Director Gregory Hoblit and FBI Special Agent Ernest Hilbert Are Untraceable!
The pair talk about working on their new cybercrime thriller starring Diane Lane and Colin Hanks
Untraceable is a new cybercrime thriller from Gregory Hoblit, a man best known for his directing and producing work on such shows as Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue. He has also directed the films Frequency and Fracture. His latest project stars Diane Lane as Special Agent Jennifer Marsh. She is assigned to the FBI's cybercrime division, and must hunt down and stop Internet predators from committing various malicious acts on-line.
Early in the film, she discovers a tech-savvy web terrorist that is displaying graphic murders on his own untraceable website. The fate of each tortured victim is left in the hands of the viewing public. The more hits his site gets, the faster the tormented capture is killed. When Marsh's cat and mouse game with the on-line perpetrator turns personal, her specially trained team of computer experts must race against the clock to track him down. Otherwise, he will disappear forever. Hence, becoming Untraceable.
Billy Burke, Colin Hanks, Joseph Cross, and Mary Beth Hurt also star in the film.
Earlier today, I got a chance to visit with director Hoblit and discuss the project at length. Along for the ride was former FBI Special Agent Ernest "EJ" Hilbert. He acted as the technical advisor on the film, making sure that the details were excruciatingly accurate. While checking out a couple of scenes in their edit bay over on the Sony lot, we had the following conversation, which started by Hoblit setting up the film:
Gregory Hoblit: I've noticed over the years that producers of both television and film tend to play fast and loose with police procedure. And how things work on the Internet. And how sites are set up. How they are tracked and traced. When this film came into my orbit, I knew just from the pages of the script that the police work was not right. I knew that the FBI work was not right. I could sense that the Internet stuff wasn't. I have struggled with more work on crime shows in the past to get it right. I mean, to get it really right. I think the audience knows when you are playing fast and loose, or pulling their wings, or winking at them. By a turn of good luck, while we were prepping the movie, I found out that there was a symposium of sorts being set up by the FBI in the Westwood building. And that there was going to be night devote to cybercrime. It was something they were doing to get the citizens involved. They wanted to get the community more familiar with how things worked. Especially here in the post 911 world, where so much cooperation is needed from the community. We don't want to just have this boogieman sitting out there. So, I went over there with the writer. In the course of the evening, we came across the path of EJ. And it was very eye opening how it all works. And the kind of effort the bureau is involved in. From gun running, to white-collar crime, to pedophilia. We then set about with our special effects unit to design computer windows like they use in the FBI units. They are very accurate if not dead on. We also wanted to make sure the procedural stuff was dead on. In the context of making the movie. You know, because real life is not as fast by any means. But to make this track so everything made sense. And Ernest has been a great help in what we are doing.
In one of the early scenes that sets up the plot of the movie, Diane Lane's character explains the Internet site she has found, where a man hangs from chains in the ceiling of an apartment bleeding to death. Her supervisor tells her to shut the site down. She has already tried that, and explains, "The site's IP keeps changing constantly. Each new address is an exploited server. It is running a mirror of the site. The site's Russian main server uses a low TTL so that your computer constantly queries the name server's record. And that is how it gives you a new address so consistently. There are thousands of exploited servers on the Internet, so he is not going to run out of victims anytime soon. But he is accessing these servers so quickly; he has got to be running his own botnet. I mean, we are black holing these IPs. Every time we shut one mirror down another one pops up."
Her supervisor tells her, "I didn't understand a single word that you said. I heard Russia. What do they have to do with this?" Colin Hanks, playing Lane's partner, explains, "The domain register and the domain names are all in Russian. We have no jurisdiction there."
Cinematically speaking, why does the accuracy of the police procedures matter? How does that affect your storytelling?
Gregory Hoblit: Well, I found historical, going back to my days working on a TV show you may not be aware of called Hill Street Blues, or L.A. Law, or NYPD Blue, and movies like Primal Fear and Frequency, even Hart's War and Fracture, which I just did...All of these projects involved courtrooms. Or cops. The lesson learned was from Hill Street Blues. It was so gratifying to get letters from cops that said we were getting it right. That said we were portraying them warts and all. They were human beings with feelings 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 that had been a Stanford law student and had gone to USC film school. When we went out and shot the pilot, we got lawyers that were utter experts in every part of the law that we were portraying in the pilot. We wanted to get it dead right. The aspirations, the motivation, the games that were being played. I just continued that all the way through. When it came to this, I felt that there was enough good TV shows and enough good movies out there now. The audience knows when you are messing with them. They can feel when it is grounded in reality. They are gong to stay with you. When the think you are playing it fast and loose, and that anything goes, the credibility of the story no longer matters. I am a firm believer that people want it to be real. And I have a vested interest in it. My dad was an FBI agent for 26 years. And I know what it meant to him. He was a serious guy with a serious job. He 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. The change in technology is leaps and bounds. It is not even the same universe. It is just so different. The reality is there in order to tell a good story, and tell it in a responsible way, and to give the audience a window into how the FBI tracks and captures the bad guys. I think it gives it a sort of grounding. I went after Diane Lane because she has a certain 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 speaks, she speaks with some authority.
Is this film comparable to Se7en?
Gregory Hoblit: Yeah. I would say it is.
How real can you get before it stops being entertaining? Some police cases just aren't that entertaining.
Gregory Hoblit: No kidding. We are packing a lot into two hours. And we have got to make it move. We sat down and tried to make the screens interesting. We didn't want to hide anything, we just want to get the film moving. So, that is where EJ came in. He could help us understand the story. I found that he was a great technical advisor. Bill Clark was our technical advisor on NYPD Blue. He had run down the Son of Sam, and a couple of other bad guys during his time in New York as a detective. We would say, "Here is what we want to do, Bill. How can we make this happen in the context of the story?" And he would give you a way. That is the same thing EJ accomplished here. How do we do this? Here it is.
FBI Special Agent Ernest Hilbert: It is fairly boring to watch all of the steps this would take. This was sped up significantly. He stuck to it as truthfully as possible while keeping everybody engaged. In running down these IPs, and figuring out how the bureau would go about doing that. I am no longer with the bureau, but when I was, we would go through all this stuff. We would bounce it off of people. And as far as the FBI being involved in a murder? They can't get involved unless it goes over state lines. So they get involved in the Internet side of it, because it goes over state lines. But the murder, it is in the area. They can't do anything. Then it starts rolling. And there is a kidnapping aspect to it. So, eventually, the FBI does have to get involved.
Was there a reason why this was shot in Portland, Oregon?
Gregory Hoblit: Actually, the people that made the movie, Lakeshore, had made a movie up there last year. And they liked it. They just said, "We'd like to make another movie up there." It is friendly up there, and fairly inexpensive when you compare it to LA. But the film had originally been set in Baltimore, Maryland. So there was this thing of shooting all of the interiors in Baltimore, and then going to Washington D.C. to shoot all of the exteriors. My set supervisor went up to Portland, and was looking at all of the things that we needed. And the Portland office, by coincidence, is a zone. It is a center for the North West. There is a cybercrime outfit up there. I went and met the people. There is a woman up there named Jane Brillheart. She had originally been in the LA office, but moved her kids up there because she and her husband didn't want to raise their kids here. She has three kids, and here she was working pedophiles. I am looking at this, and I am going, "Oh, my God!" What this woman looks at and deals with everyday is insane. Her husband had, interestingly enough, also been a part of that and just couldn't take it any more. He went over to the forensic side. He was pulling apart computers and tracking down hard drives. Anyway, my location manager, Paul, and I looked at each other and said, "Why don't we just shoot it up there?"
Now, did you work with the Perverted Justice group that helps Dateline with their investigations? Aren't they out of Portland, too?
FBI Special Agent Ernest Hilbert: They are, but no. We only worked with real agents. Also, I want to mention that, in the original script, they based the story out of FBI headquarters. When we sat down with them, we said, "This isn't done at FBI headquarters. These are ground agents at work." We kicked that idea back and forth. So we had to find somewhere else to do it as well. That is one of the reasons it could be moved to Portland.
Is there ever a worry about revealing too much about the process?
FBI Special Agent Ernest Hilbert: No. The step by step? Is a website completely untraceable? No. It goes back through IPs, it goes back through mirrors, it goes back through Proxy bounces. It goes through all of these things. To solve that, it takes time. It is just a simple factor. It goes international. I spent a great deal of time in Eastern Europe working with the Russians and Ukrainians. We worked hard to get them to open up their information to us. The FBI has a whole division designed to deal with this kind of stuff. The stuff with pedophilia is the only known investigation that the FBI is running, and yet they still catch people doing it every single day. So, no. As much as you try to hide it or fight it, it is a machine. We are going to track you until we find out who is really behind it. That is just the way it is.
So, is it possible to have a site constantly refresh like we just saw in the clip?
FBI Special Agent Ernest Hilbert: Absolutely. In fact, there have been a number of sites I have gone after where people are doing these types of things. When you are on the internet querying a site, the IP address is similar to a phone number. The domain name constantly hits a DNS server. A domain name server. And it will ask what domain this is associated with. Usually, this is something that is set and will stay there all the way through. This guy is running various different IP addresses. His domain name is poisoned to change on a regular basis. He could even be controlling it. These will all be something the FBI will be able to figure out and work through. They will be able to identify it and track it back. But it all comes down to time. That would take upward of a couple months to figure out what was really going on. Locking it down to each particular thing. It is doable. I had a site called Carterplanet. It was running out of Russia, and it was bouncing around, and moving around, until they finally put it in a site in Ohio. And I just happened to be running a search warrant on that place for something different. And I found all of their stuff there and took them down. It is doable.
Do you guys Google?
FBI Special Agent Ernest Hilbert: Yes, we Google. We use anything that the bad guys would be using. If you are on AIM, if you are on Yahoo chat, or on MSN, we will find you. I spend two years as a hacker, on-line. Meaning, they thought I was the moneyman. They brought me all of the stolen goods. They sold it to me via AIM, or something of that nature. You have to use what they are going to use. The tools of the FBI work better in different environments. But if you are going to understand whom you are dealing with, you have to act like the people you are dealing with. You have to jump right into it. So, the FBI will have AIM on their computers. It is not seen in these scenes that you just saw. But the FBI will have a couple of different computers. You can't get onto the FBI's internet through your desktop computer. There is a reason for that. If your computer is on the internet, it can be hacked. The FBI network is completely separate. It doesn't touch the internet as a whole. They have an undercover computer that runs through a blank IP and doesn't come back to the FBI. We can work from that aspect of it. And make copies from there. That would be the Alias Box, as we call it in the script.
Gregory Hoblit: We had three computer screens in front of Diane, and we tried to tell that story. That one is the FBI intranet, and the other one is the regular internet. It just took up too much time to explain that. We needed to tell the story. I wanted to do that really bad. I wanted to educate the public, but it got ponderous.
FBI Special Agent Ernest Hilbert: Something that I want to mention is that you can't use real IP addresses. 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 route backs. Because it is a movie. It is like 555. You can't use AIM, but you can have an instant messenger up on screen. It took hours, and hours, and hours to make this authentic. But it reaches a point where it is not entertaining to watch all of that. If you want to see how that is actually done, go join the FBI. Or, hire one of us that do this on the outside.
Gregory Hoblit: Or look at all of the outtakes.
Did you ever see anything like what happens in this film?
FBI Special Agent Ernest Hilbert: You mean like with a live feed type of situation? Not so much. But with the youtubes, and the myspaces, and all the video streaming sites, that is becoming a lot more popular. The idea of putting up video about yourself. NBC just did a piece about kids beating each other up on TV, and then they show it on the internet. NBC interviewed these kids. This kind of stuff is becoming more prevalent. My last two years with the FBI, I worked counterterrorism with an eye towards the cyber side of things. In terms of, this is how terrorists are communicating. They send videos to each other. You are starting to see that kind of impact. You can stream these things live. You can put them up and bounce them through four or five different boxes. 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 go in, look around, find one that will give you access, 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 as you are transmitting. If there is no log on 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, but that is how it works. You run it through different locations, and you mirror it off different locations. People on the internet will talk about it, but they don't really have a grasp on this stuff. I mean, you have a thousand FBI agents whose job it is to just do this. To hammer through this maze. And understand what is really going on. And we are not all experts. In the movie, she relies on her counterpart. In real life, 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?
FBI Special Agent Ernest Hilbert: People think that computers are like telephones. They think it is that simple. Everyone can set up a wireless network. At the store, you can buy everything. Boom! It is 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 I have to 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 a web cam playing around. He knows more then I do in some regards. But the old conception is that it is simple. That it just goes back to this old IP address. Well, anyone can control an IP address. And your IP address can change everyday if you know what you are doing.
Untraceable opens January 25th, 2008.