PARK CITY, Utah — When one thinks of computer hackers, one often imagines master tech-criminals surrounded by banks of computer monitors in Silicon Valley or Moscow.
And yet, some of the most notorious hackers of the 1980s were a group of teenagers in Milwaukee who called themselves The 414s, after Milwaukee’s area code. They were caught just after the movie “WarGames” came out in summer 1983, and got a lot of media attention before fading into history.
Milwaukee director Michael Vollmann and producer Chris James Thompson tell the story of the teens in their new short documentary “The 414s: The Original Teenage Hackers.” The documentary was accepted into the Sundance Film Festival, and CNN bought the rights to premiere the film online in April.
“We were like, ‘We like it, it’s fun, let’s just submit it and see what happens,’” Thompson said, sporting a Robin Yount Brewers jersey as he talked about the film at the Yarrow Hotel bar in Park City. “And we got a call just out of the blue: 'You’re in!'”
Thompson and Vollmann have been friends for a decade, since they met at film school at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. They previously worked together on “The Jeffrey Dahmer Files,” an experimental documentary about the notorious mass murderer, that Thompson directed and Vollmann served as director of photography.
They were looking for other projects to do when they hit on the idea. Thompson was working on a documentary about a JAG attorney working on behalf of Guantanamo Bay inmates (and still is), and Vollmann made a short about his baby daughter, “Before You,” that won a jury prize at the 2014 Wisconsin Film Festival.
Vollmann was listening to public radio one night while he was assembling a crib when he heard an episode of “On the Media” about hacking that mentioned The 414s. He told Thompson about it, and they began reaching out to the 414ers, now middle-aged men, on Facebook.
The 414s got together, ironically, as part of a Boy Scout group called The Explorers Club, that was sponsored by IBM to teach kids about computers.
“They would meet up and code together,” Vollmann said. “The IBM computers would have safeguards on them that would limit the amount of the computer. But, of course, if you tell an obsessed 16-year-old teenager he can only use half the computer, he’s going to spend every waking minute trying to figure out how to use the other half.”
After figuring out how to crack the IBM computers, the 414s went on to break into dozens of secure computer systems, including the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in 1983.
The filmmakers think that one of the reasons such a hacking group arose from Milwaukee is that it’s always been a manufacturing city.
“There’s a natural affinity towards making things and building things,” Vollmann said. “The beginning of computers was a little bit more hardware-based. The kids would order computers and have them shipped to their house and would put them together.”
Vollmann and Thompson said they had a wealth of archival footage to choose from, and audiences will burst out laughing at the sight of what computers looked like in the early ‘80s.
The pair were not expecting at all to sell their film at Sundance; traditionally the big bidding wars are for feature-length films. But in the last few years there’s been a boon in interest in showing short films online.
“In recent years, media conglomerates have started buying short films to beef up their online content to make up for falling print sales, magazine subscriptions,” Thompson said. “It’s really exciting for short filmmakers to be part of the economics, rather than just come here and enjoy the experience, and then nobody ever sees your film.”
The filmmakers have just one more dream left for “The 414s.”
“We’re hoping that someone will approach us to make this a feature narrative film, and all the kids were from ‘WarGames’ would play the adults now,” Vollmann said.