WarGames occupies a special place in American pop culture. It's at once an artifact of the Cold War era--filled with anachronistic technology, Soviet paranoia, and bumbling military leaders--and a prescient film that foresaw the rise of young hackers and the tight grip that technology would have on daily life. The writers of the movie, Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes, originally imagined the story as the tale of a brilliant scientist, based on Stephen Hawking, and his young protege. During their research, the writers were introduced to a young California hacker named David Scott Lewis, who became the model for Matthew Broderick's character David Lightman, and helped the writers move the story in the direction of hacking, AI, and the influence of machines in our society. This Q&A has been condensed and edited from a podcast interview with Lewis.
Dennis Fisher: I know that the writers, Lasker and Parkes, talked to a bunch of security experts while doing research for the movie and the original script wasn't exactly ended up being WarGames, but how did the writers end up getting into contact with you originally?
David Scott Lewis: A friend of mine was working as a secretary at the William Morris Agency in Beverly Hills. She was a secretary to Marty Caan, who is James Caan, the actor, his brother, and he was at least at that time he was representing, I'm not sure it was both Larry and Walter, but at least one of them, he was representing at least one of them. So she was the introduction. What they were looking for originally, their idea was a kid who was going to become Stephen Hawking’s protege. That's what the whole basis was. He won a science fair and that's it. It had nothing to do with anything at all about this. So when they met me, that's when it went into a different direction. And this would've been back, I believe, probably in ‘78 or ‘79.
Fisher: So it took that long because the movie came out in ‘83. At that point were you a high school student?
Lewis: I was in college at that point and I had done a lot of hacking at that point and that's kind of where they got their inspiration to go with a completely different direction based upon what I kind of told them about what I did for fun and other things that I did. It was very different than the Stephen Hawking protege idea, obviously. And it has really not much to do with that. The Falken character is based on Hawking and so that still stayed in the movie, but the idea of a protege now that really, I don't really see that from the movie. I mean, I guess there are certainly those links of David perhaps taking over from Falken at some point, but it was much more of a closer relationship how they perceived it in their original idea.
Fisher: I would like to see that movie, honestly, the Falken protege movie.
Lewis: In the movie, it's kind of like David doesn't really know any of this stuff, but in fact I was involved. I was attending monthly meetings at Hughes Aircraft. So I was attending all these meetings so I have much more knowledge than what's perceived in the movie. And I think one thing to bring up is that a lot of what's going on here is really at the RAND Corporation and in the movie in Seattle. So what was that? Pacific Northwest Labs. So it's, so the fictional is the PNL in Seattle. But in reality it's the RAND Corporation. And actually the library scene and all of that, which is very accurate, believe it or not, is actually at the university research library at UCLA. So I lived on Wilshire Boulevard and it was one bus to get to UCLA and it was one bus for me to get to the RAND Corporation. And back then RAND didn't have any real security. You could just walk in, do whatever you want.
Fisher: The thing that I love about the Lightman character in the movie is he's obviously kind of proficient at computers, but they don't portray him as an expert, like a hacker. He just kind of stumbles onto this system while he's looking for a video game company in Sunnyvale. How much were you involved in helping them shape Lightman the character itself as well as kind of the accuracy of the hacking and computer scenes?
Lewis: So I would say a lot to both questions. The character was more based on me than anyone else by far. They had met with other people, but very few people actually had any impact on the character. There's even lines that I said. It was kind of funny when they were doing it was this whole idea that I came up with on this space laser weapons and charged particle beam weapons and all of that. And then they basically just scrapped it all. And based upon what I told them, they said that's the character. So David Lightman in the movie, he's thinking these things. I took, I took Larry one time out to Santa Ana to a meeting of an organization we called PCC, didn't have any official acronym meaning, but it was a very early days, mostly HP 84, 65 users. So it was kind of like an HP users group early days. And I showed Walter how to hack. I think that was probably the first time they actually ever saw any real hacking. I won't say what I hacked, but it was a little out there. And I'm still friends with Larry.
Fisher: You mentioned you were in college when you ran into these guys. What was your kind of introduction/inspiration into the hacking culture?
Lewis: Great question. So there was a segment on 60 Minutes. This has never been said anywhere. It was called Dial E for Embezzlement and when I saw this I wrote to 60 Minutes to ask them for a copy of the transcript, which they sent me for free by snail mail and I got it and I had gone over it many times and I said, yeah, this is something to run with. And that was my inspiration.
Fisher: So 60 Minutes kind of got you interested in it and then did you think that this was going to become a career for you or did you figure it was just kind of a hobby at that point?
Lewis: Oh, absolutely not a career. If I would have thought it was a career, I might be the director of Central Intelligence now. That would've been great foresight on my part. Let's put it back in perspective. Back then it was a hobbyist environment. There were two main computer magazines that we always read each month there was David Hall's Creative Computing, which was on the software side and then Byte, which was on this side. I had an interest in what was going on from the military perspective and then I was a PC hobbyist too. But this is ham radio operators who did hacking.
Fisher: Did you stick with the computer culture and all of that through college and afterwards?
Lewis: I did, but I went off and sold my soul to the evil corporate world and I became an executive at Microsoft, Oracle and Samsung. So I really went corporate at some point. All my heart and soul are always in this. I will be a hacker until the day I die.
Fisher: When the movie came out in 1983, did you go see it in the theater? What was your experience like?
Lewis: So I got obviously to see the opening, but in Westwood, but, yeah, I did see in the theaters. You know, it really wasn't that popular when it first came out. It became, in some ways I think WarGames evolved more into a cult movie. I can tell you, I did see it a few times in some of the larger theaters. This is all in Los Angeles. I'm living in LA at the time and there really weren't that many people. I believe it was the third largest or fourth largest grossing movie in the US for that year. I'm not sure about that. I think it was the third after Trading Places and Return of the Jedi, which, oh, you know what guys? Yeah, not bad. So it'd done very well worldwide. But I didn't see a lot of people in the theaters when I went there. I think it kind of took off over time.
I will be a hacker until the day I die.
Fisher: I definitely remember seeing it in the theater and it was one of those movies that early cable culture I think helped a lot when everybody started to get cable. This one ended up being on pretty often and I worked at a video store when I was in high school in Virginia and I can remember renting WarGames dozens of times.
Lewis: Nobody was expecting it would do that well. And of course as I think you mentioned and other people have mentioned then it kind of led to Sneakers. But I don't think the ties between WarGames and Sneakers are as tight as a lot of people say. I think that's misleading. I wasn't involved with Sneakers, but we had talked about that Sneakers are supposed to be the physical security, cyber security was WarGames. So there's a link but it's not really as tight as a lot of people think. They really were different movies.
Fisher: They're both classics. Sneakers I think is one of my two or three favorite movies of all time. It's, I just love it. When you were dealing with the writers and when the movie came out, how much did your friends and family and everybody know that you were involved with the development of the script?
Lewis: Everybody knew. But nobody knew what it would ultimately become. That would become like a hacker classic. So it's like, okay, so I'm in some goofy movie. It's like, okay, who cares? So nobody thought anything of it. Everybody knew, but nobody ever thought anything of it. So it wasn't a big deal.
Fisher: Were you pleased with the way that it turned out?
Lewis: The original screenplay was different. David was more of an Elliot or Neo character, you know, referring to the Matrix and Mr. Robot. So David was a little bit darker in the screenplay. That part I didn't like because I thought my character, my personality was better captured in the movie than it was in the screenplay. The screenplay, hackers would love it because the screenplay was very accurate. It was more in depth on the hacking side. And then ultimately the director figured there's no way you're going to be able to put this on the screen back in that timeframe that people would have zero idea what you're talking about. I think I still have a copy of the original screenplay and I should put that up someday, because I think people would really enjoy reading the screenplay. They wrote a book after the movie and the book I never read, but Larry told me the book was a little bit goofy. You know how that works. But the screenplay, I think hackers would enjoy reading. I think a lot of people would enjoy reading the screenplay. I just didn't like that, the David character, but he's still a good guy, just like Neo’s a good guy and Elliott's a good guy. He's still a good guy, but there's a little darker element to it than what we see in the movie where he's just basically just having fun in the movie.
Fisher: During the production of the movie, did you get to go to the set at all or anything fun like that?
Lewis: I did and it was pretty cool and Matthew Broderick was a really nice kid but I wasn't very involved at that point. When you're making a movie, it takes on a life of its own and it's a very different process than writing the screenplay in a little nice office in West Hollywood. It's just very different, so I wasn't very much involved with it at that point.
Fisher: So how much did you pay attention to the way that the hacker culture evolved after you were kind of out of it, into the corporate world?
Lewis: I would have probably stayed on the cyber side. So that's what I would've done had I been able to see what it was. But again, remember I'm coming at this as a hobbyist and although I'm interested in the cyber aspects of it, the hacking part was more as a hobbyist, and so yeah, if I would've seen that, I wasn't really surprised by it, but, but I didn't see it as like a career opportunity for myself at that time. I really didn't. I don't know if there would have been much of a career. I don't think it was really clear to anybody at that point that that's the way it would evolve. Dennis Fisher: No, I don't think so. I mean it was 10 to 15 years before the security industry itself started to even develop. The career path was not really there unless you were, as you said, maybe working in government or starting your own firm somewhere.
Lewis: Exactly, yeah. I 100 percent agree. So yeah, I didn't see that. One thing I don't want to forget mentioning is the AI component of this. If you think about it, WarGames was the first movie to show AI in its own time. And what I mean by that is certainly you saw how bad AI is projecting out from 1969 to the year 2001. Right? And everything you're seeing in science fiction is about artificial intelligence. Looking to the future. WarGames had AI in its present time. In fact, when David is at the university research library, they show Falken’s Maze. Falken’s is on the cover of Scientific American. So, in this alternate universe, it should be assumed that Falken’s Maze is well known. This is not an obscure kind of thing.
Fisher: You seem to be kind of of two minds on the character, like the way he came out on the screen as opposed to the way he was in the screenplay, but I liked the way that the character kind of evolves over the course of the story too. He clearly learns more about what's going on, gets some insight into the defense industry and the military industrial complex there and sees how kind of the research world is treating these kind of topics through Falken.
Lewis: Exactly, yes. I totally agree. That's true. I think that's typical of the way I am. I'm 60 years old and I think that's still typical the way I am today and I think that that was accurately, I think portrayed as that aspect and I think that's something that Larry and Walter saw in me very quickly when they first met me and that's one of the things they liked about basing things on, on my character too, to the extent that they did.