "We'd like to make another movie up there." Because it was a friendly place so they can make a movie, and fairly inexpensive compared to LA. But the film had originally been set in Maryland, in Baltimore. And so it was this thing of shooting all of the interiors and some of the exteriors up there and then going to Baltimore to shoot all the exteriors. And my production designer who’s worked with me on several movies, had headed up to Portland, and was looking at all of the things that we needed. And then Portland office, by coincidence, is a kind of a zone. It is a center for the North West. And there’s a cybercrime outfit up there. I went and met the people. And there's a woman up there named Jane Brillheart. They [Jane and her husband] were in the Los Angeles office and they had gone up there because they wanted to raise their kids up there and not here because she and her husband didn't want to raise their kids here. And Jane was forty-three and had three kids, and here she was working pedophiles. I mean, I am looking at this, and I am going, "Oh, my God!" What this woman looks at everyday and deals with everyday. Her husband had, interestingly enough, also been doing that and couldn't take it any longer. And he had gone over to the forensic side and was just pulling apart computers and dusting down hard drives. Anyway, Paul and I were looking at each other and said, "Why don't we just do this in Portland?"
Now, did you work with the Perverted Justice group that helps “Dateline” with their investigations? Aren't they out of Portland, too?
GH: Yeah he does, but these are the real guys. And it’s not at all connected.
EH: Well, one of the other things that
happened in the original script, they based the story out of FBI
headquarters. And when we sat down with them, we said, "This isn't done
at FBI headquarters. This is done in the field offices. This is the
guys on the ground doing this kind of work.” And we kicked that back
and forth. And they said, “Yeah, that makes good sense.” So we had
to find somewhere else to do it as well. That is one of the reasons it could
be moved up there.
Is there ever concern at all about revealing too much about the process?
EB: No. The step by step… is a website completely untraceable? No. It goes back to IPs, it goes back through mirrors, it goes back through Proxy bounces. It goes through all these things. And to solve that, it takes time. Its just a simple factor. It goes international. I spent a great deal of time in Eastern Europe working with the Russians and the Ukrainians, getting them to open up their information to us. The FBI has a whole division assigned just to deal with this type of stuff. And the crimes against children, the pedophilia, its the only known undercover operation that the FBI is running, and yet we still catch people doing it every single day. So, no. As much as you try to hide it or fight it, it’s a limited ability, its a machine when it comes down to it. We’re going to track you and it’s going to come back to whoever is really behind it. That is just the way it is.
So, is it possible to have a site constantly refresh as we saw in the
EH: Absolutely. In fact, there has been a number of sites I have gone after where people are doing these types of things. On the internet, when you’re querying the site, the IP address is similar to a phone number versus the domain name. The domain name constantly hits a DNS server. A domain name server. And asks for what IP is this associated with. Usually it‘s long, like Yahoo has, I think their a 216 dot something dot something. And its set, it’s gonna stay there all the way through. This guy is running various different IP addresses. His domain name, the DNS server would be poisoned to change on a regular basis. He may even be controlling it. These will all be things that the FBI would eventually figure out and work through, identify and track it back. But once again it goes to time. That would probably take upward of a couple months to figure out what was really going on, locking it down to each particular thing. So yeah, it is doable. I had a site called Carterplanet that was run out of Russia, and it was bouncing around, and moving around, until they finally put it in a location in Ohio. And I just happened to be running a search warrant against that place on something different. And I found all of their stuff there and took them down. So it is doable.
I noticed in the scenes we watched, you had AOL Messanger and so on, how much does the FBI use of that? Do they Google?
EH: Anything that the bad guys would be using. If you are on AIM, if you are on Yahoo chat, if you’re on MSN, they’re on MSN. I spent two years as a hacker, online. Meaning, they thought I was the moneyman. They brought me all of the stolen goods. They sold it to me via IRC or AIM, or something of that nature. You’ve gotta use what they’re going to use. The tools that the FBI have work better in certain environments. But if you want to understand the people you are dealing with, you gotta act like the people you are dealing with. So you get right into it. So, they will have AIM on their computers. What’s not shown in these scenes but is done. You’ll basically have a couple of different computers. One of the big issues was that in the FBI you can’t get on the internet through your desktop computer. There is a reason for that. If your computer is on the internet, it can be hacked. So the FBI network is completely separate. It controls completely separate, its an owned network, it doesn't touch the internet as a whole. They need to have an internet undercover computer that runs through a blank IP that doesn't come back to the FBI or something of that nature. And you can work from that aspect of it. And make copies from there and do everything from there.
GH: Is that the Alias?
EH: That would be the Alias Box, that
you guys utilize in the script.
GH: Actually, you’ll notice that she [Diane Lane] has three computer screens in front of her, and we tried to tell that story. That one is intra [internal FBI], and one is normal to the world and one is an alias. It just took too much time to tell the story. I wanted to so badly in order to educate about that. But it just got ponderous.
EH: And people will hammer the movie on the IP address that shows up something that shows up. You can’t use real IP addresses folks… people are going to come back to them. They are going to be 192s. They are going to be 10.0s. They are going to be 127’s route backs. Because its a movie. It is like 555, alright. You can't use AIM per say, but you can have an instant messenger up. It‘s those type of situations . And you can’’t show… I mean, the amount of time and effort they went into understanding and said, “now what would this screen look like and what would that screen look like?”, it was hours and hours and hours. But you get to that point where it is no longer entertaining to watch all of that. If you want to see how that’s done, go join the FBI. Or, hire one of us that do this on the outside.
GH: Or look at all of the outtakes.
Did you ever see anything quite like what happens in this film?
EH: Like a live streaming type of situation? Not so much. You know, with YouTube, and MySpace and so on, that’s becoming a lot more popular. The idea of putting up video about yourself. NBC just did a whole thing about kids beating each other up on TV, and then they showed the videos and so on and interviewed the kids. It’s becoming more prevalent. My last two years with the FBI, I worked counterterrorism with a eye towards the cyber side of things. In terms of, this is how terrorists are communicating. They’re using the internet, they’re sending videos to each other and so on. You are starting to see that kind of impact. You can put stream these things live, you can put them up, you can bounce them through four or five different boxes. Make this easier… [there are] sixty-five thousand doors and windows on a computer that can be opened. Not all of them will give you full access. You get in, you look inside, find an opening, and you get inside. You own that box. You create a user account. Then you go to another computer and you do the same thing. You do another one, and then another one. You bounce through each one of those as you are transmitting your information. If there is no log on each of those computers, we don't know where you came from. Okay? It doesn't mean that we can't catch you. There are other ways of doing it, but that is how it works. Same situation here, you can run it through different locations, you can mirror it off of different locations without giving all the details. And reading what people online are already writing about stuff like this, but they don't really have a grasp on what really goes into some of this stuff. I mean, you’ve got a thousand FBI agents whose job it is to just do this. Just hammer through this daily. And understand what is really going on. And we are not all experts. Like she [Diane Lane’s character] relies on her counterpart, we rely on our counterparts. We are constantly calling each other, asking how something goes.
What do you think the biggest misconception is about this line of work?
EH: That computers are like telephones. They think it is that simple. Everybody, if you’ve got a computer, it can track back that simple, to a phone. Everybody can set up a wireless network, go to the store, you can buy everything. Boom! It’s up. Heck, my seventy-year-old dad is on line playing his games. Every time I go to the house, it is one more thing to fix or manipulate. The novelty of computers is gone. It is a major part of the world now. More and more people are going to start learning it. My five-year-old kid is on web cams playing around. He knows more then I do in some regards. But the old conception was, it’s just this simple. That it just goes back to this old IP address. I saw one guy who wrote, “oh, it can’t be untraceable because it goes back to an IP address.“ Well, anybody can control an IP address. And your IP address can change everyday if you know what you are doing.
How realistic is the aspect of an FBI agent just making a phone call and getting a search warrant [regarding a scene from the movie]?
EH: It would take a bit longer than that. It wouldn’t go that quickly. But does the FBI take things like that seriously [Fraud and online theft]? Absolutely. Is it kids? Oftentimes. Is it adults? More so. Average age of the hacker, or the person doing this right now is probably eighteen to forty-five. At this point in time. Because those of us who were… I mean I bought my first computer when I was twelve, I had an Apple 2E. Now I’m almost forty and still in the mix with this. So those people are still in the mix. No, it would take a bit longer than just a phone call.
GH: To your question also, you remember too, there was a whole section in there, probably about seven or eight minutes I took. She called a judge, then this… and we went through a whole thing and my eyes were crossing. It was good… I mean, I’m glad we did it because it got it right, but do we really need this to tell the story. I’m always okay to do all that stuff, even if I know it’s going to be on the editing room floor because it all tracks. This at least is honest because we did everything honest up until there.
Then you put it all on the DVD, deleted scenes.
GH: [Hesitantly] Yeah. [Laughing] Then
you’ll see why we didn’t put them in. [Laughing] A movie like this wants
a certain pulse to it, a certain movement. I like it when the audience just
has enough information from scene to scene to start putting things together
themselves. Instead of being lead around by the nose. Because
that’s what that scene was. It was explaining in sort of agonizing
detail how it would actually happen. And it wasn’t a lot of fun. And also,
frankly, catching that kid doing what he was doing, is not the movie. It’s
an example of what she does in a given night of work.
UNTRACEABLE hits theaters on January 25
Let me know what you think. Send questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.