In the late 1970s, two screenwriters had an idea about a precocious young genius and an older genius who would serve as his mentor, and decided to do some research to turn it into a story. That led them to the burgeoning new world of personal computing and hacking in the midst of Cold War America. That new world, coupled with the original idea, became WarGames.
Though it remains a classic 35 years after its original 1983 release, the road to the big screen was a hard one for WarGames. After the initial idea took a while to evolve into what the final film became, the production faced studio executives who just didn’t understand what they were trying to do, worries over an implausible plot, fired and rehired writers, and a director change just days into filming. Ultimately, though, a talented cast and crew—including breakout stars Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy—produced a hit thriller that remains both beloved and influential more than a quarter century after its release.
So, to celebrate its 35th birthday, who are 15 things you might not know about WarGames.
1. THE ORIGINAL IDEA WASN’T ABOUT COMPUTERS OR HACKING.
Before it became a story that blended the rise of hackers and personal computing with the ongoing threats of the Cold War, WarGames was an idea called The Genius. It began when co-writer Lawrence Lasker saw a TV documentary that featured Stephen Hawking. Lasker became fascinated by the idea that Hawking’s work could lead him to essentially solve all the mysteries of the universe, but his ALS might prevent him from even being able to share that knowledge. Lasker saw an opportunity for a story that would pair a Hawking-like older genius, in a wheelchair, with a precocious teenage genius still looking for his place in the world, and took that idea to Walter F. Parkes, an old college roommate.
“I found the predicament Hawking was in fascinating—that he might one day figure out the unified field theory and not be able to tell anyone, because of his progressive ALS," Lasker told WIRED. "So there was this idea that he'd need a successor. And who would that be? Maybe this kid, a juvenile delinquent whose problem was that nobody realized he was too smart for his environment. That resonated with Walter. So I said, let's actually go talk to people about how a kid could get in trouble and get discovered by a brainy scientist and take it from there.”
With the blessing of executive producer Leonard Goldberg, who was intrigued by the idea, Lasker and Parkes embarked on a period of research in 1979 that eventually led them to futurist Peter Schwartz at the Stanford Research Institute. After hearing the story idea, Schwartz made a connection between brilliant young kids playing computer games and experimenting with hacking, and bright adults working in environments like NORAD, looking at radar screens and missile targeting displays. That led Lasker and Parkes down a new research road that ultimately also included the rise of home computers. After a few different permutations, the story that ultimately became WarGames was born.
2. REAL EARLY HACKERS SERVED AS MODELS FOR DAVID LIGHTMAN.
After they became convinced that the world of computers and hacking would be a great way to get their young genius into the kind of trouble that would drive a movie, Lasker and Parkes began researching the world of hacking and phone phreaks, and ultimately consulted with real-life hackers on the film. These included John “Captain Crunch” Draper, who discovered that a whistle given away as a prize in a cereal box could be used to activate a phone line, thus giving him free phone calls, and David Scott Lewis, who spent his days finding ways around then-primitive computer security measures.
“Hacking was easy back then," Lewis said. "There were few if any security measures. It was mostly hackers versus auditing types. The Computer Security Institute comes to mind. I would read all of their materials and could easily find ways around their countermeasures. The part in the movie showing David Lightman perusing the library to find Falken's backdoor password, ‘Joshua,’ is clearly a reference to many of my antics.”
Lasker and Parkes poured the tricks they learned from these hackers—including the idea at the end of the film to set the number of players in Joshua’s tic-tac-toe game to “zero”—into the film, thus forming David Lightman.
3. DR. FALKEN WAS BASED ON STEPHEN HAWKING, AND WAS SUPPOSED TO BE PLAYED BY JOHN LENNON.
Even as the story evolved from a film about an older genius passing his wisdom on to a young protégé into a film about a teen hacker accidentally playing Global Thermonuclear War, Lasker and Parkes held on to the idea that the Dr. Stephen Falken character would be based heavily on Stephen Hawking. They envisioned him as a dying genius still holding on to a few secrets, and even wrote the character as using a motorized wheelchair. In thinking of who they might cast to play this kind of mythic persona, Lasker and Parkes had a very clear idea: John Lennon, whom Parkes described as a kind of “spiritual cousin” to Hawking. That plan, of course, had to be set aside when Lennon was shot and killed by Mark David Chapman on December 8, 1980.
“And through David Geffen, we'd communicated with John Lennon, and he was interested in the role,” Lasker recalled. “I was writing the first scene where we meet Hawking—Falken—in the movie. He was an astrophysicist in our second draft. I was staring at the cover of the November 1980 issue of Esquire, with Lennon on the cover, and describing his face, when a friend of mine—a bit of a jerk—called and said, 'You're gonna have to find a new Falken.'"
The role of Dr. Falken ultimately went to veteran English actor John Wood. As for the wheelchair: Original director Martin Brest ditched the idea, because he thought having a famous scientist in a motorized wheelchair in the war room scenes would remind audiences of Dr. Strangelove a bit too much.
4. STUDIOS DIDN’T UNDERSTAND IT.
With their lengthy research and writing period complete, Lasker and Parkes handed their script over to Goldberg, who started shopping WarGames around to studios. The reception was initially rather dismissive, as executives weren’t quite sure how plausible the story they were reading actually was.
“Nobody seemed to get it," Goldberg said. "They didn’t understand the technology. They said ‘Is this science fiction?’ I said ‘No, no, it’s not science fiction. It’s probably science fact. The only positive reception I got was at United Artists/MGM.”
So, United Artists agreed to take on the project, and wanted Martin Brest—still hot from his breakout film Going In Style (1979)—to direct. Brest liked the script and took the job, but that would soon create a new problem for the production.
5. A REAL NEWS REPORT CONVINCED THE WRITERS THAT THEIR STORY WAS BELIEVABLE.
Even before studio executives expressed skepticism over the technology present in WarGames, Parkes and Lasker themselves had questions about the plausibility of their own story. According to Lasker, as they were working on the script, Parkes grew discouraged one day and wondered aloud if anyone would buy their story of the entire U.S. military being fooled by some kid trying to play a computer game. At that moment, Lasker turned on the news and heard Walter Cronkite read a report about the United States believing it was under nuclear attack from the Soviet Union, all because a simulation tape was still in a machine.
“I turned off the TV and I said ‘Come on, let’s keep working,’” Lasker recalled.
6. IT CHANGED DIRECTORS AFTER JUST TWO WEEKS OF SHOOTING.
When Martin Brest was hired to direct WarGames, he immediately began developing a new draft of the script with Lasker and Parkes, but tonal clashes soon ensued. Brest envisioned the film as more of a dark thriller and less of a fun hacker adventure, something that was reflected in both the writing and the footage he delivered to the studio when WarGames finally began shooting. Though he seemed to be winning the battle over the script, Brest’s footage wasn’t what the studio wanted.
“The studio was not happy with the film they were seeing,” Goldberg said. “They thought it was rather simple, not very exciting, and I told Marty. I said ‘Look, the studio’s not happy.’ Finally, the studio said ‘We want him replaced.’ I was quite taken aback. That doesn’t happen very often in the movie business. It never happened with me before.”
The film’s young stars, Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy, were shaken by the news after Brest took them for a walk and told them he was leaving the production. Both were worried they’d be replaced (according to Broderick, other supporting roles were), but Brest remained calm and assured them that they’d keep their jobs and still end up with a good movie. Days later, John Badham (Saturday Night Fever) was brought in to direct the film. As for Brest, he landed on his feet. His next film was the massive comedy hit Beverly Hills Cop, starring Eddie Murphy.
According to Badham, at least two contributions from Brest’s shooting days remain in the film: the scene in which David goes to visit two fellow computer nerds to ask for advice, and the scene in which David stops at a payphone after sneaking out of NORAD.
7. THE ORIGINAL WRITERS WERE FIRED AND THEN REHIRED.
While Brest was developing his version of WarGames, his vision for the film clashed frequently with Lasker and Parkes’s, who wanted a lighter tone. This led to frequent arguments over story points as the writers crafted a second draft, until one day a phone call ended not with an argument, but with Brest telling Lasker and Parkes to just try things their way. As soon as he hung up the phone, Parkes knew something was wrong.
“If they’re not fighting with us, we’re fired,” he recalled thinking. “And sure enough, about a half hour later we got the call from our agent saying that we’re no longer involved, which was extraordinarily painful, quite honestly.”
According to Lasker, he and Parkes finished and submitted a second draft of WarGames to the studio, but no one read it, at least not while Brest was directing the film. Then, when Badham came on board, he looked at the shooting script and found it to be too long and too crowded with contributors, so he called Lasker and asked if there was another version. Lasker replied that he and Parkes had submitted a second draft that no one read, but that Goldberg had a copy if Badham wanted to read it. Badham replied, “I’d rather get it from you.” After reading the new draft, Badham judged Lasker and Parkes’s version to be “by far the best” iteration of the script, and asked Goldberg to bring them back onboard.
8. BARRY CORBIN’S GENERAL BERINGER WAS BASED ON TWO REAL PEOPLE.
General Beringer, the tough talking, good ol’ boy commander of NORAD in the film, is easily the most compelling supporting character in WarGames, whether he’s spouting folksy sayings or chomping on a giant cigar. To craft the character, the filmmakers actually drew on two real people. When Lasker and Parkes were researching the film, they managed to get on a tour of NORAD’s facilities at the Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado. On their way out, they met the facility’s then-commander.
“As we're walking back to the bus that's going to take us to the hotel, [NORAD's then-commander-in-chief] James Hartinger walks up between me and Walter and plants a hand on the back of our necks: 'I understand you boys are writing a movie about me!' he says. 'Let's go to the bar.' Walter says: ‘Well, we have to get on the bus to go back to our hotel.' And Hartinger replies: 'Are you insane? I've got 50,000 men under my command. You think I can't get you back to your hotel? Plus, I can't drink off the base. So c'mon.' He was all for the message in our script,” Lasker recalled. “We kind of simplified it to 'machines are taking over.' He said, 'God damn, you're right! I sleep well at night knowing I'm in charge.’ So we based General Beringer, played by Barry Corbin, on the real commander at Cheyenne Mountain.”
It was Badham who brought in Corbin to play the role after he came on board as director. Badham saw many elements of his father, a U.S. Air Force Brigadier General, in the character, and cast Corbin as a reflection of that.
“Barry Corbin just reminded me of my dad in so many ways,” Badham said.
9. THE FAMOUS CORN ON THE COB SCENE WAS INSPIRED BY A NEO-NAZI.
Though its plot has international implications and very high stakes, WarGames is often remembered just as fondly by fans for its small character moments, like the “Your wife?” joke in the classroom scene, or Dr. Falken flying a remote-controlled pterodactyl during his introduction. Among those moments, one of the most memorable is the scene in which David’s father (William Bogert) applies butter to a piece of bread, and then wraps the bread around a piece of corn to apply butter to it before eating it. It’s an odd moment, and apparently it has its roots in something Parkes witnessed while shooting The California Reich, a 1975 documentary about a group of Neo-Nazis in California.
“There was a staff sergeant for the U.S. Army, who happened to be a Nazi, who had this strange habit of buttering—I should say slathing [sic]—that margarine on a piece of Wonder bread, and then wrapping it around his corn cob,” Parkes said. “It’s just so bizarre.”
According to Parkes, while that part of the bit is based on a true story, the revelation that David’s mother didn’t actually cook the corn is fiction.
10. MATTHEW BRODERICK HAD TO LEARN TYPING AND GET REALLY GOOD AT GALAGA.
Though he wasn’t a hacker by any means, the filmmakers thought it was very important for Matthew Broderick to appear as proficient at computer use as someone like David Lightman would appear in real life, even though much of the film ends up focusing on his relationship with Jennifer (Ally Sheedy) and his spoken conversations with the Joshua computer. As a result, Broderick was asked to learn to type for the film. He was also given a Galaga video arcade console to keep in his room during filming, so that he would look very experienced at the game during the introductory scene in which he plays it.
“That seemed the most important part of preparing for the movie to me,” Broderick recalled. “That I did practice. The typing, not so much."
11. LEGENDARY SCREENWRITER TOM MANKIEWICZ CONTRIBUTED ONE KEY SCENE.
By the time Badham was signed on to finish directing WarGames, he was working with the new draft contributed by Parkes and Lasker, but felt the film was still missing one key moment. As Goldberg put it, after David and Jennifer leave Falken’s home in Oregon and head to NORAD, the movie becomes a “rollercoaster,” with very little breathing room left, so Badham wanted a moment for the two young teenagers to connect. The problem was he needed it fast, so Goldberg and Badham turned to a mutual friend: Tom Mankiewicz, a legendary screenwriter best known for films like The Man with the Golden Gun and Superman. Mankiewicz quickly looked over the script, liked it, and wrote the scene by the water in which David and Jennifer—facing the threat of nuclear destruction—lament not ever learning to swim and not being able to appear on television, respectively, before sharing a kiss. The scene was completed in just one day.
“I think we got Mankiewicz a washer/dryer or something,” Goldberg later said with a laugh.
12. JOHN BADHAM ENCOURAGED IMPROVISATION.
When John Badham joined the film, he immediately reviewed the footage Brest had already shot in an effort to determine what the problem was. Badham saw Brest’s version of a scene early in the film in which David hacks into the school’s computer system to change Jennifer’s grades for her, and after mulling it over, saw what wasn’t working.
“Driving home that night, I realized what it was. I stopped the car, found a phone booth, and called Leonard. ‘I know what the problem is!’ I said. ‘They're not having any fun!’ These kids were treating this as if they're involved in some dark and evil terrorist conspiracy,” he recalled. “If I could change somebody's grades on the computer, I'd be peeing in my pants with excitement to show it to some girl. And the girl would be excited about it! I wasn't taking the point of view that there was something wrong with this guy.”
So, Badham worked hard to invoke a sense of fun in his version of the film, and he did this in part by encouraging improvisation. Among the key improvised moments were the scene in which Sheedy traps Broderick between her legs while he’s walking back to his computer, and the moment when General Beringer declares, “I’d piss on a spark plug if I thought it’d do any good,” which Barry Corbin claimed was based on a real experience a cousin of his had.
13. JOHN WOOD ACTUALLY PLAYS TWO ROLES IN THE FILM.
In addition to landing the role of the enigmatic scientist Dr. Stephen Falken, John Wood got a second part in WarGames. When trying to develop the voice for the Joshua computer, Badham initially considered a child’s voice to call to mind Falken’s deceased son, but ultimately decided on something closer to Falken himself, and asked Wood if he would do the voice, with an interesting twist. When recording Joshua’s dialogue, Badham asked Wood to read the lines backwards so that each word would be very carefully enunciated.
“In the way that I think that voices are being created electronically in computers, it’s a lot of single words that are being pulled out of a database real fast,” Badham reasoned. “So if you read it backwards you have to, you know, say these words really flatly."
14. THE NORAD WAR ROOM SCREENS WERE AN UNPRECEDENTED TECHNICAL CHALLENGE.
Today, if you wanted to reproduce the climactic scene of WarGames in which the Joshua computer plays out every possible nuclear war scenario on the giant NORAD screens until it determines “the only winning move is not to play,” it would be relatively easy. More than three decades ago, before computer generation images were in nearly every blockbuster, it was quite a bit more difficult, particularly because the screens in the actual NORAD were nowhere near as complex as what the filmmakers envisioned.
To make it work, the filmmakers had to make sure every screen in the war room was in sync with every other screen, and they had to do it all in-camera rather than relying on post-production effects. To do that, five film projectors were set up in the back of the room to project the correct images onto the five biggest screens on the war room wall, while seven other projectors were behind the wall, rear projecting images onto the seven smaller screens beneath the big ones on the same wall. To make matters more complicated, all 84 video screens representing the war room’s computers had to also be synced up, and visual effects supervisor Michael L. Fink had to build what was at the time the brightest strobe system for 24 frames per second filmmaking in the world to make the strobe effects you see when the explosions go off on the screens.
“All of that was controlled from an Apple II,” Fink said. “It was an amazing confluence of a lot of emerging technologies."
15. PRESIDENT REAGAN WAS A FAN, AND BASED A POLICY DECISION ON THE MOVIE.
WarGames opened on June 3, 1983 to critical acclaim and box office success, and ended up earning three Academy Award nominations for Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound, and Best Cinematography. During opening weekend, moviegoers broke into spontaneous applause when Joshua declared “the only winning move is not to play,” a peaceful message in the midst of the Cold War. The film garnered a lot of fans, but perhaps none more famous than the president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, who saw the film during an opening weekend screening at Camp David, arranged by Lasker.
“Reagan was a family friend,” Lasker said. “My parents were in the movie business, and I grew up in Brentwood.”
Reagan was fascinated by the film, so much so that the following week he stopped a meeting regarding upcoming nuclear negotiations with the Russians to give everyone in the room a full breakdown of the plot. When he was finished, he asked General John W. Vessey Jr.—then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—to look into just how plausible the film was. Vessey did some research and determined that WarGames actually was a prescient indicator of a rising threat in the (then) very new world of cybersecurity. A little more than a year later, Reagan signed a classified national security directive titled “National Policy on Telecommunications and Automated Information Systems Security.” It was the first computer security directive given by a president, all because he’d seen a movie about a kid who wanted to play some computer games.
Audio commentary by John Badham, Lawrence Lasker, and Walter F. Parkes (1998)
Loading WarGames (DVD extra, 2008)