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Welcome To 1986: Inside "Halt And Catch Fire's" High-Tech Time Machine

In its third season, the show takes on the Silicon Valley of the '80s—and gets the details right, from plot points to on-set clutter.

Welcome To 1986: Inside "Halt And Catch Fire's" High-Tech Time Machine

Halt and Catch Fire's new San Francisco digs, where everybody has a dual-floppy Commodore 64 PC

[Photo: Tina Rowden, courtesy of AMC]

Tech executive John Bosworth is ready to take my questions. As I fire up a note-taking app on my iPad, he leans back behind a desk at his San Francisco-based startup, Mutiny, surrounded by computers and other tools of his trade.

For a business reporter, this would be just another typical day on the beat. Except that we're not really in a San Francisco office but a painstaking replica of one constructed on a soundstage in Atlanta. And the computers it contains aren’t sleek iMacs or ThinkPads: They’re chunky, beige, floppy drive-equipped Commodore 64s.

Oh, and if you want to get technical, the guy I'm interviewing is not Bosworth but the actor who plays him, Toby Huss, who has opted to sink into the set's cushy office chair rather than perch on the folding studio chair that a PR handler has fetched.

Bosworth—I mean Huss—and I are chatting on the set of Halt and Catch Fire, AMC’s drama about tech startups in the 1980s. For the show’s third season, now airing on Tuesdays—the first two episodes are available for free streaming—the characters uproot themselves from Dallas and relocate to the San Francisco Bay Area en masse. He’s explaining to me that on some level, it doesn’t matter that the show takes place in San Francisco and Silicon Valley in 1986.

"It could be set anywhere," he argues. "It just happens to be in technology. But you’re watching these people start something."

He’s right. And yet Halt and Catch Fire takes its setting as seriously as any TV series I’ve ever seen. Much of the time, Hollywood is so disinterested in portraying technology accurately that it can’t even be bothered to show a computer display that looks like a computer display. The creators of this show, by contrast, are obsessive about getting the details right.

John Bosworth (Toby Huss) and Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) in Mutiny's San Francisco office[Photo: Tina Rowden, courtesy of AMC]

It's not just that the scripts are crunchy with allusions, from PETSCII (a variant of ASCII code used by Commodore computers) to "Sandy" (Lerner, cofounder of Cisco), that are integrated so seamlessly that they enrich the experience if you get them and don't detract if they sail past your head. Like Mad Men, another prestige period piece that this one would bring to mind even if they weren’t both AMC shows, Halt and Catch Fire is in part about how we got from the past to the present. During season three, the show's underdog entrepreneurs figure out how to accept online payments of the sort we'd eventually take for granted; establish themselves as an intermediary for peer-to-peer commerce, presaging what eBay did a decade later; blithely violate their customers' privacy in ways reminiscent of what a modern-day unicorn or two has been known to do; and devise the business model we now call "freemium." The details are made up, but the arc of history is real.

"Our characters don’t know what happens after," says Scoot McNairy, who plays nerdy engineer Gordon Clark, as we commandeer the plush living room of Diane Gould, a venture capitalist played by Annabeth Gish in the new season, for an interview. But we 2016 TV watchers know how Halt and Catch Fire not only captures 1986 but hints at what was to come in 1996, 2006, and 2016. And the fact that the show is so deeply informed about its topic makes it one of the best pieces of filmed entertainment ever done about technology.

"The best compliment we can get," says Christopher Cantwell, who created the show with Christopher C. Rogers, "is when somebody says, 'I lived through it, and that's exactly what it felt like.'"

Go West, Young Companies

When the show debuted in 2014, it was set in 1983 in Dallas, at a time when Texas’s "Silicon Prairie" rivaled Silicon Valley in importance to the burgeoning PC industry. Its main characters were Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) and McNairy’s Gordon Clark and its plot involved the race to build clones of the IBM PC by reverse-engineering its BIOS code—an effort that was very much inspired by reality, but so obscure and nerdy that I did a double-take when I heard that someone was building a TV show around it.

By the second season, the storyline had shifted to focus on Mutiny, an online gaming company founded by Gordon’s wife, Donna (Kerry Bishé), and engineer Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis). In that season’s last episode, the Clarks, Howe, and Bosworth decide to move Mutiny to San Francisco while MacMillan simultaneously relocates there to start MacMillan Utility, a PC software company.

Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis)[Photo: Tina Rowden, courtesy of AMC]

Why the move? It felt inevitable, Cantwell says: "Our characters were becoming too big for that Silicon Prairie pond. They were ambitious enough and we wanted to see what happened when they made the move to the big leagues."

"There’s an immediate impact on the story," says his co-creator Rogers. "We wanted to feel a dramatic increase in scope, entering a larger arena and competing not with upstarts but established companies with a lot of sway. Venture capitalists enter in a major way. Major empires will be built over the course of a number of months."

"Many people don’t know much about the history of personal technology beyond "first came Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and then after that the World Wide Web and then Pokémon Go," Rogers adds. "We wanted to explore the lesser-known histories of the companies that had huge roles and were ahead of their time."

Show creators Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers[Photo: James Minchin, courtesy of AMC]

Both of the show’s startups are engaged in businesses that were bleeding-edge in 1986 and eventually became huge. The new season centers on Mutiny’s expansion beyond gaming into communications and commerce, reminiscent of the early development of proprietary online services such as America Online, which was known as Quantum Link at the time. Meanwhile, MacMillan is founding MacMillan Utility just as PC security starts to matter. In the real world, the first widespread IBM PC virus hit in 1986 and John McAfee released the first version of his VirusScan software the next year.

At Halt and Catch Fire’s replica of 1980s San Francisco on its Atlanta soundstage, the Mutiny office is a set so sprawling that you could squeeze a decent-sized actual 2016 early-stage startup into it. As I take a self-guided tour of the brick-walled quarters, I see rows of desks equipped with Commodore 64 PCs; 5 1/4" floppy disks of multiple makes, including Memorex, 3M, and BASF FlexyDisk; a manual for Frogger for the Atari 2600; a copy of a spreadsheet program known as MicroPro CalcStar; technical books such as Structured Systems Programming; and countless other little pieces of history. The whole space is so dense with evocative artifacts that I wish I could channel Scrooge McDuck and burrow through them like a gopher.

Downstairs from Mutiny’s office—which is really on an adjoining set, not another floor—is the second-hand mainframe computer that powers Mutiny’s online service, an IBM 3033 in a rust-orange metal case equipped with add-ons such as IBM 3480 tape units. Also nearby is the headquarters of MacMillan Utility, a comparatively tidy, corporate space outfitted with gear such as a Mac Plus and a Radio Shack Tandy 1000 PC.

Filming Scoot McNairy as Gordon on the Mutiny set[Photo: Tina Rowden, courtesy of AMC]

Even the house where the Clarks and Cameron live is appropriately decked out with tech. Anyone who watches attentively may notice that the TV set in the living room is not just any 1980s TV set, but a J.C. Penney one. Which seems like the perfect choice.

As much as the Halt and Catch Fire's creators and writers, it's production designer Craig Stearns, property master Jason Davis, and all the other people responsible for how the show looks who are responsible for bringing its world to life. "For most of the time we were sitting in Studio City in this conference room talking to a bunch of writers and dreaming up ten episodes," says Mark Lafferty, the author of "Yerba Buena," the third season’s fifth episode, which was in production the day I visited the set. "It all feels very abstract even if you’ve done it before. To walk onto the Mutiny set … It’s so vast and capacious and lovely to look at. And I can sit at a desk and look at a 5 1/4" floppy or a Byte magazine or Atari instruction manual I recognize from my youth. It’s a head trip and really wonderful."

Living Computer Museum archivist Cynde Moya provided the dimensions of an IBM 3278 monitor/keyboard so the show's recreations would be accurateCourtesy of Cynde Moya, Living Computer Museum

Starting with season two, the show worked with the historians at Seattle's Living Computer Museum, started by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, to outfit the Mutiny office and other sets with computers and related paraphernalia. Even if you're aware that Commodore 64s remain readily available from eBay and other sources, it's dazzling to see so many in one place—all in good condition and all outfitted with the correct floppy-disk drives, monitors, and dial-up modems.

Vintage IBM mainframes are a bit harder to come by than Commodores, not to mention more difficult to transport. So unlike most of the tech depicted on the show, the single most important computer on Halt and Catch Fire, the IBM mainframe, is a replica, not a relic. It's a full-scale model built for the set, based on the original plans from IBM's archives and reconstructed in consultation with the Living Computer Museum. It's so ambitious a piece of fakery that when I saw it in person, I wasn't sure if it was the real deal or not, and had to ask.

Keeping It Real

I'm on the Halt and Catch Fire set eavesdropping on a conversation between producer/writer Lafferty and costar Bishé, who's filming a scene with a mention of a Bay Area bedroom community:

Lafferty: Kerry, one pronunciation thing—take it or leave it.

Bishé, gasping: Am I mispronouncing a word?

Lafferty: You’re not mispronouncing it. You’re saying it correctly, Los Gatos. I’m from Los Gatos. If you’re a local, you say "Las Gaddis"

Bishé: Las—what is it?

Lafferty: "Las Gaddis"

Bishé, incredulous: "Las Gaddis!?!"

Lafferty: Like it’s totally Americanized.

Bishé: Ooooooh, that sounds so bad.

Lafferty and Bishé go on to ruminate that Bishé's character, Donna Clark, went to school in Berkeley and might know that the people who live in Los Gatos don’t know how to say "Los Gatos." For the record: In the show as broadcast, she pronounces it as if she were saying "the cats" in Spanish, as someone who’d recently relocated from Texas might well do. But the fact that this debate happened at all is a sign of the care that goes into making Halt and Catch Fire feel authentic.

Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) doing a rather Steve Jobsian demo of his security software[Photo: Tina Rowden, courtesy of AMC]

For most of Halt and Catch Fire’s principal actors, the program’s setting is less nostalgic than novel. After all, at the beginning of 1986, McNairy, Pace, Bishé, were eight years old, six, and one, respectively, and Davis had not yet been born. "I love the world that we’re exploring and I learn too much every day, because it’s a world that I’m really not personally familiar with, outside of the show," Davis says.

Only Huss, at 19, was more or less an adult during the show’s era. But even he doesn’t claim to be an expert on its era’s technology. When he first saw the basement set’s IBM mainframe-which occupies multiple giant cabinets—he wasn’t sure what it was. "I asked Mackenzie and Kerry, ‘What are these called?,’" he says, recreating the conversation. "And Mackenzie went ‘Oh, these are the big computers.’ And I went, ‘Those aren’t computers.’ She said, ‘No, they’re filled with computers.’ I went, ‘What do you mean, they’re filled with computers?’ She said, ‘I don’t know what they are!’ And Kerry went, ‘I think they’re the mainframes.’

They may not be tech historians, but the cast members like knowing that plot points and the tech detritus on the set are period-accurate. That allows them to focus on the people they portray rather than the setting. And it’s the Silicon Valley ethos that they find interesting, more than the accoutrements.

"That’s what’s intriguing about the characters. All they want to do is create and build and change the world," says McNairy. "They don’t care about anything other than that. I love that they just throw money around, or give it away. They don’t care about the money, they care about the work."

"The writers do their homework so well, and I do a different kind of homework," says Bishé. "I tried to understand the computer stuff, until I realized that my job isn’t to try to understand the computer stuff. My job is to understand the people who understand the computer stuff."

The writers do indeed do their homework, pretty much literally. When writing began on season three, with an all-new staff, creators Cantwell and Rogers kicked things off by providing a detailed overview of what was going on in the technology business, pop culture, and the world at large in 1986. Then the writers dived into works of history that provided useful context, such as Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs, Po Bronson’s The Nudist on the Late Shift, and David A. Kaplan’s The Silicon Boys.

Of course, the writers weren’t telling the stories of any of the companies mentioned in these books. For a work of fiction like For Halt and Catch Fire, accuracy is less about sticking to the precise facts than it is about retaining a basic level of plausibility. "Mutiny is not just PlayNet or Q-Link or the Source or CompuServe or anything," says Rogers. "But the tech they’re chasing should feel viable and like what people were doing in 1986." (The show both references real companies and borrows bits of them for its imaginary startups: For instance, Mutiny's avatar-based chat certainly seems to derive aesthetic inspiration from Lucasfilm's Habitat, which was offered on Quantum Link, later to be known as America Online, in real-world 1986.)

At left, Cameron Howe uses Mutiny's chat service; on the right, a screen from Lucasfilm's Habitat

As the authors of Halt and Catch Fire episodes crammed their work with tech references, they called on writers' assistant Katie Edgerton for research help. "She's supernatural," Lafferty says.

Since the show’s beginning, its creators and writers have also been aided in their quest for accuracy by technical consultant Carl Ledbetter. Currently a venture capitalist, he has a decades-long résumé including experience at tech companies from AT&T to Sun Microsystems to Prime Computer.

Ledbetter was introduced to Cantwell and Rogers as they were creating the show, and helped them ground their fictional tale of the PC industry in reality. During the period depicted in the first season, he was an executive at IBM, albeit not in its PC division: "I was just far enough removed to have a neutral view, but close enough to have seen it," he says.

After briefing the the show’s creators on the early days of the PC business, he found glimmers of actual history showing up in their storyline. It’s not a coincidence, he says, that the names Gordon Clark and Donna Clark sound vaguely like those of Gary Kildall and Dorothy Kildall, the husband and wife who started Digital Research, once Microsoft’s archrival among PC software companies—even though the Clarks are not otherwise modeled on the Kildalls in any specific fashion.

Over three seasons, the questions Ledbetter has fielded as technical consultant include "What did an IBM mainframe cost?," "What were venture-backed valuations in 1982?," and "How did you actually recover data of a disk?" Some of the answers are permanently lodged in his brain; others are in reference materials he has on hand; and in some cases they involve far-flung research. He even writes code from scratch so that if an engineer is shown at work, the lines of programming shown on the PC monitor are real and appropriate.

Mutiny staffers surrounded by the tools of their trade[Photo: Tina Rowden, courtesy of AMC]

If you bother to fact-check the show's dialog, as I did while watching the third season's first five episodes, you get a sense of how much care has gone into the little details that make 1986 feel like 1986. Even Mad Men got in trouble for minor violations of reality such as showing IBM Selectric typewriters a year before they were available. But when Gordon mentioned having been obsessed with CompuServe's CB Simulator chat service a few years earlier, I was confident that he could have been. (Turns out the service launched in 1980.)

Almost everything checks out so well that on the rare occasion that I spot anything that's even arguably off, it feels like a little victory—like when Joe makes a reference to Coleco being in the video game business, an industry it abandoned in late 1985. But you know what? I'll bet that even in the real world, people still thought of Coleco as a video game company in 1986.

Sometimes Ledbetter's contributions go beyond mere verification of facts and help shape the story. Case in point: During one scene I witnessed being filmed, Donna and Cameron have an intense debate about whether their service should accept credit cards or not. As I watched, I realized I couldn’t remember offhand what the state of online credit-card acceptance was in 1986. Ledbetter told me he was similarly foggy on the details when the script was in the works: "I had the exact same issue, even though I lived through that era."

As Ledbetter helped make sure that plot point was accurate, the discussion stretched to dozens of emails; in the end, he advised that "it was just barely doable in the era of 1986, when that occurred." But he also pointed out that at the time, Mutiny could have used SWIFT numbers to accept payment via electronic bank withdrawals, a period-appropriate touch that made it into the final episode.

As I watched Bishé and Davis perform take after take of Donna and Cameron's heated argument over whether the online world should be sullied with credit-card transactions, it felt real even though the long-term upshot was obvious. That's a tightrope walk the show frequently has to walk: "Nobody wants to see a show where it’s a foregone conclusion and someone's arguing for the Betamax when everyone knows it loses," Rogers says.

History, One Season At A Time

At the end of season two's final episode, "Heaven is a Place," Halt and Catch Fire teed up the current episodes by showing the Mutiny staff on a plane to California. "We write every season like it can be a satisfying, fully fledged story with a beginning, a middle, and an end," says Cantwell. "But we do like to leave some things hanging."

For a while, it looked like they might leave things hanging forever. Though generally well-reviewed by critics and beloved by its fans, the show has been far from a smash ratingswise. AMC didn't announce that it was renewing the series until October 2015, a couple of months after TV watchers learned the characters were on their way to San Francisco. Its fate after the first season had been similarly suspenseful: When TV critic James Poniewozik praised it in August 2014, he wrote about it in the past tense.

"After the first season I went ‘Well, that was fun. I don’t know if they’re going to pick this up again,’" recalls Huss. "And they did, and we got season two. We all thought, ‘That was fun, that was a great time. I’m going to miss those guys.’ And they picked it up. It's always a surprise. A nice one."

"I’m sure the network would prefer for it to be another way, but there’s this thing about the show that I love so much," says Davis. "It’s like acting camp for us in the spring, and then it comes out. And the people who know about it really care about it. It feels cool. It feels like this thing that you have to choose to find."

Whatever happens to Halt and Catch Fire after this season, it's nowhere near running out of history to mine. Some of the richest material of all would come in the next few years after 1986, as the migration began from proprietary online networks like Mutiny's service to the open, commercialized internet. (Season three's final episode, airing in October, is titled "NeXT"—a tantalizing reference to Steve Jobs's second startup, which bridged the gap between his first and second eras at Apple.)

In a way, Halt and Catch Fire is a startup about startups. AMC produces the show as well as airing it; if the company can create a sustainable business model, the series can continue on as long as its creators have tales left to tell. The network, says Cantwell, "has been a wonderful partner. They believe in the show, they believe in us, and they believe in the story. They too want to know what's next."

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