The nerve-shattering events of Antitrust were first imagined by Howard Franklin, the screenwriter who previously wrote such thrillers as Name of the Rose, The (1986) and Someone to Watch Over Me (1987). Franklin enjoys writing suspense films that are as provocative as they are entertaining, that are full of both exhilarating surprises and questions about humanity's path. With Antitrust, he found a story that unveils a high-stakes battle at the heart of America's digital future.
Recently, Franklin became fascinated with the personalities and machinations at the core of the computer software industry. He was intrigued by the fiercely competitive search for The Next Big Thing, by warring companies vying to control the media future and most of all by the intense power struggles between huge computer corporations and young geniuses in garages who can potentially put the big guys out of business with one great idea. He immediately began researching the inner workings of the industry - from the mega-rich CEOs to the teenage geeks writing code in their bedrooms to the so-called "killer" applications that can inspire highly cutthroat approaches to business.
In the course of his research, Franklin learned about digital convergence - the ability for all digital devices to talk with one another - which many industry experts believe is the next advance that will completely change our lives and the economy. He learned that those companies at the forefront of digital convergence could very well win a major piece of the global money pie. Franklin also became particularly interested in one of the battles at the core of this future: private control versus open access for everybody.
Seeing the future of what we see, hear and read up for grabs, Franklin decided to write a gripping, paranoid thriller in the tradition of the political or espionage thriller but set in the realm of computer software corporations. Thus was born the character of Milo, a promising young computer science student who gets caught up in the heady world of a massive fictional software company - only to discover that he could become the next victim of the company's ruthless will to win.
When producer Nick Wechsler read Franklin's script he was struck by its powerful relevancy as an insider's look at an industry that is calling the shots for the future. "People of all ages are increasingly fascinated by the leaders of technology because they are today's cultural icons," says Wechsler. "Our instinct was that a film whose center was the world of technology would appeal to everyone."
Antitrust was the first script that David Hoberman, C.E.O. of Hyde Park Entertainment, read after making a deal for his new company at MGM. Hoberman and partner Ashok Amritraj loved the script's fast-paced, stimulating subject matter and wanted to co-finance and executive produce the picture.
Although Antitrust takes place in a high-tech environment, it was the human drama at its center that attracted director Peter Howitt to the story. Howitt previously directed the structurally original romantic comedy Sliding Doors (1998), starring Gwyneth Paltrow in the story of a woman who gets a chance to experience two alternate fates. With Antitrust, he saw a chance to again explore two interconnected worlds - the often frighteningly unpredictable world of reality and the clear-cut, rational, binary world inside the computer, which has drawn Milo so intensely. "I really see Antitrust as a young man's journey into facing reality," comments Howitt. "In the beginning Milo is a techno wizard who has spent most of his life in front of a computer. He has tunnel vision - he's only interested in that screen, in that code. But as the story progresses, he's forced to look beyond the computer screen and see what's really going on around him. He has to start using his heart and soul as well as his brain. He has to learn who to trust and who not to trust. What helps him to survive is learning to pull the truth out from this world of smoke and mirrors."
The other thing Howitt responded to in the script was its reflection of his own personal fears about where technology is leading us. "Information is power they say, and right now that power is controlled by a select few people who are very, very rich. I think it's a really volatile situation and this story gets to the heart of it in a very intriguing way," he continues.
Like the computer industry itself, the cast of Antitrust is made up of a mix of young up-and-comers - including Ryan Phillippe, Rachael Leigh Cook and Claire Forlani - as well as more veteran performers such as Tim Robbins. Robbins' performance as Gary Winston, one of the world's richest and most authoritative men, was key to the intricate machinations of the plot. Robbins plays Winston as a precocious child who has been given the keys to the universe - a guy who loves to play with his toys, but needs even more to win.
"Gary Winston had to be larger than life," explains producer David Nicksay. "He had to be driven, idiosyncratic, charming, smart as a whip, still in touch with a kind of youthful enthusiasm for the joy of creation, and yet capable of truly nefarious acts. He had to be a very complex guy. And when you want complexity, Tim Robbins is a great choice."
"Tim has the ability to give off total authority, yet with a certain vulnerability that can make someone like Gary Winston human," adds Peter Howitt. "He plays smart very well because he's so smart himself. Tim doesn't just give you a typical bad-guy, he gives you a guy who has many different levels - he plays Winston as a man who firmly believes he is doing what is good for America, for commerce, for the world."
Robbins was attracted to Winston's many different and contradictory qualities. "I like him because you can't quite figure him out," says Robbins. "On the one hand you see that he can be benevolent and generous and brilliant, and on the other he didn't get to where he is without being evil, manipulative and ruthless. I thought it was essential to convey Winston's full complexity."
To get into the role, Robbins researched several different real-life computer moguls and celebrity-status CEOs, men who like Gary Winston, seek to have a "monopoly on excellence." "What I discovered is that most them do believe they are serving the needs and clients of their customers, and yet they also operate in all kinds of underhanded ways. After all, it's a lightning fast industry. You can't ever sleep. You can't ever rest on your laurels. You have to constantly be adapting to new people, new discoveries, new ideas," explains Robbins. "Someone like Gary Winston has to do everything he can in order to stay on top."
Once Robbins felt he understood the inner workings of Gary Winston he began to have fun - letting the character use his intellect in the service of his shark-like instincts. "Gary really likes to toy with people, to manipulate, to stay in control," he notes.
Playing Robbins' foil is one of Hollywood's rising leading young men, Ryan Phillippe, who plays the naïve young programmer Milo, who gives up his ideals for a chance to be part of N.U.R.V. "Milo had to be someone with big dreams," says Peter Howitt. "He's someone who wants to be remembered, who wants to make a difference, who wants to go down in history and who wants to have the wonderful house and fast car, too. Ryan is such a down-to-earth and intelligent young man he seemed to really embody this character."
Phillippe was excited to play a character whose greatest weapon is the sharpness of his mind. "It's rare that you get to play a character who is really smart," says Phillippe. "And this is such a smart movie. The subject matter is so timely."
Phillippe was stunned by the script's depiction of the conflicts at the heart of the technological future. He continues: "We live in an era where there's been such a boom technologically and it's effected all our lives and has saturated parts of the world that have never had prior knowledge of computers. And now people are starting to question who owns this information, who controls the technology and is that the best way to do things. I think people really want to get a glimpse into this world and Antitrust does that in a very suspenseful way."
The more Phillippe got into the mind of Milo, the more he understood his attraction to someone like Gary Winston. "To Milo, Gary represents the guy who has the power to change the world, to alter life as we know it. Milo sees himself as Gary at a younger age, but he doesn't see everything about Gary at first," explains Phillippe. "The way Tim Robbins plays Gary you really get a sense that there are two sides to him. You see why Milo worships him and how he can suddenly behave in a completely opposite way."
Milo's other influential relationships include those with two very different women - his free-spirited girlfriend Alice played by Claire Forlani and his equally obsessed colleague Lisa played by Rachael Leigh Cook - both of whom come under his suspicion.
Claire Forlani was fascinated by her character's complex role in Milo's journey from corporate programmer to endangered rebel. "I wanted Claire's character to really represent art, and all the freedom and openness that entails. She's the very opposite of working with computers because she's totally unpredictable," says Peter Howitt. "When someone says that 'the only art left in America is business' that goes against Claire's very being."
Forlani loved the challenge of playing someone who isn't exactly what she appears. "I really enjoyed trying to create somebody who goes through a lot of surprising changes," comments the actress. "And what I tried to do is to keep one authentic aspect to Alice throughout - the idea that she really has a lot of love to give despite all her complications. I think that carries her through the story. She has to really bring an earthiness, a humanity, a wild creativity to the high-tech world in which Milo dwells."
Like her character, Forlani is talented with a paint brush. But her canvases were provided by Vancouver artist Lisa Birke, with whom Forlani studied in preparation for the role. "Lisa Birke was exactly how I wanted Alice to be," notes Forlani. "She is this earthy, generous, sweet and loving person, yet very strong, very much a woman of today."
At the other end of the spectrum from Forlani's character is that of Rachael Leigh Cook, who plays the talented programmer Lisa, who has her own secret past and agenda. Although Cook says that prior to this project all she knew about computers is "that mine is small and gray," she was very much drawn to finding out more about this world. "To be part of the most prominent, most influential computer company in existence today, and to be on the brink of absolutely amazing new technology, seemed really interesting to me. I was really passionate about wanting to play this role," she states.
Cook was particularly struck by one particular line uttered by Gary Winston. "Gary says that in this business you're either a one or a zero - and Lisa is determined never to be a zero," she explains. "I think that's a very common characteristic of someone who's been badly hurt in life - to throw themselves into something, to try to be the best. Lisa just wants to have control over her life."
The cast of Antitrust also drew Cook - including the chance to be Tim Robbins' protégé. "It just seems to be an unwritten rule that the nicest actors always play the bad guys," she notes. "Tim was a real inspiration for all of us because he's so brilliant at taking on a role."
Summarizes Peter Howitt about the cast: "The suspense of this story rests on the audience's belief in the characters and what they're going through. No matter how jazzy and fantastical the design of the film, it means nothing if you don't have that sense of human urgency. I was lucky to have incredible actors who could really capture what's going on emotionally underneath all these shocking events."
At the heart of Antitrust is a top-secret project which could well change the digital future: Gary Winston's SYNAPSE project, which he describes as the "world's first satellite-delivered global communications system" - linking all electronic, wireless and hand-held communications devices with one content source. In order to better understand and depict such a project in action, the filmmakers consulted with several highly placed experts in the computer and satellite communications fields, in particular with Tim Lindholm, a Distinguished Engineer at Sun Microsystems, who works on the JavaSoft team. Java has become the lingua franca of the Internet, a killer application that makes it possible for different kinds of machines and different host sites to communicate with each other.
"Tim was critical in helping advise us not only about what the future might hold, but also in assuring technical accuracy of the script," says producer David Nicksay. "We want the movie to be enjoyed by an audience that doesn't understand computers, but we also want to make sure that people who are very advanced engineers see that it's a plausible premise."
To represent the launch of SYNAPSE accurately, the filmmakers needed to understand satellite technology. Producer Keith Addis tracked down one of the most accomplished men in the history of the satellite and space programs, Gentry Lee, to ensure the project's verisimilitude.
As the chief engineer for the Galileo spacecraft and director of Science Analysis and Mission Planning on NASA's Viking project, Lee is no stranger to the bleeding edge of technological change. He is media-savvy, having served as Carl Sagan's partner in the development of the Cosmos television series and as co-author of four best selling novels with Arthur C. Clarke. He also enjoys an illustrious career advising technical and technological firms, especially in space and wireless breakthroughs.
Lee was able to provide up-to-the-minute ideas on how a satellite-based wireless communications system like the one Gary Winston pioneers would be constructed. "All of the technology issues in the film were reviewed by Lee," says Addis, "he also made the important contribution of showing us how the concept of convergence could be illuminated for an audience."
Several other innovators in the computer world contributed to the film, particularly several big names from the open-source software movement - which advocates free access to the codes for all computer programs. The consultants include Linus Torvalds from Finland, creator of Linux, the most established name in open source software; John "Mad Dog" Hall of Linux International; and Miguel de Icaza from Mexico, originator of Gnome, another open source operating system.
Several key industry figures also make brief appearances in Antitrust. Scott McNealy, C.E.O. of Sun Microsystems, presents an award to a young software programmer played by Yee Jee Tso. Tim Lindholm appears as a programmer whose work is pirated. And Miguel de Icaza presents the Grace Hopper Award, an actual programmer's award, to Ryan Phillippe.
In addition to nailing the personalities in the computer industry, the filmmakers of Antitrust wanted to capture the look-and-feel of the wired world on the campus of a powerhouse Pacific Northwest software company, the sights, sounds and heady atmosphere that a 21st century computer worker experiences everyday on the job. "This is a very visually stimulating world," observes producer David Nicksay. "And we wanted to capture that in a very inventive yet believable way."
One of the biggest challenges facing the film was just keeping up with the tremendous pace of high-tech developments - which can make the latest, greatest thing obsolete overnight. "It's always hard to bring a different world to light on screen. But this world keeps moving at a breakneck speed. Just trying to stay at the cutting edge was a constant battle," notes Nicksay.
Creating the technoid world of Antitrust was an adventure for production designer Catherine Hardwicke. "From the beginning I knew it was a chance to really be radical and cutting-edge," she says. "Peter Howitt encouraged me to go for it. He almost never clipped my wings. We all agreed that this is a story about a guy who is always pushing the envelope, always one step ahead, so this was the guiding principle for our design."
With the mantra "All You Need Is N.U.R.V.," Hardwicke and her team embarked on creating a fully integrated look for Gary Winston's company, envisioning its corporate logos, billboards, retail products and, of course, a stunning mansion for its youthful leader.
After exploring the work environment at several cutting edge high-tech companies, including Apple and Netscape, the filmmakers began their search for the right building to serve as N.U.R.V.'s main programming offices. They zeroed in on the Chan Center, a sleek oval shaped building used for performing arts on the University of British Columbia campus.
The corresponding elliptical interior, known as the Egg, was built on a stage in Vancouver. The Egg is a reflection of both shrewd company policy and the joys of geek life. A kitchen, washing machine, living space and giant chessboard are very deliberately provided to suggest an atmosphere of work-as-recreation, work-as-lifestyle. "The Egg has a sense of fun, of playfulness, of visual stimulation, but it's also about bringing out the best from the workers," explains Hardwicke.
Inside the Egg, the entire curve of one wall is decorated with surf, skate and snowboards, emblems of the extreme lifestyle of the radical visionary, while the individual cubicles reveal the personal taste of each member of the team, from hammocks to bonsai trees. Milo is a fan of a cartoon character known as Alien Kitty, which was created especially for the film by New York artist/cartoonist Floyd Hughes. Every piece of furniture inside N.U.R.V. had to exude attitude. For the N.U.R.V. daycare center, Hardwicke came up with a set made up entirely of pieces of Lego, including the computer monitors.
Equally challenging to Hardwicke was creating the interior set for Gary Winston's lavish, yet idiosyncratic coastal mansion. After a fruitless search for a real-life glass-and-stone fortress that might stand in for Winston's refuge, the filmmakers decided to render the entire exterior with computer-generated graphics against a lush natural setting. This inspired Hardwicke to choose man's dominance of nature as a theme for the inside of the house. The living room features a large rock formation which juts inside a 20-foot-tall curved atrium, filled with black bamboo and a sunken pond circled with rocks.
There are strong Japanese influences throughout - from Zen to Samurai - especially in the doors and paintings, as well as four large diorama boxes within the walls of Winston's office that contain tiny Japanese maple trees in each of the four seasons, complete with rain and snow. "Tim Robbins actually gave me a lot of ideas for the design because he wanted Gary to be interested in the Art of War and the Samurai influence and the cool Japanese technology so we carried that theme through everything."
Every piece of furniture brought into the set was scrutinized. "We constantly asked is this unique enough? Is it special enough for the richest man in the world? We had objects flown in from all over the world," notes Hardwicke. A key touch of course were Winston's "digital canvases," high-tech flat-screen monitors that sense who's walking by and change the art depicted accordingly.
Hardwicke also utilized a bevy of leading-edge artists and sculptors to provide Winston's gallery-like display of art. Among the most prominent of these was glass sculptor Dale Chihuly who provided a 12-foot-high, custom -made chandelier, which was shipped from Seattle in hundreds of boxes and assembled and installed on the stage. Paintings by Peter Alexander and Astrid Preston, glass and xenon gas sculptures by Mundy Hepburn and sculptures by Peter David and Richard Swanson are also prominently displayed.
Just as important as the material objects seen in Antitrust are the images that flow across computer screens where secrets are traded and codes are hunted. Explains David Nicksay: "The computer itself is really a character or location in the film so what's happening on the screens is very much part of the story. We wanted a kind of ballet of graphics that is a kind of constant background to the dramatic tension happening elsewhere in the scene."
Bringing to life the software images seen on the computer screens was the task of Liz Radley, the production's video and computer graphics supervisor, whose credits include Men in Black (1997), Fugitive, The (1993) and Batman Forever (1995).
"A lot of the action in Antitrust takes place in video windows on a screen. People are always watching each other and stealing directly via computer so we wanted to capture that visually," says Radley. "We also wanted to show N.U.R.V. as a place that has enormous amounts of money so the images had to be very advanced."
Radley even tracked down real computer code to use on the screens in the film. "Of course it's not the actual SYNPASE code but it's not gibberish either. Everything you see is real working code," she notes
In the end, the technical accuracy of Antitrust merely underscored the film's larger themes. Ultimately, the goal was to make an emotionally involving, thrilling piece of entertainment, one that leaves a question dangling. "It's a thrilling ride but the audience might also stop and think 'Where do you draw the line? How much power should one person have?' A lot of us have to face our own Gary Winstons. Maybe we can learn from Milo's story. "
About Digital Convergence
At the heart of Antitrust is the at-all-costs race to be the first to develop digital convergence technology. But what is this Holy Grail of the high-tech community? And why have so many powerful companies staked their financial clout on making it happen?
Digital convergence refers to a future in which all of our electronic communication devices will be united into one superpowerful feed, encompassing television, the internet, radio and telephone. Although futurist films, novels and even pop culture cartoons like The Jetsons have hinted at such a future for decades, this seemingly fantastical concept is very, very close to becoming reality. Increasingly, the worlds of telecommunications, broadcasting, computing and television are becomingly inseparably linked.
Already, our lives are inundated with digital devices. Recently, both television and telephone - the last hurdles - have started to go digital. Once technology allows for high-speed digital downloads, it will be possible to purchase movies, albums, books and video games through one simple communications device capable of doing it all. Already, 12 million Europeans enjoy the benefits of interactive television, downloading movies and playing games through their TV sets.
So far, the technological obstacles to achieving true digital convergence have proven difficult to solve. But the company that does so is sure to be a leader into the next century. This of course raises multiple questions about who should own such technology and how much control users should have over the technology. Although these questions remain to be answered, Antitrust raises red flags about the potential for danger ahead.